Book review: Shanghai Girls: a novel by Lisa See

Synopsis: In 1937 Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are—Shanghai Girls.

The first chapter of Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls introduces us to the family of our protagonist and narrator, Pearl. She and her sister, May, are beautiful girls in 1937 Shanghai, and they’re socialites. Similar to our Hiltons or Kardashians, they live a life of leisure, party at night, and pose provocatively for artists; and although the first chapter is filled with details of what it is like to be a rich, beautiful young girl in Shanghai, their bourgeois existence is shallow and uninteresting. Luckily, Lisa See’s purpose for this portrayal is to set up a huge contrast to what happened to the girls’ lives later, and that is when the novel truly comes alive.

The inciting incident is when Pearl and May learn that their supposedly modern father has arranged marriages for them with the sons of a merchant in the United States. Avoiding clich├ęs, the marriages are not where the conflicts arise. The conflicts arise for the women because of all of the political turmoil that happens to the Chinese in the novel’s time frame of twenty tears. From the Japanese occupation of China to life in Los Angeles during the Communist scare, See’s novel covers some of the most tumultuous moments of Chinese and Chinese-American history, and she gives her readers an insight to those eras while equally engrossing them with a tale of two sisters whose lives ended up nothing like what they had expected when they were young and carefree.

This novel is thought-provoking on so many levels. On a human level, it tells a story about what it would feel like to have everything and then nothing. What a humbling experience that would be and how scary it is that in a moment everything could be taken from you. On a historical level, it reminds its readers how in times of fear those in power can easily terrorize minority groups. During one period of time, it was the Japanese that were put in internment camps, and the Chinese felt safe. Years later, people were coming after the Chinese, accusing them of communist ties. In the present, we can see this same time of fear, and we can see certain groups being profiled. This novel is a powerful reminder to never accept this type of treatment to any group because one day, your group can be targeted.

Overall, I would highly recommend this novel. It appeals to those who love history or political science, and it appeals to anyone who enjoys stories about family and overcoming adversity.

Amazon doesn't want you to read "Moan for Bigfoot" and other erotica news

MONSTER PORN: Amazon Cracks Down On America’s Latest Sex Fantasy


This is an abridged republication of an article that was originally published on Business Insider. To read the entire story, click here:

Moan for BigfootAuthor Virginia Wade's fiction debut follows a group of women who embark on a week-long camping trip to Mt. Hood National Forest. There, in the shadow of Oregon’s highest mountain, they are kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a mysterious woodland creature. "What the hell is that thing?" asks one protagonist.
The book, with the decidedly un-PG title "Cum For Bigfoot," is just the first of 16 fiction ebooks that Wade (a pen name) has written about the legendary beast sometimes known as Sasquatch, each detailing a series of graphic and often violent sexual encounters between the apelike creature and his female human lovers. Wade has made an exceptional living writing these stories.
It began in December of 2011. A stay-at-home mother from Parker, Colo., Wade had no ambition to be a published author and no real writing experience other than a few attempts at historical romance in the mid-90s. But then, she says, "I got this crazy idea for a story." So she sat down and wrote the entire book — more of a novella, at just 12,000 words — in a matter of weeks. She never even considered trying to sell it to a mainstream publisher. Instead, she went directly to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing, an online platform for self-publishing with a 70% royalty rate for authors. (The average royalty percentage for authors with mainstream publishers is between 8 and 15%.)
"Cum For Bigfoot" wasn't an overnight best-seller. "The first month, I think I made $5," Wade admits. But over the course of 2012, the book was downloaded well over 100,000 times. "And that was just Amazon," she says. "That's not counting iTunes or Barnes & Noble or any of the other places that sell self-published books." With no marketing muscle, no bookstore tours or print reviews or any of the publicity that most top authors use to sell books, she started bringing in staggering profits. During her best months, she says, she netted $30,000 or more. At worst, she'd bank around six grand — "nothing to complain about," she says.
Wade is hardly the only author who has made a mint writing about monsters and the women who love them (or at least submit to their sexual appetites). She's part of a burgeoning literary genre that's found a wide audience online: monster porn, otherwise known as “cryptozoological erotica,” or as some of the authors prefer to call it, "erotic horror." Their self-published books feature mythical creatures of every possible variety, from minotaurs to mermen, cthulhus to leprechauns, extraterrestrials to cyclops, who become involved in sexual trysts, often non-consensual, with human lovers. 
It's easy to snicker, but somebody is buying these things. Authors of monster porn may not be notching sales to rival E.L. James or Amanda Hocking, the trailblazers of self-published erotica, but they're making more than enough to survive. That’s especially remarkable given the low price tag on many of their books. "Amazon pays a royalty of 35 percent for books listed below $2.99," says K.J. Burkhardt. "For those listed at $2.99 and over, I can claim 70 percent in royalty payments. But I didn't feel comfortable nor right in asking someone to pay $2.99 for a five-to seven-thousand-word short story." So instead, the majority of her titles are listed at 99 cents, the minimum allowed by Amazon. "Even with the small prices that I was asking," she says, "it doesn't take much imagination to guess that I was selling a lot of books to earn $4,000 each month."
Then everything changed.
In October, the online news site The Kernel published an incendiary story called "An Epidemic of Filth," claiming that online bookstoreslike Amazon, Barnes & Noble, WHSmith, and others were selling self-published ebooks that featured "rape fantasies, incest porn and graphic descriptions of bestiality and child abuse." The story ignited a media firestorm in the U.K, with major news outlets like the Daily Mail, The Guardian, and the BBC reporting on the “sales of sick ebooks.” Some U.K.-based ebook retailers responded with public apologies, and WHSmith went so far as to shut down its website altogether, releasing a statement saying that it would reopen "once all self-published eBooks have been removed and we are totally sure that there are no offending titles available." The response in the U.S. was somewhat more muted, but most of the retailers mentioned in the piece, including Amazon
 and Barnes & Noble, began quietly pulling hundreds of titles from their online shelves — an event Kobo coo Michael Tamblyn referred to last month as "erotica-gate." 
The crackdown was meant to target the obvious offenders — ebooks like "Daddy’s Birthday Gang Bang" and others that fetishized incest and rape — but in their fervor to course-correct, the online bookstores started deleting, according to The Digital Reader blog, "not just the questionable erotica but [also].... any e-books that might even hint at violating cultural norms." That included crypto-porn. Wade’s sexy Sasquatch, not unlike the elusive hominid beast of legend, vanished without a trace.
But it wasn’t just Bigfoot who was herded into extinction. Wade says that 60% of her titles disappeared from Amazon and other online bookstores. "They started sending my books randomly back to draft mode" — where new ebooks are uploaded and edited before going on sale — "and I'd get an email from them saying, 'We found the following books in violation of our content guidelines,'” she recalls. “But they wouldn't tell me why. There were no specifics. It was a huge guessing game trying to figure out what the issue was."

She altered the titles of several volumes in her blockbuster series, from "Cum For Bigfoot" to "Moan For Bigfoot," and they were returned to Amazon's shelves, but now they're only seen by readers searching for them specifically. "They can still be found in the store," Wade says, "but it requires extra digging." Even more confusing, only some of her titles were flagged by Amazon, so while some books are listed as "Moan For Bigfoot," others remain "Cum For Bigfoot." 

Amazon declined to comment for this article. Its content guidelines state that the company doesn't accept “offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts."  To explain the policy, the site offers this unhelpful bit of advice: "What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect." Vague as that may be, Amazon is within its legal rights to stock whatever books it chooses. "Bookstores are private enterprises, and are thus not required to sell every book that people ask them to sell," says Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA who specializes in First Amendment cases. "There is no law of which I’m aware that would require bookstores to sell a book that they disapprove of, whether or not we might think their judgments of disapproval are sound." Amazon makes the same point elsewhere in the content guidelines, when it notes, "We reserve the right to make judgments about whether content is appropriate and to choose not to offer it."

Alice Xavier (also a pen name) had her first experience with censorship when her ebook "Serpent God’s Virgin," originally published last April, was pulled from Amazon in mid-October. "They flagged it because it had virgin in the title," she guesses, because after she renamed it "Serpent God's Maiden," it again appeared on sale. "Amazon didn't care that the plot involves sex with a giant snake deity," she says. "Ultimately, Amazon is amoral. They don't care either way that they're selling dirty, filthy erotica. Their main goal is to keep their customers happy. They have plenty of customers who get righteously outraged and complain, complain, complain. And Amazon has way more at stake than just books. So they want to keep everybody happy, understandably."

Some of the genre's authors would like to give up on Amazon entirely, furious at the way they've been treated. But it's difficult to walk away from the world's largest online retailer, even if you're confident that you've got something readers want. "Amazon is the big dog," says Emerald Ice. "They're well known, their books are easy to download. It's easy, and consumers want easy. Heck, I want easy. Smashwords is still kind of underground."
Xavier, who when not writing smut works as a user-interface designer, has taken a different tack. Rather than argue with Amazon over content guidelines, she's looked for ways to make her books less of a target. "At its core, Amazon is trying to clean up the presentation," she says. "I think that's a good thing, because it keeps all the erotica online and for sale."
Ebooks featuring incest and rape tend to share a singular defining feature: sexually explicit and poorly produced covers. The way for monster erotica to survive, she thinks, is to "dress it up like fantasy." No more trashy illustrations. "My covers are pretty classy," she says. "It's all a facade, of course. My plots are depraved. They're definitely not for kids or grandmothers. But I put it in a glossy package, so it doesn't offend anybody who's just searching through Amazon.”
Her book Alien Seed is a perfect example of this strategy. The cover looks like any mainstream romance novel, with the image of a reclining and scantily-clad model bathed in green light. But the image doesn’t even hint at the content.
Screen Shot 2013 12 20 at 11.22.02 AM
Boffing BigfootMany monster porn authors employ pen names.
Virginia Wade has a different plan. "Writing monster erotica has become a hostile work environment," she says. "I'm tired of the BS. It's just easier to write in a different genre and avoid the scrutiny." She hasn't written a monster sex ebook in months, and has instead focused her creative energies on books that don't involve hirsute creatures or kidnapped campers. Even if censorship weren’t an issue, she's not sure if she has the inspiration for another sequel.

Fans of raunchy Bigfoot sex need not fear. Over the last few months, several self-published ebooks involving a certain hirsute sex machine have appeared in Amazon's Kindle store, with titles like Boffing Bigfoot and the newly released Bigfoot Did Me From Behind And I Liked It

Comic Jeff Baldinger's list of 3 Books Everyone Should Read

I'm happy to announce that Los Angeles-based stand up comic, Jeffrey Baldinger, has returned to T.Lo Club to share his list of 3 books everyone should read. 

"3 Books Everyone Should Read" by Jeffrey Baldinger

2Br02B by Kurt Vonnegut
2Br02B is a great story about a dystopian future where death is a choice. And because of population control, if you have a child, someone has to choose to die. If you have twins, you have to get 2 people to agree to die. if you can't find someone willing to die, one of the babies will have to be killed. It's a really great read, and it's the type of story that I love thinking about.

The Overcoat by Nikolai GogolThe Overcoat, it's been a while since I read it, but it definitely left an impact on me, it's a book that deals with obsession, delusions of power, and lack thereof, and remarkable circumstances. And I guess I relate to that stuff.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor DostoevskyThe Brothers Karamazov--If you liked Crime and Punishment, you're probably burnt out on Dostoyevsky and never want to see one of his books again. But, if you have to choose a book written by this guy, I would recommend TBK. it's a bit longer, but for me, it hit closer to my sensibilities than C&P. I read both, liked TBK better.

Jeff has performed all around Los Angeles in clubs such as the Hollywood Improv, The Ice House, UCB, and the Laugh Factory; and he currently produces the comedy show, Flyover Comedy, at the Hollywood Improv. He has written a previous post for T.Lo Club about the top 3 books every aspiring comic should read. Check it out here!