Book review: My Notorious Life by Madame X, by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Madame X, by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Madame X, by Kate Manning

“In the end, they celebrated. They bragged. They got me, finally, was their feeling. They said I would take my secrets to the grave.

 They should be so lucky.”

This is a review of the book My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning. It purports to be the journal of a midwife / female doctor in New York in the 1800s, who became notorious (as per the title) for her work on fertility and abortion.

I was given this book as an advance copy, to review before it is released by Bloomsbury in June 2013. (Got in just in time, right?) As such, my copy looks like the photo above, whereas the published version will have the title superimposed over the figure rather than the quote above. I apologise therefore for not having the published image to give you, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find on the bookshelves anyway, right?

And find it on the bookshelves you should. This is an absolutely fascinating historical novel, which chronicles the life of Axie Muldoon, aka Madame de Beausacq, and her experiences from being separated from her brother and sister via their adoption, to her education with the midwife who was unable to save her mother, to setting up a successful practice in “women’s medicine” with her husband Charlie. Anything which was seen to regulate conception was in those days illegal, and discussion of women’s reproductive systems was considered “obscene”, so Axie (or, as she was Christened, Ann) had to be very careful with the way she conducted her business.

The story is incredible. Short chapters and an engaging manner make it way too easy to keep reading way past bed time (“surely it’s not one o’clock in the morning already! I just went to bed!”) and, as Axie’s notoriety grows you become more and more convinced that things are too good to last. As, of course, they are. Madame de Beausacq become so reviled in the media that her clientele are too ashamed to admit they have used her services, and patients’ words are turned against them as the police struggle to find something they can convict her of. Yet, seen from the perspective of the twenty first century, what she is practicing is basic medical care, despite her lack of formal training. (It must be said, though, that some of the Republicans in America might be just as likely to go on a witch hunt for someone like her these days as the New York constabulary did back then. Maybe we haven’t evolved as much as I would like to think.)

Axie’s story is loosely based on the experiences of  Ann Trow Lowman, a midwife who practiced in New York City for approximately 40 years. Significant events from Lowman’s life are used, though they are (by admission of the author) moved around to make the story more compelling. In addition, Manning makes excellent use of real historical figures, such as Charles Loring Brace and Anthony Comstock, the latter of whom makes life extremely difficult for our heroine. All told it is gritty and realistic, and shows what life really was like 150 or so years ago, for city dwellers in America at least.

The novel is well written, tightly-plotted and very hard to put down. My only issue with it is the use of Axie’s grammatical foibles – while they add to the narrative, there are times when they feel forced and unnatural. Maybe it’s because they diminish somewhat as she matures so they are less common, but a couple of times they grated on me. Other than that, I can find nothing to criticise.  Read it. You’ll be glad you did.

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My Notorious Life by Madame X, by Kate Manning
434 pages (paperback)
Published by Bloomsbury in June 2013 as ebook and paperback

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The Friday blog-hop (part 3)!

Latte_Blog

Latte_Blog (Photo credit: digitalrob70)

Hello again! It’s time to once more trawl through the many worthy and excellent blogs out there to recommend five that you might find interesting to follow. These are blogs that I enjoy reading, and if you follow my blog then chances are you could do so too. Remember, they are in no particular order and the list is by no means exhaustive. :)

  1. South Australian Writers’ Centre. This is my local writers’ centre and their blog is very new, so it’s only fair of me to give them a shout out. The posts so far have been useful and I expect that the ones to come will be too.
  2. Booktopia. Yep, a book shop rather than a writer. They do an awesome blog though and you learn heaps about what other writers go though from reading it. Or, at least, I do. :)
  3. Making Baby Grand, the novel, by Dina Santorelli. I have been known to cringe at blogs that only talk about one piece of work (what happens when you write another book?) but this is particularly engaging, especially as it follows her journey from (self)publication to trying to attract and keep a readership, get herself known and establish herself as an author. It’s a good read.
  4. Cresting the Words, by Wordsurfer. A lovely blog to read, with a nice blend of the personal and the professional (so to speak). I always enjoy reading this one, though I don’t comment nearly as much as I should. But then again, that’s my fault, not hers. :)
  5. Rachelle Gardner. She’s an American literary agent who does regular posts on the agent’s life – as opposed to the writer’s life. It’s engaging, it’s entertaining and it’s incredibly useful to newbies like me.

So, that’s it for this round. I hope you find some of these blogs interesting enough to follow on a regular basis – and if you haven’t seen your name on one of these lists yet, it’s not because I don’t want to list you, but probably because there are so many blogs I want to recommend that I just haven’t got to you yet. All the best, and happy blogging!

 

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Purging

English: Yard sale on Green Street in .

English: Yard sale on Green Street in . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I quite enjoy a good purge. Cleaning out the cupboards and donating ninety per cent of their contents to a local charity because you just don’t need it is cathartic, exhilerating and frees up vital storage space.

I’ve been doing this a bit at home lately. Only a little at a time, sure, but the church down the street, which has large garage sales every couple of months, is certainly reaping the benefits of my efforts. I’m also selling a few more valuable bits and pieces, in the hope that the spare cash they provide will help pay for an interstate trip for the whole family to attend a wedding later in the year. I’ve made a couple of hundred dollars so far and am hoping to both free up cupboard space and cash flow even more in coming weeks.

That’s all very nice, I hear you say, but what does it have to do with the writing life? Well, I say, plenty. Purging is very much a state of mind. It’s that part of the brain that hoarders can’t seem to access, and many of us only access sporadically. But we’re all guilty. Who among us hasn’t kept something because it was nice, or it might come in handy later on, only to come across it again two years later and wonder why on earth we have it? But, when the purging spirit takes hold, you can rid yourself of a lot. And the same is true in writing.

Purging is only good, really, when you’re in the editing stage. Ridding yourself of the unnecessary when you’re still trying to get the book written can be time consuming and take away some of the creative urge. Doing it when you’re editing, though, is what the whole thing is about. Don’t need it? Cut it. Doesn’t progress the plot? Cut it. Character not adding anything to the story? Cut him/her. I’ve got rid of about 15,000 words, two characters and a whole subplot so far, simply because they weren’t adding value to the manuscript. I’ve got some more purging to do, but this ruthlessness on multiple fronts is feeling good. Cleaner cupboards, cleaner prose and cleaner schedule. It’s a win-win situation.

Of course, not everyone finds it easy to be this ruthless. And this is why I recommend doing the purging on many levels at once. When you’re already in the mindset to clean up that space under the bed and just get rid of things you’re not using, why not get out the manuscript and have a hack at that as well? You’re already thinking in that way. Try to make the most of it!

So that’s me at the moment. Going through what makes up my life and just cutting out things I don’t need any more. It applies to a lot of things and, the way I’m going right now, I should be cleansed and clear in no time. (Sounds like an ad for a face-cleaning cream … maybe I should think about re-wording. Oh, heck. Why not just cut the whole sentence?) (See what I mean?) And it’s my recommendation to anyone who is having trouble with their editing. Don’t just edit your manuscript. Edit your whole life. You might be amazed what you can achieve.

 

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Looking for exclamations(!)

English: A black exclamation mark Magyar: Egy ...

English: A black exclamation mark Magyar: Egy fekete felkiáltójel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Ah, the humble exclamation mark. So much debate about such a little thing. Or is it?

 

For the uninitiated, exclamation marks are, apparently, to be used sparingly at all times. Elmore Leonard once famously opined that “[y]ou are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” F Scott Fitzgerald once told a student that “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke”. More modern rules include the directive that you should use only one in any one e-mail, for example. In other words, exclamation marks are a bad habit of the novice writer, which must be broken at all costs.

 

Naturally, there are exceptions. I recently re-read the Harry Potter series, in which exclamation marks are sprinkled with gay abandon. In fact, even a novice writer such as myself noticed the excess of exclaiming, which perhaps says that there may have been a couple too many. A lot of sentences are, in fact, stronger and more meaningful with just a full stop (period) rather than an exclamation mark.

 

Is the exclamation mark rule quite so cut-and-dried, though? Stuart Jeffries from The Guardian argues that they can make the written word friendlier, especially in things like e-mails which can feel a little sterile otherwise. (It depends, of course, on the content of the e-mail, but “Thanks!” usually sounds friendlier and more enthusiastic in its gratitude than “Thanks.” does. Don’t you agree?)

 

But what about in fiction? I admit, using it too much is off-putting, and using it in narrative rather than dialogue  is just plain annoying. But then again, in dialogue the rules change – apparently up to six per 100,000 words is considered acceptable. A quick scan of my novel (thank you, find function) had somewhat more than that, so clearly I need to do some work on this aspect of my writing, but sometimes I wonder how much weight that old rule still has.

 

I’m not alone in my appreciation of exclaiming. After all, people do exclaim and that should be recognised. But even I (along with like-minded thinkers) understand that there needs to be a limit. I’m just not sure that six per 100,000 words (in dialogue only) is it.

 

 

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Book review: Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann

mimi

 

This is a review of the book Mimi, which tells the story of the relationship between Mimi and Harrison, two very different New Yorkers whose lives become irreparably intertwined.

The book is notable at first because it was written by a woman, but is told in first person from Harrison’s point of view. This isn’t hugely unusual, but I always find that writing from the perspective of the opposite gender certainly has its own challenges. That said, the author does a magnificent job of getting into the head of a middle aged man and showing us his catharses.

The characters in the book are also remarkably interesting. Mimi is larger than life and makes no apologies for it; Harrison is surprisingly pliable (or perhaps quite so not surprisingly, given his profession is plastic surgery and he therefore makes a living out of plying others); Harrison’s sister Bee is forthright and an excellent foil for him; Bubbles the cat is luxuriant and indulged; the ex-girlfriend Gertrude is ridiculous. Even the city of New York is almost a character in this tale, such is its presence in the narrative – which, again, surprised me given that the author’s biography has her residences in Illinois and England. All told it provides for a fascinating story of how these characters clash, interact and generally behave.

That being said, the novel is not without flaws. I wondered at the copious amounts of backstory in the first third of it; sure, some of it helps ground the characters (particularly Harrison) but much of it seemed unnecessary. It was almost like any random thought from the protagonist would be enough to propel the reader into ten or so pages of historical content which had little bearing on the story at hand. Much of it makes more sense once you reach the story’s conclusion, but even so I felt it could have been cut substantially and yet still had the same impact. This perhaps also had a bearing on my thought in the early chapters that a book supposed to be about the character Mimi had pretty much no appearances from her for a very long time. (It seems an easy enough equation: less backstory = more Mimi.) Once she appeared for good, of course, she was rarely absent from the page, whether in presence or thought, but it did feel like it took a longer time than usual to get there.

My other comment is more a musing than anything – when did the C word become so acceptable? When I was growing up it was almost taboo, and now every third book seems to have it in abundance. Sometimes I feel it’s just used for shock value, other times it’s making a political statement – but maybe I’m just getting old and prudish, and in general society it doesn’t have the impact it used to have. In any case it takes some getting used to, seeing it in print so regularly, and this book was no exception. I admit it was within character for Harrison to use it, but I still raised my eyebrows.

Finally, I would like to say that Mimi ends up a very different book from how it started. I dare say this is deliberate, and showcases Harrison’s changing thought processes admirably, but what started pretty much as a love story becomes very political by the end. Naturally Mimi herself has had a large role in this change, and therefore it is quite appropriate that the book is named after her, but again it took me by surprise a little. I suppose, in the end, it’s about the effect love has on a person, for better or worse, even when the beloved is not present. And it’s a journey of self discovery – a journey from the fake to the real, in many ways – by a man who wasn’t all bad to start with, but who has an epiphany which affects thousands of others.

All in all, Mimi is a well-told story with a number of unexpected twists and turns. Its characters are real, warts and all, and almost compel you to keep reading by their sheer vivacity. If you would like to read a craftily-constructed tale which explores people’s deepest insecurities and celebrates matriarchal solutions, then this is definitely a book for you.

 

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Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann
352 pages (paperback)
Published by Bloomsbury
Available on Amazon as ebook and paperback

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A little here, a little there

Writing

You may have guessed that of late my writing itself hasn’t been at its peak. Of course, it probably doesn’t help that I’ve been working on three different projects, or that in my spare time I’m trying to do a number of other things (like find a venue for a child’s birthday party that doesn’t cost the earth – ugghhh!), but yes, it’s been sporadic at best and non-existent at worst. I suspect this is one reason I’ve been throwing myself in to editing so readily: because the writing thing just isn’t really happening for me at the moment so at least if I’m editing I can feel like I’m achieving something.

Of course, there are a million blog posts out there telling people how to get past writers block. Heck, I’ve written some myself. And I’m sure that if I really applied myself, I’d be able to get a lot more written … but therein lies the rub. If I really applied myself. The trouble is, getting around to applying myself just isn’t really happening.

This is risky behaviour for me. On the birth of my youngest child I gave up writing (and reading, for that matter) for  the best part of nine months. For anyone who knows me, this is nothing short of remarkable behaviour. Me, not read? It’s like asking the sun not to rise in the morning. But, I sense that it might be a very easy trap to fall back into. If I take too much of a break from writing – or reading – then goodness only knows how long it would take before the bug bites me again. Last time it was nine months …  who’s to say it wouldn’t be longer next time?

Yeah, yeah, I know. If I’m to call myself a writer then I have to write. Most people write because they can’t NOT write. Me, well I’ve proven that I can quite happily go without writing for several months. Does that make me less of a writer? I don’t think so, but it does make me pause to think.

In any case, I’m still editing. You know, that zeal that makes you want to get that manuscript just right, no matter how long that takes. Or maybe not just right, because it will probably never reach that peak, but at least good enough to send out into the world. And editing is a key part of writing, so in that sense I’m definitely a writer. And in the meantime, I do find myself jotting down ideas for my other two projects – character traits, things to remember, things to include in the plot arc. And that counts, right?

Yep, a little here and a little there. It all adds up. And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

 

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Free plug for a paid book blogging gig

Book collection

Book collection (Photo credit: Ian Wilson)

Would you like to be paid to blog about books?

No, I’m not kidding. I saw that in my Facebook feed recently and thought it was worth sharing. Not FB “sharing”, because that would have gone to a lot of my non-bookish friends, but blog sharing. Which means, of course, that I’m telling you lovely people rather than, say, my mum.

momentum logo

The offer comes from Momentum Books, which is the digital-only imprint of Pan Macmillan Australia, and essentially they are looking for someone to write 4-8 posts a month about books, reading, and book and storytelling culture. Essentially, if it’s about a book, it could well be what they’re looking for, and they are offering $AU20 per post. You don’t have to be Australian to enter, but the posts do have to be in English. (Australians are generally a monolingual bunch.) They are especially looking for bloggers who focus on romance, fantasy and/or science fiction, but more general blogs will also be considered.

Sound good? Or, maybe, just worth looking into? Well, go to this post of their blog to get full information and submission details – but do it soon. Entries close on April 25th Australian time (less than two weeks from now).

Good luck, and happy blogging. :)

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I would be writing, but …

Family watching television, c. 1958

Family watching television, c. 1958 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

First of all, I’d just like to apologise for not posting earlier in the day, like I usually do. The fact is that I was having so much fun editing my novel (yes, I know, weird) that I just couldn’t bring myself to take a break and blog. But hey, I’m here now, right?

 

Today I’m going to talk about things that stop you from writing. Some would call it excuses, but to be nice I’m going to call it priorities. You know what I mean – the decision to read on the bus on the way to work rather than jotting scenes into a notebook, for example, or the decision to leave the pen and paper at home when you’re at the kids’ sporting events. Some people might see this as time wasted because you’re not writing, but maybe you’ve just made the decision that paying attention to what your children are doing is more important. It’s just priorities, and they are different for all of us.

 

Me, I’ve been spending time with the kids and, well, editing like there’s no tomorrow. Just today I deleted about 1000 superfluous adverbs, and I must say that my prose is looking a lot neater as a result. But I’m not even really talking about that sort of thing. Specifically, I’m thinking about that old fallback – television.

 

You see, last week two of my favourite programs started up again - Doctor Who and Game of Thrones. I love them, and I’m not afraid to admit that I will forego any number of things to stay up to date with them. Sure, I wait till the kids have gone to bed before turning them on – my children are a little young for even the good Doctor as yet – but I try not to wait more than a couple of days after release before I watch them. This is my escapism at the moment, and I’m protecting it fiercely.

 

I don’t feel guilty in the slightest. It’s been pointed out before that absorbing someone else’s creativity can be just as useful as your own in inspiring you, so I figure that’s as good an excuse as any. And hey, in the meantime I can check out how they are telling their stories, to get ideas for my own.

 

There. That’s my confession. Now it’s up to you: what won’t you miss to further your writing? And how do you justify it? Life is, after all, about our priorities.

 

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Editing

Edit Ruthlessly

Edit Ruthlessly (Photo credit: Dan Patterson)

I know, I know. I haven’t blogged for two weeks and I’ve given exactly no reason for it. Well, to be honest, I’ve just been too busy lately. What with Easter and a bunch of other things going on (birthday of youngest child, for example) I simply haven’t had the time. I’m sorry. :( I’m also going to be writing a Monday post on a Friday, mainly because I have something I want to talk about.

I’ve been editing. (What? I hear you say. You’ve had time to edit but not blog? What sort of author are you?) The thing is, of course, that editing does not require the internet so I haven’t needed a web connection to do it. This isn’t saying a web connection isn’t handy, but it’s certainly not necessary.

The funny thing is, I’ve been enjoying the editing process immensely. Sure, there’s still a long way to go, but there really is something satisfying about taking a red pen to a manuscript. Figuratively speaking, of course – I haven’t yet printed out my novel and I don’t want to until I cut at least another 10,000 words. (I’ve cut 15,000 so far, so it’s not impossible.) This isn’t due to any preference to editing on screen, though I generally have little problem with that, but more that I don’t want to use up too much paper. Especially considering that the only decent printer I have access to is at my work.

Generally, I’m happy with the structure at the moment. There are still some scenes that need rewriting or moving or incorporating into other scenes, but overall it’s looking pretty good. So what I’m focusing on now, because it’s easy and something I can do when I’m feeling a little brainless, is taking out words I use too much. A few samples of web-based editing services have told me “that” is a word I use approximately eight times as much as I should, and “just” is the next worst offender, so I’m using that old staple of find-and-replace to either change those words to other things, or, in many cases, just delete them entirely. I think I got rid of 1000 words by that method alone.

Like I said, though, there is still a long way to go. I intend to go to a proper professional editor when I am finally as happy with it as I can be through my own editing, but in the meantime there are some really helpful sites out there. Sites like Autocrit, FirstEditing, and Book Editing Services (to name a few) will give you a free sample edit, which is really helpful for identifying some of your common errors before you commit to a paid service. Helpful hints can also be found everywhere, like here and here. I’m now taking a few days off the edit to spend with my kids, but come next week, wish me luck!

And while we’re on the subject of luck, I know I’ll need more than a little to make it very far, but if you like my blog then I would love you to vote in the Best Australian Blogs competitions for this year. Just click on the button below and look for Emily’s Tea Leaves in the list.

I think you should also consider voting for Confessions of a Stuffed Olive, which is one of my favourite blogs and one I’ve mentioned more than once on these pages. You don’t have to be Australian to vote but you can only vote once, so please do so with care and consideration. Thank you.

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Best Australian Blogs 2013

BB2013_Nominee

Today’s post is about blogging, hayfever, and blogging when you have hayfever.  Well, really it’s about blogging, but if I suddenly become strangely incoherent it’s probably because the summer scourge is upon me. Which is a shame because we’re well and truly into autumn now and this is the first really bad attack of the sneezes I’ve had. Sigh.

Ignoring that, I have once again signed up to participate in the Best Australian Blogs competition, which is run annually by the Australian Writers’ Centre (formerly the Sydney Writers’ Centre). I don’t necessarily think that my blog has what it takes to even make a dent in this great competition, but if I don’t put my hand up I’ll never know, right? Whereas if I do, then more people might discover my blog and think it’s worth looking at occasionally. *crosses fingers hopefully*

What does this competition entail? Well, really, it’s a nominate-oneself-or-hope-someone-else-does-it-for-you type of thing. There are different categories and special awards for outstanding individual posts, but essentially it’s a way for bloggers to discover what other blogs are out there, and for people who like to read blogs to go through the entrants to find ones they like. And it’s all about group hugs and supporting each other and generally being nice to other internet-people.

Anyway, like I said I’ve put my hand up, and I’m hoping that someone notices it. And if you like my blog, there’s a People’s Choice round coming up next month during which you can vote for me, so bear that in mind too. :)

And that’s it for me today. Sorry for the brevity of the post, but I’ve sneezed approximately one hundred and fifty times since I started writing it, so I think my body is telling me to stop. Now all I need to do is think of some incredibly interesting things to post about in the next few weeks that might increase my chances, hahaha.

Best of luck to all other nominees, and if you let me know you’ve entered I’ll look for you in the voting round. Cheers!

 

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