Saturday, December 13, 2003

Crime fiction roundup 

In what's likely to be her last column of the year, Marilyn Stasio looks at some of the latest mystery releases. She finds Jonathan Kellerman's new standalone THE CONSPIRACY CLUB to be unputdownable--even if "you hate yourself in the morning." She's pleased with Alice Blanchard's new suspense novel, finds Marshall Browne's historical thriller EYE OF THE ABYSS to be "a triumph," thinks Ed Dee is "hanging right up there with the big boys" with his new mystery THE CON MAN'S DAUGHTER, and very much enjoys Bill Kent's STREET HUNGRY. All in all, a less-than-cranky outing for Our Stasio.

Meanwhile, (Hello I'm) Maxim Jakubowski puts on his reviewing cap for the Guardian this week. He doesn't tend to pan books that make it to the column, so I'll mention that he reviews the latest releases by Alex Kava, Robert Barnard, Ken Bruen, Christopher Fowler, and adds his own rave to the many that have been showered upon Laura Lippman's EVERY SECRET THING.

Speaking of Lippman, I managed to miss this during my travels but she reviewed PD James's THE MURDER ROOM in last week's Washington Post Book World.

Mark Lawson presents a longer review--but also a rave--of Minette Walter's latest book DISORDERED MINDS. I suppose one of these days I shall have to actually try reading one of her books, but which one to start with?

Joan Smith reviews John Le Carre's already-controversial spy novel ABSOLUTE FRIENDS. Although the anti-Bush rhetoric is quite strong, the bottom line is that the novel is about--what else?--friendship.

And finally, the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association has announced the nominees for the 2004 Dilys Award, given to the book independent bookshops most enjoyed selling:

CROUCHING BUZZARD, LEAPING LOON by Donna Andrews (St. Martin's)
THE SIXTH LAMENTATION by William Broderick (Viking)
LOST IN A GOOD BOOK by Jasper Fforde (Viking)
MONKEEWRENCH by PJ Tracy (Putnam)
MAISIE DOBBS by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho)

The winner will be announced at a luncheon during the 2004 Left Coast Crime convention to be held in February in Monterey, CA. What's interesting to note is that 3 of the nominees are debuts. Congratulations to all the nominees.

Friday, December 12, 2003

It's all my father's fault 

If he hadn't innocently asked me to locate Stan Kenton's rendition of Ride of the Valkyries, I would never have taken a trip down kitsch lane to peruse through one of my all-time favorite places.

I must confess: I have a fondness for incredibly bizarre musical tracks. I think this may have begun when I was very small, sitting in the car with my older brother in the backseat as our parents drove from Ottawa to Florida on two occasions. Both times we kids were entertained by the sounds of Mickey Mouse and his brethren singing C&W tracks. As we grew up, comedy records became a big staple in our house (and car.) I heard Stan Freberg's version of Heartbreak Hotel long before I heard Elvis's original. I memorized the lyrics to Allan Sherman's My Zelda ("Members of Hadassah!") and was confused when Harry Belafonte's song didn't match up. The parody versions were just so much more fun. Then there were the unintentionally funny stuff. My eighth grade year wasn't terribly eventful, but the most fun I ever had was in comparing and contrasting two versions of The Queen of the Night aria from Mozart's Die Zauberflote. The first was sung by dependable singer (though not one of my faves) Cheryl Studer. The second, less successfully attempted, was by Florence Foster-Jenkins. Luckily, my classmates, though not opera fans in the slightest, appreciated the joke once they finally got it.

Naturally, as I became addicted to the web, I discovered all sorts of weird gems. There's the usual stuff, like William Shatner's The Transformed Man. There's the kind of things that are on heavy rotation on the Dr. Demento Show. But then there's the really, really offbeat stuff. A friend of mine, knowing my penchant for such oddities, sent me a mix CD of all sorts of lovely tracks. My favorite is still Dweezil & Ahmet Zappa's cover of ...Baby, One More Time. What was once an innocently naughty song suddenly becomes an oily, sleazy number that best embodies the kind of scuzzy bars found on the "wrong side of town" (which will be apparent to anyone who ever went to high school in Ottawa. It's otherwise known as Hull.)

Which brings me to Frank's Vinyl Museum. I can't even remember when and how I first came across it, but once I did, I went back to the well again and again and again. There hasn't been any new additions in a little while, but who cares, when you can listen to selections from the Ethel Merman Disco Album, William Shatner's OTHER album, or Polka Disco (or is it Disco Polka)? Classic, classic stuff. No doubt you'll all spend hours and hours perusing the contents, but allow me to highlight the, uh, "gems":

5. "Silver Bells" from DISCO NOEL. This is actually incredibly catchy and horribly fun. Unfortunately, there are a number of other Disco christmas albums out there, but perhaps it's better that they stay undiscovered....for now.

4. "Fonzie, Fonzie, He's Our Man." Just another example of why the mid-70s sucked. It also helps that the album was done on the serious cheap and that "Fonzie" doesn't sound anything remotely like Henry Winkler.

3. "You're So Vain" from THE ODD COUPLE SINGS. Especially amusing in light of the fact that someone brought up the show in a completely different context the other night. Suffice it to say that this particular track is so beyond trippy, and especially demonstrates two things: one, why the word "gavotte" really doesn't work in a rock song, and two, that letting Jack Klugman sing anything at all was a very, very bad idea.

2. "Sargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" from Bill Cosby's HOORAY FOR THE SALVATION ARMY BAND. I want this album so bad for so many reasons, but this track highlights the biggest reason of all: it's an absolute certainty in my mind that Cosby was channelling Shel Silverstein's vocal talents. The resemblance is uncanny. FWIW, Shel remarked in an interview with the Chicago Tribune back in 1973 that he'd turned down the opportunity to write some liner notes for Cosby's first album, which in all likelihood was this very one. Still, I'd be willing to venture a guess that Shel enjoyed the album immensely at the time.

1. As it never fails to crack me up every single time I listen to it, top honors go to the theme song of MUHAMMAD ALI VS. TOOTH DECAY. For one thing, it's totally incomprehensible. "Who put the crack in the Liberty Bell....Ali!" And on it goes. Amazing shit, really. Howard Cosell calling the fight between Ali and Tooth Decay....Frank Sinatra as the evil man selling ice cream to the kiddies....the incredibly psychedelic back cover....no doubt about it, I want this album now. Someone get it for me pronto. And somehow, I suspect it didn't even garner a mention in the $3000 tome that is GOAT.....

Have a great weekend, and happy listening.

In Memoriam 

Although I've subscribed to the newsgroup for years now, I haven't been keeping up with rec.arts.mystery for a couple of weeks now. Thus it was a tremendous shock to read in the group of the passing of Dan Sontup at the age of 81. Dan was a regular poster on RAM, well known for his quick wit, opinionated style, and most especially, for his unique take on crime fiction then and now. He was one of the few living links to the age of pulp that has been given further spotlight with the reissue of works by the likes of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and more recently, Dorothy B. Hughes. His obit as taken from the MWA Newsletter (with thanks to Bev Vincent for posting this to the group):

Dan Sontup (1922-2003) Dan Sontup, a former New York chapter president, died on November 6. He served as an editor at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency and began his writing career in the pulp magazines, publishing his work in such venues as EQMM, Guilty Detective Story Magazine, Manhunt, Man from U.N.C.L.E Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and Pursuit. In more recent years, his short stories appeared in AHMM and in several anthologies. His books include The Lolita Lovers (1962) and M Squad (1962).

I had the pleasure of meeting him in 2002 at the Edgar Awards Dinner. He was sitting with his daughter and upon introducing myself, he gave me a big smile and we chatted for a minute or two. I wish I'd had the chance to get to know him more, but I certainly appreciated his posts and insight. A few months back he remarked on another list that he was working on a novel and wondered if it was perhaps too late for him. The list members unanimously agreed that it was far from the case and encouraged him to finish it. Sadly, I suppose this wish didn't quite come true. RIP, Dan, and my thoughts are with your family at this time.

When flacks converge 

So Aaron Carter's parents (they're also the parents of Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, but nobody cares about him anymore) are going through a nasty divorce, with accusations of brainwashing, mishandling funds, you know, the usual stuff when the kids involved are kinda famous. Seems that Aaron's procured the PR services of Lizzie Grubman to make soundbites like this one: "Aaron is a 16-year-old teenager who does not party."

Well gosh, doesn't that sound a smidgen like the Dan Klores-induced comments that Paris Hilton made not so long ago about the sex tape*:

"I can't walk the streets," she said. "It's too embarrassing. I don't want to go out anymore. I don't want to party. This has really made me think about changes I want to make."

Surely there can be just a tad more creativity in PR statements? Or at least say stuff that doesn't get this incredibly repetitive, annoying dance tune stuck in my head.

*Isn't it about time to have the director's cut DVD version released already? Oh, well I guess the court injunctions and lawsuits may impede that sort of thing, I suppose.

More on Booksense 

Publisher's Lunch links to the latest Booksense 76 list. At least on the fiction and mystery side, I've already read a fair number or want to.

Topping the fiction list is Tracy Chevalier's THE LADY AND THE UNICORN, which has already been out for several months in the UK. While I don't think it is quite as good as the ever-ubiquitious GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, it's very good indeed. Chevalier has become one of my favorite authors because of her uncanny ability to convey character development with a few short sentences or chapters. UNICORN is similar in structure to her previous book, FALLING ANGELS, in that there are many points of view, all told from the first person. We are privy to each character's innermost thoughts and the story moves through many years and a multitude of places. The novel unfolds like the tapestries it is centered about; full of meaning and depth, yet deceptively simplistic.

At #3 is Jilliane Hoffman's RETRIBUTION, a suspense novel that's received considerable buzz since the initial deal was announced a year ago. Though it's already received some good reviews, I must admit I was put off after the first couple of pages when the heroine flipped her long blonde hair as she examined herself in the mirror. Isn't that a phrase best kept buried in the 80s time vault? In any case, it's in keeping with a trend for strong female protagonists with tortured pasts, something which will no doubt figure in book deals for a few more years yet.

Jennifer Crusie's next novel, BET ME (at #5) has an interesting history. The book was originally her fourth, written in 1992 and rejected by everybody she ever sent it to. Fast forward 10 years and her agent sells it to Jennifer Enderlin at St. Martin's in keeping with her philosophy that "no unpublished book should stay that way." But Crusie's writing has improved much since that time, and she was horrified that the original book would see the light of day. So she rewrote it, and barely anything of the original book exists now. She's happy with the final result, regardless of what other people think. Granted, it's been a while since I've read her books but back when I was reading romance novels on a regular basis (every genre is educational, and I stand by that) she was one of my favorites, with smart, snappy dialogue and an incredibly fast pace.

Peter Robinson's PLAYING WITH FIRE finishes the fiction list, and I freely admit to being incredibly grumpy that practically everybody in the mystery community has read it before I have. There's a reason why Robinson finally made it to the bestseller lists this year--he's an excellent writer who has improved by leaps and bounds from the time his Inspector Banks series made its debut in 1987 to the pivotal IN A DRY SEASON in 1999, and he's only gotten better since then (though IADS is still my sentimental favorite of the bunch.) Knee-deep in character detail and psychological insight, this is much, much more than your basic police procedural or "British cozy."

Peeking at the mystery/suspense list, what's most interesting is that a reissue is listed along with the latest new and noteworthy books. That book is Ross Thomas's TWILIGHT AT MAC'S PLACE, something which I had a chance to read during my New York travels (where I averaged about a book a day, a nice return to my binge-reading days of old.) If I haven't mentioned it here on the blog, though I certainly have elsewhere, Thomas may well be my favorite mystery writer and I rue the fact daily that his oeuvre was cut short by his death of cancer in 1995. MAC'S PLACE is the final book to feature "Mac" MacCorkle and Michael Padillo, those scheming, wily, charming proprietors of a saloon first based in Bonn (later in Washington) who get mixed up in various espionage and shadowy events. They made their debut in Thomas's Edgar award-winning first novel THE COLD WAR SWAP back in 1966, with two more appearances in the next five years. MAC'S PLACE first saw the light of day back in 1992, and the passage of two decades may have slowed the boys down somewhat but haven't dulled their mental acuities in the slightest. The plot's as twisty as any of Thomas's other novels, but packs an extra punch with the initial premise: what happens when a Cold War veteran suddenly drops dead and bequeaths his memoirs to his son, who then immediately gets an offer of 100K to sell them to someone who wants the book buried for good? And what if other bids come in, leading to a bunch of murders, double-crosses, and even some romance along the way? Suffice it to say that it's a hell of a ride and full of the usual razor-sharp observations and dialogue that figure prominently in Thomas's books. I wouldn't suggest this as the one to introduce yourself to his books, but St. Martin's is doing a fine job in reissuing his work, so pick up COLD WAR SWAP if you want to meet MacCorkle & Padillo, or OUT ON THE RIM (my own introduction to Thomas's work) to get acquainted with his other beloved series characters, Arthur Case Wu and Quincy "That F&@king" Durant. Two more reissues are scheduled in March and may there be more in the months and years to come.

Another author who makes the mystery/suspense list who was amongst my reading list this past week is Ken Bruen. Though the book I read was BLITZ, the followup (available in the UK only) to his acclaimed THE WHITE TRILOGY, what makes the list is the upcoming US release of THE KILLING OF THE TINKERS. Bruen really burst on the crime fiction map about a year ago when St. Martin's Press released THE GUARDS. I got to it a bit late after hearing the near-deafening buzz about how wonderful it was, how unique his prose style is and how gritty the main character, Jack Taylor, and the book itself was. It's the first Irish-set PI novel, and when I finally got to it last March or so, I knew I had to read the rest of Bruen's oeuvre. TINKERS (my favorite of the Taylor books) was out in the UK in 2002 and the third book, THE MAGDALEN MARTYRS, was released there this past year. Taylor may be the most seriously addicted person in crime fiction, which is saying a hell of a lot. In three books he's been grappling with booze, cocaine, ectsasy, painkillers, and a couple of addictions I've probably left out. Allegedly in the fourth installment (due out in the spring), he'll be clean and sober, but I don't believe it for a moment. In spite of his problems and failures, Taylor is one arresting character. There's this glimmer of hope that pervades the books throughout and romantic that I am, I hope he reaches it at some point. Though naturally, it won't be for a while yet. Bruen is quite prolific, and he's currently working on three books--the fifth Jack Taylor, the sixth in the Brixton police series (which is the crack cocaine version of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels) and a standalone set in Arizona, where he's based for the next few months. Based on his reception at Bouchercon a couple of months ago and the excitement about his upcoming US tour for TINKERS, there's no question his star's on the rise.

The perils of award-giving 

The Edgar Awards won't be awarded till May, but the shortlist for each category comes out the first week of February. Ever since the website was revamped a year or so ago (probably to coincide with Margery Flax taking over as Office Manager for the MWA) I've been obsessively checking the submissions list to see which books--and more importantly, how many--are eligible for the awards. As the deadline to submit was November 30, this list is more or less complete. I don't envy the committees in the slightest. I mean, look at the list for Best Novel. I lost count after about two hundred and fifty books or so. Best First is pretty unwieldy as well, though perhaps the most difficult category to pick from will be Best Short Story.

Like any award, the Edgars produces some deserving nominees and some serious headscratchers, but considering the volume they have to work with, no wonder. My hat's off to anyone who volunteers their time to read book after book after book in the attempt to cull the worst and settle on the best. In any case, it will be most interesting to see the final nominations list--and whether the committees' views mesh at all with my own.

Prizes, books, news and more 

Yes, another literary prize has been awarded, this time the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking equivalent of the Booker. The winner is Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas.

The bookstore formerly known as Crime in Store (that's Crime On Store to the rest of you folk) hopes to move to its new premises on Great Russell Street in January, after getting kicked out of the Store Street premises a couple of months back. They get knocked down, and they get up again....anyway we'll see how long this lasts.

The University of Exeter has located a picture of JM Barrie dressed up as Captain Hook--four years before Peter Pan was ever written or staged. Maybe he was just dressing up as a pirate for Hallowe'en?

The Christmas season is a time for buying books en masse. But what happens if the stock can't meet demand, even though many books will be returned in January? The publishers try to gamble on how much to reprint.

Science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones, who the Brits say is the best female writer in the genre since Ursula Le Guin, is interviewed at the Independent.

Whither the scientific journal? Should academics be forced to pay exorbitant prices to gain access to articles, or should they be public information available to everyone? Reed Elsevier, one of the largest such conglomerates (also owns Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus Reviews) is being investigated by an MP heading up an inquiry into the publishing market of such journals, and RE may well be on the hot seat. (link from Moby.)

The Princess Diana theories rage on (let's not get into Patricia Cornwell's insane conclusions for the time being), but now there's a book of fiction about her. As imagined by authors Emma Tennant and Hilary Bailey, Di faked her death, became a nurse in India and Pakistan, and returns to Windsor Castle to nurse Prince Harry. Or something.

Most books are turned into movies, but Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE was staged as an opera all over Europe, and is coming soon to Toronto. Hmm. I think this might actually work....

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Although if a spokesperson for my generation is available... 

...perhaps one of this week's Power Punks (don't worry, we've already snickered mightily about the alliteration used here, when not frightened by images of those powerful young folk clad in horribly shiny cartoon-style suits) may fit the bill, even if he might be a bit outside the suggested age region for this generation business. He's already demonstrated his acumen for the long poem, and has given us excerpts from an upcoming novel. Now he's seen fit to try his hand at screenwriting just this very day. A veritable Renaissance Man--well, almost. No doubt a memoir is in the works, as is a collection of short stories, but those alone wouldn't impress us. Nope, we'll be most excited at the prospect of a musical. Title suggestions welcome, but they must all end with an exclamation point.

Remainders of the day 

Travelling sucks. Especially when high winds induce a massive amount of turbulence and a generally unpleasant flight experience. But my NY/DC sojourn has come to a close (some matters resolved, others not, frustratingly) and before signing off for the evening, I'll offer up the following choice bits:

Many, many publications are doing their "Best of 2003" lists in some form or another. Most of our favorite blogs have posted them already, so no need for me to repeat myself. Fewer places are doing gift guides, but January Magazine offers their ideas for what books to get for your loved ones and friends this holiday season. Naturally, there's a plentiful helping of crime fiction to peruse as well.

The British Library is making available an archive of sound recordings they have of authors reading their own work. What amazing stuff, especially as the recordings go as far back as the 1880s, with Robert Browning reading his own poetry. Tapes are available to order at the British Library's website.

Speaking of the NYT, I'd link Michiko's review of Tobias Wolff's book but I have the weird suspicion that she reviewed the book already. Or maybe Maslin did? Or maybe because she's had the same kind of pointed bile for so many other books this year?

The Richard and Judy Best Book of the Year Award shortlist (whew, that's a mouthful) has been announced. Evidently R&J are a TV show on Channel 4 over there that does its bit to promote books, and on January 7 they too will launch a book club. The shortlist is rather eclectic, as Monica Ali shares space with Martina Cole, among others.

I'm late to the whole "Generation Y needs a spokesperson" debate raging over at Mobylives right now, but unlike those who fervently believe no such a thing exists, I've found the perfect candidate: Paris Hilton. Oh, so she hasn't written a book? Hell, that may change sooner than we think....

The industry is worried that customers are increasingly choosing online sources for their Christmas shopping rather than going to actual bookstores. Well, having seen what's been going on in the independents in New York City over the past week, I'd have to agree with that statement.

Are you a "real reader"? Then a new magazine, Slightly Foxed, might be just the one for you. Gail Pirkis, formerly the managing editor of John Murray, will hold the reins, and explains why she's starting up this new venture:

She said that Slightly Foxed was "borne out of a sense of frustration". "I am an inveterate book buyer and reader and know that a lot of good books do not get reviewed. Most people have no way of knowing what they are or which may appeal to them. I want to revive an interest in good and interesting reads, books that have been overlooked, neglected or forgotten."

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

A NY state of blog 

Much as I would have liked to blog whilst on the road, I found it rather hard to do so, mostly due to the fact that I simply don't have regular computer access. Never mind that at times it is rather nice to be out amongst the natives, spend time with cute babies, take care of pressing academic and book related business, and drink myself silly. Regular blogging duties will commence over the weekend. Thank you for your patience.

It has been a rather illuminating experience being back in the city where I'd spent the last two or so years. It is still my favorite city, but at the same time I remember all too well why I was happy to leave at the time. Fast and faster pace, a regularly high level of stress. There's no middle ground in Manhattan, and perhaps it's something I crave at this particular point in my life. Well, that and steady employment. Which will arrive first is anybody's guess.

But have no fear. The usual dollop of literary, crime fiction, and other snarky matters will be back in full force. In the meantime, contemplate the designation of Nick Hornby as 2003's writer's writer. Funny, I always thought that sort of award usually went to people like, I dunno, Philip Roth or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.....

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Dumb and Dumber... 

An article in the New York Times says that hapless fashion mavens are having radical surgery on to their feet in order to fit into the latest, pointiest and highest shoes. I get my toes chopped at the knuckle for no shoe!

Ozzy, Ozzy, Drug-free! The infamous Ozzy shuffle is being blamed on prescriptions drugs forced on the naive Ozzy by a mean, vicious doctor! It seems the slurring and stuttering that captivated America were all Valium induced. A sad day for fans of the show, as the drug-free Osbourne now spouts off existentialism vs the post modern movement whilst practicing the mambo with one of the family dogs.

Oh, the weirdness that is the Druge report!
The disappearance of a Winnipeg DJ has finally been explained. It seems that after the recent ban in smoking in local clubs, an odd smell was reported to the police. Upon investigation, police found Eduardo Sanchez behind one of the club walls. Why he crawled behind it is a mystery but foul play is not suspected.

The BBC reports that the tourism trade in the Golden Triangle, stretched out over remote mountainous lands in four countries, is one of the world's primary sources of opium and the latest go to spot for tourists in Asia. There is a Golden Triangle restaurant, a Golden Triangle bar, a Golden Triangle hotel and even a Golden Triangle Massage Parlor (whose slogan is:"Your apprehension is our utmost appreciate"). The BBC wonders asks: What's next on the tour operator's agenda? A "Come and Watch the Bombs in Baghdad Expedition", perhaps?

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