Sunday, December 21, 2014

Art & Culture: Streisand: In the Camera Eye

Almost from the moment she appeared on the scene in the early 1960s, Barbra Streisand had been a icon.

At first, she was a curiosity. How could a skinny girl from Brooklyn with a stubborn nose and slightly crossed eyes ever make it in show business? Well, we started with that voice of hers. And with a voice like that, who cares what she looks like?

Except people did care. And by the end of her first public performance, she began to take on the sheen and luster of a star, as well as all the trappings. People began to see her beauty. Magazines began to flaunt her fashion sense. She wasn’t just a singer, not just an actress. She was a force.

Streisand: In the Camera Eye (Harry N. Abrams), the new book by frequent Streisand biographer James Spada, examines her life in a series of 170 photographs, many never before published. Instead of recounting her life in words, he recounts it in images accompanied by short contextual essays. But it’s the photos here that amaze.

Here’s Barbra very early on, looking more than a little like a Modigliani painting. Here she is on stage in “Funny Girl,” and then later in the movie. Here are images from her 60s TV specials, as well as Hello Dolly; What’s Up, Doc?; The Way We Were; A Star is Born; Yentl; and all the rest. There are also photos from album cover shoots, some photos from magazines, concerts, and more -- a true chronicle of the woman and her work. Both career overview (50 years and counting) and photo essay galore, Streisand: In the Camera Eye is a collection of images that, taken together, form the portrait of a woman who is always the same yet constantly changing. Where early shots show us her shy vulnerability and her less-than-assured presence in front the camera, others reveal her increasing comfort, and later her embrace of it. ◊

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This Just In… All Meat: A Redneck Meets LSD-25 by John Aalborg

All Meat is the first book, once lost, in John Aalborg’s Schaffner Family crime and adventure trilogy.

All Meat: A Redneck Meets LSD-25 is not only the drama of a struggling young white family in Miami during the 1960s, but how a normal, cash-strapped husband and wife deal with psychedelic drugs and racial integration.

The adventures, the scary romantic stuff, the South Beach hippies, the changing Miami neighborhood during integration, the free sex, and the casual attitude toward marijuana and other psychedelic drugs are all representative of the time.

All Meat is the prequel to Harry & Ivory and Lowboy #22.

You can order All Meat here. Visit author John Aalborg on the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Top Crime Fiction of 2014

What were the top works of crime fiction in 2014? At The Rap Sheet, six top critics opine. And here’s a hint: expect to be at least a bit surprised!

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This Just In… The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms and Survival in the Caribbean by Rita M. Gardner

The Coconut Latitudes is a memoir about a childhood in paradise, a journey into unexpected misery, and a twisted path to redemption and truth.

Leaving a successful career in the U.S., a father makes the fateful decision to settle his wife and two young daughters on an isolated beach in the Dominican Republic. He plants ten thousand coconut seedlings and declares they are the luckiest people alive.

In reality, the family is in the path of hurricanes and in the grip of a brutal dictator. Against a backdrop of shimmering palms and kaleidoscope sunsets, a crisis causes the already fragile family to implode. The Coconut Latitudes is a haunting, lyrical memoir of surviving a reality far from the envisioned Eden, the terrible cost of keeping secrets, and the transformative power of truth and love.

You can order The Coconut Latitudes here. Visit author Rita M. Gardner on the web here. ◊


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 is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Neal Stephenson Named “Chief Futurist” at Magic Leap

Novelist Neal Stephenson (Quicksilver, Snow Crash) has announced that he will join the hot and mysterious tech startup, Magic Leap. From NPR:
Stephenson announced that he will be joining the startup Magic Leap as the company's "chief futurist." While the company itself remains something of a mystery, the Wall Street Journal reports that "the startup is developing its own eyeglasses-like device, different from Google Glass, designed to project computer-generated images over a real-life setting." In other words, the technology is said to try to blend seamlessly what's real with what's virtual—not unlike some of the technologies in Stephenson's book.
Though the company has yet to produce anything, Google and several other tech titans have been big backers of the project, to the tune of $542 million in investments.
“I'm fascinated by the science, but not qualified to work on it,” Stephenson wrote in a post on the Magic Leap blog. “Where I hope I can be of use is in thinking about what to do with this tech once it is available to the general public.”

Thursday, December 18, 2014

This Just In… The Holy Mark: The Tragedy of a Fallen Priest by Gregory Alexander

In The Holy Mark, a disgraced and exiled Catholic priest from a powerful New Orleans family ponders his future and reflects on his 25 years in the priesthood.

Father Tony probably should have never been a priest. With his family’s money, courtesy of ties to the New Orleans mob, he could have pursued his interest in literature or even worked with young boys -- only free of all those silly Church strictures. But there was no priest in the Miggliore family, much to the shame of his immigrant Italian grandmother. So at his birth, when the old woman beheld a peculiar mark on his head and declared it to be a sign from God -- a “segno sacro” in the only language she knew -- this grandson’s destiny was set.

Those marked by God, though, are often marked by men as well: Father Tony’s jealous uncle will never forgive him for finding favor with the Miggliore matriarch. And with his ties to the city’s Catholic hierarchy, he’ll plot to destroy his nephew if it takes the rest of his life. Meanwhile Father Tony is determined to outwit his uncle and the Church, even if he has to conceal his identity and prowl the streets of New Orleans by night to do it.

Family, power, and revenge, The Holy Mark is the story of one reluctant priest caught between the cynicism of his own Southern upbringing and the political machinations of the Roman Catholic Church.

You can order The Holy Mark here. Visit author Gregory Alexander on the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Cookbook: Madeleines by Barbara Feldman Morse

I’m a sucker for a good cookie, and I’m always looking for new things to bake. Madeleines are my new passion, and Madeleines: Elegant French Tea Cakes to Bake and Share (Quirk Books) by Barbara Feldman Morse is the book I’ve been using in recent weeks, much to the delight and dismay of my waistline -- and the waistlines of my friends and family. (Sorry, everyone!) 

In a word: Wow. I’d always thought madeleines were hard to make. How could that lovely golden sponge, even unadorned, be such a snap? But you know what? They totally are. Barbara Feldman Morse makes it easy. Along with recipes, she tells you exactly what you need, her own little secrets, supplies and where to buy them, and the many different ways you can decorate your madeleines to make dinner guests swoon in anticipation.

The dozens of variations include classic madeleines, cream cheese madeleines, chai tea madeleines, madeleines au chocolat, banana pecan madeleines, blueberry cream madeleines, dark chocolate espresso madeleines, Kentucky Derby madeleines, gruyere and rosemary madeleines, and many, many more.

 Published just in time for all those holiday parties you have to bring something to, this little gem of a cookbook will keep you busy for quite some time, indulging in your little French cookie fantasies. And it’ll inspire more than a few New Year’s resolutions. ◊

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Monday, December 15, 2014

This Just In… The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & The Writing Life by Lori A. May

Writing may be a solitary profession, but it is also one that relies on a strong sense of community. The Write Crowd offers practical tips and examples of how writers of all genres and experience levels contribute to the sustainability of the literary community, the success of others, and to their own well-rounded writing life.

Through interviews and examples of established writers and community members, readers are encouraged to immerse themselves fully in the literary world and the community-at-large by engaging with literary journals, reading series and public workshops, advocacy and education programs, and more.

In contemporary publishing, the writer is expected to contribute outside of her own writing projects. Editors and publishers hope to see their writers active in the community, and the public benefits from a more personal interaction with authors. Yet the writer must balance time and resources between deadlines, day jobs, and other commitments.

The Write Crowd demonstrates how writers may engage with peers and readers, and have a positive effect on the greater community, without sacrificing writing time.

You can order The Write Crowd here. Visit author Lori A. May on the web here. ◊


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 is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Art & Culture: Star Wars Art: Posters

Yes, I know: Who needs another book about Star Wars? Well, it turns out I did, and maybe you do too. Because Star Wars Art: Posters (Harry N. Abrams) is a different kind of Star Wars book.

We all know that George Lucas’ space saga has inspired countless novels, toys, musical interpretations, other movies and TV shows, and more. The reach of the film seems endless. But one area that needed a bit more exploration is posters.

Like all movies, each film has had its lobby posters, and this book features all of them. But even better are the other posters that the films inspired along the way. Some were done by heavy-hitter artists like Drew Struzan and Roger Kastel, some by very talented fans, and many by people in-between.

While many artists were paid, some did their work because it was fun and because Star Wars moved them. And moved is what you will be when you get an up-close-and-personal look at the 120 posters in this book. You’ll find the classics, as I mentioned, but you’ll also find some of the sketches that came first, the little explorations that became the posters we know so well. The errors, too, and the first drafts. You’ll find art from all over the world, as well as versions of posters you may already know, concept drawings and paintings that helped shape the Star Wars universe, and much more.

These are posters used to advertise movies, radio programs, TV shows, gallery exhibitions, video games, and on and on. What they posters all have in common is that they bring the drama to life: the characters, the action, and sometimes the larger questions about life in that galaxy far, far away. 

Rather than a collection of posters, which always feature creative blocks at the bottom (the credits), Star Wars Art: Posters does away with that distraction, treating these works of art as what they are: art. I was surprised at how much difference that made when looking at these images. They come alive truly alive, and tell a story that we all know and in a way that’s fresh. ◊

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This Just In… Bones Along the Hill Nancy Sartor

Neva Oakley is a funeral facial restorationist with a legendary skill at making the dead look alive. But for all her talent, she can never bring back Gray Ledbetter, her first love, who took his own life ten years ago.

Davis Pratt, too, is consumed. Long ago his younger brother disappeared, and Davis won’t give up hope. Perhaps that’s why he and Neva are such a good couple. Or perhaps that’s why they can’t move forward. Then the search leads them to the Oakley cemetery and a murder tied to a human trafficking ring. Suddenly, impossible crimes threaten both family and friends, crimes that cannot be ignored. Not even the Nashville PD can keep Neva safe, but if she and Davis succeed, together they just might solve all their mysteries and free each other to embrace their future.

You can order Bones Along the Hill here. Visit author Nancy Sartor on the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review: The Art of Deception

Seeing is believing, so they say. But I’m betting “they” never saw The Art of Deception: Illusions to Challenge the Eye and the Mind  (Imagine).

More than a collection of optical illusions (though it surely is that), The Art of Deception features painting, photography and graphic design that’s made to make you look twice. Or three times. These are works that scream out to you: “Hold on a sec, all is not what it seems.”

Take Liu Bolin’s photograph of a small wooded area near Beijing. Looks innocent enough, until you notice the sly presence of a man standing right in front of you. Is he painted to blend in? Is he transparent? Or Ben Heine’s photograph of a drawing that offers a bird’s eye perspective of a nest of what could be skyscrapers. A young man is holding the drawing in such a way that he seems to be floating above them, looking down into them. Or how about Nikita Prokhorov’s tessellation art, in which figures are intertwined in what could be endless patterns? Or Oscar Reutersvard’s impossible figure designs?

 There’s really almost too much here to marvel at, and your eyes will widen to amazed orbs as you take it all in. From Punya Mishra’s ambigram of the word “good” with the word “evil” embedded inside it, to Guido Daniele’s paintings of animals on hands, The Art of Deception is a brilliant study of how artists from across the globe see and bend the world around them. It’s not so much a game, though it can be, as it is an interpretation of the world as they see it. Their juxtapositions surprise, then illuminate, and finally provide “a-ha!” moments that leave you smiling.

This wonderful book features a foreword by John Langdon, king of the ambigram, and bite-sized essays about each work of art. They don’t give the secret of the work away, but each one offers a glimpse into the mind of the artist and a peek at what he or she is trying to accomplish within each piece. ◊

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

This Just In… A Viable Suspect by Barry Ruhl

For more than 30 years, retired Ontario Provincial Police Sergeant Barry Ruhl has believed that a criminal with whom he had a violent encounter early in his career might be responsible for a string of unsolved murders of young women in Ontario, including the 1959 death of 12-year-old Lynne Harper.

The only suspect ever investigated in that sensational case was 14-year-old Steven Truscott, who was convicted and sentenced to hang before being cleared almost 50 years later. But in the 1980s, Ruhl had approached his superiors with a theory about an alternative suspect in the Harper murder and other similar cases. A Viable Suspect tells the story of how Ruhl arrived at his conclusions, his frustrated attempts to prompt the OPP to thoroughly investigate Talbot and the tragic irony of how, just when it seemed police were finally taking Ruhl’s theory seriously, the suspect slipped out of reach, permanently.

You can order A Viable Suspect here. Visit author Barry Ruhl on the web here. ◊



This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Top Books We Don’t Finish

Since the article is pretty much without qualification or meaningful explanation, I want to write off The Telegraph’s list of Top Ten Books We Never Finish but, honestly? The list resonates for me. What about you?

1. Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton
2. Capital by Thomas Piketty
3. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
4. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
5. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
6. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
7. Flash Boys by Michael Lewis
8. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
10. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I mean, the Clinton. Obviously. You want to, but you just can’t get there. Infinite Jest is one I’ve been taking runs at for years and, though I love the writing I read, I just can’t seem to make myself read all of it. A Brief History of Time, if you haven’t gotten to it by now, you might as well free that shelf space up. I don’t think Fifty Shades of Grey was ever meant to be gotten through. The Great Gatsby is another I’ve made valiant attempts at. Truly. But something in the writing fails to hold me. Am I deficient? Honestly: does it hold you?

You can see the list and The Telegraph’s explanations with regards to the individual novels here.

This Just In… When All Balls Drop: The Upside of Losing Everything by Heidi Siefkas

Heidi Siefkas was a happily married, globetrotting professional who seemingly had it all -- until a tree limb in New York’s Hudson River Valley struck her down, breaking her neck and leaving her unconscious. Suddenly, life as she knew it stopped. She lost her independence. She lost her career. She watched her marriage disintegrate as she confronted a trail of devastating lies about her husband’s double life.

She had lost all that mattered, but she was a survivor. She fought to restore her health, repair her broken heart, and rebuild herself. Along the way, she gained clarity about her core values, ultimately coming to a deeper understanding of what it means to have it all.

Through down-to-earth, short vignettes, When All Balls Drop shows us how it’s possible to “look up” in spite of pain, deceit, and loss. Heidi’s memoir--rich with hope and humor--inspires anyone who’s had to confront tragedy and reassess their life in the wake of life-altering events.

You can order When All the Balls Drop here. Visit author Heidi Siefkas on the web here. ◊



This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Lost Work by Raymond Chandler Uncovered

An early work by Raymond Chandler has been discovered. Thus far, the Chandler estate is blocking publication or performance of the libretto, called The Princess and the Pedlar, as being “a very early work, and not representative of Chandler’s oeuvre. Yes, it is of course a curiosity, but we feel no more than that.”

Writing for The Guardian, former January Magazine contributing editor, Sarah Weinman, tells the fascinating story of the rediscovery of The Princess and the Pedlar at length:
The 48-page libretto to the comic opera The Princess and the Pedlar, with music by Julian Pascal, has hidden in plain sight at the library since its copyright was first registered on 29 August 1917.
The work, a copy of which was obtained by the Guardian, was found in March by Kim Cooper, shortly after she published her debut novel, The Kept Girl, featuring a fictionalised Chandler in 1929 Los Angeles. 
While looking for more information about Pascal, Cooper discovered a missing link between Chandler’s English boyhood and his detective fiction: a witty, Gilbert-and-Sullivan-inflected libretto for a fantasy-tinged romance between Porphyria, daughter to the King and Queen of the Arcadians, and Beautiful Jim, a “strolling Pedlar.”
Chandler penned pithy lines for supporting players, and even foreshadowed his own crime fiction career, as when the humpback Gorboyne sings: “Criminals dyed with the deepest dyes/Hated of all the good and wise, Soaked in crime to the hair and eyes/Very unpleasant are we.”
The full piece is here.

This Just In… The Cause by Roderick Vincent

The second American Revolution will be a fire lit from an internal spark.

The year is 2022. America is on the verge of economic and social collapse. The government has made individual freedom its enemy. 


African American hacker Isse Corvus enters a black-ops training camp. He discovers the leaders are revolutionaries seeking to return the U.S. back to its Constitutional roots. Soon the camp fractures. Who is traitor? Who is patriot? Corvus learns that if he doesn’t join The Cause and help them hack the NSA’s servers, it could mean his life. If he joins, he becomes part of a conspiracy to overthrow America’s financial oligarchy. 

NSA Director Titus Montgomery is building a system to pacify America’s instigators. The President tells him that rule of law must be maintained at all costs. But what happens when martial law meets revolution? 


The Cause is a dystopian thriller taking many topical issues to the next logical level. The dense web of the NSA’s previous generation’s surveillance system has been supplanted by a new, more ruthless one. Robotic warfare, drones, quantum computers, Anonymous, the NSA, and a cast of conniving characters, this novel takes you on a manifest journey on how a new revolution could be born.


You can order The Cause here. Visit author Roderick Vincent on the web here. ◊




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 is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Monday, December 01, 2014

The Philosophy of Pratchett

Terry Pratchett as philosopher. Fans of the UK-based author’s Discworld series will not be surprised to think about Pratchett in those terms.

With more than 75 million copies of his books available around the world, he is one of our planet’s top selling writers. Forty Discworld novels have been published since the first, The Colour of Magic, was released back in 1983. But, according to The Guardian, a new about to be released book about Pratchett and his work will be the first to look at the author as the philosopher he may very well be.
Edited by philosophy professors and Pratchett fans James South and Jacob Held, the collection of essays examines questions including “Plato, the Witch, and the Cave: Granny Weatherwax and the Moral Problem of Paternalism”, “Equality and Difference: Just because the Disc Is Flat, Doesn’t Make It a Level Playing Field for All”, “Hogfather and the Existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard”, and “the Importance of Being in the Right Trouser Leg of Time”.
South, associate professor of philosophy at Marquette University, is adamant Pratchett’s novels “hold up to sustained philosophical reflection”
“Pratchett is a very smart man, a gifted writer, and understands as well as any philosopher the power of storytelling and the problems humans face in making sense of their lives and the world they live in,” South said. “Or, as Death puts it so well: ‘DO NOT PUT ALL YOUR TRUST IN ROOT VEGETABLES. WHAT THINGS SEEM TO BE MAY NOT BE WHAT THEY ARE.’ This is a truth that Pratchett relatedly acknowledges and tries to get his readers to acknowledge as well.”
You can read the full piece here.

This Just In… Leaving Montana by Thomas Whaley

Saying that Benjamin Sean Quinn had “anger issues” was an understatement. For those who knew him for the shortest amount of time, his life was in order: He was physically fit, had a great job which provided him a house in the suburbs and the material things he desired, a loving, monogamous relationship, two happy, healthy daughters and an established circle of friends. In all accounts, his life seemed perfect. But to those who knew him the longest, they knew he was an idle grenade, waiting for someone to pull the pin. 

For decades, Ben did his best to conquer his demons; to suppress the anger he accumulated towards his parents, Carmella and Sean, throughout their tumultuous marriage. Ben was their only child; forced to witness and experience things that most adults couldn’t even try to handle. He could not escape them or the anger, and no matter how hard he tried, as he matured, it became a part of him. Ben strived to end the toxic cycle and avoid adopting their pattern as part of his own life. By the time he reached his early thirties, he finally seemed to have it all under control. 

Then Ben’s father told him a “secret.” One left in Montana when he and Carmella were stationed there 40 years earlier. It would exhume the painful memories and suppressed anger that Ben had been avoiding for years and force him to relive his past in order to face his future. 

Today Benjamin Sean Quinn boards a plane to Billings, Montana. It was time to face the secret head on and let go of the anger that silently ruled his life. It would be the boldest move he ever made, ultimately changing his life and the lives of those around him."

You can order Leaving Montana here. Visit author Thomas Whaley on the web here. ◊


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 is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

This Just In… Baby in the Window by Alretha Thomas

A magna cum laude graduate of UCLA, Cassandra Harte never took a test she couldn’t ace. So when her home pregnancy test comes back negative, she’s certain the kit’s defective. 

Failure has never been an option for Cassandra. She has a well-established career, a handsome husband, and a lovely home. But there’s one thing Cassandra desperately wants that she doesn’t have: A baby. After trying for months to get pregnant without success, she starts to wonder if she’s finally met a challenge she cannot conquer. Determined to conceive, she creates an ovulation calendar so she can seize that perfect 24-hour window. When that fails, she sends up fervent prayers. But it soon becomes apparent that her inability to become pregnant has nothing to do with timing or faith, and everything to do with Renee, her diabolical, thirteen-year-old stepdaughter.

You can order Baby in the Window here. Visit author Alretha Thomas on the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Obama Family Bookstore Purchases Make Headlines

When the first family goes Christmas shopping it’s big news, of course. And the watchers take note of not only where they went, but what they bought. When their destination is a bookstore, we get interested, too.

On Small Business Saturday, President Obama and his daughters hit Washington indie Politics and Prose, in the end purchasing 17 books. From the New York Times:

The president and his daughters, Sasha and Malia, browsed the shelves and chatted with customers before buying two bags full of books at the store, where they also shopped at this time last year. According to a White House print pool report, Mr. Obama at one point held a patron’s baby.

At the checkout counter, a cashier asked the president, “You from out of town?” Mr. Obama replied, “I am. Do I get a discount for that?” Another cashier jokingly offered a “neighbor discount.”

“I’ll take that,” Mr. Obama said, in an exchange captured by a television pool video posted by CBS News.

According to the White House, the Obamas bought the following books:

• Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
• Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business by Barbara Park
• A Barnyard Collection: Click, Clack, Moo and More by Doreen Cronin
• I Spy Sticker Book and Picture Riddles by Jean Marzollo
• Nuts to You by Lynn Rae Perkins
• Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus by Barbara Park
• Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
• Redwall by Brian Jacques
• Mossflower by Brian Jacques
• Mattimeo by Brian Jacques
• Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell
• The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
• The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson
• All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
• Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
• Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
• Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet, Mark Strand, Dead at 80


Pulitzer prize-winning poet Mark Strand (Sleeping With One Eye Open, Man and Camel) has died yesterday morning at his daughter’s home in New York. He was 80.

From The Guardian:
“He was a funny, elegant, generous and brilliant man,” [Jessica Strand] said of her father. “A man who lived to work and to be with his friends and the people he loved.”
A distinctive presence even at the end of his life, with his lean build, white hair and round glasses, Strand received numerous honors, including the Pulitzer in 1999 for Blizzard of One, a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a National Book award nomination this fall for Collected Poems. He was appointed US poet laureate for 1990-91, although he did not count his time in Washington among his great achievements.
“It’s too close to the government. It’s too official. I don’t believe that poetry should be official ... there are poets who aspire to such positions; I never did.”
Author of more than a dozen books of poetry and several works of prose, Strand was haunted by absence, loss and the passage of time from the beginning of his career, sometimes peering just beyond the contents of the page and wondering what, if anything, was out there.
See the full piece here. The New York Times does Strand honor here.

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This Just In… Smokescreen by Khaled Talib

At an ancient café in Cairo, two veteran spies plot a covert mission to resolve once and for all -- the Israeli -- Palestinian conflict. The pledge: Israel will make a major concession as part of the peace treaty.

In Singapore, Jethro Westrope, a magazine journalist, stumbles onto the scene of a murder: the beautiful Niki Kishwani directs him, in her last breath, to a digital recorder, evidence that puts Jethro’s life in serious danger. And, much worse, he is framed for Niki’s murder. Jethro sets out to find Niki’s killer and is drawn into a web of deception and intrigue involving officials from the Singaporean, Israeli, and American governments, each with a complex, competing, and potentially deadly agenda.

Against this pulse-pounding backdrop, Jethro races to find answers and save himself -- yet nothing is as it seems. He finds himself at the centre of a political plot so diabolical and sweeping in its world implications that he is stunned to discover tomorrow’s news headlines today. He is being set up not only as a murderer but as an assassin, and something much larger than his own fate is in his hands.

You can order Smokescreen here. Visit author Khaled Talib on the web here. ◊


This Just In...
 is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Friday, November 28, 2014

Blade Runner Sequel to Begin Production

The long-awaited sequel to director and producer Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic Blade Runner will begin filming in 2015. From Indiewire:
Scott said that he won’t direct "Blade Runner 2," but will stay on as a producer, with filming scheduled to get underway next year. There's no word why he opted out of the director's chair, but considering his next project is "The Martian" with Matt Damon, he probably just doesn't have the time anymore. But he's been deeply involved, working on the script with "Blade Runner" scribe Hampton Fancher, and Scott even spilled a few more details about the rumored and highly expected return of Harrison Ford as Deckard.
The original film was adapted from the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.

Though the original film tanked with critics, the neo noir dystopian film set in a dank and uncomfortable 2019 Los Angeles quickly made stars of both Scott and Harrison Ford, who played retired police officer Rick Deckard who will reprise the role in the new film.

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This Just In… CASPER: El Cuento De Amor De Un Gangster by Ray Childress & Akila Cruz

This sexually charged, unfriendly tale of money and murder explodes when Casper’s high-rolling uncle gets himself murdered. Casper is then forced to hit the streets harder than ever to prove he’s much more than a ghetto prince who has had everything handed to him on a platinum platter... but, in the midst of a Guerra with a former affiliated set, Casper becomes enthralled by a Puerto Rican bella who wants nothing to do with someone like him; due in part to her close family ties to a Latin King clan hailing from the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

You can order CASPER: El Cuento De Amor De Un Gangster here. Read about the authors here. ◊


This Just In...
 is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Film Them

JK Rowling has completed the script for the screen version of the Harry Potter spin-off, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. According to Harry Potter producer David Heyman, the script is “wonderful.” From The Telepgraph:
Heyman praised Rowling's debut scriptwriting efforts: "She is so smart, and her turn of phrase, the precision of the language she uses, is a joy to behold."
Heyman's company, Heydey Films, has produced all eight of the blockbuster Harry Potter films, as well as 2013's space epic Gravity. He will work with Rowling and Warner Bros studios on the Fantastic Beasts trilogy, which is set 70 years before Hogwarts and follows the adventures of Newt Scamander, the author of the titular textbook that Harry and his classmates will later study from.
January Magazine reviewed the book when it first came out in 2001. The screen version is anticipated for 2016.

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This Just In… Blood Blossom by Daryl Hajek

After having been separated for 22 years, Vivian wants to reestablish ties with her younger sister, Christine. Instead, she is met with hostility and resistance. Christine wants one thing and one thing only: revenge. Fueled by rage and a sadistic sense of humor, Christine will stop at nothing to go after their mysterious mother, Rose.

Julia Windom, a wealthy woman with selfish motives, concocts plot after plot to ensure her personal goal is achieved.

They all become embroiled in a battle of wits to stay one step ahead of each other. Lives are further complicated in a whirlpool of diverse events as they occur at breakneck speed. Overwhelming crises develop, strengths and weaknesses are tested, truths overcome lies, and shocking secrets are revealed that could push some to the brink of insanity.

You can order Blood Blossom here. Visit author Daryl Hajek on Facebook here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

This Just In… Mixing Business and Pleasure by M. Skye

After his past bad relationship, 29-year-old newly promoted record label CEO, Jackson Whitmore, vows never to love again. With his best friend and vice-president, Eric, at his side, Jackson’s main focus is the business, until a beautiful woman, Milan Wells, waltzes into his life and is introduced as the new president. While Jackson wants to object to the decision, it becomes difficult when Milan brings forth bold and fresh ideas, catching both his and Eric’s attention; for different reasons.

Tensions soon arise when Milan and Eric’s competitive natures collide, forcing Jackson to intervene which causes a rift between the once inseparable duo. With rumors of Milan’s abusive relationship surfacing and Eric spiraling out of control, Jackson finds himself stepping up to protect Milan and entering an intense physical relationship. While Jackson and Milan are slowly falling for one another, Eric’s jealousy erupts into a vicious quest for revenge that plunges the lovers into a danger they never imagined.

You can order Mixing Business and Pleasure here. Visit author M. Skye on the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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More Seven Figure Advances Part of the “New Normal”

Seven figure advances on novels are becoming more common, according to Publishers Weekly, who reports that a number of factors are responsible.
During the run-up to this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair in early October, three seven-figure deals for debut works were closed by Big Five houses. Shortly after the fair, the New York Times ran an article about a waitress who landed a high six-figure advance. The streak continued with news that St. Martin’s Press had paid seven figures for a debut novel by New York Times reporter Stephanie Clifford. And, two weeks ago, word broke that indie author Blake Crouch landed seven figures at Crown for Dark Matter, his science fiction novel. For some in the industry, the flurry of big advances is simply business as usual. Others, however, attribute the run to a dearth of great material, along with the ever-pressing need on the part of the big houses to publish major bestsellers.
George Gibson, an industry veteran who is now publishing director at Bloomsbury USA, warned against reading too much into the latest round of big deals, noting that they happen “fairly regularly during the year.” Nonetheless, Gibson acknowledged that the business has changed. For the Big Five, especially, the highly sought-after projects have become essential. “The game plan to make your budget, or exceed it, relies on having bestsellers. That’s always been the case, but it’s the case now more so than ever.” Because both midlist and backlist titles aren’t selling as well as they once did, Gibson explained, the big books, “are more important.”
The full piece is here.

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This Just In… Nutley, the Nut-free Squirrel by Stephanie Sorkin

Nutley, the Nut-free Squirrel is a whimsical tale about a squirrel with a food allergy. Nutley’s message of community support and friendship resonates with all students. As the parent of a child with multiple food allergies, author Stephanie Sorkin donates 100 per cent of the book’s proceeds to F.A.R.E, an organization dedicated to food allergy research and education.

Nutley is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Mascot Books and many retailers nationwide.

You can order Nutley, the Nut-free Squirrel here. Visit author Stephanie Sorkinon the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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IMPAC Dublin Shortlist Announced

Libraries around the world have put forward nominations for the 2015 IMPAC Dublin Award. In total 142 books have been longlisted for the $100,000 international award including 37 from the United States, 19 fro, the UK, 9 from Canada.

2015 nominees include Kate Atkinson (Life After Life), Margaret Atwood (MaddAddam), Charles Belfoure (The Paris Architect), Joseph Boyden (The Orenda), J.M. Coetzee (The Childhood of Jesus), Roddy Doyle (The Guts), Dave Eggers (The Circle), Jhumpa Lahiri (The Lowland), Joanathan Lethem (Dissident Gardens), Thomas Pynchon (Bleeding Edge) and many others.

See the complete longlist for the 2015 Dublin IMPAC award here. The winners will be announced June 2015.

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This Just In… Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files by Trevor D. Richardson

Your TV is watching you.

Your cell phone is listening to everything you say.

There are no secrets, no quiet moments. There is no privacy.

Behind the veil of work and life, democracy, free enterprise, and the roar of restaurants, bars, and blockbuster movies there are the Watchers -- a secret branch of the US government with the sole task of spying on the American public through hidden cameras, tapped phones, the Internet, satellites, and even safe, sensible modern appliances. Then one day a young man named Joe Blake looks back through the monitor, locks eyes with an aging Watcher and says, “I know you’re out there. I know you’re listening.”

Systems at the Watcher compound go dark, malfunctions run rampant, and the agency begins a meticulous investigation into Joe’s life. Through the surveillance record we watch as he grows into a troubled rock star witnessing the downward spiral of the American economy from the road. We watch his fight against a corrupt corporate takeover of a government formally by and for the people, and we see the end of our way of life in the small compromises that go overlooked or unnoticed. Joe declares war on the system, but can he complete his mission before the Watchers track him down through his own past? In a race against time, who wins, the people or the money?

You can order Dystopia Boy here. Visit author Trevor D. Richardson on the web here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Charlie Brown Getting Closer to the Big Screen

Charles Schulz fans are beginning to get really excited about the upcoming release of the animated adaptation of Peanuts, based on the classic comic series of that same name.

But don’t go standing in line quite yet: the film may still be a year away. From Collider:
The movie is a little under a year away, and producer Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Freaks and Geeks) tells USA Today that if the film had a title closer to other Peanuts adaptations, he would probably call it Don’t Give Up, Charlie Brown!. According to USA Today, “The story follows the little round-headed boy with the indomitable optimism on a quest to get something he’s sure he needs, even though he discovers he’s pretty OK just as he is.”
Read the full piece here.

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Monday, November 03, 2014

Crime Fiction: The Cost of Doing Business
by Jonathan Ashley

(Editor’s note: The following review comes from Steve Nester, the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine. He last wrote for January Magazine about Tod Goldberg’s latest novel, Gangsterland.)

Louisville, Kentucky, is a tough old town. Wedged between the Ohio River and the outskirts of Appalachia, it’s a “city of enterprise, criminal and otherwise.” The side of the tracks where narrator Jon Catlett resides -- in Jonathan Ashley’s debut crime novel, The Cost of Doing Business (280 Steps) -- is a slim strip of bohemia; but beneath the restaurants and trendy shops there’s grit and a dog with plenty of fight. Catlett isn’t a bad type; he’s a bit of a cynic who owns a used book shop, so you know he’s a thinker; he has girlfriend problems and mounting bills, so he’s kind of a regular Joe; but what makes him different is the 800-pound gorilla of a heroin problem on his back.

His life is aimless and he’ll be the first to admit it. Yet he scrapes along, selling a few books, hosting hip concerts in his “posh, quasi-Gertrude Stein-esque salon disguised as a bookstore” for “the painfully predictable who stood for nothing,” doing small-time dope deals and getting high. Funny thing is, heroin is the biggest impediment in his life, but it also turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. When the “arbitrary nature of fate sideswiped me,” as Jon says in one of his many pithy and homespun, poetic observations worthy of Daniel Woodrell or Matthew McBride, his life’s work is revealed -- and all it took was a murder.

Even though it’s an accident, Jon’s killing of an annoying trust-fund junkie begins his elevation, along with sidekick Paul, from “part-time middle man to straight up dope kingpin.” Jon faces his change of life with equanimity, focus and a willingness to be mentored by corrupt cops and mobsters who’ve been to the rodeo many times. Best of all, he discovers he has a knack for the logistics of setting up and implementing drug deals. He’s making lots of money, too, so much that his addiction takes a back seat. The lessons Jon learns as he rises to the challenges of literally plotting and shooting his way to the top of the supply chain are laconic and wise. You don’t read Ashley’s work for the plotting or the action; it’s all been done before. You read it for the wry rural bard in Jon; and as a self-observant realist he pulls no punches, even from behind the veil of lies that is part of any addiction. “I acted like I’d only entered the dope game out of necessity,” he says. “Who am I kidding, though, I knew even then that the reason this recent detox had been so manageable was because a new addiction had begun to enter my life, power.” Things get better and better with every dead dope dealer he and his cohorts leave in their path as they make their way to Chicago and the Russian mob. Shooting people, a risk that invites unwanted scrutiny, is just part of the game that everyone involved accepts.

Calling the shots after getting rid of a blackmailing cop who discovered the trust-fund junkie’s murder is Louisville detective “Mad Dog” Mike Milligan. Milligan shows Jon that the first and foremost rule to surviving as a successful drug dealer, from the street corner to what passes as the corner office, is beating your newest business partner to the double cross. Jon and his motley crew of homeboys and misfits plot and eventually ally with Luther Longmire, a Kentucky gangster who happens to be carrying on a hot and heavy affair with his leggy first cousin Amara. Jon has been having an on-again, off-again affair with a wealthy and recovering addict whose presence is barely felt in the book, but when Amara enters, Jon is hooked. Amara is trouble and Jon knows it, but he can’t help himself. “It seemed that all Amara truly feared,” he thinks, “was boredom.” They bond over the poetry of William Butler Yeats, but Amara doesn’t let a libidinous fling get in the way of blood kin or business.

There’s an OK Corral in The Cost of Doing Business, and Luther and Amara and anyone else foolish enough to enter with Jon and Mad Dog are forced to pay the cost of doing business. ◊

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Friday, October 31, 2014

A Month Spent with a Master

So it’s Halloween. That means not only that children are likely to show up on your doorstep this evening, begging for candy (and future dental work), but that Killer Covers’ month-long tribute to American artist-illustrator Robert McGinnis has come to an end.



Written by J. Kingston Pierce (who also edits our sister blog, The Rap Sheet), Killer Covers is a site devoted to the demanding art of book design. On October 1, Pierce began posting paperback fronts painted by McGinnis, a man who -- over his 88 years -- has established a firm and familiar artistic identity. “It’s not so easy as saying that McGinnis’ covers are sexy and seductive; some are neither, though they’re still distinctive,” explains Pierce. “But his work does tend to feature long-legged, shapely and whip-smart-looking women, in the most attractive poses. Even if you’re not familiar with his name, the likelihood is you’ve enjoyed looking at his book covers over the years, as well as the many posters he created for the James Bond films and others.” Recognizing both McGinnis’ expertise and longstanding influence on the field, in 1993 the Society of Illustrators elected him to its Illustrators’ Hall of Fame.

Day after day throughout October, Killer Covers has highlighted one (sometimes more than one) new piece of McGinnis book art after the next. Most of those images came from crime and mystery novels, though a scattering had appeared on Westerns, romances and tales of espionage. “I had originally supposed that I might post one of those covers every couple of days,” Pierce recalls, “but even before I introduced the first of the bunch, I knew I had many more excellent choices than I could reasonably put up within a month. My computer is now stuffed with book scans I had to leave behind.”

Pierce also took the opportunity recently to interview Art Scott, who with McGinnis put together a forthcoming volume about that illustrator’s work, The Art of Robert E. McGinnis (Titan). The results of their exchange were posted earlier this week in two sections -- the first part in Pierce’s most recent Kirkus Reviews column, the remainder in The Rap Sheet.

For his final installment in the covers series, Pierce today posted two examples of McGinnis’ artistry, both taken from Erle Stanley Gardner novels published in 1962 -- and both boasting Halloween-appropriate imagery. Click here to enjoy those.

And to review all of Killer Covers’ McGinnis artwork, use this link.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fiction: Prince Lestat by Anne Rice

No one does what Anne Rice does.

In 1976, she kickstarted what would become today’s vampire craze. Thank her for Sookie and Edward and Bella and all that. Anne Rice made blood sucking chic, fun, and tantalizing. She dusted off Dracula’s tropes, trashed his tux, tossed the mythology and the rules, and reinvented a genre, inspired by the death of her young daughter and her own thirst for telling a great story.

That first novel, Interview with the Vampire, was the story of the vampire Louis and his maker, the monstrous vampire Lestat, a French nobleman. Back in 18th century New Orleans, they fed at night and created (and later lost) a so-called daughter, Claudia. Along the way we met a few of their vampire brothers (and some sisters) as Rice began to build her world of darkness.

Interview was followed up, nine years later, by The Vampire Lestat. All by itself, that book started what Rice has built on since, relentlessly, creatively, and with a unique quality that no one seems to focus on. Lestat, you see, read Interview and hated it. Furious that Louis dared to reveal the world of the vampires to the reading public via that extended interview, Lestat set about to tell his own tale, his own way.

The linked novels The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned were Lestat’s response to what Louis started. And now, all these years later, Lestat has returned to pick up the tale again in Prince Lestat (Knopf).

The time is now. The vampire world is fractured. A mysterious voice is speaking telepathically to vampires the world over, and covens and their denizens are being burned. Whole vampire communities wiped out. What to do? Who can save the day? Guess.

Unlike Lestat’s earlier works, Prince Lestat is not simply a first-person account of what happens next. Instead, Rice has woven together sections Lestat narrates on his own with third-person accounts of other vampires’ experiences. Some half dozen others appear here in a story that picks up Rice’s finest, oldest threads.

Lestat started all this ruckus, became the so-called Brat Prince and ruled as a rock star, and now that their world is threatened, he has to fix it. Here’s the thing, though: The vampires here have read all the other books -- Louis’s book and Lestat’s books -- not just the first three but probably all the others, too, which are not mentioned in this one. My point is that Rice didn’t just reinvent the vampire; she also created a new world that exists both within and apart from ours, a world in which her own books figure prominently as narrative devices, as motivating factors, as touchstones. Not only does she find ways -- brilliant ways -- to tease new narrative potential from old stories, she does so while also acknowledging that those stories are already part of the other characters’ psyches. I don’t know of any other novelist doing that. Rather than plucky self-promotion, this is of a higher order. What we read as novels, they read as their leader’s autobiographies. Our fiction is their non-fiction.

And then there’s Rice’s way with words. Some may complain that she overdoes it, but I won’t be among them. She has not lost any of her flair for description, allowing us to experience the world the way her vampires do, with the sensory volume turned up to 11. Her vampires dip into the culture we ourselves are living in right now. They marvel at iPhones, they explore using the Internet, and one of them even has an Internet radio show that he uses to communicate with vampires all around the world. But for all this, they hear and see and taste with an accuracy and a beauty that we can only dream of. They experience their world -- our world -- in ways we don’t. They see more and hear more. They’re in touch with it all. They make being a vampire look fun, sexy, and irresistible.

Rice wants us to feel through Lestat, to learn what it feels like to drink, to soar, to see color and feel heat as he does. He and the others thirst, love, and lose just as we do, and their bodies flood not just with blood, but also exhilaration, heartbreak, and triumph. All of it is rendered in such a way that brings every moment a certain gravitas. You get the sense that something massive is taking shape. I don’t think it’s there yet, but it’s coming. Because while science fiction is a commentary on our society, Anne Rice’s vampires are a commentary on us. ◊

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

This Just In… Bill Moss: Fabric Artist and Designer by Marilyn Moss

This book traces the life and work of one of America’s most innovative fabric artists and designers, a pioneer in the creation of tension fabric structures.

The contributions of Bill Moss to mid-20th-century American culture were many. First changing the world of camping with the invention of the Pop Tent, he went on to shake the world of fabric architecture with many forms that we now take for granted.

Lavishly illustrated with historic photographs, the book chronicles Moss’ creative life from his early years until his death in 1994. It has a broad appeal as it encompasses many aspects of our cultural history -- from architecture and design to biography to the complete transformation of the camping experience.

Woven into this tale is the story of an award-winning Maine company, Moss Inc. Engaged in the creative economy long before most people used the term, it was also known as being one of the most socially responsible businesses in the country, a reputation that held fast until its sale by CEO Marilyn Moss in 2001.

Sena Jeter Naslund (Ahab’s Wife) writes “the beauty of the tents and fabric structures is simply breathtaking... the book as a whole creates an exciting, transcendent aesthetic and intellectual experience for the reader-viewer; it creates lives and art all at once.”


You can order Bill Moss: Fabric Artist and Desginer here. Visit the Bill Moss web site here. ◊


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Seven Sequels: Publishers Getting Creative

With the business of selling books getting more demanding by the minute, it behooves publishers to get on board with doing things differently. While everyone in the business knows this, not everyone truly gets it.

Orca Books is one outfit that has been understanding that message since the outset. The medium-sized Canadian publisher based in Victoria, British Columbia has developed several series intended to inspire readers who’ve liked one book to latch on and select further from an ever-deepening pool of similar books.

One of these is the thriller series Orca calls Seven. Aimed at 10 to 15-year-old readers, the series launched in 2012 with seven linked books from seven different highly regarded authors. Orca explains the premise of the series:
When David McLean, beloved grandfather and avid adventurer, dies at the age of ninety-two, he leaves behind a very unusual will that outlines the seven tasks he has set for his seven grandsons. Eric Walters and six other well -- known authors -- John Wilson, Ted Staunton, Richard Scrimger, Norah McClintock, Sigmund Brouwer and Shane Peacock -- bring their signature styles to a series of adventures that take readers from the top of Kilimanjaro to the bottom of the Mediterranean.
Great idea, right? And it seems to be working, inviting readers to indulge in the literary equivalent of binge-watching a television series. Over 100,000 copies of the original seven have been sold (a good number in Canada) and the house has just followed up with sequels from each author, labeling the project “The Seven Sequels” and anchoring it with its own web site. All 14 books now in the series are linked, but can be read out of sequence or even on their own.

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This Just In… A Mountain Stands: Confessions of a Suppressed Genius by Scott Sonnon

Why does Donna Karan of DKNY call Scott Sonnon “inspirational?” As a child, Sonnon had dyslexia so severe that he was forcibly institutionalized due to being perceived as unteachable.

Despite being told again and again that he would be a failure, Sonnon found inspiration in the advocacy of his mother, the wisdom of his grandfather and the writings of philosophers to become an overachiever: a five-time World Champion in martial arts, inventor, entrepreneur and Hall of Fame trainer.

His recent TEDx presentation went viral, inspiring tens of millions around the globe. Now Sonnon offers fellow dyslexics, parents and others inspiration from the lessons he learned the hard way.

A Mountain Stands: Confessions of a Suppressed Genius offers a convenient format that can be read one short chapter-lesson at a time, or as a traditional biography.

You can order A Mountain Stands here. Visit Scott Sonnon on the web here.


This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis or for a small fee. Want to see your new book included? Ordering details are here.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Of Brothers and Big Shots, Crime and Coney

Like many readers, I expect, I first heard of Kevin Baker following the publication of his 1998 novel, Dreamland. That book, set in New York City in 1910, was “a wild amusement-park ride on a continuous loop,” to quote from Thomas Mallon’s review in The New York Times. Dreamland, he continued, “is historical fiction at its most entertaining and, in a number of spots, most high-handed.” Kirkus Reviews, meanwhile, focused on the book’s “generous display” of historical detail:
The various facets of New York and Coney Island, where the ornate park of the title is located, are scribed in intimate detail: the notorious jail The Tombs, City Hall, the Triangle garment factory, immigrant housing, whiskey bars, and strip joints, all are nicely animated. Meanwhile, dozens of characters stroll through these various locales: Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung visit New York and observe the vulgarity of America; Trick the Dwarf tells of the bizarre and the humane at Dreamland -- the dwarfs and the bearded ladies -- which is the most familiar world he knows; and Esther, a garment worker alienated from her immigrant family, takes an active role in the labor movement. Also on hand are Gyp the Blood, a small-time criminal; Big Tim, the Tammany politico, plus Kid Twist and Sadie and Clara.
Before it was engulfed by flames in 1911, Dreamland was one of Coney Island’s most grandiose, and in some ways most eccentric, public entertainments. Baker’s own Dreamland was hardly less ambitious, and made me hungry for more of his work. Fortunately, the author has satisfied my appetite on a fairly regular basis ever since, releasing Paradise Alley in 2002, Strivers Row (featuring a fictionalized Malcolm X) in 2006 and, in 2013, The Big Crowd -- which was finally issued in paperback this fall.

A fairly exceptional New York history blog called The Bowery Boys explains that The Big Crowd turns on the mystery of the 1941 “suicide” of Abe Reles, aka Kid Twist, a successful mob hit man who died, tumbling from a hotel room window, while in police custody -- and in the midst of testifying against some of the city’s most notorious gangsters. However, the emotional center of The Big Crowd is largely dominated by Charlie O’Kane, a bigger-than-life character based openly on William O’Dwyer, a former district attorney who won national celebrity through his prosecution of organized-crime figures, and was elected in 1946 as New York City’s 100th mayor -- only to later be brought down by controversy having to do with police corruption.

The Bowery Boys opines that “while their biographies are nearly the same … O’Kane is a lustier, more mysterious figure, escaping America and becoming an almost godlike figure [and a U.S. ambassador] in Mexico City.” It’s to Mexico, then, that Charlie’s much-younger brother, Tom, with the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, goes in the early 1950s to ask the former mayor questions about his possible involvement in Reles’ demise. His hope is to stand up for this brother he once idolized and clear Charlie of wrongdoing. But Baker’s yarn offers no such easy satisfactions. What he finds in Mexico City is a sibling trying to put his best face forward, but haunted by the troubles and compromises of his past. Charlie is also contending with an estranged and headstrong second wife, Slim Sadler -- a quondam model increasingly dissatisfied with her Mexican exile -- for whom Tom O’Kane has long had feelings, but who’s presently carrying on too publicly with a matador. Reviewing The Big Crowd for The New York Times, author Scott Turow pointed out that “All the O’Kanes -- Charlie and Tom and even Slim -- are patterned after real people: the former New York mayor William O’Dwyer; the fashion model he married while in office, Sloan [or Sloane] Simpson; and O’Dwyer’s brother, Paul, an activist lawyer who was once elected City Council president. Baker is clearly trying to unravel the enigma of how a figure like William O’Dwyer could fly into office on the wings of hope only to find himself sunk in scandal.”

(Left) Author Kevin Baker.
(Photograph by Nina Subin.)


Accomplishing that task leads Baker to skip about through the early 20th century, and across borders, as he retraces Charlie O’Kane’s rise to power, the uneasy relationships he establishes with powerful and corrupting figures in New York City, the costs of his ambition and the depths of treachery to which some people will sink to exploit his weaknesses.

I had the opportunity recently to address questions, via e-mail, to Kevin Baker about his latest novel, and didn’t hesitate to take it. We discussed his interests in historical fiction, the rich immigrant story of William O’Dwyer and his brother, crime and social optimism in post-World War II Manhattan, and a great deal more.

J. Kingston Pierce: You weren’t born in New York City, but rather in New Jersey. Yet after attending Columbia University there, you never left. Was there something about old Gotham that made it easier for you to imagine your future there than anyplace else?

Kevin Baker: Actually, it was much more the New York of the time, 1970s New York, that drew me. The city had many problems then, but it was also a very exciting, vibrant place to be; a very cheap place for an aspiring writer or artist to live.

I had ties to the city already. My mother was born in Washington Heights, my father on Fordham Road. I had some idea of what it was like already, and I couldn’t wait to go live there.

The love of its history only came later, as I began to know, and wonder how it had come to be what it was.

JKP: Your official bios all seem to leave a huge gap between your earning a degree in political science and your becoming a novelist. Can you briefly explain what happened during those “lost years”? Did you ever use that political science degree?

KB: Hardly! Columbia was (and is) a great, great school. Going there was one of the best decisions I ever made, but I regret that poli sci degree. I would have been better off, I think, majoring in straight-out history, or English. But thanks in part to the college’s core curriculum, I was exposed to any number of great thinkers and writers I had no inkling of when I went there as an 18-year-old -- which is why the core is so important.

No, the “gap” just reflects my doing whatever sort of work I could -- largely freelance writing, copy-editing, proofreading -- while I tried to write and sell fiction. I began writing five pages a day on a novel the week I started college, thinking I would surely publish my first book before I graduated. Instead, it took me 15 years before I sold a lick of it!

JKP: I’m not sure that E.L. Doctorow opened up these floodgates with Ragtime (1975), but there are certainly many historical novels nowadays featuring real-life characters in either starring or secondary roles. Do you think this is a valuable trend? And are there risks that novelists run in featuring historical figures in their fiction?

KB: That’s a very good point, I think Doctorow did indeed open up the floodgates with Ragtime. He’s really been the father of modern historical fiction, I think. One thing I love about his take on the genre is that he’s completely unapologetic about any of it. He feels the fiction writer should write about whatever he pleases, and I think he’s right about that.

This gets back to the whole argument over just what “historical fiction” is, and I think we’re very wrong to separate it, and ghettoize it as we do in this country. It’s just as legitimate as any other form of fiction, and in fact through much of history it’s been the dominant form of fiction.

The ancient Greeks didn’t keep writing about, say, Odysseus, as “historical fiction,” the Romans didn’t write about Aeneas as historical fiction. These were central, founding myths of their societies, and assessing them, and reassessing them was a critical element in how they debated what their society was, and what it should be.

Sure, the genre’s been mightily abused over the years through bodice rippers, and bad detective stories, and hero-worshipping … but what form of literature hasn’t been? Why shouldn’t we be able to write stories about prominent, or simply intriguing, public figures of the past?

Naturally, one needs to think it out, because as the famous L.P. Hartley quote goes, the past’s another country, they do things differently there. I would never have a real-life figure saying or doing something in opposition to all that we know about him, or get too far off in flights of fancy about what he might do.

But then, we all paint from life. Why is it legitimate to, say, write a contemporary novel based on one’s father, but not to write a historical novel based on a founding father?

JKP: There’s always a tendency, when writing a novel based on extensive research, to include as much of that research as possible in the finished product. How do you combat such a tendency in your own fiction-writing?

KB: I don’t combat it very well! I find that’s always difficult -- and I think that’s where Mr. Doctorow and I differ in our approaches. I was told by one of his former students that he advises, “Do as little research as you can get away with,” when writing historical fiction, and certainly that works for him.

For me, I find it’s always the things I wasn’t looking for that say so much, and that’s why I’m happy to do so much research. For instance, in this case I had no idea that Sloane Simpson, the real-life second wife of William O’Dwyer, actually learned how to bullfight while they were in Mexico.

Or the whole story of William McCormack, the “Mr. Big” in the book. He was a fascinating individual, and he wielded enormous power in New York, controlling the largest port in the world with an iron fist. But he was virtually unknown by the public in his own time, and is pretty much forgotten today.

Characters and details like that are not something you even necessarily know are out there when you start, and they become vital to the work. They not only tell you so much about a time and place, they also fill in all the gaps, and complete the puzzle of your characters.

But I do tend to get carried away with it, which is where I have to fight myself. And fortunately, I’ve always had terrific editors to help me, in this case Andrea Schulz and Nicole Angeloro, at Houghton Mifflin.

JKP: So let’s talk about Mayor O’Dwyer. When did you first become interested in his checkered career? And what was it you found most interesting about him?

KB: I first became interested in him when I discovered, many years ago, that he was the (much) older brother of Paul O’Dwyer, who was such a political icon in New York for so many years: the last fighting liberal, always taking on one cause or another, no matter what the odds.

(Left) Mayor William O’Dwyer

And when I learned that William O’Dwyer had more or less had to live in Mexico in exile for years, I thought how can it be that Paul had this disgraced older brother? Accused of some very serious things -- of having helped to kill probably the greatest mob witness of all time; of being a tool of the mob, of the political machines when they were at their most venal and corrupt. What sort of conflicts must there have been there?

I went into this initially to tell a story of two brothers. The fact that the real-life Paul O’Dwyer would never say a word against his brother in public, always maintained his innocence, only whetted my appetite.

What I found most interesting about William O’Dwyer was that he has this great immigrant story behind him, somebody who came here as a seminary dropout with no money, worked his way up as a hod carrier, a cop on the beat. Went to law school at night, became a district attorney, even a war hero. He comes back from World War II and gets elected mayor, marries the hottest fashion model in the country after his wife dies … and then it all unravels.

It’s the classic immigrant story -- all gone wrong.

JKP: Has this novel made you reassess your views on O’Dwyer?

KB: He was much deeper, much harder to read than I imagined. It was not so much that he was a deeply complicated man -- because he wasn’t -- but that he did a great deal of dissembling throughout his life. You peel back layer after layer, but he remains evasive, and I suspect he did even to those closest to him.

There is, I would say, something ultimately false about the man. Something slightly fabricated. One of the themes I tried to get across in the book is that he almost seemed like a cinematic creation -- a sort of cardboard cutout of the crusading D.A., the all-American boy, the immigrant boy made good.

And yet, under any close examination, it all crumbles away. He was constantly erecting façades of himself, I think, to shield his real self from the public, from the people closest to him, his wife and his brothers, and I think in the end he may have believed in those make-believe O’Dwyers himself.

JKP: You brought up “the classic immigrant story.” Because New York was very much a city of immigrants, you’ve touched on that experience in all your novels set there, I think. But The Big Crowd really exploits the subject. How did you intend to use the history of immigration as a theme in exploring New York City’s mid-20th-century development?

KB: Well, it’s somewhat different from the earlier, 19th-century waves of immigration, because now the Irish, especially, have a solid foothold on the city.

Previously, in books like Paradise Alley and Dreamland, I was writing about how Irish and Jewish immigrants came here and had to really fight their way up with nothing. By the time Charlie O’Kane gets here, a few years before World War I, there’s already a power structure, there are very strong Irish political machines in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx.

He has to sort of plug himself into it -- which is no easy thing, but not quite the life-or-death struggle being an immigrant was.

Yet at the same time, it’s a moment when the old Irish-dominated machines were fading. They had been what [W.E.B.] Du Bois calls “folkways,” means to help the Irish survive, and fight their way into the power structure of this country.

But as Charlie comes to power himself, the machines are losing their reason for being. The country’s gotten rich, there’s more opportunity, there’s a social welfare state in place. People can go to college, they have Social Security, they don’t need the machine to get them a job, or give them the proverbial turkey on Christmas.

Now, all the other immigrants want in, as well. New York by this time is no longer a city that can just be run by a few men in a room, and it never will be again. It can no longer be run just on some understanding between a few powerful politicians and businessmen, maybe a mob boss or two.

We’re all Americans now -- and everybody wants in.

JKP: As you said before, this is very much a novel about brothers, two quite different people with different approaches to life, who wind up supporting and disappointing each other. What was it about the relationship between Tom and Charlie O’Kane that you found most curious or illuminating? And did the story of these brothers unroll differently, during the course of your writing, than you’d originally expected it would?

KB: It was somewhat more complicated than I had originally envisioned -- which I think is good.

I think a lot of the dialogue they’re having is about what it means to be a moral person. How do you get the power to do anyone any good, without first getting corrupted? What do you owe to your family and friends, and what do you owe to the people all around you, to the city in general?

Tom is much more the idealist, at least at first, and Charlie is trying to show him practical ways to get power, and to do good with it. But you know, it’s so easy after awhile to confuse what you’re doing for the people, and what you’re doing for yourself.

JKP: What do you see as the role of Slim Sadler in this novel?

KB: Slim is based closely on Sloane Simpson, who was a fascinating individual, somebody who came from old money and very high society. Her father was a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt, one of her mother’s family was a Founding Father, they had cattle empires, and banking empires.

But then her father lost all his money, and she had to go make a living as a model. And she was very good at it, she was considered a great actress on the runway. She moved in very high circles in New York society, and really loved that life.

She was 23 years younger than O’Dwyer when they met, and she became his second wife, with all of the complications that such circumstances usually entail. She was always flirtatious, and gregarious, and he was very jealous, and that just aggravated everything.

(Right) Sloane Simpson in Life,
May 29, 1950


Then, down in Mexico, she was very unhappy in this sort of straitened, exiles’ existence they were living. She loved the country, and she loved the culture, but she couldn’t stand being boxed up with this jealous, bitter old man, and she started acting out -- learning to bullfight, having affairs.

The real Sloane did not do all the things I have the fictional Slim Sadler doing in the novel, which I feel a little bad about because I really liked the real Sloane. She sounds like she was a remarkable person, a real fighter and a hell of a lot of fun. But she said about herself, “I’ve had the morals of an alley cat” -- she really did have a penchant for getting into trouble.

I think what she represented to William O’Dwyer, and to both O’Kane brothers in the book, was the promise of America. She was the golden girl, from money and position, and to get her was to attain the dream.

But then of course, when you do get her, you find out the dream’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and it’s a bit of a lie, and all you can do is worry about losing it.

JKP: The Big Crowd makes postwar New York seem like a particularly optimistic place. Or is that your romantic side coming through?

KB: Oh, I think it was a very optimistic place! You have to understand, New York was the only great world city that had not been bombed or occupied during the war. It had emerged, almost overnight, as the leading city on the world scene, replacing the old European capitals as the leader in art, and literature, and fashion.

It was absolutely dominant economically -- far and away the world’s leading financial center, the country’s largest wholesale and retail center, with over a million manufacturing jobs still. Something like 40 percent of the nation’s commerce came through its port. It had easily the highest buildings in the world, the largest population of any city, anywhere.

It was incredibly vibrant, incredibly exciting -- and incredibly cheap. It was still a great middle-class and working-class town, where you didn’t have to have a lot of money to experience all sorts of things: go hear the best jazz in the world, see some of the greatest art -- watch Willie Mays play baseball.

That scene I have in the book, where Toots Shor, the legendary saloonkeeper, walks arm-in-arm down the middle of his restaurant one night with Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey on one arm, and Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby on the other, that really happened. And Toots Shor’s was not some exclusive nightclub, it was where pretty much anyone could go, and did, and I think it was extremely exciting for people to be in the middle of this, and see everything that was going on.

At the same time, there were still people who were excluded from the big party, still restrictions on all sorts of people, that would have to be addressed. Black people still weren’t allowed into most of the leading hotels and restaurants, women were still second-class citizens, gays and lesbians were still outcasts. Columbia, like all the Ivy League schools, had quotas limiting how many Jews could be admitted. Italian-Americans, such a young Mario Cuomo, could not get an interview with white-shoe law firms.

So there was all that which needed to be dealt with, and there were fissures of corruption spreading all underneath this lovely structure. And the men at the top were still refusing to deal with it, still clinging to their own power, and enriching themselves.

JKP: At the same time as this is a book about siblings, and politics, and familial relationships, it’s a story about urban crime. Were there depths or misconceptions of the New York underworld of that period that you were hoping to address?

KB: The misconception about organized crime is that it’s generally not that organized, or as powerful as people make it out to be. But this was the period when the crime families in New York had more political influence than they ever had before, or ever would again.

Historically, gangsters had been controlled and used by the politicians in New York. But with Prohibition, the mob made so much money that, once [Mayor Fiorello] La Guardia left office [in 1945], they were all set up to turn the tables. Now, it was the gangsters who provided the money that kept Tammany Hall going, and they called the shots.

This didn’t last, and in a place the size of New York City there are always competing, countervailing political forces and influences. But while it did, the criminals did tremendous, long-term economic damage to the city. For instance, they really brutalized and impoverished the tens of thousands of men who worked on the waterfront, and they stole so much that they pretty much wrecked the old port.

JKP: As someone who loved Dreamland, I was delighted to see the character of Kid Twist pop up again in The Big Crowd. But this isn’t the adult version of that criminal tyke from Dreamland, is it?

KB:Thank you! But no, this is not the same Kid Twist.

It was the longtime habit of New York gangsters to “honor” one another by taking on the name of some particularly famous, dead mobster. Hence, Arthur Flegenheimer was rechristened “Dutch Schultz” after a previous thug.

There were, incredibly enough, two Kid Twists, and they both met their end on Coney Island.

JKP: The “Kid Twist” in The Big Crowd is, in fact, Abe Reles, a mob enforcer who eventually became a government witness against Murder, Inc. and died mysteriously in a fall from the Half Moon Hotel on Coney Island. Despite a grand jury concluding that Reles had perished accidentally, there seems every reason to believe that he was murdered by his former gangland pals. From your research, what do you think happened to Abe Reles?

KB: Oh, I think he was definitely pushed! The idea that he was trying to escape, or play some prank, as the police speculated at the time, is just ludicrous. Reles was a seriously ill man, and he was desperately afraid for his life. There is no way that he was trying to lower himself down from a ninth-story window on a set of tied-up bed sheets -- something I make plain in the novel.

He was a terrible little man, a top assassin for Murder, Inc., the legendary Brooklyn mob, who was thought to have killed over 60 men during his career.

Murder, Inc. was a sort of early triumph of niche marketing in the underworld. These were gangsters, Jewish and Italian, who hired themselves out to do hits for bigger mobs, all over the country. The advantage of this was that the target, especially in another city, would never see you coming.

They were truly ruthless, horrible men. But they were very much small-fry -- just low-life killers. O’Dwyer, as D.A. of Brooklyn, broke them up. Thanks to Reles, the most successful mob witness in history, he sent seven members of Murder, Inc. to “the Dance Hall” -- the electric chair -- up at Sing Sing, including “Lepke” Buchalter, to this day the only mob leader ever executed in the United States.

Reles gives invaluable testimony against these individuals, his old friends, and clears up dozens of murder cases around the country. But then, just as he’s about to testify against Albert Anastasia, who really is a big deal, the muscle William McCormack uses to control the longshoremen’s union and thereby the Port of New York … out the window Reles goes. Despite the fact that he was being held in a wing of the Half Moon Hotel, out on Coney Island, with a 17-man, ’round-the-clock police guard, behind an iron door.

As everyone wanted to know at the time, how could this have happened? Who did it? Was it crooked cops? The other four mob witnesses Reles was being held at the Half Moon with? Who ordered it? The mob? McCormack? O’Dwyer?

Again, there’s something very phony about everyone’s role, all through it. This case became the heart of the Kefauver Hearings, the first, televised corruption hearings in history, and they held Americans riveted to their brand-new television sets -- and helped wreck O’Dwyer’s reputation.

Was he involved? Who did it? It’s the greatest mystery in the annals of the mob.

I offer a solution that is very closely based on the real facts of the case and, I think, holds up pretty well. Read it and find out!

JKP: I know you’re penning fiction here, but is it really credible that a district attorney would assign Tom O’Kane to investigate his own brother in relation to Reles’ “suicide”?

KB: Yes, that does strain credulity, I’ll admit. But I wanted Tom to have some real power over his brother, maybe even life-or-death, in this matter. I wanted the stakes to matter.

And, I wanted to introduce the legendary Manhattan D.A. of the time, Frank Hogan. I see this book as the first of a planned “City of Gold” trilogy focusing on New York in the 1950s, with Tom investigating three of its iconic scandals: the Reles murder and waterfront corruption; college basketball point-shaving cases; and the quiz show fix.

JKP: I have to admit, as I was reading The Big Crowd I kept remembering Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Is Charlie O’Kane your Willie Stark?

KB: Thank you, that’s a tremendous compliment! But where Penn’s Willie Stark, being based on Huey Long, is much more a force of nature, someone whose ambition and ruthlessness puts him on a fatal course, Charlie O’Kane is much more a hesitant character, a man whose fears about the terrible nature of the world as he saw it in the Depression and World War II, whose self-doubts and whose vanity leaves him prey to being manipulated by more pitiless, determined men.

JKP: I was intrigued to see, in a short post you put together for the blog My Book, the Movie, that you’d like to see Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston in the role of Charlie O’Kane. That would be wonderful casting, I agree. But have you actually seen any Hollywood interest in The Big Crowd? Have filmmakers taken much of an interest in your previous books?

KB: I think Bryan Cranston could play anything, and particularly a politician, after seeing him not only in Breaking Bad, but also in that wonderful Robert Schenkkan play about LBJ, All the Way.

I haven’t heard much about [Hollywood interest in] The Big Crowd yet, just a few murmurings. I’ve had some more serious bites regarding Dreamland. But in general, I’d say all my books would be better as TV shows than movies, because they take place over time, and they’re pretty intense investigations of specific times, and conflicts, and crimes. And I’d be fine with that, I love what’s going on with TV right now.

JKP: What other novels do you think do an especially fine job of illuminating New York City’s history?

KB: Oh, there are so many! My favorite Doctorow is World’s Fair, although I also loved The Waterworks and Billy Bathgate. Peter Quinn wrote a great novel about the draft riots, Banished Children of Eve, that everyone should read. I greatly enjoyed the old Louis Auchincloss novel The Embezzler. I’m sure I’m forgetting some great ones …

JKP: And I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask: What are you writing next?

KB: Right now, I’m finishing up a history of New York City baseball, tentatively entitled The New York Game, for Pantheon, which has been very patient about it. Then, I’m writing a history of the United States between the world wars, for Houghton Mifflin, so it’s real segues into non-fiction for a time.

But I have many more novel ideas, a couple of which I noted above, and I suspect I’ll be returning constantly to New York and its past.

ALSO CHECK OUT: A video profile of Mayor William O’Dwyer.

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