FREE Today: Amelia Elkins Elkins (a Modern Retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion)

with borderAmelia Elkins Elkins, my newly released retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, is free for Kindle on July 6th and July 7th. [CLICK HERE to download a copy]

Recently, Vickie Lester of Beguiling Hollywood made my day by saying: “With wit, depth, and keen modern detail this updated retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion captivates… #greatread #summerread #icouldntputitdown.”

My hope is that it’s a fun read for those who love Jane Austen’s classic as well as for those who haven’t yet read it.** If you decide to give Amelia Elkins Elkins a chance, I’d love to hear what you think about it.

Thank you!

Here’s the description:

In 1817, if childbirth didn’t kill a woman, then there were good odds that a “miasma” would. Now, thanks to modern medicine, a woman’s demise at the prime of her life is uncommon enough to deserve an investigation. That is what two lawyers at the Harville Firm promise to do when Amelia Elkins Elkins, a member of a prominent family with more baggage than money, contacts them in the wake of her mother’s untimely death.

In this retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Amelia and her sisters turn to the American court system to seek justice for their mother’s death.

It’s too bad that their conceited, silly father is doing everything he can — inadvertently, of course — to hinder their success.

**PS. Persuasion is my favorite of Austen’s novels, all of which are now in the public domain. It’s easy to find inexpensive or free e-book copies of it, but not all versions are equal! Remember this likely rip-off of Wikipedia in the modern introduction to Austen’s classic work?

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The Fill-In Boyfriend: A YA Novel That Brings Back Memories

The Fill In Boyfriend with First Line of Novel

Who among us hasn’t had a fake Significant Other at some point in our lives?

Or at least thought about it. ;)

My freshman year of college, I told two friends about an unwanted, frustratingly persistent suitor of mine, and they each offered to help.

The first one—let’s call him Marshall—said, “I can pretend to be your brother and tell him to leave you the hell alone.”

The second, named Elliot, replied, “Her brother? You two look nothing alike.”

“Well, adopted or step-brother,” Marshall clarified.

Elliot laughed. “It makes more sense to pretend to be her boyfriend. I’ll do it. Then that guy will get the picture.”

I thanked them for their suggestions, but took care of Mr. Suitor in my own way, which basically involved avoiding him until I actually had a boyfriend a few months later.

That guy, the real boyfriend, turned out to be Marshall—or, as he’s better known around this part of the Internet, Mr. AMB. Thankfully, I never tried to pass him off as my sibling. That would’ve been an uncomfortable lie to explain away.

These were the memories that came to mind as I read Kasie West’s latest Young Adult novel, The Fill-In Boyfriend. In this story, 17-year-old Gia Montgomery needs a date after her boyfriend of two months dumps her in the parking lot outside of the prom. She approaches the first guy she sees and begs him to pretend to be her boyfriend. He agrees. The ending is obvious, Gia and the “fill-in” boyfriend get together eventually, but how they get there is fun to witness.

The main characters are likeable, the story is cute, and the writing is funny and fast-paced. It’s ideal for both younger readers who may see a part of themselves in Gia and for older folks (like me) who are looking for an entertaining escape from adult life.

I am grateful to Stephanie from Stephanie’s Book Reviews for recommending this novel. It was as much fun as she said it would be.

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*I ran this post by Mr. AMB to make sure he didn’t mind if I shared this story from our past. He was fine with it, but wanted to add: “In my defense, I wasn’t bold enough to offer to pretend to play the role I wanted to have. Besides, what better way to attract a bookish girl than to be painfully awkward and shy? That method worked just fine for Mr. Darcy.”

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Boo: The Things Parents Don’t Know Are Often The Most Important

Boo by Neil SmithI’ll admit it: I was one of those children who tried to memorized the Periodic Table.

Today, there are 118 elements on the list. In the 1980s, when I was a kid, there were 108, and ten years before that, there were 106.

It’s these 106 elements, starting with Hydrogen and ending with Seaborgium, that 13-year-old Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple is determined to memorize.* He’s the main character of Neil Smith’s Boo, a dark yet amusing novel in which two boys investigate how they ended up dead. They’re stuck for the next fifty years in an afterlife in which everyone in a town called “Town” is their age.

The last thing Boo remembers of his life is standing in front of his locker reciting the elements when he drops dead on September 7, 1979. The next thing he knows, he’s lying in a bed at the Meg Murry Infirmary, one of many locations in Town named after characters from books well-loved by 13-year-olds.

Smith’s novel is a book Boo writes for his parents about his afterlife. It’s his attempt to comfort them from beyond the grave.

In Chapter 1, entitled Hydrogen, Boo asks them:

“Did you realize I was a pariah? If you did not, I am sorry I never made this clear, but I did not want you fretting about something you could in no way control.”

Poor Boo! He gained friends for the first time only after his death. It’s hard to believe his parents hadn’t known on some level that he was an outcast, but at the same time, my own experience as a parent has taught me that we don’t always know as much as we think we do about our children’s lives.

My oldest two, who are now rising 2nd graders, have always been different from each other socially, a trait we’ve tried to encourage by putting them into separate classes. We agonized over this decision, one of the most controversial decisions parents of twins can make.

During their Kindergarten year, though, we started to have second thoughts about our choice when one twin received several birthday party invitations while her sister received none — apart from a handful of invitations to parties in honor of friends whose kind-hearted parents had the wherewithal/ability to invite both girls.

The excluded twin cried whenever her sister received an invitation from a classmate, but she otherwise seemed happy at school, always rambling on about what she learned and what her teacher said.

Then, well into the year, I learned that my daughter also sat by herself in the cafeteria, a place segregated by classroom.

How could I have missed that? I still don’t know the answer.

Thankfully, in 1st grade, my daughter rectified the situation by inventing a food sensitivity for herself so she could sit with her best friend at the “peanut allergic” table. The aides checked my daughter’s lunch box and then let her sit down.** When her identical twin sister (still in a different class) tried the same tactic with a similarly peanut-free lunch, the aides wouldn’t allow her to take one of those highly coveted seats. “You don’t have an allergy,” they said, a rationale she accepted without blowing her twin’s cover.

I’m impressed—and relieved—that my previously lonely twin daughter was able to handle the problem on her own. Still, I wish I had known about her struggle, even if Boo may be right that I’d be “fretting about something [I can] in no way control.”

As a parent, it’s my job to try to help (at least behind the scenes), even if it doesn’t always work.

These were the thoughts I kept having as I became better acquainted with Boo in Neil Smith’s engrossing book. My heart ached not only for the lonely 13-year-old at the center of the story, but also for his parents, who were never given the chance to help him.

I am looking forward to sharing this novel with my twins when they are a little older. I’m sure it will spark an interesting—and important—discussion about loneliness, cruelty, friendship, and death.***

For more perspectives on Boo, check out:

  • Melwyk @ The Indextrious Reader: “I haven’t come across such an original story in ages – if you’re looking for something unusual that can spark conversation about deep themes, while also being an entertaining, eventful read, give this one a try.”
  • Michelle @ That’s What She Read: “Boo is one of those novels that is so good while in the midst of reading it but whose details sadly fade too quickly.”
  • Jaaron @ Worn Pages and Ink: “5 stars. Without a doubt. Read it.”
  • Lauren @ Bookish Things: “For a YA novel there is a lot going on here and a lot being said, not only about Boo but about culture, politics, philosophy, mental health, grief and so much more. Definitely DEFINITELY worth reading.”
  • Eva @ The Paperback Princess: “Boo was a quirky little book but it didn’t pack the emotional punch I was expecting from a coming-of-age story where the narrator is stuck at age 13.”

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*Dalrymple isn’t a name I come across often. It’s in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and also in Amelia Elkins Elkins, my newly released retelling of Austen’s classic work (See Here for More about this Legal Fiction/Contemporary Women novel).

**I never put peanut or nut-products in my daughter’s lunch because she dislikes them. I am particularly careful about it because she sits at the “peanut allergic” table.

*** Mr. A.M.B. requested I add this link for some unspecified reason.

****The folks over at Socratic Salon will be discussing Boo on July 16th (spoilers included). Don’t forget to join in!

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The Rabbit Problem: For Current & Future Lovers of Math

To fill the gap here at The Misfortune of Knowing as I recover from releasing Amelia Elkins Elkins, Mr. AMB has graciously provided a review of The Rabbit Problem, a fascinating picture book that is perhaps better suited for adults than for children. While everyone in our household enjoys the book, Mr. AMB is its biggest fan.

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From Mr. AMB:

The Rabbit ProblemI love math. These days, I don’t formally use it much beyond simple arithmetic, but, as Bertrand Russell wrote, “What is best in mathematics deserves not merely to be learnt as a task, but to be assimilated as a part of daily thought, and brought again and again before the mind with ever-renewed encouragement.”*

However, mathematics is often taught to children and adolescents as a feat of memorization and a collection of “tasks” with minimal emphasis on its practical application. In everyday life, for example, it doesn’t matter that someone has “better odds” with 10 lottery tickets than they do with 2, because the “odds” of both are miniscule.**

How do we teach that side of math to children?

And how do we show them the beauty of mathematics? Like mathematician Paul Erdős said, “Why are numbers beautiful? It’s like asking why is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony beautiful. If you don’t see why, someone can’t tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren’t beautiful, nothing is.”

Enter The Rabbit Problem by Emily Gravett, a gorgeous, intriguing picture book that begins with a simple question about two baby rabbits left in a field. She asks,

How many pairs will there be:

a) At the end of each month?

b) After one year?

The answers, of course, are 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, and 144 — the famed Fibonacci sequence. Each number is the sum of the two numbers before it.

Why is it important?

First, the Fibonacci sequence seems to have a special place in growth patterns in the natural world, from animal reproduction to the spiral shapes seen in snail-shells, flowers, and pinecones. Second, the Fibonacci sequence sits in the gray area between “linear” growth and “exponential” growth, a concept that people often have trouble truly understanding.

There’s no real narrative in Gravett’s book — other than watching the rabbit population grow each month. However, the book brings the Fibonacci sequence alive with vivid illustrations in a calendar format, with each month including various detailed diversions, like a rabbit newspaper (“The Fibber”) in July and “The Carrot Cookbook” in the middle of September.

I don’t think my 7-year-olds quite understand the math that underlies the book, but that’s the point of having it and returning to it every now and then: someday, they will get it.

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* For adults looking to improve their use of mathematical concepts in “daily thought,” I recommend Jordan Ellenberg’s “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking,” which begins with that same quote from Russell.

**Researchers have found that America’s poorest households purchase the majority of lottery tickets, making the lottery, according to a recent article on Wonkblog, “an almost 12-figure tax on the desperation of the least fortunate” (albeit a “voluntary” tax).

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Amelia Elkins Elkins: A New Retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Amelia Elkins Elkins Cover_June 2015

Available Now (Click Image)

In 1817, if childbirth didn’t kill a woman, then there were good odds that a “miasma” would. Now, thanks to modern medicine, a woman’s demise at the prime of her life is uncommon enough to deserve an investigation. That is what two lawyers at the Harville Firm promise to do when Amelia Elkins Elkins, a member of a prominent family in Philadelphia, contacts them in the wake of her mother’s untimely death.

In this retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Amelia and her sisters turn to the American court system to seek justice for their mother’s death. It’s too bad that their conceited, silly father is doing everything he can — inadvertently, of course — to hinder their success.

This is the description of my new book, Amelia Elkins Elkins, an homage to Persuasion, my favorite Austen novel. In this retelling, Anne Elliot is now Amelia Elkins, a 29-year-old heir to a dwindling family fortune in the United States.

My *hope* is that Amelia Elkins Elkins is a fun read for those who love Persuasion as much as I do, as well as for those who’ve never read Austen’s classic.

It’s available now through Amazon (Click Here to find out more).  If you decide to give Amelia a try, thank you. I hope you enjoy it! :)

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From Reality to Fiction: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

A Fall of MarigoldsIn Susan Meissner’s A Fall of Marigolds, we meet two women separated by a century but both profoundly affected by tragedy: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Clara Wood and Taryn Michaels’ alternating stories are also connected by a unique scarf, one with a cascade of marigolds and the name “Lily” stitched into its edge.

I bought this book because of my interest in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 people.* The vast majority of the victims were women, some of whom jumped to their deaths to escape the burning building.

Clara’s portion of the novel begins five months after the fire in Manhattan’s Asch Building, where she worked in a doctor’s office a few stories below the Triangle Waist Company (“Triangle”). On the 8th and 9th floors of the building, in both the novel and in real-life, rows of young women, often the primary breadwinners for their immigrant families, made shirtwaists, the fashionable blouses of Gibson Girl fame.

The Fire:

What we know from the historical record is that the fire broke out on March 25, 1911 on the 8th floor, possibly due to a discarded cigarette. The flames spread to the 9th floor, where workers were trapped in a building that the New York City Fire Commissioner had already cited as a fire trap (for many reasons). In violation of the Labor Code, the stairway doors opened inward instead of outward, and the company kept the door to the stairway locked to prevent theft.

The Trial:

That locked door became the focus of the criminal manslaughter trial of Triangle’s owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, which took place in December 1911.

Meissner’s novel mentions the trial briefly in Chapter 17:

“Miss Wood?”

I heard my name as though it had been spoken from behind a brick wall.

“A trial?” I murmured, but my voice sounded far away.

“Yes. The owners are being charged with manslaughter.”

I raised my hands to my ears instinctively.

“Are you all right?”

I sensed an edge of alarm in [Ethan’s] voice.

This trial is well known in legal circles because of the courtroom cross-examination prowess of Max D. Steuer, the defense attorney who eviscerated one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Kate Alterman, a Triangle employee.

According to Professor Stephan Landsman:

One direct examination [Alterman] described in heart-rending detail the fire and its deadly consequences… Max Steuer then proceeded to destroy Miss Alterman’s credibility. … Steuer had Miss Alterman repeat her story three times. After each retelling he emphasized the striking similarities in the narratives.

Among the phrases Ms. Alterman used repeatedly were: “a red curtain of fire,” “I pressed [my pocketbook] to my chest to extinguish the fire,” and “like a wild cat.”**

Mr. Steuer asked, “You never studied those words, did you?,” insinuating that Ms. Alterman’s testimony was the result of prosecutorial coaching.

Lawyers prepare their clients for trial, but we cannot make up their stories for them. That said, I’m not so sure that a witness’s repeated use of certain phrases suggests that the testimony is fiction. Also, while I don’t know what New York’s evidentiary rules were at that time, my feeling is that Steuer’s famous cross-examination may have been objectionable as both repetitious and harassing (in violation of today’s Federal Rules of Evidence 403 and 611(a)).

I also wonder whether the insinuation that the witness was coached (and therefore untrustworthy) would’ve been quite as convincing to the all-male jury had Ms. Alterman been Mr. Alterman, and a native English speaker instead of an immigrant with a heavy accent.***

Overall, it was a challenging case for the prosecution because they had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the locked door that caused the death, rather than panic, which Steuer asserted could have prevented the workers from opening the door or escaping another way.

Essentially, Steuer blamed the victims. He said:

You ask these girls, pursued by these flames at that time to use reason. It is impossible. The panic drove them. The panic kept them at the door; and the panic prevented it being opened.

In the end, Triangle’s owners were acquitted. However, their role in creating an unsafe workplace wasn’t forgotten. It changed public sentiment on workers’ rights.

Social Change:

As Professor Arthur F. McEvoy wrote:

[The Triangle Fire] made clear in a new and powerful way that industrial accidents had causes whose roots lay in employers’ near-total power over the workplace environment; causes which government had the capacity and the responsibility to address.

Shortly after the fire, the New York legislature set up a factory safety commission, in which Frances Perkins, the future Secretary of Labor under President Roosevelt, was involved. Perkins was responsible for 1930s New Deal reforms like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act that still impact the American workplace today.

However, unfair workplaces persist.

In the United States, for example, most employees can be fired for virtually any reason other than certain forms of discrimination, but those cases are typically very hard to prove (and they’re becoming even harder to prove thanks to the Supreme Court).

Sweatshops making products for American consumers still exist too, as John Oliver highlighted recently in a spot on Last Week Tonight.

A lot has changed in the past century — thanks to increased regulation, workplace deaths have fallen by 90% — but workplaces similar to Triangle aren’t only found these days in history texts or fiction.

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*Some sources say that 147 people died as a result of the fire.

**The transcript of the trial is available through Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, but it appears that the section that contained Ms. Alterman’s testimony is incomplete. Instead, portions of her testimony appear in the “Library notes.” For a compilation of primary and secondary sources related to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, see here.

***Women were not permitted to serve on juries in New York until 1937.

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“The Unnamed” and the Unrelenting Novel

Tweet on oyster list

In this post, Mr. AMB shares his thoughts on The Unnamed, an Oyster List novel I’ll probably never read:

I had my doubts about The Oyster’s Review’s “100 Best Books of the Decade So Far,” but there were some books I really enjoyed on there, like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, so I thought I’d give it the benefit of the doubt and try one of the top 10 books I hadn’t already read.

The UnnamedThe Oyster Review described The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris as follows:

Tim—father, husband, lawyer—is possessed by a disorder that forces him to walk for miles in what Walter White might describe as a “fugue state.” But Joshua Ferris’s divisive second novel turns out to be less about the condition itself and more about the havoc it wreaks on his family life. The Unnamed is strange and moving, perhaps the most underrated book of the past half decade.

I’m a “father, husband, lawyer,” and I’m always happy to give underdog books a chance, so I bought it.

325 pages later, I don’t see the point of the novel. I don’t see why it was written, and I don’t see why anyone would read it.

I don’t demand that works of fiction convey a concrete ideological, emotional, or spiritual message, and I certainly don’t want to read a polemic dressed up as a novel, but a novel should convey something to the reader. If a novel doesn’t give the reader some renewed sense of purpose or understanding of the human condition, the novel should at least be an entertaining distraction with, say, emotional highs and lows, flights of fancy, or other fodder the reader can use to amuse themselves.

The Unnamed has none of the above: the book is simply a reminder of the grim truth that in this world there are senseless, unavoidable, unredeeming tragedies. Did I need that reminder? Do you?

I don’t fault Ferris for writing a sad book – but sad books can and should have redeeming values in them. One of my favorite books is Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, which Kurt Vonnegut said was “one of the unhappiest books ever written,” a book “so astonishingly pessimistic, in fact, that it can be called a daring experiment,” making Heller “the first major American writer to deal with unrelieved misery at novel length.” But, as John Self noted in a 2012 review, Something Happened is a good read, and the 569 pages of misery serve a purpose:

It’s a bizarre delight. Sentence by sentence, Heller peppers the reader with irony, bravery and foolishness, sometimes simultaneously. The telling is technically immaculate: pages of dialogue with multiple counterparties flow faster and faster under the reader’s thumbs. It is structurally brilliant, with Slocum’s story flowing unnoticeably from past to present and from one worry to another – so the reader has no docking points to get off at even if they wanted to. It is a cautionary tale, which offers a compellingly nasty angle on a portion of society and the questions people rarely ask of themselves (“I often wonder what my true nature is. Do I have one?”).

I assume Ferris was attempting a similar cautionary tale with The Unnamed, which, at various points, shows some degree of positive transformation among its characters. But each time that seems to happen, the utility of the transformation is dashed against the rocks by Tim’s relentless, inexplicable, and untreatable condition.

If I wanted to spend more time witnessing senseless tragedies, I’d turn on the news.

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PS. The Misfortune of Knowing turned three-years-old TODAY!

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