Margaret Lawrence (Hearts and Bones) 1945-2011

Hearts and Bones

Hearts and Bones, first in the series

I was thinking of sending somebody Margaret Lawrence’s three Hannah Trevor novels (and The Iceweaver, which isn’t technically part of the trilogy but is, kinda), which are out of print but (I hoped) might have been released in ebook format. So I went to see and found instead that the author died four years ago. 

This article about Margaret Lawrence (a pen name)  appeared in her hometown paper at the time of her death.

It makes me melancholy to think of all the interesting women novelists of my generation (so to speak) who are gone, women I would like to have had the chance to talk to. Ariana Franklin aka Diana Norman (I actually did have an email correspondence with her, but I would have loved to sit down with her over tea), Jetta Carleton, Margaret Lawrence are just a few of them.

And unfortunately the Hannah Trevor trilogy is not available for Kindle or any other ebook format. Seems like some savvy publisher would jump on that.  

The Typewriter Girl: review

typewritergirl-coverThis is Alison Atlee’s first novel, a historical. And a romance. It came out in 2013 but just recently worked its way to the top of my tbr pile. The cover description:


When Betsey disembarks from the London train in the seaside resort of Idensea, all she owns is a small valise and a canary in a cage. After attempting to forge a letter of reference she knew would be denied her, Betsey has been fired from the typing pool of her previous employer. Her vigorous protest left one man wounded, another jilted, and her character permanently besmirched. Now, without money or a reference for her promised job, the future looks even bleaker than the debacle behind her. But her life is about to change . . . because a young Welshman on the railroad quay, waiting for another woman, is the one man willing to believe in her.

On the surface this looks like a fairly typical historical romance. Young woman at the end of her rope, handsome man gives her what she needs to get back on her feet, conflict, conflict, conflict, happy ending.

It always irritates me when a review starts with “predictable” because hey, if you pick up an espionage novel, you can predict who the main players and what the stakes will be; if you pick up a novel with a vampire on the cover, you can predict the nature of the beast within. If you’ve never read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, let me give you a hint: people fall in love in Austen’s novels; social injustice is revealed and dealt with in novels written by Dickens. If you decide to read Romeo & Juliet and you don’t bother to read any blurbs or see any movies before hand, you might be surprised to find out that it’s a tragedy, which means (predictably) that all the main characters die. 

So if you read the blurb on this book, you know it’s a romance. Two people will fall in love, that’s a given.  But you don’t know the characters, how they’ll interact, what kind of conflicts will come their way. You know the destination, but the journey will be new to you.

I would like to see the word predictable used a lot less in reviews of novels. It’s a lazy way to say the novel didn’t work for you, or you didn’t want to put work into the novel. If you’re going to review a novel, review it, gotdammit.

Now that’s out of my system.

This is a great novel. The characters are complex (very complex), nothing like the  run-of-the-mill historical romance characters (and such characters and novels do exist, hundreds of them – which is why a novel like this stands out). Betsey is all too aware of the way men think about sex and she’s not above using it to her advantage because, to be fair, she’s got so few tools and next to no advantages in the time and place where she finds herself. She’s a realist. She’s pragmatic. She’d like to eat, and have a safe place to live, but she would also like to make something of herself, and that is the challenge. 

She takes steps to find a way out of the life she’s destined for. Things conspire against her. She doesn’t give up. No fairy godmother comes to bail her out. She could end up a street walker, she knows this, but she’s not willing to sit back and let life happen to her. So she takes chances. Big ones.

I really like this Betsey.  Quite a few Amazon reviewers don’t like her because (shock) she thinks of sex as fucking. That’s the word that comes to her mind. In her time and place, what else would you expect? This is not a sheltered earl’s daughter. But some readers won’t credit historical fiction that falls outside very narrow boundaries. They want a historical fiction universe in which the verb to fuck does not exist. How boring, say I.

Because let me tell you: Alison Atlee has done her research, and she’s not going to pull punches. If you want a fairy tale, this is not the story for you. Here’s another thing Atlee knows how to do that many cannot pull off, even after many years of writing: she can write a sex scene that goes wrong. It’s not all orgasms and sweet talk. Sometimes it’s hey you’re kneeling on my hair. That’s hard to write, and more than that: it’s hard for characters to recover from. But Atlee handles all that with aplomb. 

So we have here a couple fantastic characters who are not (cough) predictable, who will (predictably) fall in love, but who find interesting ways to get to that conclusion. There’s wonderful scene setting in awful London and a quirky seaside resort. There are moments of panic where you might think, oh no, this is never going to work out.[1. Anybody who re-reads Jane Austen knows, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve worked your way through Persuasion or Pride and Prejudice, you still get panicky at a certain point and wonder if maybe somehow you imagined all those previous readings in which Love Works. And you’re relieved when that ending comes along. Every time, you’re relieved. It’s magic.]

So go read this novel. I highly recommend it. I hope Atlee is writing another one, because I anticipate great things from her. And I wish her millions of thoughtful, open minded, willing-to-be-surprised readers.


Novels I Re-read. And Will Again.

I was so dissatisfied with GoodReads and the way their lists work, I decided to do the list on my own. And once I started this, I had to finish. OCD, and all that. I should have spent this hour writing, but hey.

So this is a long list of novels I have read more than once and probably will read again. Even multiple times. It’s a long list, but I’m sure I’ve missed dozens. As I remember them, I’ll add them. You will note that my tastes are broad and eclectic. Also, I haven’t included anything before about 1800, because I might admire Jonathan Swift, I don’t envision sitting down to re-read Gulliver anytime soon. Maybe you’ll find something here you decide to read, and then like. Or hate. Either way, I hope you’ll come back and say so.

  • Adams, Richard: The Girl in a Swing 
  • Austen, Jane: Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice
  • Bradbury, Ray: Fahrenheit 451 
  • Burke, James Lee:  In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead,White Doves At Morning, A Morning for Flamingos
  • Byatt, A.S.: Angels & Insects, Possession
  • Carleton, Jetta : The Moonflower Vine  
  • Chabon, Michael :Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
  • Chase, Loretta :  Lord Perfect, Lord of Scoundrels
  • Collins, Suzanne: The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, 3 volumes)
  • Collins, Wilkie: The Woman in  White
  • Colwin, Laurie : A Big Storm Knocked It Over 
  • Crusie, Jennifer: Crazy for You, Faking It, Welcome to Temptation
  • Cuevas, Judy: Dance, Bliss
  • Cunningham, Michael: The Hours
  • Dexter, Pete: Paris Trout
  • Dobyns, Stephen: The Burn Palace 
  • Dunnett, Dorothy: Niccolo Rising  (House of Niccolo, 8 volumes)
  • Du Maurier, Daphne: Rebecca
  • Eliot, George: Adam Bede 
  • Erdrich, Louise: The Round House 
  • Franklin, Ariana: City of Shadows 
  • Gabaldon, Diana: Voyager
  • Hardy, Thomas: Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of  Casterbridge
  • Hayder, Mo: Poppet  (the Jack Caffery series)
  • Helprin, Mark: A Soldier of the Great War 
  • Hunt, Irene:  Up a Road Slowly 
  • Irving, John:  The Water-Method Man 
  • Ivory, Judith: Beast 
  • Jackson, Joshilyn: Gods in Alabama 
  • Karuf, Kent: Plainsong (Plainsong,  2 volumes)
  • Kerr, Baine: Wrongful Death 
  • King, Stephen: Misery, The Dead Zone, Dolores Claiborne
  • Kingsolver, Barbara: Animal Dreams, The Poisonwood Bible
  • Kleypas, Lisa: Smooth Talking Stranger, Blue-Eyed Devil
  • Lawrence, Margaret: Hearts and Bones (Hannah Trevor series, 4 volumes)
  • Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird 
  • Lehane, Dennis; Mystic River, Gone, Baby Gone, Darkness Take My Hand
  • Leonard, Elmore: Cuba Libre, Get Shorty
  • Márquez, Gabriel Garcia: A Hundred Years of Solitude
  • McCarry, Charles: The Bride Of The Wilderness
  • McMurtry, Larry: Lonesome Dove
  • Mitchard, Jacquelyn: Second Nature 
  • Morrison, Toni: Beloved 
  • Moyes, Jojo: The Girl You Left Behind 
  • Munro, Alice: Friend of my Youth
  • Niffenegger, Audrey: The Time Traveler’s Wife 
  • O’Brian, Tim: The Things They Carried
  • Ondaatje, Michael: The English Patient
  • Patchett, Ann: The Magician’s Assistant 
  • Phillips, Susan Elizabeth: Ain’t She Sweet 
  • Proulx, Annie: The Shipping News 
  • Puzo, Mario: The Fortunate Pilgrim
  • Quindlen, Anna: Black and Blue 
  • Russell, Mary Doria: A Thread of Grace 
  • Russo, Richard:  Straight Man 
  • Slaughter, Karin: Will Trent series (8 volumes) 
  • Smiley, Jane: A Thousand Acres 
  • Spencer, Scott : Waking the Dead 
  • Stedman, M.I.: The Light Between Oceans
  • Stein, Jessica Davis: Coyote Dream 
  • Steinbeck, John: East of Eden
  • Stockett, Kathryn: The Help 
  • Styron, William: Sophie’s Choice 
  • Tyler, Anne: The Accidental Tourist 
  • Wharton, Edith: Ethan Frome
  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls: The Long Winter


And that’s it, until I think of something else to add.

Reviews: the good, the bad, the shaming

shame has a piece today at Women Writers, Women’s Books which has me thinking hard. “Leave E.L. James Alone, Already” is a heart-felt appeal to writers not to join in when their colleagues are getting bashed. 

The essay was born when she came across the #AskELJames thread on Twitter just recently. The thread became the subject of wider debate when a group of people with a complaint in common began to ask James pointed questions. From USA Today, this summary:

Shortly after the Q&A started on Monday afternoon, the #AskELJames hashtag was overtaken by Christian Grey haters who accused the author of being homophobic and misogynistic and romanticizing stalking and abuse. Others took issue with her actual writing, asking things like, “Which do you hate more, women or the English language?” 

In response to this, Amy suggested that it’s never okay to voice a negative opinion about another writer’s work. She only posts a review if she can give it four or five stars:

Because books are art. And art is subjective. And art lays a soul bare. And who the heck wants to be responsible for stepping all over someone’s soul?

Well, certainly not me, thank you very much.

She suggests that we leave reviews to reviewers and keep writing. Her bottom line:

Don’t lie. Don’t be insincere. If you don’t like a book – especially from a fellow woman author – who would blame you for politely excusing yourself from the conversation?

Well, certainly not me, thank you very much.

Amy has a point, of course. But it seems to me she’s conflating a lot of very different issues. 

Reviews come in all formats. Sometimes writers are asked to review books, sometimes they review books on their own websites or on sites like Goodreads.  Reviews can be well done, or poorly done. More importantly: a positive review can be badly done, and a negative review can be well done.  Here’s an example of a poorly done positive review: Great book! I loved it!!!

I would not call the E.J. James twitter thread a review. A thread that devolves into an exercise in bashing is an attack. It’s a bully-bullshit session. It’s an unworthy exercise, but unfortunately, it’s not uncommon.

There are a lot of bullies hanging around in the ether, and sometimes they join forces and form bands when they have a particular enemy in mind. The enemy can be a single individual, as was the  case with the E.L. James twitter thread, or it can be a whole class of people.  This happens in all kinds of fandoms. My daughter follows dance competitions and discussion online, and she has read me some truly disturbing bully-band attacks focused on one person who voiced a less-than-reverential comment about a performance by their favorite dancer. Personal attacks on an individual because that individual voiced a dissenting opinion. 

It’s a phenomenon that somebody somewhere must be studying. At least, I hope someone is looking at it, because I see it as an example of the worst of human group behavior. But let’s be clear: everybody does it. Writers bash other writers, and on occasion, readers gang up on writers. Sometimes for good reason.

The best example I know of is the Cassie Edwards kerfuffle on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Dear Author.  Wikipedia has the best summary of the situation I’ve come across, so I’m going to quote it here, with their links and footnotes intact:

On 7 January 2008, the romance-novel review blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books[4] accused Edwards of widespread plagiarism after finding multiple passages in her novels that appeared to be directly taken from various works by other authors, including novels, poems, reference books, and websites about Native American history and culture.[1] Many of the passages came from old references, many without copyright or with expired copyright protection.[4][5] One of Edwards’ publishers, Signet, initially defended the passages in question as fair use rather than copyright infringement.[1]

Nora Roberts, herself a victim of plagiarism, joined the outcry.[6] Two days later, Signet announced that they would be reviewing all of Edwards’ books that they published to determine whether plagiarism had occurred,[7] and, in April 2008, Signet stopped publishing Edwards’ books “due to irreconcilable editorial differences.”[8] In an interview, Edwards said that she did not know she was supposed to credit sources, and her husband stated that Edwards gained ideas from her reference works but did not “lift passages”.[7]

On the surface I see nothing wrong with the fact that a group of readers discovered something unethical, and that they made those discoveries public. The author had no one to blame for the fallout but her own poor choices. At the same time, there was a gleeful tone in a lot of the discussion that made me uncomfortable.  For example, a comment made on a Smart Bitches post in 2008: 

So, let me get this straight: you were actually able to read an entire Cassie Edwards book while doing this research? You should apply to work on Mike Rowe’s Discovery Channel Program “Dirty Jobs.”

A negative review doesn’t have to be a shaming; a well-done negative review can leave an author with a new perspective. My work has received good reviews and constructive negative reviews and some mean-spirited reviews. The constructive negative reviews are probably the ones that do me the most good. The unreservedly good reviews I save for the occasional 2 a.m. crisis of the soul when I’m sure I have never written a single decent sentence. The stinkers I ignore, and sometimes if they are over-the-top, I can laugh at them.

Finally, when I do post a book review that is less than positive, I work very hard to be fair. It’s as close to a universal truth as you can come in this business to say that there are books for which I am (or you are) just not the right reader. I don’t write negative reviews very often, and I can remember only one instance when I was so infuriated by a novel that my tone bordered on outrage. But I will continue to write such reviews, now and then when I see a flaw in a book that strikes me as something worth talking about.  A constructive discussion is a learning exercise for everybody.

image: © altanaka – found on an article well worth reading: Brené Brown Talks to The Shriver Report: The Power of Shame on Women Living on the Brink