The 3 books rocking our Family Togetherness Reading Separate Books Time

Weirdly, our entire family is happy with the books that we’re reading right now. This never happens. Not the reading part. Reading is constantly breaking out over here. We even have an official name for it: Family Togetherness Reading Different Books Time.

It’s the all of us being happy with our books part that has me thrown enough to blog about it. Most of the time, two of us are happy with our books, while the third (usually me) regularly interrupts the happy readers by asking for book recommendations in increasingly plaintive tones because the book(s) she plucked for the day is (are) deeply disappointing in some way.

To make things even more remarkable, all three of us are currently reading books that are part of an extended series.

Having this happen is somewhat like seeing a total lunar eclipse during a blue moon on a night when Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter are all lined up. That’s how rare it is.

Here are the three book series that are keeping the three of us glued to our reading couches this weekend.

Although we are all well past the first books in our respective series, I used the covers of the first books in case you are in need of your next great read.

Happy reading day!

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Surprising facts about my favorite authors: Raymond Chandler edition

Although Veronica Lake was given the lead female role in Raymond Chandler's The Blue Dahlia, Chandler was no fan. He reportedly referred to her as Moronica Lake. (Photo: Alamy via The Daily Mail)

Although Veronica Lake was given the lead female role in Raymond Chandler’s The Blue Dahlia, Chandler was no fan. He reportedly referred to her as Moronica Lake. (Photo: Alamy via The Daily Mail)

The highlights of Raymond Chandler’s life tell a deeply depressing one: an alcoholic father violently abused his mother, a mother whose subsequent fearful refusal to have anything to do with men once she was finally free of Chandler’s father no doubt colored Chandler’s own questionable attitudes towards women, a refusal to write Hollywood scripts in any state short of blind drunk, and an obsession with an opium-smoking nudist 18 years his senior whose death in December 1954 at the age of 84 arguably became the catalyst for Chandler’s own death four and half alcohol-infused years later.

Readers of his Phillip Marlowe books may not be all that surprised to learn of Chandler’s conflicted relationships with women, alcohol, and the institution of marriage in general.

But one fact in all this torment actually did surprise me. Chandler didn’t write his first novel, The Big Sleep, until 1938, when he had already turned 50.

If you’d like to learn more about Chandler, I hear there’s a rather excellent biography of him available by Tom Williams, called Raymond Chandler: A Mysterious Something in the Light.

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Books I can’t wait to read: The Giles Milton Edition

(Photo: Picador)

(Photo: Picador)

Just two scant days before Christmas, the Washington Post informed me that historian Giles Milton has written an entire book full of surprising facts about famous people. His book, When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain, appeals to me for obvious reasons.

From the article:

“Hitler, apparently, was high the whole time. Under the care of Theodor Morell, a ‘grossly obese quack doctor with acrid halitosis and appalling body odour,’ the deranged Fuehrer was almost always ‘pumped with as many as eighty different drugs, including testosterone, opiates, sedatives and laxatives.’”

Sadly, my Christmas shopping had already gone over budget by the time I read the article, and I no longer felt justified in tucking a little something for me into my Amazon shopping cart.

Soon, though. Very soon.

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What I learned reading 1-star reviews of Wuthering Heights on Amazon

WutheringHeightsApparently, ripping off the iconic Penguin Classic covers and slapping them onto poorly produced versions of the original book using CreateSpace (Amazon’s self-publishing service) is a thing.

Caveat Emptor.

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Flaunting social conventions, Victorian Style


(Photo courtesy of collector Alan Mays)

(Photo courtesy of collector Alan Mays)

In the dark ages before texting, Victorians used texting-like shorthand on a surprising variety of publications. I first encountered this practice on a poster advertising the Needham Congregational Church’s 1891 Strawberry Festival. Since then I’ve been noticing it nearly every time I read anything about Victorian-era paraphernalia. The latest example is this recent National Geographic article about escort cards.

In Victorian times, single young women of good breeding and marriageable age were invariably surrounded by a steel ring of corseted chaperones. If a young man wanted an introduction, he first had to convince the matron in charge of his intended that he was a good financial and familial bet. If either his breeding or his checkbook weren’t up to snuff, the chaperone would refuse to make the introduction.

Still, as every generation has, young lovers invariably found ways around this strict social code. Since we’re talking about Victorians here, I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised to discover that there was a proper protocol for bypassing the proper introduction protocol.

Potential suitors would slip an escort card into the hand of a woman — or man — they wished to meet, but whose chaperone couldn’t be trusted to make the proper introductions. The recipient would either scribble a response of her own on the suitor’s card before returning it, or hand over a preprinted escort card with her reply.

I can't imagine any chaperone objecting to *that.* (Photo courtesy of Alan Mays)

I can’t imagine any chaperone objecting to *that,* can you? (Photo courtesy of Alan Mays)



From the article:

“Escort cards became popular in the late 19th century—a time when many women couldn’t go out without a chaperone watching their behavior, says Barbara Rusch, an expert in and collector of Victorian ephemera. To bypass the strict social rules of the day, Rusch says a man would surreptitiously slip an escort card to a woman he fancied, who might hide it ‘inside her glove or behind a fan.'”

These escort cards were most often given by men to young unmarried women, a predictably concerning situation for the chaperones charged with overseeing the virtue of those unmarried women. But on occasion, a woman might slip one to a man — or woman — she wanted to know better.

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Surprising facts about my favorite authors: Jane Austen Edition

Cassandra Austen's watercolour portrait of her sister, Jane. Via JASNA.

Cassandra Austen’s watercolour portrait of her sister, Jane. Via JASNA.

Despite having read several biographies of Jane Austen (as well as every bit of her writing I could get my hands on and countless pieces of fan fiction based on said writings) over the years, I never expected to draft a Surprising Facts entry about her.

Her official biography as the unmarried daughter of the Reverend George Austen is many things — but terribly surprising is not one of them. The Austen family has worked hard to achieve the image we have today of a serene, peaceful Aunt Jane.

Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra burned many of Jane’s letters after Jane died, and censored those she did not destroy. The descendants of Admiral Frances Austen, Jane’s brother, burned still more. It seems likely that whatever surprising facts might once have existed would have been swept away by the Austen family house-cleaning.

But this Christmas, I received a copy of Sheryl Craig’s Jane Austen and the State of the Nation. Inside the timeline that opens the book I discovered a tremendously surprising fact indeed.

Paper money was introduced in England just 16 years before Jane Austen was born in 1775. Before gold shortages caused by the Seven Years War forced the Bank of England to introduce the first paper £10 pound note in 1859, most people had to carry around bags of heavy coins to do their shopping.

The extremely wealthy of course, were somewhat familiar with the concept of using paper as a proxy for coins. The goldsmith-bankers who guarded their piles of gold guineas had been issuing running cash notes recording their deposits (and exchanging those cash notes for gold) since the 16th century.

Jane Austen’s face will grace the Bank of England’s £10 note in 2017. (Image via Bank of England website)

But in an economy where the average working man made only £30 a year, accepting a slip of paper in exchange for depositing large sums of gold at the local goldsmith-banker was hardly common practice. The average Briton regarded paper money with deep suspicion for many years after its introduction. After all, unlike golden guineas and silver shillings, paper money had no intrinsic value of its own, only the word of the issuing bank that they would honor it.

In a domestic economy plagued by unpredictable harvest failures, a completely unregulated banking industry, and devastating stock speculations like the 1720 South Sea Bubble stock scandal, the word of the relatively new Bank of England was not widely trusted.  Its paper bills were considered to be little better than I.O.Us. People who received them exchanged them for coins as quickly as they could. Many people wouldn’t accept paper bills at all. Large debts had to be paid in golden guineas instead.

Can you imagine?

Our most fundamental method of payment was still an unproven way of doing business for Jane Austen’s grandparents, neighbors, and the local vicar. I can just imagine Jane Austen rolling her eyes at the dinner table while her grandfather talked about the new-fangled paper money with the same mixture of wariness and awe that I express in conversations about Apple Pay.

Bonus Surprising Facts: 

  1. The venerable Lloyd’s of London was a mere four years old when Jane Austen was born in 1775, and didn’t yet have what we would think of as an office. Its regular place of business was still Lloyd’s coffeehouse.
  2. Copper pennies were introduced in Britain in 1797, when Jane Austen was 22. Before then they used pennies made of silver. Unfortunately, the value of the silver used to manufacture the pennies quickly became worth more than the pennies themselves. At first, the British mint simply made the pennies smaller and smaller. But in 1660, the mint decided that making tiny silver pennies was no longer a viable option. They stopped making silver pennies for general circulation, and began issuing them only around Easter time for the royal family to use as Maundy money (money the royal family would give to the elderly as alms on Maundy Thursday). Although the Maundy money was legal tender, very few of the folks who received the silver pennies used them to buy their daily bread. After all, the silver used to make a Maundy penny was worth much more than a penny’s worth of goods from the local market.


Sheryl Craig. Jane Austen and the State of the Nation. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

Posted in 1800-1850, Surprising facts about my favorite authors | Leave a comment

Happy New Year!

1882 Vintage New Year's Card by A. C. Krider (Source: Vintage Everyday)

1882 Vintage New Year’s Card by A. C. Krider (Source: Vintage Everyday)

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4 things I learned reading 1-star reviews of Pride & Prejudice (yes, they exist)

I wish I could claim this as my own idea, but in truth I first heard of this on Twitter, when @elizabethscraig (one of the most useful writing mentors I follow) pointed me to this article by Amber Skye Forbes at The Dancing Writer’s Advice.

Apparently, the best way to conquer your own fear of getting negative reviews is to spend some time reading the 1-star reviews given to your favorite writers on Amazon and Goodreads.

So this week, I tried it. I spent a happy schadenfreude-filled afternoon reveling in negative reviews on Amazon for one of the many free Kindle versions of Pride and Prejudice. Here’s what I learned.

Tip #1: When turning your manuscript into an ebook, don’t forget to proof-read. 

Many of the 1-star reviews came from die-hard Jane Austen fans who threw their hands up in disgust when confronted by the poor formatting, typos, and oddly timed line breaks in the Kindle version of the book. These highly motivated readers all encouraged their fellow readers to stop being so cheap and go buy a real copy. Clearly having a successful, readable e-book isn’t as simple as just saving your manuscript in an e-book format.

Tip #2: No matter how finely tuned your characters are, someone out there will find them to be shallow caricatures of terrible people that no one would want to know anyway.

From Max Montgomery:

“I must surmise from my reaction to this classic that I have no appreciation for the finer things in life. The female characters are a bunch of air heads that are significantly over indulged and have nothing else to do but simper and fret. The male characters are not paragons of thought either. So much of miss Austen for me. Maxmontgomery”

Tip #3: Don’t ignore your genre’s current conventions. Genre readers have specific expectations that most writers can’t afford to ignore.

From Kelly:

“I was completely underwhelmed by this ‘classic’ story. Yes, the writing was pretty, at times. But as for the story…no. It was basically a story about men who rate women based on looks and social standing, and women who rate men based on those two things, plus yearly earnings and house size.

Mr. Darcy was barely in the story. It’s hard to see how this even passes for a romance considering the guy has about 10 lines before they end up getting together. I kept pushing forward because of the fact that this book always comes up on lists of great books. Honestly, now that I’ve read it, I think it only makes that list because people want to seem worldly by saying that they’ve read it.”

Kelly makes a good point. When you boil down its plot and stack it up against today’s best-selling romances, Pride and Prejudice falls more than a little short. There’s very little interaction between the lovers. No bodice-ripping at all–not even by accident on the dance floor, and absolutely no steamy sex. When he’s introduced, Mr. Darcy’s main appeal comes not in the form of cheekbones sharp as knives or eyes like the sea after a storm, but in a neatly packaged account of his annual income and lovely estate at Pemberley.

Clearly, the revelation that Mr. Darcy’s ledger book was always in the black no longer packs the same sort of romantic punch.

Tip #4: You can’t take bad reviews too seriously. 

From Charles G. Meyer comes this insight:

“I disliked they cut out all of the scenes with zombies. This was obviously edited to try and appeal to a wider audience.”

Charles, you have just won yourself a fan for life.

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Merry Christmas!

Vintage Christmas Card via the Best Template Collection at Videos2Watch

Vintage Christmas Card via the Best Template Collection at Videos2Watch.

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A novel way to pick your next book

This map from Hog Island Press in Philadelphia organizes 42 Great American Novels by the locations in which they are set.

Want to read a book set in New Orleans? This map lists three.

California, Florida, and Chicago all have their share of classic American novels, as does the Northeast. The Dakotas, though, are a barren wasteland when it comes to great literature. Miles and miles of untapped literary potential there. Go figure.

See the map for yourself (or buy a copy for your favorite book blogger) at the Hog Island Press website.

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