An American Editor

May 25, 2011

On Books: Hearts Touched by Fire

A few days ago I was in my local Barnes & Noble checking out new nonfiction books. I came across Hearts Touched by Fire: The Best of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War edited by Harold Holzer. This book is different from other books in many ways (not least of which is its size — 1230 pages), and one of those differences is what drew me to it. (It is available in both hardcover and as an ebook, and is one of the few new releases I have seen where the ebook is actually less expensive than the hardcover.)

Let me say upfront that I have not read the book in its entirety. I have read snippets. Yet let me explain what this book is and why it is worth buying for anyone interested in the U.S. Civil War.

In July 1883, on the twentieth anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg, the 19th century magazine, The Century Magazine, entertained an argument regarding which was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Opinions differed and the discussion led to this: Why not invite Confederate and Union generals, or if dead someone who could speak for/from the dead general’s view, to write articles about various battles from their own perspectives. For example, getting the perspective from both sides of the battle for Fort Sumter, which is recognized as the opening battle of the Civil War.

Apparently the magazine had great success with this concept, as it led to the publication of a 4-volume set titled Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Hearts Touched by Fire is an edited and merged-into-a-single-volume version of that 4-volume set.

Hearts Touched by Fire also adds to the discussions year-by-year introductions written by eminent Civil War historians such as James McPherson and Craig Symonds. I’m sure there are other books of a similar structure, but none that I am aware of for the Civil War. It is fascinating to read the differing perspectives of, for example, the first battle of Bull Run written by P.G.T Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnson. Ever wonder what the common soldier thought? The volume includes “Going to the Front: Recollections of a Private” by Warren Lee Goss.

If you are interested in the U.S. Civil War, Hearts Touched by Fire can provide unique insights into the thinking of each side. I highly recommend the book.

May 18, 2011

On Books: Honor Killing & The Thousand Autumns

This time it is a two-for-one review: one nonfiction, Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard, and one fiction, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. Let’s begin with Honor Killing.

In the annals of American jurisprudence, one lawyer stands above all other lawyers in popular mythology: Clarence Darrow. Darrow was the most successful and popular lawyer of the 20th century. Every move he made was followed by national press. His legal exploits covered the gamut of supertrials, including the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder of a cousin, in which Darrow’s clients pleaded guilty and he spoke for several days to save them from the death penalty. Darrow was also noted for representing union members at a time when union busting was a government policy. And he was most famous for defending the Tennessee school teacher, Scopes, in what was billed as the trial of the century — the great Monkey Trial of evolution vs. creationism in which his opponent was the great orator William Jennings Bryan.

Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard discusses Darrow’s last major case. Darrow was desperate for money, having lost his fortune in the bad investments and the collapse of the stock market, and so when he was approached in his retirement to defend Thalia Massie in Hawaii, he hemmed, he hawed, he accepted.

Thalia Massie was the daughter of penniless socialites who lived off the charity of relatives. But a socialite she was. And she was married to a U.S. Navy officer. The incident occurred in 1931 Hawaii. On the U.S. mainland, also in 1931, the racial prejudice was directed against blacks and an accusation of assaulting and raping 2 white women was made against 9 young black men, collectively known as the Scottsboro Boys. In Hawaii, the prejudice was against the native Hawaiians, by the oligarchs who controlled the economy and by the U.S. Navy.

Until I read Honor Killing, I admit I was unaware of the extent and depth of the prejudice against the Hawaiians. Honor Killing was an eye opener. The Massie trial was the culmination of a concerted effort by the white community to convict a group of native Hawaiians of raping Thalia Massie, a rape that never occurred, and the killing of one of the Hawaiians when a conviction was not gotten. Darrow was hired to represent the whites in the murder trial.

Honor Killing is a well-researched and well-written book. For my taste, too much time was spent by the author laying out the social, political, and economic environment in which the trials were held, but that was not enough to deter me from enjoying the book. Essentially, the attempt by the white community to convict the Hawaiians was largely politically motivated and was the Hawaiian Scottsboro Boys trial. Although the prosecution of the Hawaiian defendants preceded the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, you could easily substitute the participants in one trial for the participants in the other.

Honor Killing is a 5-star book and worth reading to get a better understanding of how racial prejudice in the early decades of the 20th century manifested itself and the expectations of the white citizens to be believed even in the face of directly contradictory evidence. As one person noted, evidence doesn’t matter.

David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet takes us to late 18th century/early 19th century Japan and the Dutch trading post at Nagasaki. At first I had trouble with the writing style, but after spending 15 minutes reading the novel, the style grew on me — so much so that I had difficulty putting down the book. Jacob De Zoet is one of the best novels published by one of the Agency 6 (Random House) I have read in years.

The story takes place in Dejima, which is the location of the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki harbor. De Zoet is a young man who has agreed to give 5 years of his life to the Dutch East India Trading Company in hopes of making his fortune and being able to return to The Netherlands to marry his sweetheart. The story is about his rise and fall, along with the rise and fall of Dejima and the Dutch East India Company, between 1799 and 1801.

The book provides an insight into Japan’s self-imposed insularity and the how Japanese society functioned at the time. In addition, it well illustrates the European attitude toward Asians.

The cast of characters is varied, covering the spectrum of who one may well have encountered at the time. De Zoet’s original plans are altered, however, after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, a disfigured midwife who is also a pupil, by special dispensation, of Dr. Marinus, who is part of the Dejima personnel. This encounter changes everything for De Zoet and ability and inability to deal with the intrigue and social customs that surround him forms the basis of the story.

Jacob De Zoet is historical fiction at its best. This, too, is a 5-star book and one worth spending the inflated price that has been artificially set as a result of the agency pricing scheme. It has been my policy not to buy Agency 6 ebooks except for rare instances, and this was one of those rare instances. I made the plunge because of the many positive remarks the book generated on an ebook forum. Well-crafted and well-written novels are becoming scarcer, but David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet demonstrates that such books are still available.

Both Honor Killing and Jacob De Zoet are books worth buying and reading in any format.

May 13, 2011

On Books: Ice Blue

Last night I finished reading Ice Blue by Emma Jameson and am sorry that I finished — because the next book in the series is not yet available and I want more! The book is well-edited, well-written, and well-formatted, indicating that the author cares about the reader’s experience, a sense that too many indie books fail to communicate.

Ice Blue is a 5-star British mystery that involves Scotland Yard and the tensions between social classes that pervade the English cultural and social milieu. Unlike too many indie ebooks, Jameson has crafted a fine suspense tale but an even finer story about a Lord and a commoner, a modern-day Cinderella tale, yet one with believable characters. (And no, there is no fairy tale ending in this ebook, which is supposed to be the first in a series that features these characters.)

I firmly believe that there are several characteristics that define the writing of an outstanding author. I do not mean to imply that to be outstanding an author must demonstrate all of these characteristics, but rather the author must have more than one to be outstanding and the more the author has, the more outstanding the writing.

Those who follow my blog know that two indie fiction authors I regularly put in the outstanding category are Shayne Parkinson (historical fiction) and Vicki Tyley (mystery). Emma Jameson (mystery) is now a third, a new addition to my pantheon of superstar indie authors and has joined my list of must-buy authors. In my rating system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I) for an explanation), she falls between Parkinson and Tyley. Her characterizations are better than Tyley’s but not as good as Parkinson’s. All three are 5-star writers.

Jameson’s lead character is Scotland Yard Detective Sergeant Kate Wakefield, a clearly lower-class denizen who puts her foot in her mouth more often than not. But Kate is a character you can touch, you can say is your next-door neighbor, is someone you want to see come out on top, is someone you can care for. Lord Hetheridge, her superior and chief superintendent, is the typical stiff, upperclass noble whose facade is cracked by Kate. Hetheridge’s character is written in such a way that a reader feels he or she can actually drink tea with this member of the nobility and feel comfortable doing so. The third major character is Detective Sergeant Paul Bhar, England-born but of Asian descent, who has a great sense of humor and such self-confidence that he steadies the investigative team and gives some “cheek” to the snobs of the upper crust of English society.

Altogether, the three primary characters are people you believe you can invite in for tea and biscuits (although they seem to prefer coffee) and not feel ill at ease.

The story itself is a typical British mystery, what one would expect from a Martha Grimes, Ruth Rendell, or P.D. James. And as is typical of British mysteries, everything is understated, by which I mean there are no blazing guns and mobsters that are typical of the American style — Ice Blue is more sedate and more involved in character development than in mystery development.

I rarely suggest to my wife that there is a book she must read; our reading tastes are generally too divergent. But occasionally I come across a book that is compelling. Again, the Tyley and Parkinson books fall into this category, as does Jameson’s Ice Blue. I will be interested to learn whether my wife agrees, especially as she is not a mystery lover.

For those of you looking for a new indie author to support, it is hard to go wrong with Ice Blue and Emma Jameson, especially at 99¢. I suggest giving her a try, particularly if you like the English-style mystery. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

March 30, 2011

On Books: Murder Down Under

My reading habits seem to me to be odd. Why odd? Because I read genres in spurts. The spurts may be months or years, but I haven’t read a genre continuously throughout my reading life.

What I mean is this: Many years ago, the only fiction I read were mysteries written by authors like Ed McBain, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, Martha Grimes, P.D. James, Mickey Spillane, and Arthur Conan Doyle. I read those books for years, then one day I stopped and moved to another genre and didn’t pick up another mystery — that is, until recently.

Several months ago I bought the ebook of Vicki Tyley’s Thin Blood at Smashwords. The synopsis looked interesting, and several people on another forum remarked positively on the ebook. I thought I couldn’t go wrong at the price. Even if I didn’t like the book, it wasn’t much of an investment.

Thin Blood, which is the story of a reporter’s investigation of a decade-old murder, reignited my interest in the mystery genre. Thin Blood is a compelling story with a twist, and Tyley keeps the reader’s interest with her articulate prose. The writing style reminded me very much of the Ed McBain/Dashiell Hammett style — sentences that have been stripped down to the barebones.

After reading Thin Blood, I had to read the other mysteries written by Tyley, Sleight Malice and Brittle Shadows. In Sleight Malice, the lead character is devastated by what she thinks is the death in a house fire of her best friend. Then she learns that the body found in the fire is male, not female, and she teams up with a private investigator to discover the truth.

In Brittle Shadows, the body of our heroine’s sister’s fiance is found hanging in his closet, presumably death by accident. Two months later, the heroine’s sister commits suicide, an act that our heroine cannot accept, especially when she learns that at the time of her death, the sister was 6 weeks pregnant.

Each of the three books is different, yet all are united by a single characteristic: strong, female leads. Tyley’s characterizations allow the reader to grasp the mental framework of the lead females. The writing is taut, direct, and without waste. Throughout the three books, there were only a couple minor grammar errors, at least from an American perspective. I admit that I am not familiar with Australian style.

What I find particularly interesting is that even with the very high quality of the writing, Vicki Tyley, as is the case with the exceptionally talented New Zealand writer, Shayne Parkinson (see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet), remains unsigned by the major traditional publishing houses. Makes me wonder if there is a Down Under bias.

There is no question in my mind that Vicki Tyley is the Australian P.D. James — a writer whose work is a can’t miss read. The writing is outstanding, the stories creative. The one failing is that her female leads are frenetic. Interestingly, although the female leads are as strong a character as any of the males in the story, and often even stronger, they do not comport themselves as well as their male counterparts in stress situations, leaving the impression that they are weaker than their male counterparts. It is almost as if Tyley is suggesting that no matter how strong a woman is, she is still emotionally ruled whereas men are both strong and emotionless, or at least better capable of contolling their emotions and thus more objective under stress.

The significant difference between the Parkinson books and the Tyley books is how the lead female characters — Amy Leith, in the Parkinson books, and Jemma Dalton (Brittle Shadows), Desley James (Sleight Malice), and Jacinta Deller (Thin Blood) — emotionally involve the reader in their story and plight: In the case of Amy Leith, I was greatly engaged, whereas the Tyley characters didn’t rise to that level of reader involvement. My emotional involvement was minimal at best.

That, however, is no reason to not buy, read, and enjoy these books and to anxiously await the next Tyley Down Under murder mystery. On a 5-star rating scale, I would rate each of Tyley’s 3 books as 5 stars. In comparison, for those of you who took my advice and read Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet, the quartet’s rating would be 5 stars plus a smidgen more, the difference being the emotional involvement of the reader with the characters.

As I wrote earlier, Vicki Tyley is the Australian P.D. James — a can’t miss read. Her mysteries definitely are in the same class as McBain, Grimes, and James, and like Grimes and James, have that little bit of reserve that distinguishes the English-style mystery from the American-style mystery. And at $2.99 an ebook, the value is greater than that of the better-known but not more capable English-style mystery writers. I highly recommend Tyley’s three ebooks to mystery fans.

March 28, 2011

Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust

Recently, on a discussion forum, the question was asked: “Would you trust a paid book review?” Most commenters declared an unambiguous “no,” but I’m not sure the answer is so easy or should be so emphatically given.

We start, of course, with what constitutes payment for a review. In the forum, the answers began with as little as receipt of a free review copy and moved on from there. What was never really addressed, although I did try to raise the issue, was the reviewer’s credentials.

The consensus in the forum was that the most trustworthy reviews are those written by a person who bought the book (which includes either print or ebook version), but studiously avoided the question of “What if the ebook was free?” Commenters didn’t detail what makes these reviewers and their reviews the most trustworthy other than to say, in the broadest terms, that the reviewer is not being influenced. It is truly a sad commentary on our society when we see corruption and influence in everything.

My take is somewhat different. I look at reviews written at Goodreads, Amazon, and other forums with quite a bit more than a grain of salt. As I have remarked in previous posts, anonymous reviewers do not inspire confidence, at least in my thinking, in the veracity of the review. It is not that the reviewer may or may not truly believe that a particular book is worthy of 5 stars or 1 star, it is that I have no idea what criteria the reviewer applied nor do I know what specialized knowledge the reviewer has. Who reviews the reviewer?

If you do not trust any paid reviews/reviewers, you cannot trust reviews in such publications as the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books (NYRB), Publishers Weekly, or the New York Times Book Review. In each of these instances, the reviewers are paid and the publications rely on publisher advertising. But isn’t the truth elsewhere? Isn’t it true that you can rely on these reviews, regardless of whether you agree with them, because of the credentials of the reviewers and the veracity and history of the publication?

When I read a review in the NYRB, which is my favorite review magazine, I know that the reviewer is knowledgable about the area under discussion. When Max Hastings reviews a book about World War II, I know he is competent to do so as a historian of and writer in the era. I expect he will be objective, or as objective as a reviewer can be, because his reputation rides on what he writes.

Importantly, the reviews in magazines like the NYRB are detailed and compare the book(s) under review with other books in the field that address the same issue. Isn’t such a comparison valuable? Doesn’t it add to the worth of the review? Isn’t seeing Max Hastings’s name at the top of the review important for determining the value of the review?

I know that Hastings was paid to write the review, whether it be in dollars or in writing credit for his career. I also know that Hastings writes similar books. Consequently, when I read his review I can evaluate the value of his review, something I cannot do with the anonymous and/or unknown reviewers we see popping up all over the Internet and at places like Amazon.

What I would like to know is how you decide to trust a review. Can you really just ignore all the 5-star and 1-star reviews at Amazon and just concentrate on the 2- to 4-star reviews? How do you feel about a book you have purchased that got rave reviews but when you start reading it, you find it riddled with spelling and grammar errors, and even incoherent in places — none of which was pointed out in 95% of the reviews?

Although a blog is a difficult place to have a discussion, I would like your comments on what you look for in a review and/or a reviewer, not where you go to read reviews.

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