Saturday, April 17, 2004


Kevin reads the book. Kevin turns the pages. He reads the book. Pages, all the same. Unreadable. Kevin closes his eyes, closes the book. Kevin puts the book down. He leaves the room.

I really wanted to like this book. I've been impressed by many of the comments made by David Peace in the press, and I'd heard good things about him. Sarah and Ray both suggested I try Nineteen Seventy-Four but my local indie bookseller didn't have it in stock so I bought GB84 instead. What a mistake.

So, the negative first. As in my pastiche above, I was disappointed to find such a straight talker writing in such a mannered style - it read a little like a very bad translation. I find it hard to believe that this is his natural voice, and can see no advantage in Peace adopting it. Worse, both the writing style and the characters are so unengaging that it's hard to care about anyone or anything within it. And the biggest sin of all, one that I'll never forgive in a book, is the author's willful disregard for the telling of the story. There's a terrible arrogance in any writer who believes he has no need to captivate his reader, that the poor soul will be happy to trudge on through 462 pages in the hope of finding enlightenment at the end. The centrality - and all too often, the neglect - of the art of storytelling is something I feel so strongly about, I'll probably dedicate a post to it tomorrow.

Now, in Peace's defense. First, I haven't finished the book - I've temporarily given up after a hundred pages (though, usually, I would have given up after ten) - so some people might argue that I haven't given it a decent shot!?!? In addition, my writing style is very different to Peace's, so it's possible that I'm just wired wrong to appreciate a book like this. It's equally possible that I'm simply a dullard, and if you've read GB84 and enjoyed it, please feel free to tell me so in the facility provided. I will also check out his other work because I'm given to understand that this book is something of a departure. He also clearly has a readership, so maybe he's doing something right and I just can't see it - I hope so.

Weekend Update, Part 1 

The NY Times has an enthusiastic review of 'Blue Blood': Cop Memoir by Edward Conlon. This is an area we all feel we know pretty well, but as reviewer Ted Conover puts it -

Never has a cop explained like this -- and a working cop, at that. The New York Police Department has, of course, inspired a huge variety of popular entertainments over the years, from genre novels to films and long-running TV shows. But ''Blue Blood,'' in terms of its ambition, its authenticity and the power of its writing, is in a class by itself.

Meanwhile, The Times (London) has a crime round-up, offering good notices for Flesh and Blood by John Harvey, Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos, Leviathan by Boris Akunin, and perhaps most intriguingly, Darkness by Dacia Maraini. The latter is a collection of stories by an Italian author, based on newspaper cuttings of real Italian crimes. The subject matter is dark, often involving crimes of sexual abuse against children, though the review stresses that Maraini is more interested in the background than in the acts themselves. Marcel Berlins concludes the review by saying -

Maraini asks poignantly: who tell more lies, children or adults? The stories don’t always reach a conclusion; many just seem to peter out. Maraini writes simply and matter-of-factly. That apparent lack of involvement makes the impact of her stories all the stronger.

Sounds interesting. Meanwhile, the Telegraph also has a profile of Boris Akunin which I'll link as soon as they get around to putting it up.

And finally for now, if you feel like you need some more Martin Amis in your life, The Guardian has a new short story by him.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Off the road 

The Telegraph (free subscription required) has a piece about Francis Ford Coppola's failure thus far to make a film of Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road", the rights to which he acquired in 1968. Er, Francis, you know I said you could have the rights to "People Die"? Well I changed my mind! Also in the Telegraph, under international news (well she is French!), a piece on the reaction to the book of Catharine Deneuve's film diaries. The legend is shattered, said one of the kinder reviews. Another said the diaries, make Marilyn Monroe look like an intellectual. To which all I can say is, Arthur Miller never complained!
Meanwhile, the Guardian has the great news that the British Library is going to put its audio archive online. The piece includes a link to some beautiful audio of Arthur Conan Doyle talking about the creation of a certain sleuth. Quite humbling really.

Not bad for a genre novel 

After a week of glorious weather, it's raining here today and all is peaceful in Gloucestershire. I get up, have breakfast, check my email, visit Sarah's blog... no new posts. Then I realize, that's because you're meant to be writing it, you dummy! So first off, and as this is a one-off, I thought I'd air some views about genre.
Last year, someone asked me what it was that made my books crime fiction rather than literary. I suggested, only half-jokingly, that it was the cause of death. People get shot, must be a thriller, but it could easily be very different. My major themes are death and isolation, ground I could cover just as effectively by writing about a reclusive writer dying of cancer or AIDs. I'm sure I don't need to tell anyone reading this blog why I choose to do it the other way, but it does make you wonder how superficial the "literary" mantle is.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to read Jim Winter's forthcoming debut, "Northcoast Shakedown". It's a great read in the classic noir tradition, but what would it have taken to get Jim into the literary lists? You make Nick Kepler a Professor of Ancient Greek, not an insurance investigator, the mystery involves a fake manuscript, not fake claims, and suddenly, Jim, you're Donna Tartt, and you're writing lit fic!
Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting literary fiction is something to be aspired to. Most of the lit fic I see is unbelievably dull and lifeless, but it's clear that many crime writers do aspire to making that leap, to being "taken more seriously". In some part, I suspect the move from series to standalones (covered recently by Sarah) is often inspired by just such a desire. An understandable response because, sadly, crime still isn't taken seriously, and the problem lies with the newspapers.
Think of the film reviews that appear in your newspaper of choice. You read them every week, big releases covered in depth, minor releases given a paragraph each. Now imagine that movies deemed to be thrillers or crime films are not covered, but that instead, once a month, a separate column rounds them all up for those who are interested. Imagine, The Usual Suspects, The Godfather, Silence of the Lambs, L.A. Confidential, Get Shorty, Pulp Fiction, all dismissed lightly as genre films, not given review space, not given serious consideration for prizes and awards. It would be ludicrous, so why should it be any different for books?
Sure, there are a lot of crime books published that are formulaic and uninspiring, but the same can be said for any category you care to choose. What we all know is that there are also crime books being published today that will be still around in a hundred years, still moving people, still keeping them on the edge of their seats - that might not be literary fiction but it is literature, and maybe it's about time the literary editors of the newspapers started reflecting that, allotting coverage to books on the grounds of overall quality rather than on the artistic pretensions of the author.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Kevin Wignall takes Control... 

Well, not quite, but I will be looking after things for the next four days whilst Sarah attends a wedding in Texas. As some of you will know, Sarah Weinman is not actually one person but a dedicated team of experts working out of a complex two miles below Nevada. So you can hardly expect my coverage of the literary world to be as up-to-the-minute or as comprehensive as the posts you've been accustomed to (if I start talking about Mr Poe's latest book, you'll know I'm in trouble). But I will try to give you some links, and I'll certainly try to give you some things to think about over the next few days.
First off though, a link! J. M. Coetzee is one of the contenders for the $20,000 Christina Stead Prize for fiction, the premier literary prize in New South Wales - his nomination is for "Elizabeth Costello". One of the other contenders is the niece of the person after whom the prize is named!! Best of all though, Coetzee will also be up against Brian Castro for his autobiographical novel, "Shanghai Dancing", a book which failed to find a publisher until it was taken up by newcomer, the Giramondo Press.
Fair enough, I'm published by Simon & Schuster, but I still know all too well how risk-averse the publishing world is, and I love to see small presses and oft-rejected writers come out on top every now and then. This might only be a regional prize, but the judges, who also left Booker Prize winners Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally off the shortlist, should be applauded.

Bon Voyage 

Alas, alack, this blogger's on the move once again. But instead of complete silence, I'm handing the reigns over to a game soul who makes regular appearances in the backblogs but hasn't actually tried the exercise for himself. So from tomorrow until the end of Monday, it's Kevin Wignall's show to run. For those who don't know his work, get a copy of his first novel, PEOPLE DIE, a slim volume packed with action, violence, and plenty of food for thought. His books don't fit any easy molds, but then again, neither does Kevin. And if he likes the temporary power of opining to the masses, maybe we can all convince him to do it on a regular basis!

Meanwhile, another member of the Harem of Cabana Boys (TM) has finally entered the 'sphere fray. Aldo Calcagno promises to report on the latest crime fiction happenings on the West Coast. I, for one, can't wait--especially as the LA Times Festival of Books will be held next weekend, and Aldo promises much scoopage on that front.

The metabolism of writing 

Terry Teachout had a rather exhausting month, what with finishing up a new book and writing four major pieces for deadline. But he found, to his amazement, that the more he wrote, the more he could--or that, somehow, it got easier to do so:

What happened? Was it simply that my mind had been concentrated wonderfully by the prospect of a hanging? Or might it be that the more you work, the more you can work? I think both factors probably played a part. Whenever the going gets tough, my friends typically hear me mutter James Burnham's mantra, "If there?s no alternative, there?s no problem." I must have said it at least a couple of hundred times last month. But I also believe that simply by virtue of the fact that I had been exercising my writing muscle so regularly for so extended a period of time, the act of writing came more easily to me. Granted, I have the gift of facility, and daily blogging has honed it still further (I don't think I could have finished All in the Dances in three months if I hadn't spent the preceding six months writing "About Last Night"), but I can?t remember any other time in my life when I?ve been so prolific for so long a period.

I certainly agree that the more one writes, the more one is compelled to do so. But Terry's piece rang a faint bell, as I remembered a couple of other writers who had expounded on similar matters. Last year, as Laura Lippman finished up the manuscript for her upcoming novel BY A SPIDER'S THREAD, she was also a guest-contributor for Slate's diary feature, a weeklong look into a given writer's life. This was her take on the experience at the time:

[...] with a daily deadline of 800 words for Slate, I thought I might be tempted to slack on my other work. But the more I wrote, the more I wrote. It was almost as if I raised my metabolic writing rate. I wrote and revised 14,000 words the last week of June, a respectable chunk of work for a second draft heading toward completion. Two days into July, I have already done 7,000 words and solved a few knotty problems in the work-in-progress. It is getting harder to take weekends off, something I consider vital for my sanity -- and my wrists. If life doesn't hand me any unexpected developments, I should finish the second draft by Independence Day and embark on the third, which puts me on track to finish this book by Sept. 1.

As it happens, Laura met the deadline and the book will be out later this year. Deadlines, of course, make writers do very funny things. Even if they meant to space out their work, it doesn't always happen. Sean Doolittle, in his recent monthly column, talks about streaking to the finish line in finishing up his third novel:

Note to aspiring writers: if you're going to write novel, you can do it a little bit at a time. Let's say it takes you a year. That's, what, a page or two a day, give or take? Slow, steady, wake up one morning, bingo. You got yourself a novel.

You don't have to spend ten months writing the first third and then write all the rest in an exhausting white heat.

Then again, there's no accounting for process. Funny, it seemed like it happened this same way last time, too.

And, as he says later on, it's important to trust that process. Whether it means you write slower than you want to, throw out more than you thought you would have to, or are chained to the computer, finishing things up in a mad dash. But of course, after that, there's the crash...which is also part of the process, I suppose.

Another Literary Parody contest 

The night before the Edgar Awards, Partners & Crime hosts its spoof version, the Nevermores. As this year marks the 10th anniversary of the store's opening, the party promises to be extra special in terms of doling out booze, birthday cake and gentle jabs at mystery stalwarts. And for the second year in a row, the store hosts a contest for those who wish to engage in some Bullwer-Lytton type of writing:

The Challenge: CAN YOU DO WORSE?
Write the opening paragraph for the world?s worst hard-boiled mystery, the planet?s most tedious cozy mystery, or the most tiresome historical mystery from the Big Bang to the present.

The Rules: Enter as many times as you like, in as many categories as you like. All entries must include your name, your phone number, your email address (if available), and the name of the entry?s category: COZY, HISTORICAL, or HARD-BOILED

The Deadline: All entries are due by 2:00 pm on Monday, April 26. Entries may be emailed to Partners & Crime (partners@crimepays.com) or delivered to the store at 44 Greenwich Avenue, New York, NY 10011.

The Winners: Winning entries will be announced and read at THE NEVERMORE AWARDS CEREMONY Wednesday, April 28, at 7:30 pm. Winners not present at the ceremony will be contacted, but we hope you will join us.

Last year's winners were well-applauded after inducing a serious number of side-splitting, gut-busting laughs. Looking forward to seeing if the same thing will happen again.

Looking for links 

James Grady found fame and fortune with his political novel SIX DAYS OF THE CONDOR in the early 1970s. The native Montanan speaks with the Shelby Promoter about his life, career and how family keeps him grounded.

Oh god, the New York Times gets so freaking wide-eyed about some new novel told in email and text-messages. That's so 2001. But of course, once the Times piggybacks onto a phenomenon, we know it was over six months ago. At least.

Gerhard Schroeder, the chancellor of Germany, is a bit pissed off right now. A new book whose plot focuses around a pharmacist that kills the Chancellor has had its print run cancelled--because the cover resembled the real head of state just a little too much. The book will be reprinted with a different cover, but I suspect he'll be upset for a little while longer....

Who Reads What? That's what the Gardiner, Maine library attempts to find out in its annual celebrity reading list. Those who selected favorite novels include James Lee Burke, Laura Lippman, and the First Lady, Laura Bush.

The Independent looks at the increasing number of creative writing programs in England, mirroring a trend of MFA classes that sprung up in North America in the 1970s and 1980s. It's not just about the University of East Anglia anymore.

Jason Pegler has just started Chipmunkapublshing, a new company that is devoted exclusively to publishing books about mental illness. The Guardian meets him and asks him about the impetus for this new and unique venture.

USA Today talks to Plum Sykes about well, that book. She's writing a new one that promises to be "more cynical" than BERGDORF was. Oh, yay. Color me impressed.

Touring England at the moment to promote his new book, THE ENEMY, Lee Child takes some time to speak with the Manchester Evening News about himself, his hero Jack Reacher, and how he misses his favorite football team, Aston Villa. (Though he's certainly taken up the cause of Yankee fandom rather nicely.)

Canadian publisher McLelland & Stewart, who are responsible for the Canadian editions of many great authors, have announced that Doug Pepper will replace longtime president Douglas Gibson, who will still stay on with the company overseeing his own imprint, Douglas Gibson Books.

I'm not exactly sure where AN Wilson is going with his essay on ersatz books. What, exactly, is an original work anyway? Perhaps life in general is ersatz, and we're just trying out derivatives of other derivative concepts. It's enough to give me a headache....

The John Murray Archive that is currently for sale is now residing--at least in part--at the National Library of Scotland. Manuscripts and letters on display include revelations about the very public spat between Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, who called the poet a "prostituted muse and hireling bard". Nope, things haven't changed much in 200 years....

Jonathan Yardley reviews Herman Wouk's new book A HOLE IN TEXAS. He admires some of it, but finds that as a work of fiction, "it leaves a lot to be desired."

The San Antonion Current looks at a trio of new mysteries from the University of Mexico Press, which is doing quite well with Manuel Ramos's new books and his backlist of Luis Montez novels.

Kevin Burton Smith's newest review at January is of Jonathon King's SHADOW MEN. He makes an interesting point, which is that the book is good, but King's writing seems to hint at something more. I must admit that I thought King's first book, the Edgar-winning THE BLUE EDGE OF MIDNIGHT, was very good, but I never finished his second. But the praise for this third effort is making me rethink things, so I might pick it up at some point.

And finally, it's good news and bad news for Joanne Rowling. She can have the CCTV cameras installed--but she can't film her neighbors. I guess that scuttles plans for the Merchiston Reality TV program that Film Four had been planning in secret...

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

There are better ways to get attention, perhaps 

MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) -- A college student accused of faking her own kidnapping last month was charged Wednesday with lying to police in what they suggested was a desperate attempt to get her boyfriend's attention.

Audrey Seiler, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, was charged with two misdemeanor counts of obstructing officers. Each charge carries up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.

I hope Seiler gets the help she needs. When the story first broke about the "abduction," my alarm bells went off in a very big way. However, I didn't exactly feel like voicing the opinion that I thought Seiler's story was complete bullshit because it didn't seem terribly appropriate at the time. Never mind that there's no real comfort in knowing I was right all along. The thing that clinched it for me was her story about being beaten up two months before and waking up in an alley a block away, but having no appreciable signs of injury and, unfortunately, no witnesses to such an event. Then afterwards: the sketch of the alleged suspect was too generic, and the missing three or four days, combined with the myriad of weapons the suspect was alleged to have had. The more Seiler embellished her story, the more obvious it was that her story was well, bullshit.

It's also kind of a shame that the story got so much press attention when many more harrowing and true tales of abduction are ignored, but in hindsight, the press could smell what was really going on, even if they couldn't report it--and ultimately, that's the real story of this case.

The Wednesday morning roundup 

The Independent's big interview is with Martin Sixsmith, ousted politico in the Blair government who has turned his hand to writing what is perhaps a thinly veiled roman a clef about how much his bosses suck. Meanwhile, David Sexton of the Evening Standard (but reprinted in the Scotsman) finds the novel, SPIN, to be lost in the midst of murk.

Ron Rosenbaum writes a curious (and lengthy) article in the NY Observer about the possibility that Nabokov's LOLITA was borrowed from an earlier short story. It sums up all the possibilities....and then takes a few flying leaps. Anti-Nazi propaganda? Cryptomensia? Who on earth edited this piece? Oy.

Alexander McCall Smith describes a recent visit to the Palm Springs Desert Literary Society--and a meeting with one of his biggest fans, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist, Flea.

Does the Pulitzer Prize matter for books? Jeff Guinn at the Dallas-Fort Worth Star-Telegram ponders the question.

The British Science Fiction Award has been given to Jon Courtenay Grimwood for Best Novel, and Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean took home the short story prize for "The Wolves in the Walls."

Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, who write psychological thrillers together under the pseudonym Nicci French, have a new book out, but Barry Forshaw isn't impressed with its plot contrivances and stupid behavior on the part of most of the characters.

George Pelecanos was touring London recently, and one of his stops was the Wandsworth Prison, where he read an excerpt from HARD REVOLUTION and entertained questions from inmates there.

And finally, it's not the easiest job in the world by any stretch, but hell, someone has to do it.

O Tanenhaus, O Tanenhaus 

The New York Times has fresh eyes for its book review. That's right, Sam Tanenhaus has begun his reign as editor, and as Ed pointed out, the quirks are showing through. Dinitria Smith profiles Robin Robertson's new book on author humiliations, which I must must read for myself. And Tanenhaus himself is the subject of David Kipen's column in the SF Chronicle, who has tracked down the long-out-of-print "Literature Unbound: The Guide for the Common Reader." Are we lit-minded folks to worry about Tanenhaus's reign? Not so:

On the basis of "Literature Unbound," then, if the Times wanted the book review dumbed down, they picked the wrong puppy. If they wanted a conservative, they got a good one, not an ideologue. This only means -- as with our governor, as with a few leftists in power -- that dissidents need to keep an eye on the people Tanenhaus hires, to keep him honest. (Don't get me wrong. Some of my best friends are conservatives. But some of their friends are nuts.)

Finally, if the Times wanted somebody to sell fiction down the river, they're obviously fishing up the wrong stream. Tanenhaus loves fiction. OK, mainly by dead people, but even so. The secret to editing an engaging book section has always been reviewing dead writers as if they were alive, and living ones as if they were dead.

Obviously, it remains to be seen just what, if any, changes Tanenhaus can effect, but I'm remaining optimistic. For now.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

To gripe or not to gripe, that is the question 

Since this blog tends to focus on the world of mystery and crime fiction, I hang around on a lot of different message boards, mailing lists, and one newsgroup (rec.arts.mystery) in various lurking and posting modes, to keep abreast of what readers and fans are talking about at the moment. Every so often, a writer is brought up who either is a current or former favorite, has achieved some sort of bestselling success, but the fans are upset? Why? Because they aren't doing what they used to, or have moved up in the world and left people behind.

Five years ago, when I became a crime fiction fan in earnest, I was looking for new writers to try. By the end of the year, I had four writers that were at the very top of my list: Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and Dennis Lehane. At that point in each of their careers, they were what I call "upper echelon midlist". That is, all were still writing their series novels, but none had become the super-bestselling or super-acclaimed writers that they are now. Back then, they were commonly listed as the creme de la creme, the writers a mystery fan had to read. Simple as that. The booksellers loved hosting them at bookshops, and had eagerly handsold their books to even more eager customers. Happy endings, right?

Fast forward a few years, and things sure look different now. And the sound of griping that you hear has gotten just a little bit louder.

I've already blogged about Crais's issues before, but I'll make the point again that for whatever reason--the publication delays, the change in focus, perhaps some contentious issues with his publisher--fans are starting to turn off. Lehane's fans are polarized in a myriad of directions, from loving the fact that he's branching out into literary waters to whining about how he's "lost it" and the Kenzie/Gennaro novels are so much better. While I wish people would just stop with that line of argument already, the fact is that they exist, for whatever reason.

Michael Connelly's probably the most unscathed of the quartet, as he still gets critical acclaim, meets his publisher's deadlines, and for the most part, has improved his writing, or at least has made a concerted effort to do so. But the current griping is from those in the bookselling or reviewing business, wondering why his upcoming book, THE NARROWS, is only being issued to folks in finished copy format. I've explained the rationale behind this as well, but the griping has returned on the Deadly Pleasures Bulletin Board (registration required) where I explain what I think is the rationale behind the marketing campaign in a little more detail. Basically, the problem here is habituation--every book to date has had an advance copy, so why not keep going to satisfy people's collections? Except that's not why galleys are given out--it's to enhance an author profile and get those who are in a position to sell copies to sell more copies. But again, Connelly's a huge bestseller here, and that makes him a target for people's gripes.

Which brings me to Harlan Coben, who with each successive standalone, increases his sell-through rate and name recognition but is starting to reach some sort of nadir. On one mailing list I'm subscribed to, a well-known amateur reviewer complained that his latest newsletter had been reduced to a few lines about his latest book--what happened to the personable, funny newsletters of a few years before? You know, just like his funny, relatively personable Myron Bolitar series novels? Others concurred, especially as the advance reaction to his new novel, JUST ONE LOOK, is lukewarm at best. Coben, to his credit, found a way to break out of midlist by writing thrillers about family fears--missing loved ones, kidnappings, suburban settings--and they have sold big, allowing him to switch publishers for a high seven-figure deal. But the lament has been that each time out, he writes the same book. I wouldn't go so far, but I'll say this much: I thought the first standalone, the Edgar-nominated TELL NO ONE, was fine. I thought the next, GONE FOR GOOD, was even better. But with NO SECOND CHANCE, the cracks were showing through. The same tricks, the same "formula"--yeah, it worked, but to what end? And from what I gather about the new one from reactions I've read and have heard personally, it affirms my lack of enthusiasm for reading the book. Unless he tries something substantially different, or at least makes an attempt to stretch himself creatively, I'm not going to reach for his books in the future.

But that's my choice. Which brings me to the ultimate point of this post, long-winded intro that this is:

Writers write and readers read. Sometimes the two match up, and enthusiastically at that. But sometimes writers go in a different direction than readers would like them to. Are we entitled to like that or force them to do what they were doing before? Not a chance. That helps no one. Are we entitled to like the fact that marketing campaigns may change and we may not read books as early as we want them to? Nope. And similarly, are we entitled to a book from our favorites every calendar year? I don't think so (though that's another rant for another day.) People change, and tastes change. Booksellers may get upset when a writer they like was doing the mystery circuit and then doesn't anymore. That may be the writer's fault, or it's (usually) due to the publisher's notions that said writer is more literary than genre and tour appearances should reflect that. C'est la vie. Doesn't necessarily mean the writer is "too good for the likes of us," just that well, things change based on new data. Fans may get upset when writers switch directions, whether by choice or by publishing directive. These things happen. Don't like it? Don't buy the author's books anymore. Vote with your pocketbooks.

And ultimately, a lot of folks like to gripe. And hey, I do it too--it can be fun to blow off steam. But it's a lot more important to actually address what is happening and why. In other words, don't bitch without backing it up. That's all a girl can ask.

Meme du Jour 

As it spreads like wildfire from blog to blog, here are the rules:

Pick up the nearest book.

Open it to page 23.

Find the fifth sentence.

Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.

"Then the safe door swung open, and Dortmunder beamed his flash in on the trays and compartments."

From WHY ME by Donald Westlake, aka the book I'm reading right now. It's the fifth (I think) book in the Dortmunder series, but I decided to stop being anal about looking for BANK SHOT and skip ahead. Catching up is hard to do....

Beloved novels 

A smattering of bloggers, authors, and other literati have contributed their top ten novel lists to Professor Barnhardt's Journal. I, on the other hand, have a hell of a time coming up with such lists, because it changes constantly and I can never make up my mind. But as I've been meaning to talk about old favorites here on the blog, I'll start with one that I recently reread and found, to my delight, that it held up: L.M. Montgomery's THE BLUE CASTLE.

Sure, everyone knows, adores, or is sickened by the Anne of Green Gables books. I love them too, well, the first three at least, because after Anne gets married the series loses a lot of its luster, never mind that ANNE OF WINDY POPLARS and ANNE OF INGLESIDE don't count b/c they were written in Montgomery's final years when it was obvious she was bored of her characters and writing for money. But I digress. Point is that she wrote many other books--and many more short stories. Prolific? Certainly. But like any career, some books hold up better than others. As a young teen, I reveled in the sweet love story that was KILMENY OF THE ORCHARD, but now I find it too patriarchal and saccharin for my tastes. THE STORY GIRL and especially THE GOLDEN ROAD are fine books, really capturing the sense of childhood camaraderie in a small town. EMILY OF NEW MOON is fine, but the sequels get progressively worse that by the end of EMILY'S QUEST, I hate that woman so much I want to slap her silly for being a stupid ass. Same thing with PAT OF SILVER BUSH and its sequel. There are plenty others but I won't talk about them now.

Still, there's something about THE BLUE CASTLE that speaks to me still. A few days ago I didn't feel like reading something new so I pulled out my mother's beat up, well-worn copy of this 1926 novel about an old maid (twenty-nine!) named Valancy Stirling who has been meek, cowed and submissive her entire life, never allowed to veer away from her family's strict rules and regulations, never daring to speak her mind. To say she lives is an overstatement; it's more accurate to say she exists. But one day, she notices her heart's beating rather irregularly, with pains in her chest. In her first act of "rebellion," she goes to see the doctor outside of town, one her family disapproves of and never makes use of. He gives her the bad news by letter some days later: angina pectoris, with certain death in a few months, if not weeks. Shocked that she could die when she never lived, Valancy starts to reclaim herself slowly but surely: reevaluating the importance of her blowhard relatives' opinions; moving out to take care of a dying school friend and cleaning her house; and eventually, embarking on a marriage of convenience.

The structure of THE BLUE CASTLE, granted, is somewhat flawed: why didn't Valancy get a second opinion? Why did she never speak her mind before? But at the same time, such resolutions are true to her character, who has to improve herself in small steps. And it's fairly surprising for its censuring of family and small-town structures in favor of following one's own dreams in one's own way. Valancy finds her happy ending (which is somewhat contrived, but hell, this is a fairy tale) because she takes a chance on herself and is no longer meek. Though I wouldn't call this a feminist book per se, it is about empowerment, and about struggling to be one's own self when it's so hard to be at times.

Evidently this book was more of an influence on some folks more than others; Colleen McCullough's THE LADIES OF MISSALONGHI was the subject of a plagiarism suit by Montgomery's heirs, who claimed that the Australian author borrowed a little too much from THE BLUE CASTLE. The verdict was sealed, so nothing is known of how the case was settled. Oddly enough, MISSALONGHI is still in print, so judge for yourself whether the similarities hold root.

But in a few years, I'll go back and reread the book and see if it still has the same old magic for me. I suspect it will.

Tuesday morning QB 

Lucy Hawking's debut novel, JADED, is a frenetic crime novel with many action-packed sequences. But it pales in comparison to the drama of her real life as the daughter of Stephen Hawking. She speaks to the Telegraph about her difficult relationship with her father and the possibility he's a victim of Munchausen by Proxy syndrome.

The Sydney Writers' Festival has some serious star wattage: V.S. Naipaul, John Dean, DBC Pierre....and Salam Pax? Hmm, and here I thought he was a pseudonymous blogger who didn't want his true identity revealed (ed.: doesn't stop Charles Todd from going places. Oh yeah, good point.) Anyway, Pax will host a blogging workshop, which may or may not be interesting. And no word on whether a certain Ms. Du Jour will show up as well...

Seems like an odd place to find author interviews, but Bankrate.com has a fairly interesting one with Robert B. Parker, known to one and all as the creater of Spenser. Not surprisingly, the focus is primarily on how success has impacted Parker on a financial level, but there's some discussion on how the academic world viewed him after THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT was published 30 years ago. Elmore Leonard was interviewed by the same website a couple of months ago, and it's a nice one as well.

Uh, oh. Looks like J.K. Rowling's neighbors aren't too thrilled with her idea to install 5 spy cameras in and around her house. The perils of being famous, but then again, neither Ian Rankin nor Alexander McCall Smith, who also live in the same neighborhood as Rowling (the Merchiston suburb of Edinburgh) have to resort to such measures....

The Telegraph, in conjunction with Ottakar's, has launched the "Real Read", polling readers for the best non-fiction book in Britain. Sam Leith discusses why non-fiction is so appealing, how (pardon the cliche) truth truly can be stranger than fiction.

Although Salman Rushdie is about to marry Padma Lakshmi, and has been the focus of gossip ever since they started dating, Vanessa Thorpe tries to remind readers of one fundamental thing: the man's a seriously important writer. But hey, people want dirt, so that's what they get....

Clare Boylan's "Emma Brown" is her imagining of what Charlotte Bronte might have written had she been able to complete a 2-chapter draft. Just now published in the US, Boylan is unable to tour for it as she is undergoing chemotherapy for just-diagnosed ovarian cancer.

The Globe and Mail reveals Sophie Kinsella's true identity: Madeleine Wickham, the author of seven previous novels before the Shopaholic books catapulted her to greater success.

Mindi Dickstein of the Floridian reviews Joseph Gangemi's debut thriller INAMORATA, which meets with her approval.

Hard Case Crime, the splashy new paperback imprint that will publish old and new pulp classics, has updated their website. Forgive me, I'm still trying to recover from looking at those glorious covers.

And finally, one of my favorite all-time comedians is coming to Toronto on Friday night. Sure, Newhart's aged and he is, perhaps, not as sharp as he once was, but damn, the man is funny. The Driving Instructor and Retirement Party sketches still have me in stitches.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Fry & Laurie as Watson & Holmes 

I don't know how I missed this news from a few weeks back, but after seeing it posted today on rec.arts.mystery, I searched around, and yes, the rumor's true:

Comedy duo Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are set to reunite to play Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in a one-off drama for ITV1.

The pair met at Cambridge University in the 1980s and have co-starred in TV shows including Jeeves and Wooster and A Bit of Fry and Laurie.

Fry, who is known to be a keen Sherlock fan, will play the Victorian detective, with Laurie as his loyal sidekick.

While some folks are greeting the news with some disdain, I'm certainly curious, and guardedly excited. I'm a huge fan of Stephen Fry, whether as a comedian, actor or novelist (MAKING HISTORY was excellent, as was THE LIAR) and Hugh Laurie's swell both on his own or with Fry. Jeeves & Wooster, anyone? So I think they can pull it off, as long as they don't go too over the top in characterization. Guess we'll see how it goes, though!

The Booker Prize Horserace 

Think it's too early to start wondering about who will make the Booker Prize longlist and shortlist? Not if you're like me and already mentally compiling possibilities for the Prize jury to consider. Or, if you're Perry Middlemiss, who maintains an archive of Booker shortlists and winners dating back all the way to 1969, when the prize was first awarded, you set down your possibilities to paper. Obviously, this list will be added to as time rolls on to August 16, when the longlist is announced, but I'm glad to have as many possibles listed in one place--and feel free to add some of your own...

Choire, get on this now 

The lead item on Page Six is the news that Paula Jones (of Bill Clinton Sexual Harrassment Fame) is shopping a proposal of her life as a victim. Or something:

Jones' book proposal, now making the round of publishing houses, promises that in Chapter 27, she will describe "how, beginning with an innocent photo-shoot, men in the pornography industry manipulated her into posing nude, something she had said she would never do. Paula gives the money to the IRS to satisfy her debt, and immediately regrets the episode and is embarrassed by it."

But, manipulated by men, she is victimized again. The meat of her proposed book is chapter three, a blow-by-blow account of what happened in the Excelsior Hotel May 8, 1991, "when Clinton propositioned Paula, exposed himself to her, and intimidated her."

Chapter 27?? What on earth is she going to write about for the first 26 chapters? Her life? Her childhood? Oy gevalt.

Suffice it to say that publishers are skeptical anyone will take Jones' story on:

Publisher Judith Regan told us there won't be much interest in Jones' story at this late date: "I think now, it's worthless. There are no secrets left."

Very true--but I still want to see the proposal, and maybe it's time for another Gawker-TSG collaboration effort again....

Easter Monday Linkage 

Would you believe today is a holiday here? Some stores are open but no mail, no banks, oh, and it's still Passover. Will the agony ever end? Will I ever eat normal food? Will a weekday start being a weekday once again? Ponder those philosophical questions for me as I give you the morning links...

Patrick Anderson uses his review of David Hewson's Italy-based THE SEASON FOR THE DEAD to kind of rip into THE DA VINCI CODE. Which is fine, and doesn't obscure the main point, which is that Hewson's book looks very good and deals with the Catholic Church in a more nuanced way with lots of good character development. There's been much buzz about the book since it was released in the UK last summer, and a second book will follow in that country in a few months' time.

Boy, as Mark (who's back from New York, and welcome back to him) points out, Lauren Slater is getting taken down all over the place. UK papers, Beatrice, and now the New York Times joins the fray of covering why OPENING SKINNER'S BOX has met with such spectacular criticism...

The Elegant Wonder also links to some news about Ian McEwan's next novel, which looks plenty interesting--also timely for me, in that I finished ENDURING LOVE last night and thought it rather brilliant, especially the first appendix. And yet for all that it has such wonderful language, clarity of vision and a very analytical look at how obsession can ruin people's lives, it's basically a crime novel...right?

Lev Raphael is back with his semi-regular mystery roundup for the Detroit Free Press. Meriting his attention and praise are new offerings from Lev Grossman, Donna Leon, and a Cornel Woolrich reissue.

Tom Lappin at the Scotsman is rather cranky about the whole End of Story concept the BBC is doing where regular joes can finish short stories started by Ian Rankin, Alexi Sayle, and others. Also at the same paper is yet another examination of the whole amateur reviewing business as famously (and back-scratchingly) done by Amazon.

So what, exactly, is a Bergdorf Blonde? The Telegraph attempts to find out what the phrase means with the release of Plum Sykes' new bestseller. Put your brain on hold as you read this article. You have been warned.

I managed to miss this on the newsstands (hey, this is what happens when you barely leave the house all week) but Lynne Truss' runaway bestseller EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES is profiled in Newsweek as they attempt to understand its success in the UK, and whether it will translate across the Atlantic, where it's just been released in the US.

Donna Leon's new novel DOCTORED EVIDENCE gets the treatment at the SF Chronicle, which points out the irony that the Venice-set books are, by the author's choice, unavailable in Italy. Irony? I dunno, I think it's more the fact that she couldn't take whatever criticism would be lobbed her way. Kind of a cheat, if you ask me....

And finally, well, I just had to link to this because it's funny. (Thanks, Jen!)

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Best. Amazon. Review. Ever. 

Blog favorite Steve Almond (stop giggling. Yes, I mean it. Go read MY LIFE IN HEAVY METAL already) has a new book out called CANDYFREAK, a journey into the underbelly of candymaking in America. I want to read this because a) it's Steve Almond b) I love chocolate and candy. Great combination, no? Anyway, CANDYFREAK's already getting some nice reviews, but this one--albeit, a rather biased one--is probably my favorite, and I am reproducing it in its entirety because I can:

Hey, Steve is brilliant. And I know this as I shared womb space with the chump, where, by the way, he wasn't allowed to eat candy. I can tell you a couple "insider" facts about Steve but I won't do this because Steve's next published work could very well be title "What my Horrible Twin Brother Michael Did to Me and How I Plan to Get Him back" (Note: anything Steve ever writes about me that is positive is totally fact-based; anything else is simple artistic license...which is really a polite term for "spite") O.K., so now that you get the fact that I am totally self obsessed and egocentric, let me tell you more about me...kidding! This is Steve's moment in the sun (spite)...Couple things:
1. He is as funny and insane in real-life as in print!
2. The picture of him eating chocolate pudding (in the book) is referred to as the famous "Chocolate Pudding Picture". But, a certain twin brother that shall remain nameless (let's call him Michael) has been curiously cropped out of the photo. (not spite, gratitude. It wasn't a great shot of me)
3. I love him and he loves me...but:
4. He loves Candy much more. And if you read his first book...well you have to read it find out what his other passion is...(let's just call it "sex" for the sake of it) he loves that more too.
5. I haven't read the book yet which shows you what kind of chump I really am. But I just purchased it and I do plan to read it (I swear Steve)
6. Finally, Dennis Miller would play the role of Steve Almond in the Lifetime Network made-for-T.V. movie "The Michael Almond Story: The crowded womb" (Stockard Channing would play me in case you were wondering).
Goodbye my loyal fans...wait....Steve's loyal fans! I love you all.

Well....that about sums it up, I suppose. Anyway, Almond will be undertaking one of his patented massive tours starting in a few days, and check out where his New York signing will be on May 8: Dylan's Candy Bar. I may die of sugar shock.

Further remainders of Easter Sunday 

A smattering of new audio interviews are making their way to my ears lately:

Rick Kleffel, host of the Agony Column, talks to George Pelecanos and British SF writer Richard Morgan;

Bill Thompson, who manages to cram a hell of a lot of content in his brief interviews with authors at Eye On Books, tries valiantly to understand Marty Beckerman's GENERATION S.L.U.T. It's not a bad interview but lord, if Beckerman says one more time that he has sex with his girlfriend all the time, I think I may smack him. Not that I begrudge him a monogamous lifestyle, but what the hell's the sense in bragging? Never mind that no one's asked her what she thinks about all this....

And while it's not an audio interview, this Q&A with David Peace over at Bookmunch is quite illuminating, although one does have to worry a bit about an author who says "I try not to relax." OTOH, this is David Peace we are talking about, someone not exactly known for writing FluffyBunny works that can be discarded after an airport flight. And then there's his opinion of the British writing crowd after he was asked if he minded being branded a crime writer:

Dostoyevsky wrote crime; Kafka wrote crime; Brecht wrote crime; Orwell wrote crime. Dickens. Greene. Dos Passos. Delillo etc. But anyway, to me, these days “literary” just means British writers with their Creative Writing MAs wanting to write the “Great American Novel” and filling bookshops with unreadable shite, with no plots, no characters, no balls, no heart and, above all, no British Voice. The best work is always done in the margins and the genres: Burroughs and Ballard in Science Fiction; Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore; and I’m proud to share the same section of a shop as Ellroy, Mosley, Pelecanos and Rankin.

Works for me.

Meanwhile, JT Lindroos has informed me that his new publishing venture, Point Blank Press, has gone live with its website. And it's a beauty--so, too, is the upcoming content, with the reissue of James Reasoner's TEXAS WIND, a new collection of short stories by James Sallis, and Allan Guthrie's debut crime thriller TWO-WAY SPLIT amongst the initial offerings in the next few months. You better believe I am excited about this new small press, whom I hope will be a major force in publishing new and neglected voices in the genre for years to come.

Going to the Edgar Awards, or attending Edgar Week? Want to know what the latest issues are in the mystery world or are looking to take that final step towards being a published writer? If you're a member of the Mystery Writers of America, then chances are their day-long Symposium on Wednesday, April 28 is the thing you're looking for. See the entire program list here, which features sessions on how to understand contracts, balancing forensic detail with a plot that moves, to picking up the pieces after you've been dropped by your publisher. And afterwards, knock back a drink or two at the Agents & Editors party, which will no doubt be stuffed to the gills as it usually is year after year....

And finally, I'm late with the news but that's OK, because the latest issue of Thrilling Detective will be up for a while and is basically devoted to my Harem of Cabana Boys, as the issue's dedicated to Fiction Editor Gerald So and features stories from Ray Banks, David White and eventually, Jim Winter (if he can finish it on time, that is!)

Andrew Vachss in Page Six 

No, that's not a typo. I'm not sure exactly what the NY Post is smoking today--or maybe it's slow--but Ian Spiegelman caught up with everybody's favorite lawyer-turned-author of frighteningly noir novels starring his anti-hero Burke. His newest book, "Down Here," makes the case that all baddies--rapists, pedophiles, terrorists--are basically all the same:

"I promise you, there are people in America whose only problem with the Taliban is that they did it for the wrong god," Vachss tells PAGE SIX's Spiegelman. "Whether it's incest, rape, terrorism or Nazism, it's all the same thing - accumulating and abusing power."

Vachss has always had a point in his crusades, which are well-recounted in his novels, but somehow, the way he goes about it manages to turn as many people off as they do on. Never mind that he attracts the freakiest people at his booksignings. A few years ago when I still worked at the store, Vachss strutted in, went to the lectern at the back, ignored us booksellers, and basically put on a show for his cult, who peppered him with all-too-knowledgeable questions about his books, like why he killed off this character and that dog, etc. I freely admit that I spent much of my time manning the register, staring at the spectacle, and hoping everybody would ignore me. It worked. Maybe I don't respond well to that level of tension and aggression, I don't know. But I suspect it may be a while before I try a Vachss book again....

Golly gee, it's the MWU 

Yes, I admit, as acronyms go, it's not catchy or thrilling, but what else am I supposed to shorten the Massive Weekend Update (TM) to? I'll give a Zip-Nada Prize (phrase cheerfully stolen from this fiendish mind) to anyone who comes up with a better shortened phrase...

Anyway, acronyms aside, you're here for the links, links and oh yeah--links. Might as well start off with La Stasio, because well, her word is law in matters mystery. And what did Marilyn decree this week? Only this: that Lawrence Block's THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL exhibits a healthy amount of "raffish charm," while Karin Fossum's DON'T LOOK BACK is deemed a "horrifyingly astute crime study," certainly not your typical cozy mystery (hard to be cozy when you're in Norway, anyway, don't you think?) She deems Leslie Silbert's THE INTELLIGENCER "uneven" because the Christopher Marlowe stuff is good but the contemp stuff isn't quite up to snuff, but is more impressed overall with Joe Lansdale's SUNSET AND SAWDUST. And then, in the inexplicable department, there's the new Mary Higgins Clark novel. I mean hey, I cut my teeth reading MHC books, don't get me wrong--she's great, she plots well, she sells big. But need I whine that this book takes up space that a lesser-known book could have occupied to great effect? Like, I dunno, Richard Barre's new standalone ECHO BAY? Rick Riordan's SOUTHTOWN? But maybe it's just me...

Otherwise in the Book Review, Margo Jefferson looks at the art of writers quoting other writers' ideas in their work, and THE TERRY TEACHOUT READER gets its first print review notice--and my, it's a good one...

Looky here, the Guardian actually reviews some crime fiction again this week. Henning Mankell's FIREWALL, long available in the US but only now published in the UK, gets a star turn by M John Harrison, while Matthew Lewin rounds up the newest and shiniest thrillers as follows: Gerald Seymour's post-9/11 thriller is edge-of-your-seat stuff, Stephen Hunter's HAVANA is tops (and boy do I agree with that), Harlan Coben's JUST ONE LOOK is, well, a lot like his last 3 suspense standalones (RIP Myron and Win) and the venom is reserved for Sheila Quigley's much hyped debut:

I don't begrudge first-time novelist Sheila Quigley a penny of the ?300,000 she got from Random House for a two-book deal on the basis of this novel, or the huge publicity hype that included a BBC TV documentary. What I do resent is that this fuss is being made about a book that is at best a jog along Jeffrey Archer territory, and at worst an amateur expedition into the jungle of plot design, police procedure and the social conditions of the north-east of England that made me wince with pain and embarrassment.

But of course it'll sell millions. It's the second coming of Martina Cole....

Also in the Guardian is Sarah Dunant's marvelling over Richard Zimler's new Sephardo-Jewish novel, Geoff Dyer explaining why he doesn't make a distinction between fiction and non-fiction, and a bizarre review of a bizarre book by someone using the nom de plume "Tommaso Pincio". Well, if you're gonna be pseudonymous, might as well play on Pynchon, I guess...

Turning now to the Washington Post Book World, Jonathan Yardley casts his eye on a new biography of Ted Williams. At 500 pages, it's voluminous, but does it succeed? The answer, it seems, is a resounding "hell, no." Steven Moore, on the other hand, tries valiantly to convince readers why Donald Harington's tricky tale of child abduction, WITH, is worth reading. He succeeds--almost. Dennis Drabelle navigates the densely rich landscape that is Peter Esterhazy's CELESTIAL HARMONIES, and Elizabeth Hand scrutinizes a new biography of John Fowles.

At the Sunday sister publication, Mark Haddon tries to explain his stunning success with THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME and how his real-life experiences with autistic children informed the creation of the novel. Meanwhile, Robert McCrum tries to make sense of Shelley Jackson's project of tattoing each word of her story on 2,093 individuals.

And what of the Globe and Mail? They have some neat little goodies, too, like a Canadian perspective (OK, that was reaching) on Michael Andre Bernstein's CONSPIRATORS. Has anyone thought of pairing him up with Esterhazy for a Hungarian Rhapsody Book Tour? That could be kind of fun...maybe....anyway, in more parallels to the WaPo, Lawrence Freundlich reviews Peter Bidini's quixotic odyssey through the Italian Major Leagues. Baseball in Italy, you say? Yes, Virginia, it does seem to exist...

Now, the smatterings that don't fit anywhere else:

David Housewright hasn't had a new book out in a few years, but that's all changed with A HARD TICKET HOME, the start of a new series. The Minneapolis Pioneer Press interviews him and asks how he managed to resurrect his career after a five year absence.

Oline Cogdill returns with a new mystery review
, this time a positive notice of Ian Rankin's A QUESTION OF BLOOD. No bad thing to review it although the book's been out a few months already---perhaps the next review she does will be something a little more current?

Mary Higgins Clark is the Queen of Suspense, a title few would really dispute (even if, like me, you read her books at a certain point in your life but don't really do so anymore.) The New York Daily News features a long profile on her life and career, still going strong with a new book just out.

Woe to the Telegraph that they put their content online so many days after it sees print, but what the hell--Susanna Yager's crime fiction roundup is still plenty interestingand all over the map. Meriting her attention are new releases from Caroline Graham, Jim Kelly, Roger Jon Ellory, Michael Robotham, Donna Leon, Andrea Camilleri, Janni Visman, Carsten Stroud, Neil Cross, and John Baker.

Sybil Downing looks at a couple of Colorado-based mystery writers for the Denver Post, most notably Sue Henry and her new release, THE SERPENT'S TRAIL.

Bloody hell, Herman Wouk isn't just alive at 89, he's going strong as a writer. His latest book, A HOLE IN TEXAS, gets the approval of the Baltimore Sun, though is greeted with less enthusiasm by Jan Herman, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Trends. How to follow them, and how can publishers ride the wave to surefire success? Well, they can't, and they don't have a clue what really sells, but the Sydney Morning Herald attempts to look into the whole matter anyway.

And speaking of trends, what's causing the latest one for confessions of deep, dark desires and doings? Again, the SMH attempts to suss out the answer, and gives a list of bestselling confessional books (none of them, however, deal with idiosyncratic minds. So I guess I'm safe for now.)

More on the James Bond-as youngster books to be written by Charles Higson from the Independent and Scotland on Sunday, where Siobhan Hynnot uses the news as a means to rant about the whole sequels/prequels phenomenon. I don't much blame her, to be honest.

Gail Carson Levine is in Toronto to promote her book (and the new movie) ELLA ENCHANTED, so the Star tries to find out what makes the book so appealing to young girls. She also visited San Francisco, giving a similar profile to the SF Chronicle.

And finally, Richard Clarke's new book, AGAINST ALL ENEMIES, to be a movie? I kid you not. Start your casting calls now....

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