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Friday, April 23, 2004

LA Times Festival of Books 

Argh. I just spent half an hour preparing a gorgeous and elaborate post on which panels to look for and who's covering what, but it got lost. Dratted blogger. But even though I can't attend what looks to be the largest author festival in the United States, Aldo Calcagno will be there, and he promises to report. Roger Simon has a panel on Sunday afternoon with Barbara Seranella, Gayle Lynds, Kelly Lange and Bionic Wonder Lee Goldberg (admire the titanium elbow!), and he promises to post pix on his blog over the weekend. And remember to say hello to all the folks signing books at the Mystery Bookstore (booth #411), Book 'Em Mysteries (#441) and Mysterious Galaxy (#601).

To all the attending authors and fans: have a wonderful time. And if anyone else wants to feed me info as it happens, hey, that works too.

Jonathan Ames has a new novel 

Maud's marvelous guest blogger Stephany Aulenback links to a recent interview with Jonathan Ames, whose next novel, WAKE UP, SIR! will be out in July (and which Aulenback excerpts here.) It's essentially a reworking and re-twisting of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves & Wooster novels, which Ames is quite the fan of:

I originally titled the book Home, Jeeves!, but had to change this for legal reasons, which is perfectly understandable, since it would have mislead Wodehouse fans, though that wasn't my intention when I came up with the title; it was, as described above, a personal thing, my inner-cry for salvation on school-nights when my life was in danger. Anyway, as it is, changed title and all, I've been very careful to illustrate in the book that my Jeeves is not the great Jeeves as created by the great Wodehouse.

For whatever reason, if you're writing about lit and culture in the 'sphere, you're supposed to be a Jonathan Ames fan, and for good reason. He's funny as hell and an excellent social satirist, both in fiction and non-fiction. And though I haven't seen him at an event, I've been told that he's a must-see attraction. Which was why, with some trepidation, I picked up a copy of THE EXTRA MAN a couple of months back. Luckily, I enjoyed it very much, but I could have sworn this book was trying to emulate Wodehouse's style and tone as well, although the main influences were Ames' enjoyment of "young gentleman" novels by the likes of Maugham and Waugh (and a bit of F. Scott Fitzgerald to boot.)

Anyway, I am v. excited about this new book, and hope to catch Ames at some event somewhere. Since he's a must-see attraction, after all....

More reasons to hate PETA 

TORONTO -- It was bad enough when investigators revealed that homemade meat products from the farm of a man charged with killing at least 15 women may have contained human remains.

Then relatives of the Vancouver, British Columbia-area missing women learned of billboards citing the case in an anti-meat campaign of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Images of a young woman and a "smiling" pig with the slogan "Neither of us is meat" went up late last month in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta.


Lovely. Although this was my "favorite" part:

Bruce Friedrich, PETA's director of vegan campaigns in Washington said he was surprised by the anger unleashed by the billboards.

"I really don't get what all the fuss is about," Friedrich said.

"The one unexpected aspect was hearing from the family members, who were and are not the target of the campaign," he said. "Our intention was to provoke meat-eaters, not upset the families."


Man, they really never learn, do they. Shock value is one thing, going ridiculously and offensively over the top is quite another.

A less-than-plentiful roundup 

Must be some kind of slow day, but in any case:

After years of talks and dragging things out, Sean Connery has agreed to write his memoirs. He'll be helped by Meg Henderson, a woman he met a few years ago when they were both involved in charity work in their native Scotland.

Dale Brown, who writes zillions of military thrillers and probably has a team of ghost writers helping him, was found guilty of tax fraud. Ooops.

Academics blame the VAT tax--that pesky 17.5% that's added to everything--on why journals aren't exactly taking off on the internet. Especially since print journals are exempt from taxation. Naturally, those in academia aren't happy about this, and are trying to fight this stipulation.

Lots of news and goings-on at the Bologna Fiction Fair, which is being ably covered by the folks at Publishing News.

The Telegraph's big interview (which will no doubt be linked to be everyone in the 'sphere) is with Bob Woodward, whose new book PLAN OF ATTACK has been reviewed to death this week. Naturally, that's why he's talking to the English paper (what, you think they want to know about his love life? Exactly. Neither do I.)

Just when Harold Bloom dropped out of the spotlight after those nasty sexual harrassment claims by Naomi Wolf, he's back, being interviewed by Newsday, although of course he doesn't talk about that and spends most of his time talking about what he knows best--literature and criticism.

Louis de Bernieres speaks to the Bookseller about the impetus for his new book, BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS, which is deemed one of the most eagerly anticipated books of the summer.

What's the French classic whose republication is being hailed as "momentous" by the Independent? Why, the Asterix comics, of course. Boyd Tonkin takes a look at the reissues and explains why he's so damned excited.

And finally, a shortlist of 30 entries has been prepared to see who will win the 10 000 pound prize of...Poet Chant Laureate? Oh good god....

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Write Faster 

We?ve all heard the words before, whether we are writers, booksellers, fans, or whatnot. Hell, most of us have probably said them at some point. It's so easy, after all. You read a book by someone, love it, devour the writer's backlist. Then, to express your gratitude and appreciation, you email the writer, or see him or her at a booksigning. And chances are, you say something like this:

"Oh, I just love your books, but I wish you could write faster because I'm dying for more!"

To which I say: why?

Every time I hear some variant of "write faster," I cringe inside. I want to yell at people that writing is a long, lengthy process, that if people could write faster, they'd really be hiring ghostwriters a la James Patterson or create factories like 17th Street Productions does in "packaging books" for the likes of Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley books. And do we really need more of that? Every time I hear the phrase, I sigh inwardly, because are people that attached to a select few writers that they can't branch out and try a great many other ones?

In other words, I suppose I ought to have some kind of compassion for people who love a writer so much that they want more, more, more, but I just don't. Not anymore. But I am interested in what's fostered this kind of attitude, especially in mystery fiction.

I've blogged many times before about my distaste for the "book-a-year" culture that is prevalent in publishing. An author is signed to a multiyear deal for good reason==their career is an investment for the publisher, and producing only one book isn't a great return on said investment. And I'd say the vast majority of writers really want to write more than one book?even if they aren't admitting this publicly. But does the next book really have to follow the year after the first one, and so on and so forth? When did this expectation that publishers have about annual installments begin?

I'd reckon there's a sort of chicken-egg thing at work. At some predetermined point, publishers realized that mystery fans like series, while at the same time, some writers were able to produce books at a regular clip because if they didn't, they would starve. So it was in their best interests to write such that they had a book out at least once a year--and in some cases, more often (think of the early pulp days of folks like Lawrence Block or Donald Westlake. They wrote. A lot. They had to, because writing was their living, their profession.) So supply met demand, and all was well.

Except of course, that doesn't work with every writer, it cannot. One of the saddest things one can see in the publishing business is someone who's cranking out books at a regular clip when by rights, they really should have more time between books. Not everyone's natural rhythm is a book every year; the story goes that Dennis Lehane insisted that his last contract (the one that included MYSTIC RIVER) include the stipuation that he produce a book every two years. No wonder, considering that his last Kenzie/Gennaro book (and probably the last one) PRAYERS FOR RAIN, was written in record time after he chained himself to his hotel room. And it's a pretty good book, but definitely rushed, whereas MYSTIC RIVER was written with more care, more attention to detail. The extra time makes a difference, and I expect that not having to produce one a year will affect his next books. But then, Lehane's not really part of the crime fiction biz per se anymore, not the one I'm talking about, in any case.

But people like Stephen Booth or Val McDermid are, and I wonder--their books get longer and longer, more elaborate and detailed, and yet they are still able to meet their deadlines? The seams, unfortunately, are starting to show; the deadlines are met, but just barely, or they miss them altogether; the books seem to get more bloated, with passages that could stand to be excised or certainly pruned. Where's the care being taken by publishers in ensuring the best possible book? Sure, they are still fine novelists, but would they be better ones if they didn't have to be a slave to annual production?

And let's not even get into all of the peripheral activities that writers have to engage in that's related, but very separate, from writing the book: the publicity, the promotion, schmoozing with booksellers and sales reps and distributors and getting one's name out so that fans actually pick up and buy said books. Conventions and writing classes, speaking engagements and charity functions. When there are writers who muse that with all their commitments, it's amazing they actually even have time to write the book, this strikes me not as something to be proud of, but a serious problem. With fame comes time constraints, and maybe that?s a small price, but shouldn't it be small? Should a writer really spend more time doing publicity than actually writing the book? Should publishers really be making such demands on their authors?

And, to get back to the original point of the post, should fans? When did we (because I certainly include myself in this camp, just an overly knowledgeable one) get so impatient? When did we get so single-minded about who we like and dislike that we can't fill the gaps in our reading with other great and varying authors? Now, as I've said a few times here, I read fast and I read a lot. Lately, I?ve been trying to read more and more non-crime, branching out more into literary fiction and some non-fiction. So while there are some writers I wish, secretly, would write just a little bit faster, I can wait--because there are a whole host of favorites I've yet to try, yet to read, still looking forward to. There are so many books, and so many writers to read, why would I just sit around and mope that some favorite of mine isn't producing fast enough? Talk about counter-productive.

That isn't to say that writers should take their sweet time. Deadlines are good, and work for a reason. But production every year (or even faster) like clockwork seems to come with a lot more disadvantages than advantages, if as a writer, you're not naturally able to keep up.

So, write faster? No. I say write better. Improve, be true to yourself and take risks and try new things. And keep all those conflicting and crowding voices to the back of your mind--no matter how insistent or loud those voices happen to be.

Bouchercon 2004 

The website has finally been updated to look like it's supposed to. And what do you know, it's really nicely done with tons of information. And it's never too early to start planning or getting excited. But are they really expecting 3000 people for this year's con? Oy gevalt, so many people to talk to....

Earth Day Roundup 

The New Republic recently launched a new column called "Pulps" which focuses on what America is really reading--which means, if you read between the not-so-thinly veiled lines, means tripe and trash. This edition features Sascha Zimmerman ripping on John Grisham's THE LAST JUROR, and frankly, I don't know what upsets me more--the fact that TNR is devoting space to the megasuccessful Grisham or the fact that what America reads is, well, mostly trash.

Maureen Corrigan's semi-regular mystery column on NPR's Fresh Air focuses on Andrew Taylor's AN UNPARDONABLE CRIME and Ian Rankin's A QUESTION OF BLOOD. But it also plugs a couple of upcoming standalones by Robert B. Parker and the already much-buzzed about ABSENT FRIENDS by S.J. Rozan, who reported on Corrigan's piece first.

Yesterday I linked to the Sunday Telegraph's interview with Boris Akunin. Today I spotlight Taylor's review of Leviathan at the Independent. Taylor finds the book to be, on the surface, rather absurd-but in Akunin's assured hands, everything works.

Ed Siegel writing for the Boston Globe is quite impressed with Henning Mankell's RETURN OF THE DANCING MASTER, which seems to launch a new series that doesn't feature Inspector Kurt Wallander.

Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua recently spoke at Stanford University about Jewish identity, Israeli literature and the roots of Anti-Semitism. The Stanford Reader was there and reports back.

Famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins argues the point for science writing: sure, novelists may have the command of language and gift of gab, but who has all the fun stories? Actually, Dawkins has a really good point, considering that some of the things I come across in forensic science or medical journals are truly stranger, and funnier, than fiction....

Ian Ferguson is the winner of the Leacock Award for best humorous writing by a Canadian author. The Globe and Mail reports on the award and its benefiting author.

Andrew O'Hagan is the first Scot in 15 years to win the oldest Scottish literary prize, the James Tait Award, which will be given to the author tonight in a ceremony.

Melissa Panarello, whose roman a clef ONE HUNDRED STROKES OF THE HAIRBRUSH BEFORE BED has been a smash success in her native Italy, speaks to the Bookseller about the salacious past that informs the book, which is due for a UK release later this summer.

E. Annie Proulx will headline next year's edition of the Northern Arizona Book Festival, which is currently going on right now.

USA TODAY groups together a whole bunch of chick-lit novels in their review roundup. Getting the short end of the stick is Meg Cabot's BOY MEETS GIRL, which I enjoyed for what it was--harmless popcorn. I do think a heroine with an actual backbone would have worked better, but it was all about the funny emails, IMs and text messages anyway.

More new reviews over at the Agony Column by Rick Kleffel and his Girl Friday, Terry D'Auray: nice notices for Robert Heilbrun and Blake Crouch, and a flat-out rave for Joe Lansdale's SUNSET AND SAWDUST.

And finally, this headline is such a misnomer, as Dylan Thomas's pub was bought by....well, not the singer.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

A sure sign of how addictive blogging truly is 

Lee Goldberg apologizes for the fact that his blog entries may not have the same sharpness and quality that they once did:

A reminder -- Because of my two broken arms, I'm still dictating these entries on my blog, so please forgive the typos and awkward sentences.

Am I the only one who's slack-jawed about the fact that someone can blog when they have two broken arms? That's bloody amazing. Oh, and Lee's on deadline trying to complete the manuscript for his next book and a couple of other TV projects. And he's appearing at the LA Times Festival of Books this weekend. A new elbow won't slow this man down...


Denise Mina's next novel delayed too 

I'd actually known about this for a few months, but Fiona Walker, who's doing a very nice job of blogging over at the Crime Fiction Dossier, brings it up:

Denise Mina's new book, The Field of Blood has long been scheduled (by amazon, anyway, who I believe far too readily) as coming out this month. I've been hearing rumors, though, that this is completely untrue and that we won't actually be seeing it until March 2005. This doesn't surprise me, because, for an impending publication, everything has been suspiciously quiet. Plus, I read somewhere that she's finding it, "bloody hard work".

Anyway, it's not a rumor--the book is definitely not coming out till March. I found out earlier this year when I requested a review copy of the book from the folks at Bantam/Transworld, and was told by Mina's editor, Selina Walker, what was going on and the reasons for the delay:

... the simple reason for the delay in Denise's book is that she's just had a baby! Plus, because this is a new series - and one which we hope she'll be writing for some time to come - we wanted to give her the time to get it completely right, and us time to make sure we have the right new series look, and a good publication date.

I'm a huge fan of Mina, who I think will be reaching a much wider audience later this summer when her standalone DECEPTION (UK title is SANCTUM) is released. She'll be touring for the book as well, and Little, Brown has high hopes that the book will do well. Her Garnethill trilogy is among the finest set of crime novels I've read, and although SANCTUM/DECEPTION was not quite up to par, it's still a very thought-provoking novel. I think FIELD OF BLOOD will be worth the wait, in any case.

All About the Narrows 

Part of me feels like I'm breaking some sort of embargo but considering that Publishers Weekly and George Easter at Deadly Pleasures have already gone public with their views (well, Easter's review won't show up in the magazine for a while, but his sentiments are public knowledge now) I figure I might as well chime in.

My copy was waiting for me when I arrived home, bleary-eyed, yesterday afternoon. I ripped open the package to find the book and the most elaborate publicity kit--by far--I have ever come across. As I've said before here, Little, Brown is pulling out all the stops in trying to get this baby to #1 on the New York Times list. So reviewers and booksellers get the following goodies: A spiffy DVD called Blue Neon Night about Michael Connelly's Los Angeles; scads of information including a very lengthy bio, Connelly's tour schedule, and a detailed description of just what kind of promotional efforts are being made on behalf of the book, from a TODAY Show appearance to basically flooding every bookstore in the country (and beyond) with copies--500,000 first printing, after all. To coincide with the release of THE NARROWS is the paperback reissue of Connelly's very first standalone, THE POET--complete with an afterword by the author and an intro by Stephen King, which was kind of over-the-top in its praise for the book but then again, what would you expect, damning with faint praise? Not exactly.

The most curious press kit inclusion was the October 2003 article on Connelly in GQ magazine, which was a bit of a hatchet job as the interviewer tried oh so hard to make Connelly diss fellow authors, and then got mad because the author is, well, rather nice and affable (and therefore "boring.") I mean, if you're trying hard, as a publisher, to sell your author to the behind-the-scenes masses, this is the article you include? Weird. Though it is GQ, and ergo, high-profile.

And then there's the book.

I read fast, and since Ottawa decided not to come out and play last night, I turned the TV off and started reading. A couple of hours later, I was done--basically in one sitting. In brief? It's very good. But there's a reason I'm blogging about it and not trying to flog a review somewhere, because it's going to be very, very hard to review this book without giving away the plot. Or as someone who also got an advance copy put it, this book is Spoiler City. What Connelly has done here is to affect the way readers may view earlier books, while advancing Harry Bosch's character and his life decisions--he makes a fairly major one by the end of the book that puts him in a different direction that he'd been on in the last couple of books. I also spent an inordinate amount of time chuckling at the various "easter eggs" that Connelly had inserted into the book--never mind that a choice section of THE NARROWS takes place at a real bookstore in Orange County, which was rather amusing. And at times, the book feels rather surreal, as real-life events mingle with fictional ones, and characters comment about their portrayal in a movie made about them (and yes, you can probably guess which movie I'm talking about.)

Put it this way: THE NARROWS is a sequel to THE POET for a reason. And you might want to reread (or read) Connelly's second standalone, BLOOD WORK, as well. And then, just go along with every plot development in THE NARROWS, no matter how much it might upset you for what it messes with.

If I had one problem with the book, it's with the tone. THE NARROWS is perhaps the fastest-paced Bosch novel, almost a pure suspense tale. Kind of like its prequel, except that when Bosch is the star, I'm used to a more procedural feel, or as with the case in the previous book, LOST LIGHT, a P.I. tale. Though I bought the suspense just fine, I'm kind of hoping that for Bosch's next appearance, he's back to solving cases in a slower, more methodical fashion, like he used to do in books past. But I suspect that if it proves to be the case, that won't happen for the next book--I hope for Connelly's sake that he's writing something completely different just so Bosch can deal with the ramifications of what happened in THE NARROWS.

Ultimately, I really admire the fact that Connelly can tinker with canon, if you will. Kill off a major character? Not a problem. Bring together most of his starring characters from previous books in one place? Not a problem, especially since he did that before in 2001's A DARKNESS MORE THAN NIGHT. Fans harp on series books being able to "stand alone" and no doubt--if they haven't read at least those two books I mentioned--will get rather pissed off about the direction THE NARROWS takes, but why be limited to conventional wisdom? It takes a lot of risk to do what Connelly does here, and I like that. A lot, actually.

Now, wasn't that a vague review? Luckily, I think most folks reading here will probably get the book on publication date (or thereabouts) and see what happens for themselves.

All about the links 

But due to massive catch-up syndrome, it's mystery-only this morning. So let's get right to it:

First, as promised earlier by Kevin, the Sunday Telegraph interview with Boris Akunin, whose Erast Fandorin novels are starting to find the same kind of success that they have in his native Russia. A second book, LEVIATHAN (actually the third book in the series) has just been published in the UK and England. Interestingly, Akunin (real name Gregori Chkartashvili) refuses to meet his public, because they keep thinking his witty crime fiction capers will answer life's Big Questions:

"I never meet readers in Russia because there would always be some guy who would stand up and say, 'What is the meaning of life? Does God exist?' And so on and so forth. Russians are used to looking at the writer as a teacher of life. It is just this longstanding tradition that irritates me greatly, because I don't want to be a teacher of life. I want to be an entertainer. It's enough for me."

Bloody hell, I think that philosophy could apply to a great many authors--not just in crime fiction...

Next, columnists galore. Margaret Cannon's crime roundup in Saturday's Globe & Mail featured rave reviews of books by Mel Bradshaw, Phil Margolin, Rhys Bowen, and Roger Jon Ellory, with qualified positives for Lev Grossman's THE CODEX and Lyn Hamilton. Also in the G&M was a review of David Liss's A SPECTACLE OF CORRPUTION. Verdict? Great historical detail, but the mystery element is less assured. Perhaps it could be due to the fact that Liss didn't exactly intend to be a crime novelist...

Oline Cogdill devotes her entire space to Ace Atkins' DIRTY SOUTH, which is probably surprising its publisher in terms of how much review coverage it got. She loves the music and characterization, but is less enthusiastic about the plot.

Les Roberts looks at the newest releases from Karin Fossum (big rave) Annette Meyers (rave) and Iris Johansen (VERY qualified rave) for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Patrick Anderson's in a rather cranky mood this week, as David Lindsey's Ludlum-esque novel THE FACE OF THE ASSASSIN "makes [his] poor head hurt." Take a couple of aspirin, read a completely different book, and call us in the morning....

John Orr at the San Jose Mercury-News gives tons of good ink to Harlan Coben's JUST ONE LOOK (hmm, you mean I might have to move it up the pile? Okay...) Andrew Vachss' DOWN HERE, and Donald Westlake's new Dortmunder novel, THE ROAD TO RUIN.

Dick Adler's Chicago Tribune roundup also covers the new Westlake (plus the short story collection THIEVES' DOZEN) as well as new books by Cathy Pickens, Gayle Lynds, Carlos Ruiz Zafon (whose book, in proof form, was the reading material of the guy sitting in front of me on the plane ride to Houston), Naomi Hirahara, and Judy Clemens.

The Bradenton Herald concentrates on lesser-known writers like Lea Wait, Ken Bruen (to the columnist, anyway), and, um, Jilliane Hoffman, for some reason unknown to me.

A whole lotta interviews as well: Sara Paretsky talks V.I. and politics to In These Times, Cathy Anderson (aka Cathy Pickens) converses with the Charlotte Observer about her debut novel SOUTHERN FRIED, Julia Spencer-Fleming Q&As with the Maine Press-Herald about her latest Clare Fergusson novel, OUT OF THE DEEP I CRY, and Sarah Dunant is all over the place. Well, she was interviewed in the Observer and in the New York Times about the surprisingly huge success of her historical novel, THE BIRTH OF VENUS, after years in crime writing obscurity. And then there's Rita Mae Brown, whose 13th cat mystery "co-authored" by her feline, Sneaky Pie, merits an interview with the Arizona Republic. It's accompanied by a rather Blofed-ish photo of Brown, I must say....

In other news and reviews:

Jerry Buck's A BLOOD RED ROSE gets a nice review from the Canadian Press; THE LAST GOODBYE is favorably reviewed in the Wichita Eagle; and HARD REVOLUTION gets the digested read treatment.

Two more short stories for Val McDermid's online anthology: One by Nicholas Blincoe, and the other from blog favorite Chrissie Glazebrook (for her anarchic teen classic THE MADOLESCENTS, which will never be released in the US, alas, because it's written in Geordie dialect. Their loss.)

The Globe and Mail talks to Jen Lars Jensen, whose new book chronicles his slow descent into madness after the publication of his first novel.

And finally, if you're in the Minnesota area, it's a good bet to check out their Celebration of Books Festival at the Landmark Center, the centerpiece of which is the Minnesota Book Awards ceremony. Look for authors like P.J. Tracy, Pete Hautman, and Saul Baxter in attendance.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Happy Anniversary to The Rap Sheet 

Oh, who am I kidding. I don't do the whole nap thing and I had a pile of emails to catch up on. And, as Ali pointed out in the comments to the previous post, January Magazine posted the fifth anniversary edition of its monthly crime fiction newsletter, the Rap Sheet (and for all those souls checking out this blog for the first time because you saw the link there, welcome.) Editor J.Kingston Pierce opens with a stirring column about how much the Rap Sheet means to the crime fiction community in terms of its thoughtful, insightful reviews:

The most interesting thing I've learned in writing and editing this newsletter is that readers -- and authors, too -- prefer thoughtful criticism over glib, blurb-worthy remarks. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that people are too busy with their children and their underpaying jobs and their teetering relationships to sit down before a review of more than 200 words. But such "wisdom" isn't borne out in the notes I receive. More often than not, subscribers applaud January's willingness to be thorough and thoughtful in its criticism, and while I do receive the occasional disapproving missive (usually from someone who doesn't understand that reviews are supposed to be opinionated as well as informative), not a single person has complained to me that we talk too much about the books under review. If anything, readers seem to want more, not less -- perhaps because so many other publications, especially those on the Web, underestimate the attention spans of book enthusiasts. (And do editors really think we're too stupid to judge a work without its also being star-rated?)

Pierce's mission was why I wanted to join up with January over a year ago, and the experience has been utterly rewarding, both in learning how to evaluate books in a critical fashion and in getting the kind of editorial help that Pierce provides each and every time. It was also a pleasant surprise to learn that I'm now a Contributing Editor to the magazine, and hope to keep on being an asset for a long while to come.

So the BSP part is that I have four reviews in this edition of the Rap Sheet, all of which are, to varying degrees, quite positive, and all of which are quite different from one another: Olen Steinhauer's THE CONFESSION (full disclosure: the review was written and in the can about a month and a half ago, a ways before Steinhauer started hanging around the backblogs here); Bill Fitzhugh's RADIO ACTIVITY; Anna Blundy's Jerusalem-based THE BAD NEWS BIBLE, a book I enjoyed for many reasons but most of all because its main character had the kind of adventures I pictured had Eurotrash been a foreign correspondent; and in a most pleasant surprise, Mark Sinnett's THE BORDER GUARDS, a Canadian-only novel which educated me about US-Canada border politics and featured quite the espionage plot.

Otherwise, there's the usual chock of reviews, news and sundry from valued contributors like Kevin Burton Smith, Ali Karim (whose review of THE INTELLIGENCER is absolutely spot-on), Cindy Chow, and Jennifer Jordan, who offers a surprisingly downbeat review of John Baker's WHITE SKIN MAN, among other critiques.

Though the next Rap Sheet won't be out till June, no doubt it will be overstuffed with goodness--just like it usually is.

At last. she returns 

Thanks to the wonders of delayed flights, scrambling for a hotel room at an ungodly hour in a city not my own, I have arrived--eighteen hours later than I was supposed to. To say I am fried is an understatement. I wasn't going to blog much today anyway, but if I chime in with a post of actual substance before tomorrow morning, I'll be amazed--and that's not factoring in the fact that Game 7 of the Ottawa-Toronto playoff is tonight, which means I'll be glued to the TV, hoping that the dratted Leafs will finally be put out of their misery.

But first I want to thank Kevin for the exemplary job he did in running the show here while I was gone. I managed to check in a time or two while I was away, and was so glad to see that he wasn't pulling any punches--just like I'd expected. No doubt I'll have more to say later, because his posts offered plenty of food for thought. And I do hope he'll give David Peace's earlier work another chance, but perhaps it goes to show that the best writers aren't the ones who are universally beloved, but inspire deeply polarized reactions.

And now, I gotta take a nap. See you tomorrow morning with a fresh round of links and sundry.

Monday, April 19, 2004

The Last Post 

Well, it's been a beautiful day here in Gloucestershire, and as the sun sets, it's time for me to sign off with my last post. I've thoroughly enjoyed guesting for Sarah over the last four days. I hope you haven't noticed the dearth of links and that you haven't minded my opinionated rants too much. At the very least, I hope I've made you appreciate even more what an amazing service Weinman Inc. provides for us all. I, for one, will be looking forward to her first return post.
See you all in the haloscan! K.

Speedo King 

The Times has the alarming news that the Janet Jackson nipple shot has finally been dislodged as the most sought-after picture on the internet. The culprit? A picture that appeared in many UK papers yesterday of Prince William wearing a pair of speedos. It's thought the picture is unlikely to increase sales of the trunks though, nor of the fetching hat (!) he wore for his first international water-polo match.

Rebecca Pearson at The Independent thinks Boris Akunin's Leviathan an enjoyable read, though she questions whether the translation has stayed true to the author's style. Still waiting for the excellent profile of Akunin to come online at The Telegraph, so that's one for Sarah when she gets back.

Unlike Robert McCrum (see Weekend Update), Andrew Biswell at The Scotsman thinks Yvonne Cloetta's memoir of Graham Greene, IN SEARCH OF A BEGINNING: MY LIFE WITH GRAHAM GREENE, is a useful addition to what we know about the author -

This illuminating memoir, written with intelligence and dignity, is a necessary corrective to the recent crop of bad or mad commentaries. Cloetta successfully makes the case for Greene as a man of great passion and generosity. Yet we are still waiting for a compact, scholarly biography of his entire life in a single volume.

More later, but the end is in sight, and your true host will soon return.

Monday Morning 

The BBC has launched its End of Story competition. I'm not going to talk about it in great detail because Ray has done a thorough job and is even threatening to enter - brave soul that he is. The idea is for the public to finish short stories that have been started by well-known writers, including Ed McBain and Ian Rankin. There was a lot of talk on the launch program about the need for originality and finding your voice, but it's hard to see how this is possible when you're finishing someone else's story in under 1200 words. The ultimate competition for fanfic writers, perhaps? Even so, I'll be interested to see how Ray gets along.
Meanwhile, The Guardian has handed over its G2 supplement this week to guest editors, Glasgow band of the moment, Franz Ferdinand. Of course, they've only gone to The Guardian because I'd already got this gig from Sarah! Anyway, among the offerings is a short story, The Good Cop, from Magnus Mills. They also have yet another piece about how blogs have revolutionized the media, about which, Franz Ferdinand themselves say -

For many artists, there is the desire to chart the everyday, giving a voyeuristic thrill to the reader and the confessional buzz to the artist. We had become aware of the growing presence of this within the blogging community.

Ahem. Moving on...

Finally for now, a couple of interesting pieces in the Sydney Morning Herald. First, symmetry may help you attract a mate, but when it comes to intelligence and mental stability, a little asymmetry goes a long way. The research, which appeared in the journal, Cerebral Cortex, suggests the key to intelligence lies in the way your brain is folded. I'd tell you more but my April edition of Cerebral Cortex hasn't arrived yet (I only subscribe for the cartoons). Elsewhere, research has shown that net relationships can be as damaging as real-life affairs. I'm a little concerned about the method of research though.

Psychologist Monica Whitty, from Queen's University, Belfast, asked 245 students to complete stories in which one partner from a couple develops a relationship over the net.

You know, the BBC are running a competition along just those lines!

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Storytelling 

As promised yesterday, some random thoughts on storytelling.

My father has led an interesting life and done a lot of interesting things, but he has no real talent for telling a story. For example, he once told me a story about a car he was driving in the late 50s, that broke down outside of Florence in Italy and the mechanic couldn't fix it. So my dad fixed it himself with a piece of chewing gum and the car got him and an army buddy all the way back across the Alps, to Hamburg and then back to London. That was his story. Only after questioning him about the unusual route did I find out that they went via Hamburg in order to deliver another friend's Alsatian dog. Then, even better, he revealed that the very large dog developed altitude sickness in the Alps and became delirious, and was maybe even hallucinating! So, to recap, my dad got a boat over from Libya, drove through Sicily, Italy, across the Alps, Switzerland and Germany, an hallucinating Alsatian on the back seat, and the only thing he thought worth mentioning about the journey is that he fixed the car with chewing gum.

Some people have it, some people don't, and if you don't have that knack for spotting a story, you'll never be a writer. It's the same thing Graham Greene was talking about in that oft-quoted phrase, "In the heart of every writer is a splinter of ice". You may witness a terrible accident, and like everyone else, you'll be horrified, but a part of you will be taking in the details and seeing the story's potential. Jim also made a similar point in his comments to my "genre" post yesterday, about how he saw things happening around him, saw the potential, and crafted them into a story.

So far so good, but just as important as spotting a story is the art of conveying it to the reader. Again, some people have a natural ability to do this, but it can be learned and, more crucially, it can be unlearned. Very successful writers, or those lauded for being experimental, can become so complacent that they assume readers will plough through the early chapters in the certain knowledge that it will deliver in the end.

Equally, novice writers will forget that the reader doesn't know what's coming. A couple of times a year I return to Lancaster University to talk to would-be writers. I'll tell them about the importance of grabbing the reader from the outset and never letting them go. One student nodded and then told me that his book started slowly but it was okay because it really grabbed the reader by the throat in Chapter Three!

Obviously, I'm not saying you have to open with an explosion. But when the casual browser in B&N picks up your book, the first line should make them read the first paragraph, the first paragraph should get them to the end of the page and by the end of the first page they should want to buy the book. You can only achieve that by wooing your reader, by engaging with him or her just as you would if you were telling a story by the fireside or in a bar. The reader is your audience and in one way or another, you're there to entertain.

And that in a way, leads on to something Jen said in her comments about GB84. She says -

But one should suffer while reading art.

I'm not sure I entirely agree with that. On the one hand, yes, art will often take you to places you don't necessarily want to go. But the best art compels you to suffer. The very best art focuses even more strongly on the telling of the story, it makes it easy for the reader, it lures you in, then delivers its punches through a velvet glove. Even the most harrowing novels should seduce their readers, because the difficulty should be in the content of the story, not in the reading of it.

Finally, I'm aware that I'm preaching to the converted here. I've read short fiction by many of the people who visit Sarah's Id, and it's clear that none of you need tuition in the art, certainly not from me. But I'm continually disappointed to find books that have been praised by the critics and yet fail at this most basic level. Those of us who get published are incredibly lucky, part of a very small minority of people who get to create for an audience - the least we can do in return for such good fortune, is have the good grace to make our readers want to turn the page.

Weekend update, Part 2 

Okay, first up, it isn't a book story but The Washington Post has an alarming story about the increasing prescription of antidepressants to children, particularly to those under six years old! I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian reassesses Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and comes to the conclusion that it is as relevant today as ever. It's a book that's well worth dipping into, but if you don't have time for that, do look at this review which covers some interesting points. However, I'm disappointed that Lezard can't help finishing on a slightly petty and snide note -

This edition was actually published in America last year. You will notice the American spellings have been retained. Fair enough. One hopes the Americans appreciate it.

This is quite a common stance in the UK, particularly amongst left-leaning intellectuals, the implication that Americans are a little bit dim and unaware of what's really going on in their country or in the wider world. My response to that is that intellectual Americans could point to the masses of most other Western Democracies and make exactly the same accusation, only they don't, because one thing Americans do have is a generosity of spirit that we seem to have lost somewhere along the way.

Meanwhile, over at The Observer, Robert McCrum feels that In Search of a Beginning, the biography of Graham Greene by his long-term mistress, Yvonne Cloetta, fails to shed much light on the elusive author. As an interesting aside, a bookseller was telling me recently how the market for Graham Greene books (as for Hemingway) has almost entirely dried up. I can't understand why Greene isn't more popular with the crime and thriller community - Brighton Rock, The Quiet American, and even comical tales like Our Man in Havana still have the power to grip. Perhaps after a lull, there will be a resurgence of interest.

The Sunday Times has mixed reviews for both Firewall by Henning Mankell and Doctored Evidence by Donna Leon.
More interesting though, elsewhere in the same paper, is the 2004 Rich List, which offers up the richest thousand people in Britain. Number One this year is Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, with an estimated 7.5bn (all figures in UK Pounds). Four authors make the cut. Firstly, someone called Joanne Rowling sits at No. 91 with 435 million. It has to be said that JK has consistently nonsensed the estimates of her wealth and I have a tendency to believe her. Even so, she's not short of spare change, and good luck to her. Next comes Barbara Taylor Bradford at No. 419 with 95 million. Then we have Jackie Collins at No. 612 with 66 million, and finally, at No. 621 with 65 million, we have one of Britain's favorite former prisoners, Lord Archer. I thought I might make it on to the list myself this year but they keep raising the baseline. Last year, you needed 30 million to get in, so I work hard to break through that barrier and what do I find? This year you need 40 million to reach the list. Oh well, just a few more short stories should do it (someone call the nurse, Wignall's becoming delusional again).

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