I probably will never need to buy another book. I’m a popular reviewer. When I worked at Doubleday, I was extremely popular there, too. Probably because I read the books. So many reviewers don’t read the books they review. You can tell when you read their reviews that all they did was skim the first couple of pages and work from the publisher’s summaries. TV critics seem to be doing the same thing these days. Sometimes movie reviewers, too. It’s why we read a book or see a movie, then check reviews and wonder if it’s the same book or movie.

english-writersI remember at Doubleday I would discover that the publisher’s summary was factually wrong. Wrong names for major characters. Wrong relationships between characters. Incorrect plot description. It was clear whoever wrote the summary had not read the book.

So … who did read the book? Did anyone read it? That was in the mid 1970s, when most people did read, at least sometimes. Now? Does anyone read books before they are published, and has the reviewers read the books they are praising or panning?

Until this year, I was a judge for a major book award. I did it for more than a decade. It started out as fun. You’d get a bunch of books, read, review, and rate them, picking a few to move on to the finals. A few years ago, they started sending me more books … so many I could not possibly read even half of them in the allotted time. Last year, I think I had almost 100 books to judge with an average of more than 300 pages per book. And just five weeks to read them all.

It was hopeless. A couple of books were more than 500  pages. These were books that needed considerable stage-setting before the story began. Depending on genre, authors may devote a couple of hundred pages to explaining how their world works. If there’s magic. Rules of the physical world. Some geography. Who and what gods are extant — or were. What languages are spoken. A bit of history, so characters don’t walk onto an empty stage.

Tolkien was a genius at world-building, which is why he remains the gold standard for the fantasy genre.


If you only have an hour to give each book you’re judging, how can you, in good faith, even get a sense of what the book is about, much less if it’s good? Were you to put J.R.R. Tolkien to this test, you’d never get out of Hobbiton. More than 300 pages of Lord of the Rings is geography, language, history, and demographics.

All history books require substantial background, as do historical novels and time-travel books that are historical novels in science fiction garb. A lot of writers use “the wormhole in time” to get readers to be “in the time” rather than looking back at it. It’s been a popular ploy for generations.

quill penSo this year, I said no to judging. It wasn’t fair to the authors to judge them without giving them a proper reading. I have to wonder how many other “awards” are done this way, with over-burdened judges who have too many books or whatever to review without adequate time in which to do it. I’m sure I was not the only one who got down to the wire and was unable to even skim several books before “judging them.” I wouldn’t do it again.

For all of these reasons, I’m diligent about reviewing books — or anything else. I’m not getting paid and reviews won’t make me famous or rich. They won’t even buy me a quick meal at Mickey D’s. But it is a big deal to authors. Reviews make or break books, even for established authors.

I suspect all authors are perpetually being judged. Reviewed. Each book is a trial by fire. A book doesn’t sell and suddenly, your publisher forgets your name. The industry wants nothing to do with a failing author. Even if you have written a string of major best-sellers, you are only as good as the sales figures of your most recently published volume.

I doubt any of the great authors of the past would thrive under these conditions. Can you imagine Hemingway doing his own PR? Or Capone? Can you imagine Shakespeare dealing with focus groups and fighting for his contract to be renewed?

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So I do my bit. Not for money or glory, or even for the authors, who I love. I do it because if no one cares about the quality of books being published, eventually it will all be pulp and garbage. There will be classics from days of yore and nothing new worth reading.

I have had people tell me I’m stupid for doing so much work for free, but authors don’t have money — and publishers won’t pay. Even successful authors — unless Hollywood has bought their books — aren’t financially secure. Maybe Stephen King and Michael Crichton don’t have to worry about where the next check will come from, but every other author I know — and at this point, I know more than a few — are scraping by. Many still keep their day jobs because there are mortgages to pay and kids to feed.

You have to love writing for its own sake. As a profession, authoring is a hard and rocky road. Glory and riches come to few.  Maybe publishers get rich. I hope someone is making money, because as far as I can tell, most authors don’t.


I recently read an article in the New York Times about the efficacy of ‘bribing’ children to get them to read. The article was “The Right Way To Bribe Kids To Read”, by KJ Dell’Antonia and ran on Sunday, July 24, 2016. The article cited a study that showed that bribery does work. However it also showed that the kind of bribe determined the longevity of the positive result.

The study found that monetary or other material bribes worked only as long as the rewards continued. Once the money stopped rolling in, so did the reading. So parents have to find another kind of bribe to foster enthusiasm about reading in order to form lasting reading habits. The most effective form of bribe used in the study was the promise of one on one time with a parent. This time could be spent reading together or just talking about what the child had read.


This reminded me of one of my finest parenting moments, which I would like to share with you. When my daughter was 13, she was obsessed with reading a series of books below her reading level, called “The Babysitters’ Club.” Neither I nor the teachers at her school felt this was a serious problem. She was reading and loving it and that was enough for the school and for me.

However, her father (my ex-husband) was adamant that we “make” her read more adult books. He favored the classics, like Dickens and Jane Austen. I had hated these books when I was 13 so I did not agree that this was the way to go with our daughter. He also favored the banning of TV and other ‘punishments’ as the means of ‘motivation’. I obviously was against this approach as well.

books james lee burke

My solution to this sticky family problem was brilliant, if I do say so myself! I conceded to my ex the goal of getting our daughter to read age appropriate books. BUT, I would be the one to determine the method used to accomplish this goal.

My daughter loved movies. So I proposed that she find books that had been made into movies. She would both read the book and watch the movie. We would then talk about how the two versions differed, which was more ‘successful’ and why. And how well the book translated to the screen. The first book she choose was Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes” – a movie she had already seen and loved. She loved the book too. Without parental prompting, immediately read every book Fannie Flagg wrote. She took her library of Flagg’s books to sleepover camp with her and traded them with her camp friends for other books. She was off and running as a life-long, voracious reader.

netflix for books

My daughter is 31 now and is still an avid reader. She reads all kinds of books, fiction and non-fiction, covering a wide range of subjects. She particularly loves history and historical fiction. I feel that my creative solution to her reading ‘problem’ years ago allowed her intellectual curiosity to develop freely. I firmly believe that we could have destroyed that curiosity and squashed her love of reading had we mishandled that situation when she was 13.

I guess the moral of this story is that you have to nurture and encourage your children’s interest in reading. Making reading a chore or something to do for Mom and Dad is apparently not the right approach. You have to make reading something exciting that they can share with you and with their friends. You can always ‘make’ your child read. The trick is to create an adult who loves reading and learning and passes this love down to their kids.


Lewis Carroll is my favorite poet. In this, one of his lesser known poems, he offers commentary on both parenthood and aging. These days, I find myself relating in some weird way and since today is Father’s Day in the US …

I’ve included John Tenniel‘s original illustrations because I love them.

From Wikipedia:

The poem appears in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and is recited by Alice (Chapter 5, “Advice from a Caterpillar” which was Chapter 3 in the original manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground). Alice informs the caterpillar she has tried to repeat “How Doth the Little Busy Bee” and it came out all wrong as “How Doth the Little Crocodile”. The caterpillar asks her to repeat “You are old, Father William.” 


“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”


“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “As I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door—
Pray, what is the reason of that?”


“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
“I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment—one shilling the box—
Allow me to sell you a couple?”

“You are old,” said the youth, “And your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak—
Pray, how did you manage to do it?”


“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose—
What made you so awfully clever?”


“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”


February 1st and winter hasn’t started. The only very cold weather came and went while we were in Arizona. We should take January vacations every year.


Since November, time has flown. One day it was Halloween, the next Thanksgiving. Then Christmas whooshed past and we were boarding a plane for Phoenix.

I spent all of November and December 2015 reviewing books.

I had more than 60 books to read in two months. Some of the books were very long. The number of hours required exceeded the number of non-sleep hours in the allotted time. It was unfair to me. Even more unfair to the books’ authors.

books and the duke

I’m a fast reader, but I was defeated by the sheer weight of it. It was an “elimination” round to reduce the number of books in the finals, but even so …

All of this explains why I feel as if those months didn’t happen. I barely remember anything. I was buried. While I’m reading, I’m not in this world. I’m wherever, whenever the story is happening. It has left me feeling displaced.

The pressure of participating in projects like this is huge. In theory, I could have quit. I’m not getting paid; I never signed a contract. But I promised. I felt obligated to keep my word. Even when I felt hard done by.

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By the end of this month, I might be able to write again. Reading is supposed to inspire writing, but 60 books in as many days drained me. I’m still recovering.

It is making me rethink the meaning of “fair.” Maybe it also explains some of the more bizarre selections I’ve seen as literary “winners.”



NormanRockwell Little RockJane Allen Petrick has written a wonderful book about Norman Rockwell, the artist and his work. It focuses on the “invisible people” in his painting, the non-white children and adults who are his legacy.

For many readers, this book will be an eye-opener — although anyone who visits the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts or takes a serious look at Rockwell’s body of work can see Norman Rockwell never portrayed a purely white America. This perception of Rockwell’s work is a gross injustice to a man for whom civil rights was a personal crusade.

This country’s non-white population were in Rockwell’s paintings even when he had to sneak them in by a side door,figuratively speaking. Black people, Native Americans and others are anything but missing. Rockwell was passionate about civil rights and integration. It was his life’s cause, near and dear to his heart. Yet somehow, the non-white peoples in his pictures have been overlooked, become invisible via selective vision. They remain unseen because white America does not want to see them, instead choosing to focus on a highly limited vision which fits their prejudices or preconceptions.

Ms. Pettrick tells the story of Rockwell’s journey, his battle to be allowed to paint his America. It is also the story of the children and adults who modeled for him. She sought out these people, talked to them. Heard and recorded their first-hand experiences with the artist.

This is a fascinating story. I loved it from first word to last. HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT is available on Kindle for just $3.49. It’s also available as a paperback.


From the Author

Whether we love his work or hate it, most of us think of Norman Rockwell as the poster child for an all-white America. I know I did. That is until the uncanny journey I share with you in this book began to unfold.  Then I discovered a surprisingly different truth: Norman Rockwell was into multiculturalism long before the word was even invented.

Working from live models, the famous illustrator was slipping people of color (the term I use for the multi-ethnic group of Chinese and Lebanese, Navajos and African-Americans the artist portrayed) into his illustrations of America from the earliest days of his career. Those people of color are still in those illustrations. They never disappeared. But the reason we don’t know about them is because, up until now, they seem to have been routinely overlooked.

For example, in her book, “Norman Rockwell’s People,” Susan E. Meyer catalogues by name over one hundred and twenty Norman Rockwell models, including two dogs, Bozo and Spot. But not one model of color is named in the book.

Another case in point? “America, Illustrated,” an article written for The New York Times by Deborah Solomon, art critic and journalist In honor of (an) upcoming Independence Day, the entire July 1, 2010 edition of the paper was dedicated to “all things American.”

“America, Illustrated” pointed out that Norman Rockwell’s work was experiencing a resurgence among collectors and museum-goers. Why? Because the illustrator’s vision of America personified “all things American.” Rockwell’s work, according to the article, provided “harmony and freckles for tough times.” As Solomon put it, Norman Rockwell’s America symbolized “America before the fall.” This America was, apparently, all sweetness and light. Solomon simply asserts: “It is true that his (Rockwell’s) work does not acknowledge social hardships or injustice.”

The America illustrated by Norman Rockwell also, apparently, was all white. Seven full-color reproductions of Rockwell’s work augment the multi-page Times’ article. The featured illustration is “Spirit of America” (1929), a 9″ x 6″ blow-up of one of the artist’s more “Dudley Doright”-looking Boy Scouts. None of the illustrations chosen includes a person of color.

This is puzzling. As an art critic, Solomon surely was aware of Norman Rockwell’s civil rights paintings. The most famous of these works, “The Problem We All Live With,” portrays “the little black girl in the white dress” integrating a New Orleans school.

One hundred and seven New York Times readers commented on “America, Illustrated,” and most of them were not happy with the article. Many remarks cited Solomon’s failure to mention “The Problem We All Live With.” One reader bluntly quipped: “The reporter (Solomon) was asleep at the switch.” The other people in Norman Rockwell’s America, people of color, had been strangely overlooked, again.I have dedicated Hidden in Plain Sight: The Other People in Norman Rockwell’s America to those “other people”: individuals who have been without name or face or voice for so long. And this book is dedicated to Norman Rockwell himself, the “hidden” Norman Rockwell, the man who conspired to put those “other people” into the picture in the first place.


America, land of the brave and the free. Photo by Turtsman.

My father was not a wise man, but a smart one who knew how to make money. He was a lifelong Democrat, small businessman and other things I would prefer not to delve into right now. A big part of his salesman’s repertoire were one liners and jokes. This was a favorite of mine.

It isn’t what you don’t know that will get you. It’s what you DO know that’s wrong.

Albert Friedman
Self-Made American (1917 – 2010)

How true it is, and also, how sad. So many people knowing with complete certainty so much that is so wrong. For them, the motto will forever be thus:

Don’t confuse me with facts! My mind is made up.

If you want to maintain your bona fides as a Real American, you should continue to watch only Fox News. It will help to reinforce your unfounded opinions by presenting pseudo facts and speculation in lieu of real information and you will believe every word. Rupert Murdoch is laughing all the way to his offshore accounts.

Don’t read anything that contains facts unless they comply with your preconceptions. In fact, it might be best to avoid reading entirely. Make a flag of your ignorance. Wave it proudly. Tell the world you know nothing and don’t want to learn nothin’ neither.

Finally, proclaim that you are the prototypical American, unlike the rest of us snobbish book-reading socialist anti-Christian liberals who don’t agree with you. After that, you can wonder why the world is losing respect for the United States. Maybe it has something to do with “true Americans” like you with your passion for ignorance, bigotry, hatred, and stupidity.

You vote against your own best interests because you vote not for people who will help you, but for those who share your hates. Anyone can have you by preying on what you hate. You hate so many things that you are easily had. You are America’s fools and losers, the people about whom H.L Mencken spoke when he said:

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

H. L. Mencken
US editor (1880 – 1956)


It isn’t just culture that divides us into classes. What we watch on television, see in the movies, and read also puts us into a category, often unfairly by people who don’t “get” why we like what we like.


I read a post about how dreadful — yet gripping — romance novels can be. The not-so-subtle insinuation is that anyone who reads them is probably not too bright. While it’s true that romance novels are the potato chips of the literary world (bet you can’t eat just one) that’s not the point.

double dip in bookcase

As a former editor of the Doubleday Romance Library, I assure you that research showed readers of romance novels are better educated than most readers.

They read romance novels because they are pulp. These readers aren’t looking to be informed or improved, to have their world expanded, reading-level or awareness raised. They want a book they can pick up, read, put down, and forget. If life gets in the way, they can just never finish the story — without regret.

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I read each 3-book volume, every month. Three romances: 2 modern with a Gothic sandwiched between. Every novel had the same plot, the same outcome. They sold gangbusters.

Regardless of what we, as writers, would prefer people enjoy, people don’t always read good books. I often avoid “good” books. I don’t want to go where that book would take me. I’m not stupid or lacking in culture. I just don’t want to read it. Don’t enjoy the subject matter. Don’t need to be further depressed by the ugly realities of life or history.

Good books can be too intense, too serious, or educational for this moment in time. Too close to reality. I read to be entertained. I’m not seeking enlightenment through literature. Perhaps I should rephrase that. I am no longer seeking enlightenment through literature. If I ain’t enlightened by now, I’m pretty sure it won’t happen in this lifetime.

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The wondrous thing about the world of books is there are so many. Enough genres, themes, and styles for everyone. An infinity of literature. No matter what your taste — low-brow, high-brow, middle-brow, no-brow — there are thousands of books waiting for you. That’s good. I’d rather see someone reading a bad book than no book.


I’m not a culture snob. I think reading crappy novels is fine if you like them. Watching bad TV is fine too.

Snobs suck the fun out of reading. While I’m not a fan of romance novels, if you are, that’s okay with me. I love reading about vampires and witches. I’d be more than a hypocrite to act as if your taste is inferior to mine.

old favorite books

These days, I’m rarely in the mood for anything serious — except maybe a conversation. Tastes change over time. Life has been a very serious business for me. When I read, watch TV, or see a movie, I want to escape, Reality will still be there when I get back.

Finally, my favorite professor at university — a man I believe was profound and wise — was a big fan of Mickey Spillane. He said there was a much truth in those books. I believe for him, there was.