reviews & reviewing

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.

Planned Parenthood and The Gilded Hour

If you’ve read The Gilded Hour or have read anything about it, you know that the 19th century fight for access to information about birth control is a major theme. In fact, reproductive health was a major issue at the time. Doctors did sometimes end up in jail (and prison) for providing patients with information on how to prevent conception.  This subject is apparently still open to debate, as indicated by the current congressional inquiry on Planned Parenthood. 

From the day I first starting thinking about the plot and backstory for TGH, I wondered if people might dislike the novel or object to it because of the way contraception and abortion are handled.[1. I would say, for the record, that the issue in The Gilded Hour is not so much one of abortion as it is violence toward and control of women.] Though no one has come out to say it openly, on occasion I have got that impression.  So there are multiple questions: do some people dislike the novel for that reason, and if that’s the case,  will they say so, openly? And if not, why not?

Now I’m curious if anybody will speak up here. I won’t be surprised if no one is willing to grab this hot potato, but I’d sure sure be interested in your thoughts.


Ariana Franklin: Gone, but then again, Here

The Siege of WinterI have been reading Ariana Franklin’s work for twenty some years, starting with her earliest novels, published under Diana Norman (her own name). We had a correspondence for about five years, up until her sudden death in 2011 at age seventy-seven.  In 2008 I posted an interview with her, which I updated in 2011 shortly after her death.

It’s unclear to me how this happened, but I somehow missed the fact that her last (unfinished) novel came out in February, and that this was possible because her daughter Samantha Norman, a journalist, took on the challenge and brought The Siege Winter to publication.  In March  Samantha wrote an essay on Bookish about her mother and what it was like to pick up where she left off. 

I learned everything from my mother, and this isn’t just me eulogizing about her because she’s dead and I’m still grieving for her terribly. It’s simply a fact that I happened to be born to one of the most intelligent women there ever was. From that point of view, I am and was extremely fortunate. Although, that is not to say that it was always an easy ride exactly: Brains and ambition are inextricably linked and just as she strove to be the very best she could be, she was also quite adamant that I, her daughter, should be too. Samantha Norman: Finishing My Mother’s Last Novel.

I admit: I hesitated about reading The Siege Winter. I wanted to like it. I wanted to love it, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to. But I can now say that I waited so long for no good reason. It is, quite simply,  a wonderful novel.  I don’t believe in an afterlife, but if there were one, I could imagine Diana cheering. 

The Siege Winter takes as its backdrop what historians refer to as “The Anarchy,” a civil war  in the mid 12th century when a succession crisis followed the death of William Adelin (the only legitimate son of Henry I) and then Henry I.  Henry wanted his daughter Empress Matilda to take the crown, but his nephew Stephen of Blois had other ideas. With the resulting war as backdrop the novel takes on the lives of three women: a young girl left for dead after she is raped and mutilated; the chatelaine of Kenniford castle; and the Empress Matilda herself.

The power of Diana Norman’s novels was always her ability to bring the lives of women into sharp focus.  It’s amazing, really, how Samantha Norman picked up an unfinished novel and carried on without a hitch — I, at least, couldn’t tell where one author stopped and the other picked up. The crackling sharp wit that characterizes DN’s work is still there, as are the empathy and multi-layered characterization and deft handling of a complex plot.  I hope SN has caught the historical fiction bug, and will be able to put down journalism to  build on this strong foundation.