Monday, June 30, 2008

Birth of the Book Tour

On this day in 1857 Charles Dickens gave his very first public reading. From Writer’s Almanac:
It was on this day in 1857 that Charles Dickens gave his first public reading (books by this author). He did this for several reasons: to get away from marital discord at home, because he loved to perform in front of an audience, and because he could make more money reading than he could by writing. His first reading, of A Christmas Carol, was held at Saint Martin's Hall in London, and it was so successful that Charles Dickens became one of the first authors to go on huge, international book tours, performing his own work.
I’m not quite sure what the Boz was doing reading A Christmas Carol in late June. Maybe it’s just that people haven’t changed as much as we sometimes think.

(For instance, Steve Miller has done an awful lot since
Space Cowboy, but fans don't like to think about that too hard. The Pompatus of Love and all of that.)

Though a lot of Dickens’ writing had already been published in novel form --
Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Bleak House and The Pickwick Papers among them -- it’s possible his reading public demanded his most popular, not necessarily his best.

One can imagine Sam Clemens at one of these early readings, watching the skillful orator from England and saying, “Heck! I could do that.” (It probably really would have been “heck” too, dontcha think?) Six years later, he’d reinvent himself as
Mark Twain and, eventually, do his own version of the book tour.

And while we’re peeking at Writer’s Almanac, it was on this day in 1936 that Margaret Mitchell gave her first draft of Gone With the Wind to her editors:
They asked Mitchell to change the original title, “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” because at the time there were already 13 books in print with the word “tomorrow” in the title.
And remember: 1936. How did they even know there were 13 books with
“tomorrow” in the title? It’s not like they could Google it. Gone With the Wind is a way better title anyway. And I don’t know about you, but it’s nearly impossible for me to think of “Scarlett” as “Pansy.”

Fiction: Asylum by André Alexis

No book in recent memory has filled me with anticipation as much as André Alexis’ Asylum (McClelland & Stewart). How could it be otherwise? Alexis’ debut novel, Childhood was published in 1998. (And even the Trinidadian-Canadian author’s debut novel was sharply awaited, following as it did on the highly acclaimed collection, 1994’s Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa.)

The excitement that the wonderful Childhood invited was memorable: the Chapter/Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Trillium Prize, the shortlist for the Giller. And then there was the long decade in between. A children’s book, Ingrid and the Wolf, was published in 2005 but it wasn’t the same. How could it be? It was the novel, the wonderful follow up novel, so many of us were keeping our eyes out for. And then the announcement, last year, for the publication of Asylum for 2008.

And now here we are. And the last page has been turned. Was it worth the wait? It was. It was. It took my breath away.

Ottawa and Tuscany in the 1980s with a cast of characters we would perhaps only believe in that time period; the intertwined lives of a half dozen characters so memorable, I anticipate I’ll be thinking about them for a long time to come. The idealist Franklin Dupuis; Paul Dylan, consumed by his jealousy; Professor Walter Barnes, who provides the source. The novel unwraps slowly and, just when you’re about to give up on lines connecting, Asylum’s disparate parts comes together in unexpected ways.

Asylum is deeply layered, beautifully imagined and realized and it satisfies to the core. Only one thing concerns me now: please, Mr. Alexis, don’t make me wait another decade for the next novel.

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Children’s Books: The Equen Queen by Alyssa Brugman

With The Equen Queen, the second in the Quentaris spinoff series, Alyssa Brugman, best known for mainstream teen fiction, enters the children’s fantasy genre.

The city of Quentaris has been in flight for a while now, since being ripped from its home planet and sent spinning into the vortex. It’s in orbit around a new world and it’s not alone. In fact, sky cities are not especially unusual -- there is even an etiquette about greeting them.

Tab Vidler, heroine of the new series, has found her powers of mental communication disappearing, although they return during the course of the novel. But for the time being, she has no way of guessing what are the intentions of the other sky city. The people seem to be friendly enough, and willing to trade useful stuff in return for being taught children’s games. They also throw in thousands of “mood stones” they claim to have traded from another sky city, which they haven’t found much use, but which are pretty. Obviously, these are going to become significant. They also hand over a couple of “equen,” creatures from the planet below which look more or less like horses, but might have healing abilities.

Tab and her friends have adventures, find out the true intentions of the other city, try to handle a newly-hatched dragon which is very hungry, have trouble with those mood stones and find out the truth about the equen before the end of the book. It’s amazing how much happens in the course of a short 163 pages!

Jeremy Maitlnd-Smith’s lush cover and insert and Louise Prout’s delicate illustrations add considerably to the novel, though I can’t agree with her portrayal of Storm, head of the City Watch. Storm is supposed to be a policewoman and fighter, but is drawn with a Greek-style gown and high-piled hair. I always imagined her more as Xena, which the original description of her suggested. Oh, well. The rest of the illustrations are great, especially the dragon.

The original Quentaris novels were centred around a sort of junior Ankh-Morpork, with new characters in each book. For the new series, think Space: 1999 or Star Trek: Voyager. The city is going to arrive at a new world each time. There may be new characters, but since the city is flying through space, there won’t be too much room for anyone not already there, so the focus has been narrowed.

It will be interesting to see how the series proceeds.

Meanwhile, it’s well worth adding this new series to the old.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Aviator and the Little Prince

Today is the birthday of Antoine de Saint Exupéry who was born on this date in Lyon, France in 1900. The author and aviator disappeared in 1944, a year after he wrote the book most associated with his name, The Little Prince.

From Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac:
The Little Prince is narrated by a pilot who has crashed in the desert, where he meets a strange little boy who claims to have come from an asteroid where he took care of a single rose. The little boy asks the pilot to draw him a sheep, and the two begin a series of conversations, mainly about why it is that grownups are so difficult to get along with.

When The Little Prince came out in 1943, it didn't sell many copies. The following year, Saint-Exupéry was presumed dead when his plane disappeared while he was flying a reconnaissance mission for the Allies, divers didn't find the wreckage until 2000. After Saint-Exupéry’s disappearance in 1944, sales of The Little Prince skyrocketed. Today, it still sells more than 100,000 copies a year.
In fact, The Little Prince is one of the top 50 sell books of all time. It has sold over 50 million copies, which Wikipedia tells us puts it “at number 3 on the most printed books list, just behind The Bible and Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.”

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Author Interview du Jour

If you have a jones for author interviews -- you want to know what’s new and you want it now -- check out the Campaign for the American Reader’s Author Interviews blog.

While Author Interviews doesn’t actually do them, it does collect the data on interviewees: to the tune of one per day. As a result, you end up with a rather good kaleidoscope of what’s hot right now. For instance, over the last week, Author Interviews reported on interviews -- and other details -- with Lisa Shearin (Armed and Magical); Erin Hogan (Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West); Christina Meldrum (Madapple); Walter Nugent (Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion); Tana French (In the Woods); Andrew D. Blechman (Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias); Brent Ghelfi (Volk’s Shadow) and Faye Flam (The Score: How The Quest For Sex Has Shaped The Modern Man).

And if you do check out Author Interviews, you’ll find links to the other blogs in the Campaign for the American Reader network, including The Page 69 Test; My Book, The Movie; The Page 99 Test; Writers Read; Lit Lists; HEPPAS Books and New Books. I could tell you what they all are, but, in the first place, some of the titles are self-explanatory. And in the second, I wouldn’t want to detract from all the fun you’re have exploring.


Friday, June 27, 2008

An Eye on Fiction

As an obsessive reader, I have always been interested in what so much fiction-reading was doing to my mind, and how it made me see the world and occasionally reconsider the way this maddening planet functions.

I’ve known and written at length about the beneficial effect that bibliotheraphy has on people who are either down or actually heading towards depression. I have often recommended books to colleagues and friends when I perceive them heading towards a black dog state. They have thanked me as the book made them alter their thinking. Despite the common snidey swipes I’ve faced based on the stereotypes that often present readers of fiction as socially inept animals, unable to cope with reality, wasting their time, or just plain weird -- I am happy to report that fiction readers are the complete converse. This is scientifically proven so I no longer feel odd discussing books at the dinner table, because -- thanks to New Scientist -- I can tell from the eyes, that what they’re thinking about me, is wrong, damned wrong.

I have subscribed to Britain’s weekly New Scientist magazine for many years. I recently read a very interesting article by Keith Oatley, who is Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Toronto. The piece was called “The Science of Fiction.” Unfortunately New Scientist’s online presence is a subscription only facility but Oatley’s paper is abstracted here:
The Victorians thought that reading Greek and Latin classics, including the stories of Homer, Sophocles and Virgil, would equip them for life. In the 20th century, great novels were considered to be improving. These days, with all the competing attractions of video games, the internet and movies, parents may be happy if their children read anything at all, while adults who enjoy fiction are more likely to view it as purely pleasurable rather than educative or life-enhancing. That is ironic, because for the first time in history there is now scientific evidence that reading fiction really does have psychological benefits.
Basically the paper reports on a scientific experiment carried out by Oatley and his colleagues where they took a large sample of people in the following groups: [a] readers of fiction; [b] readers of non-fiction as well as [c] non-readers.

They compensated for gender, race, age and all other factors and tested the sampled groups’ cognitive processes. It is an absolutely fascinating experiment which reported that readers of fiction are more insightful, have highly developed empathy and understand the social manners that the world works to, compared to non-readers and readers who read non-fiction only. To understand why fiction readers have the advantage click here for PDFs of Oately’s scientific papers that examine the link between reading and cognitive abilities.

Part of the test involved the test-group looking at eyes and reporting what they saw. I found this test fascinating and scored 33 out of 36, indicating a high level of perception. My wife who is only an occasional reader scored only 22.

Try this test for yourself and see how you rate to discover the links between reading and the effect it has on the mind, or visit Oatley’s Blog and discover that, despite his scientific background, he also wrote two novels.

Oh and did you guess whose eyes appear in this piece? I took the photo, so can offer a clue: the writer shown is currently at the top of his game and I’m all eyes whenever he releases a new novel.


Children’s Books: Mahtab’s Story by Libby Gleeson

Since the Taliban’s harsh rule sent refugees fleeing Afghanistan, a new genre of fiction has arrived: the child refugee story. In North America, Deborah Ellis specializes in this genre. Several Australian writers have also been doing it, because refugees have arrived there in boats and ended up in detention centres. It’s a huge issue in Australia, where the would-be immigrants are often in these camps for months or even years before a decision is made about their status, and writers -- especially children’s writers -- make statements through fiction. Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard and Girl Underground are particularly good examples.

Mahtab’s Story (Allen & Unwin) is the latest entry in this genre. Like most others of its kind, it is based on a true story, that of a girl the author met at a Sydney high school while researching the book. At least this author has the courtesy to name and thank the young woman whose story has inspired the book; some other writers don’t.

When twelve-year-old Mahtab’s family suffers under the Taliban, they leave their home in Herat. In Pakistan, after a terrifying journey, Mahtab’s father reluctantly decides that the family will be better off if he goes ahead to Australia to arrange things for them. After they have waited without contact for months, Mahtab, her mother, sister and brother decide to follow by boat, a journey that costs them all their money. When they reach Australia they are placed in a detention camp while their claims to refugee status are being investigated. They find help and friendship from the camp’s nurse, who teaches Mahtab English. But the waiting time is long -- and they always have on their minds the possibility that they will be sent back to the nightmare. And where is Dad?

This story is easy reading and well told, a good introduction for children to the refugee experience.

That said, I’d like to add that while all these stories are important, we have had others since Afghanistan. I haven’t yet come across any novels about the experience of African refugees coming to Australia. Their nightmares are just as real and they, too, have stories that need telliing. As a teacher working with African refugee teenagers, I’d like to see them told.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

In: Cues, Out: Reviews. Let’s Call the Whole Thing Lunch

In a column at The Huffington Post called “Why Entertainment Weekly Rules the World,” Tyler Cowen takes the time to let us know that the day of the review has gone the way of acid wash jeans:
The age of the review has been replaced by the age of the cue. There’s too much wonderful stuff out there to read pages of reviews. I want a letter grade and a few sentences on what it is and whether I might like it. If I love the product I can go read lengthier reviews on the web afterwards, when I understand the context and don't have to worry about spoilers. Most critics don't realize just how much they are dead in the water, and replaced by trusted intermediaries -- like EW or favorite bloggers -- who offer just a few guiding sentences. I often disagree with EW but I always know where they are coming from. I can usually gauge my own best guess, relative to the evaluation in their review.
OK: that makes sense. Except for the stuff that doesn’t. Like, if everyone is doing “cues” and not reviews, where on the Web are you going to go for those lengthier reviews?

And Cowen’s system seems to get terribly complicated. For instance, at one point he says that, despite the fact that Entertainment Weekly rules the world, if they like a book “I know to stay away. How could a critic be better or more trustworthy than that?”

Just in case you were wondering: from the very beginning, we decided that January wouldn’t offer “cues”: no thumbs up or down, no stars, or candles or bones or quantities of anything. (“Three fire hydrants means you’re all wet?”)

And why no cue systems? Because we think cue systems goofy and our readers are not. And because we’ve always assumed those readers have a certain degree of intelligence.

And here we all are.

The Huffington Post piece is here.

The New Classics

While we’re talking Entertainment Weekly (Oh gawd, were we? We were.) a piece earlier this month offered up the magazine’s selections for the “New Classics: The 100 best reads from 1983 to 2008.”

Here are the top 20 from EW’s list:

1. The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000)
3. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
4. The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr (1995)
5. American Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997)
6. Mystic River, Dennis Lehane (2001)
7. Maus, Art Spiegelman (1986/1991)
8. Selected Stories, Alice Munro (1996)
9. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
10. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997)
11. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer (1997)
12. Blindness, José Saramago (1998)
13. Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-87)
14. Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates (1992)
15. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers (2000)
16. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1986)
17. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez (1988)
18. Rabbit at Rest, John Updike (1990)
19. On Beauty, Zadie Smith (2005)
20. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding (1998)

Entertainment Weekly has also offered up their takes on new classic movies, music, television, style at other stuff as well. You can get to them all from here.

Can Social Networking Help Books Sales?

Maybe si, maybe no. SmartBrief figures they have the answer:
Twenty percent of U.S. book sales occurred online last year, and books are sold on the Web more than any other product, according to research. Now, book lovers are migrating to social networking sites, creating additional selling opportunities.

Children’s Books: Screw Loose by Chris Wheat

Screw Loose (Allen & Unwin) is a welcome sequel to Chris Wheat’s hilarious Looselips, which was published several years ago. The new book stands alone, though it helps to have read Looselips. Looselips was set in Melbourne, in a school beside the Yarra River, loosely based on Richmond Secondary College, which was a bone of contention when the new State Government shut it down in 1992 and it refused to close. Vistaview was a Richmond Secondary College that hadn’t been closed, with a multicultural student population, from Vietnamese boy Khiem, who lived in a poor neighborhood and was into crime, to Italian Angelo Tarano, who dreamed of becoming a football hero.

That crazy bunch of students from Vistaview Secondary College is back, loonier than ever. A year has gone by since the events of Looselips. The kids are in their second-last year of school. Other things have changed. Khiem is trying to go straight. Angelo is the newest recruit for the Hobart Cockatoos football team, but has had to pose nude for a football calendar and has been told to get rid of his beloved girlfriend, obsessive-compulsive Zeynep (she boils and irons shoelaces), and replace her with someone the club thinks more suitable. In this case, it’s Matilda Grey, who was brought up by dingoes and is now famous -- a cult figure in Japanese manga, the face of Dingoes’ Dinner dog food, whose pin-up boy is Inspector Rex. But Matilda is going out with Craig Ryan, whose father has moved in with the mother of bossy rich girl Chelsea Dean, who talks to her collection of Barbie dolls and wants to start a boys’ rowing team.

Georgia Delahunty has moved to Mary Magdalene Ladies’ College in hopes of finding a gay girlfriend, but also because she slapped the overly-PC principal at Vistaview when he “outed” her at a school assembly. Not that it does much good, because she slaps the principal of her new school too. Zeynep has been charged with terrorism after trying on a life preserver vest on a plane.

What a mess! But somehow it all sorts itself out at the inter-school social event organized by Chelsea and everyone, both straight and gay, gets a boyfriend or girlfriend. Even Chelsea!

Chris Wheat hasn’t lost his sense of the ridiculous, or his touch for humor. The book is deliciously silly and laugh-out-loud funny. It can only be hoped that there will be plenty more of the same from this author. Perhaps a new set of characters at Vistaview, once this bunch has graduated?

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Monday, June 23, 2008

New This Month: Cosmos Incorporated by Maurice G. Dantec

Sometimes while reading Cosmos Incorporated (Del Rey) I would stop and emotionally sit back on my haunches and think: this is where the future of SF/F is going. This in my hands, right here, right now. If it never got any better than this, it would be all right.

Based in Montreal, Canada, former punk rock songwriter and ad man Dantec is an extremely popular writer in France. Like his Babylon Babies, Cosmos Incorporated is an English translation of a French novel. One part cyperpunk, one park Orwelian ironic dystopia, one part Houellebecqian sharp lyricism and wide-stanced theology. In scope and content and style, Cosmos Incorporated is breathtaking.

The population of the world has been devastated by disease, misuse and war. What little has been left of earthly society is monitored by the Uniworld, a huge computer network -- think Internet on futuristic crack -- that has information on every individual left on earth. We see much of what’s left close to Sergei Diego Plotkin, a man with a deadly mission who will soon find himself with more -- and somehow less -- than he anticipated.

Expect a lot of interest in Cosmos Incorporated. Babylon Babies -- which was the first Dantec novel to be translated into English -- will be released as Babylon A.D. in feature film form at the end of August and starring Vin Diesel. About a month before that, Del Rey will release a mass market version of Babylon Babies. All of that should conspire to make readers take note of Dantec’s most recent work. And that’s a good thing, because this is a writer worthy of the attention and many fans who have already read the book in French claim this is the writer’s best work to date.

To be clear, Cosmos Incorporated will not be for everyone. Not by a longshot. But if you like your SF/F with a heavy dose of discordance and the roving threat of electricity, this one may well be for you.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Passages: George Carlin at 71

“I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”
No one lives forever, but it’s difficult to think of a world without George Carlin in it, observing, calculating, pulling us up when we veered into silliness. Taking us to silliness. And sometimes both at once.

Carlin died of heart failure today in Los Angeles. From Reuters:
Known for his edgy, provocative material, Carlin achieved status as an anti-Establishment icon in the 1970s with stand-up bits full of drug references and a routine called “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.” A regulatory battle over a radio broadcast of the routine ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
The comedian’s death comes just days after the Kennedy Center announced that Carlin would receive the 2008 Mark Twain prize in November.
“Death is caused by swallowing small amounts of saliva over a long period of time.”
Carlin was the author of three bestselling books: When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?, Brain Droppings and Napalm and Silly Putty.


Fire Alert: One Foot in the Black by Kurt L. Kamm

With too much of California currently needing to think of little but forest fires, One Foot in the Black (Lulu), Kurt L. Kamm’s self-published novel hits starkly home.

Try, if you can, to overlook the cheesy self-publishing markers that books by POD outfits almost uniformly bring: the 1980s shadowed typography, the occasional underlined text, the inconsistent editing. Ride it out. The writing here is good. The story worth following. The research and the understanding of topic complete.

Those with a strong interest in wildfires in general and those out of California in particular will be riveted, those who enjoy a good, solid old school adventure story will applaud this Wildland Firefighter Foundation-approved novel.


More Champagne, Mister Child?

Bestselling thriller author Lee Child is due to uncork the champagne once again as Nothing to Lose, his latest Jack Reacher novel, tops The New York Times bestseller lists. From The Observer:
Fired from his job at Granada Television at the age of 40, Lee Child was suddenly on the scrapheap with a family to support. Refusing to panic, he spent £3.99 on paper and pencils with the ambition of writing the biggest-selling book in the world’s biggest market: America.

Thirteen years later, Child reaches the summit today when his 12th novel, Nothing to Lose, starring his anti-hero Jack Reacher, goes straight to number one in the New York Times hardback fiction list, 10 places ahead of Sebastian Faulks's James Bond rework Devil May Care. It is the culmination of a breakthrough year in which he has also had the number one paperback in America and topped both charts in Britain -- a quadruple thought to be unique for a crime writer.
In 2008, the paperback release of Bad Luck and Trouble hit the number one slot at both the London and New York Times. The hardcover release of Nothing to Lose has done the same.

The Observer sums up Child’s popularity:
His success was assured from the moment he submitted his first manuscript in March 1995, according to his agent, Darley Anderson. “My reader and I knew we just had hit gold dust. I told everybody at the time I had a number one bestselling author. Lee thought very, very big: his idea from the start was to conquer America. I wish more Brits were thinking on that scale.”

Veteran writer Frederick Forsyth said: “Reacher is clearly going to be another Bond-type character. Maybe the American Bond. They’ve always longed for one of their own. How funny if it’s created by a Brit.”
The Observer piece is here.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Author Snapshot: Dan Vyleta

Some readers will have noticed that I’ve had trouble shutting up about Dan Vyleta’s debut novel since I read the book early in 2008. As I said not long ago, Pavel & I is nuanced and practiced and intelligent and brave. And when I talked about the “gritty majesty” of the book in this space earlier this year, here is what I said:
Vyleta’s biography alone sets the tone: he holds a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge, lives in Edmonton, Alberta and is the son of Czech refugees who emigrated to Germany in the 1960s. He understands, he knows, he sees, he wants peace. None of that is what Pavel & I is about, but it sets the stage.

Vyleta’s gorgeous debut takes place in occupied Berlin in 1946. Pavel Richter is a decommissioned soldier who is ill -- perhaps dieing -- from a kidney infection that he’s been unable to treat. The infection, as well as the unexpected arrival of a corpse in his apartment, set in motion a series of events and introductions that push our story towards disaster.
It astonishes me that we’ve not heard more about this book: it’s wonderful. Vyleta calls Pavel & I “a broken sort of love story,” but it’s so much more, as well. If you like classic cold war thrillers with a tough, literary edge, Pavel & I is one you’ll not want to miss.

A Snapshot of Dan Vyleta...
Most recent book: Pavel & I
Resides: Edmonton, Canada
Birthday: July 15th

What’s your favorite city?
Tough one. Barcelona ranks high. Prague, minus the tourists. New York, when I’m feeling flush. Vienna.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
Let’s say Vienna then, on a late summer’s day. Get up just before lunchtime, have a melange and a piece of strudel at this little bakery I know, in the 8th district. Go for a walk through the city, heading for the Naschmarkt, the open air market. I'll buy some sour gherkins there, and a bottle of beer from a cornershop, walk up to the Art University’s gardens, sit in the shade, read a Chekhov story. It’s not far to the museum district from there, so maybe I will head over, stare at the Schiele paintings for half an hour or so. Head up to a cafe, have some Austrian bread with speck and horseradish, and another beer, then jump on the tram and head out west, where there is a wonderful outdoor pool under the trees. Mostly, though, I will just walk. There is nothing quite like walking in a beautiful city, especially at night.

What food do you love?
Olives. I mean I love a thousand kinds of food, but I’m not sure I could do without olives. And sardines, anchovies. Salty stuff.

What food have you vowed never to touch again?
I’m not into food chastity, to be honest. I suppose I am not keen to return to student fare, plastic cheese and sliced economy loaf, but when push comes to shove that will do, too.

What’s on your nightstand?
Don’t have one. But there is a pile of books on the floor next to my bed, the manuscript of a friend’s novel, an IKEA alarm clock and probably a pair of old socks. And a cat, more often than not, curled up and sleeping.

Tell us about your process.
More computer than pen, though I take sketches and notes by hand. Working out everything about the plot ahead of time kills it for me. It needs to start in language rather than in some abstract idea, however sexy; I don’t like the feeling that I am merely putting words to pre-existing ideas. I used to write only at night, but it turns out any time is good. What I need is a strange mixture of inspiration and bloody mindedness. Sometimes it’s best to let it sit for a day, until something moves me. And sometimes I just have to buckle down and keep on pushing, no matter how dull I feel.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
A window. A bunch of small trees, newly in leaf. A courtyard, and the apartments on the other side, nine little balconies with garden furniture. Not a soul stirring today, apart from the woman who comes out to smoke.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I read a lot as a kid, and it probably occurred to me then that it would be cool to be a writer. I didn’t do much about it then, however. When I started writing in earnest, I shied away from thinking of myself as a writer. It sounded pompous. But I knew right away that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
Selling your first book is a big deal, because up until then you barely dare to hope for fear that too much hope will jinx it. Then you get the phone call from your agent that it’s time to get the bottle of bubbly out of the fridge. It took me a long time to digest. My publisher sent me a bottle of Scotch when the book was finally on the shelves. I think that’s when it really hit me. It made me very happy, opening that bottle.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
Sitting around, taking notes. Notetaking is great. You don’t yet have to commit to anything, there are no decisions involved, and you have the thrill of creative discovery. Writing is fantastic too, but is tinged with anxiety -- you lose yourself in the moment, but the next morning you wake up, read through your chapter and are beset by doubt.

What’s the most difficult?
Doubt, rejection, being made to wait. On the page, you control every single nuance of your story, but the moment you pass it on, you lose all control what happens with it.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
English isn’t my first language, so that comes up pretty regularly: why is it the language I write in? I am still working on an answer with real polish to it.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
How about: “Would you consider selling the film rights?”

What question would like never to be asked again?
“Does the protagonist have to be such an asshole?”

Please tell us about Pavel & I.
It’s a broken sort of love story: a boy is looking for a father, a woman finds a man she thinks she can trust, and the narrator is convinced that he’s identified his soul mate, a man he can talk to, get to the bottom of things.

The book is set in post-war Berlin, in the winter of 1946/47. The city is in ruins, there isn’t enough food to go around, and everybody is cold. In part, it is a Cold War thriller, in part a look at life at a time when civilization has grown threadbare; all told through the eyes of a man who loves a good story, perhaps too much so.

Also, there is a monkey, and a frozen midget, and an English Colonel who likes to wear mink.

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New this Week: Petite Anglaise by Catherine Sanderson

When agents and editors search the blogosphere looking for projects that will surprise and delight -- the overlooked gems that will wow the world -- Petite Anglaise is what they’re looking for. I’m sure of it. Not just a blog that is smart and jaded -- you can find those anywhere. Just throw a mouse in any direction and see where it lands. To make the successful transition from blog to book, though, it stands to reason that the blogger should not only have something to say, she should have the ability to say it well and in a way that will touch the heart.

Catherine Sanderson’s Petite Anglaise -- new in print in North America this week (it was published in the UK back in March) is just everything you’d want it to be. Perhaps more. There is a sweetness in Sanderson’s prose, but it doesn’t hurt the teeth. Sanderson manages smart and sharp and vulnerable all in quite manageable gulps. More: several Princess Diaries-for-grown-up-girls threads runs through Sanderson’s fledgling effort. This is an effect that is not lessened by the fact that it’s all true (or, at least, true-ish).

The set-up, then: as Sanderson’s story begins, she is living the dream. The young Brit is living in Paris, has a French lover (Mr. Frog), a charming tiny daughter (Tadpole) and everything should be perfect, but it is not. She starts her blog -- the place where Petite Anglaise is born -- as a place to muse over her life. “Petite Anglaise wasn’t really about me,” Sanderson writes early in the book, “at least not at first. For a month or two I filled the blog with what I hoped were witty arch observations about life in Paris,” but after a while -- and perhaps inevitably -- the blog became a sort of living diary, one that could, through comments from readers, talk back. Ultimately, the blog changed Sanderson’s life.

As compelling as all of that sounds, the blog is not the story here. Rather, it is the human tale wound up in fairy tale trappings and -- perhaps most importantly of all -- told with a true storyteller’s eye for the details that count.

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The Punch of Richard and Judy

Despite watching very little television myself, I don’t underestimate the punching power that TV presenters’ Richard and Judy have on the fortunes of an author. So as the 2008 Richard and Judy Bookclub selections are announced, let’s ponder on what being anointed by the husband and wife team can give an author in terms of sales.

Earlier this year, I met up with Roger Jon Ellory, a writer I have followed since his debut. In 2003, I selected his Candlemoth for inclusion in the 2003 January Magazine gift guide. Here’s what I said about the book at the time:
Candlemoth is a rather strange debut novel set within the U.S. penal system. Its cover has a Thomas Harris flavor, but its style is closer to Stephen King's novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption." The story opens in Sumter, South Carolina, in the early 1980s. Thirty-six-year-old African-American death-row prison inmate Daniel Ford -- incarcerated for killing his best friend, Nathan Verney, in a jealous rage 12 years ago, and only a month away from taking his seat in the electric chair -- decides to tell the story of his life to the prison's white chaplain, Father John Rousseau. From there, the book becomes a long and tortuous tale of love, betrayal and the linkages between Ford and Verney. Its setup gives British author Roger Jon Ellory the opportunity to moralize over potent issues such as capital punishment, the consequences of one's life choices, the price of friendship and the troubled state of U.S. race relations. All wrapped up in a sentimental prison yarn.
I followed Ellory’s career, enjoying his work as his writing matured. Despite being nominated twice for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and prior to the Richard and Judy nomination, he was struggling finding an audience, as I reported at The Rap Sheet. Roger explained the problems he had on the release of his fourth novel City of Lies:
The book was released last week -- September 6th -- and though I would have wished for fireworks and fanfares, for London bookstore opening parties, for readings and signings and splendid reviews in The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Observer, this was -- unfortunately -- not the case! What I got instead was a disgruntled store assistant telling me that ‘this book you’re talking about … the “City of Lies something-or-other” that you say should be on display … well it isn’t. We don’t have any. What do you want me to do about it then?’

What I got was Amazon telling me that if I ordered ‘City of Lies’ it would take four to six weeks to arrive as they had none in stock. What I got was a visit to four independent shops in [my home city of] Birmingham to discover that the book was nowhere to be seen! …These are the real realities of authorship I’m afraid. We all have them. Even the greatest authors in the world, the ones who sell hundreds of thousands of hardbacks, whose paperback releases top Number One in the Sunday Times Bestseller list three weeks before they’re even available ... even they have had such experiences...
Fortunately, Ellory has remained upbeat. In a subsequent post, he explained that his fifth novel, A Quiet Belief in Angels, was due to be released.

His fortunes soon changed when A Quiet Belief in Angels was chosen as a Richard and Judy selection. I met up with him at the Orion Publishing party earlier this year and asked him what effect this nomination had on his career:
Ali Karim: So, Roger, how do you feel, now that A Quiet Belief in Angels has been picked up by Richard & Judy?

Roger Jon Ellory: It has been unimaginable. Truly! To put it in perspective, the paperback print run for my last novel, City of Lies, was something in the region of 7,500 copies. Yesterday, I received a call to say that another print run of A Quiet Belief in Angels had been authorized, which now brings the total number of copies in circulation to 221,000. I know how tough it can be to break into this fiction-writing business; wasn’t it Hemingway who said that in comparison to writing fiction, horse racing and playing poker were sensible business ventures?
When I e-mailed my congratulations, Linwood Barclay said he was bowled over when he discovered that No Time for Goodbye had been selected by Richard and Judy.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lord Black and Nixonland

There are a couple of reasons I found Conrad Black’s review of Nixonland for The New York Sun is both deliciously appropriate and kind of funny (though the giggle inducing was, no doubt, not intended).

In the first place, Black is the author of Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full (PublicAffairs), a huge, toe-breaker of a book The New Yorker called an “exculpatory gloss for seemingly every grimy facet of Nixon’s career.”

In the second place, Black -- who is also Lord Black of Crossharbour -- is currently in jail for obstruction of justice and fraud. It’s not much of a surprise that Black doesn’t love the more recent book on Nixon:
There has been a good deal of comment on “Nixonland” by Rick Perlstein, a pastiche of journalistic highlights of the tumultuous years between Lyndon Johnson's immense landslide over Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Richard Nixon's comparable burial of George McGovern in 1972. The country effectively rejected the right for the center-left, and then the left for the center-right, similar responses, bracketing the heavy Vietnam involvement.

The book is unrigorously and almost unrelievedly opinionated. Its theses are that the United States is almost unprecedentedly divided; that its political discourse has been almost unprecedentedly coarsened; and that Richard Nixon is responsible for both. All of these propositions are demonstrably false. This is the last, and far from the most persuasive, stand of the Nixon demonstrators.
The book in question, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein was published by Scribner in mid-May and has been well-reviewed in other places. Black’s New York Sun review is here.

Tip of the hat to Quill & Quire.

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Richard and Judy Choose Barclay

Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye has been included in Richard and Judy’s Summer Read 2008. CBC Arts comments on the significance:
A book by Toronto writer Linwood Barclay has earned a spot on the summer reading list of the Richard and Judy Book Club, the British equivalent of Oprah’s Book Club.

Husband and wife team Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan chose Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye for their summer 2008 list.
January Magazine
contributing editor Ali Karim -- who clearly has an eye -- interviewed Barclay last year for The Rap Sheet and reviewed No Time for Goodbye last November for January:
One of the principal delights in book reviewing is discovering a gem, a work that pushes the bar just a little higher -- and that is exactly what No Time for Goodbye does. The biggest surprise for this reviewer is that I’d never read any previous works by Canadian author Linwood Barclay, which made finding No Time just that much sweeter.
In all, eight books were selected for Richard and Judy’s Summer Read 2008. Besides Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye, there was The Outcast by Sadie Jones; East of the Sun by
Julia Gregson; Down River by John Hart; The Pirate’s Daughter by Margaret Cezair-Thompson; The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller; Addition by Toni Jordan; and The Resurrectionist by James Bradley.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Turn Your Literary Frown Upside Down

Remember Romeo and Juliet? No matter how you parse their tale, it all ended up quite badly. And did it have to? What if they’d had more time to work things out? What if they’d had counseling or more understanding families? Less sugar in their diets? More consuming hobbies? With any of those things in play, their story could have ended up quite differently.

A Montana-based literary contest asks contestants not only to think about literature’s unhappy endings, but to take action. The rules of the Happy Tales Literary Contest asks competitors to “take any literary work with a sad, disturbing, or negative ending and supply a happy, affirmative, uplifting, humorous ending.”

The trouble, of course, is… well, too big to tackle in this small space. But if Romeo and Juliet ends with the pair riding off into the sunset; if Doctor Zhivago is allowed to grow old; if Anna doesn’t fling herself under the train and Hagar Shipley goes sweetly off to a marble-festooned retirement condo in order to knit cardigans for her corgis or if any number of other “negative” literary endings are overturned (turn your frown upside down) does the world still make sense? And in what way is an ending that is “affirmative” better than one that tastes like truth?

If you figure you have the answer, the contest is here. Past winners are here. Entries close September 30th and “may be read and praised and/or ridiculed by contest judges in a public session of the Humanities Montana Festival of the Book, October 23-25, 2008.”

New Today: Tigerheart by Peter David

The thing that touches you first is the tone. You expect one thing and get quite another. But with Tigerheart (Ballentine/DelRey), Peter David has decided to give us a delicious treat: the voice here is one of wonder and discovery, as though written for a child, but it doesn’t take long to realize that it was not.

Though elements of Tigerheart put one instantly in mind of Peter Pan, this is not a retelling of J.M. Barrie’s classic story. Or, if anything, it is more.

Author Peter David (Sir Apropos of Nothing, Wode to Wuin) says that, when Peter Pan fell into the public domain, he began working on the story.

“But as it developed, I started to realize that it was really Paul Dear’s story, not Peter Pan’s. And since Peter Pan’s monumental ego would certainly not allow a story to feature him as a supporting character, he slowly began to back away from it with a mild sneer and a mocking sweep of his nonexistent hat.” This allowed, David reports, “a sort of respectful distance” from Barrie’s creations.

And so, in a way, Peter Pan is reimagined as Paul Dear and Neverland becomes Anyplace. And everything is familiar, but cast with Peter David’s own strong magic.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Review: While They Slept by Kathryn Harrison

Today in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, Diane Leach reviews While They Slept by Kathryn Harrison. Says Leach:

Kathryn Harrison has spent her writing life parsing her difficult childhood. Born to unmarried teenage parents in 1962, the infant Kathryn was “ransomed,” as her mother put it, to her maternal grandparents. Her father was banished. Her mother, openly relieved at recovering her youthful freedom, moved into an apartment and spent little time with her daughter. What time she did spend was fractious, critical and unkind. The appearance of Harrison’s father, when the author was 20, seemed a dream come true: the man adored her. In fact, he couldn’t keep his hands off her. The ensuing incestuous relationship shattered Harrison’s already fragile sense of self. Years later, she documented the episode in her infamous memoir, The Kiss.

The Kiss was followed by the essay collection Seeking Rapture and the wrenching The Mother Knot. In each, Harrison uses her elegant prose style like a scalpel, prising apart the layers of damage in an effort -- seemingly largely successful -- to heal herself. Now happily married to writer Colin Harrison and a devoted mother of three, Harrison has not outrun her demons as much as recognized their destructive capabilities, arming herself for their periodic onslaughts. Yet she retains a grim fascination with dysfunction, murder, trauma. How do people survive? Or not? It is this overarching interest that leads her to the Gilley family.
The full review is here.

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Review: The Triumph of Caesar by Steven Saylor

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, Caroline Cummins reviews The Triumph of Caesar by Steven Saylor. Says Cummins:
The tenth novel in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, The Triumph of Caesar, feels a bit like a valedictory lap. The ambiguous ending of Saylor’s previous series outing, The Judgment of Caesar (2004), seemed to kill off both Saylor’s grizzled detective, Gordianus the Finder, and his wife, Bethesda. Yet here they are again, back in their house on ancient Rome’s Palatine Hill, Bethesda’s illness mysteriously cured and Gordianus none the worse for his apparent drowning in the Nile. Gordianus has officially retired, but, as always, for the right reasons he can be coaxed into a little light investigation.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

New This Month: Salvation by Lucia Nevai

Crane Cavanagh, the physically flawed but intellectually superior protagonist of Salvation (Tin House) started life in a short story “and fought for her life ever after,” author Lucia Nevai tells us at the very end of the novel.

This is 21st century fiction, perfectly rendered. Sometimes, it’s so beautiful, it breaks your heart:
With abject, slavish desire, with offhand, sloppy curiosity, with gratitude, with sedation, I was accidentally engendered. Never say the word rid around me. My mother tried to get rid of me. My face to this day is deformed, my forehead bumpy, puffy, and white as mold.
Nevai is a past winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. Her short fiction has appeared in all the right places, including Zoetrope, The New Yorker and Glimmer Train. Even so, her work is unexpected. At times, Salvation soars.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Fiction: Lovehampton by Sherri Rifkin

If Lovehampton (St. Martin’s Griffin) doesn’t send you screaming for the beach, nothing will.

A 30-something Manhattanite media goddess decides she needs a break and -- after a super-fast makeover -- heads for the Hamptons and a shared summer rental. Life changes ensue.

As inane as that sounds -- and Lovehampton’s set-up is just about impossible to discuss without making it sound inane -- former television marketing executive Sherri Rifkin’s first novel is charming and even sweetly memorable. Like Jennifer Weiner meets grown-up Meg Cabot meets Sex in the City (only at the beach).

And this intelligent debut is delivered to us as a paperback original. Upshot: it tucks into your beachbag like nobody’s business.


As Seen on TV: Top Chef: The Cookbook

Food porn enthusiasts will be interested in taking a peek at Top Chef: The Cookbook (Chronicle Books), a book that ends up being a lot more interesting in concept than it is in actuality.

Top Chef: The Cookbook is a strange combination of things. There are stills from the television series and a floor plan of the official Top Chef kitchen. We get to see their pantry, read about their staples, see the judge’s table which is followed -- naturally enough -- by detailed bios of the judges and others involved with the show, including contestants.

Then the food portion of the book, which is designed and styled more like an 80s cookbook aimed at the amateur chef than anything else.

Some of the food looks terrific and those who followed the show closely will almost certainly be pleased to find recipes for some of the things they saw on television. However, along with the interesting recipes, there are a few for things that should just never go together. Tempura Vegetables and Mozzarella with Cornichon Mayonnaise, for example. (Isn’t there a law against that?) Or things too fiddly and silly to contemplate: like Poached Baby Manilla Clams over Grilled Sea Beans. Life is just too short.

The fact that the book is based entirely on a television show would seem to me to limit the book’s appeal. After all, how many people actually watched the show? Facts prove me wrong, though: Top Chef: The Cookbook has been hitting the bestseller lists pretty much since it was published in mid-March.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Children’s Books: Ironbark By Barry Jonsberg

Ironbark is Barry Jonsberg’s fourth novel. His first two, The Whole Trouble With Kiffo and the Pitbull and It’s not all about YOU, Calma! were set in Darwin, Australia, where he lives, and were centred around the life and crazy troubles of intelligent, smart-alec teenager Calma. Both books were laugh-out-loud funny, with suddenly shocking endings that weren’t funny at all, but they worked. In Dreamrider, the laughs stopped altogether. It was grim, but there was a twist at the end that readers had come to expect from a Jonsberg novel.

Ironbark also features a disturbed protagonist, though no sudden shock ending, this time. The young narrator, whose name we never discover, has a major problem. He suffers from something called IED -- Intermittent Explosive Disorder -- which means that every so often, he is subject to bouts of rage, during which he simply blanks out. When he wakes, he finds himself in the middle of a trail of destruction and, sometimes, injured people, with no memory of how it happened.

He’s been desperately trying to control his inner beast, terrified that sooner or later he’s going to kill someone -- maybe someone he cares about. After an explosion in a fast food joint in Melbourne, his wealthy father has paid for a psychiatric assessment of his condition, persuading the court that this is a medical disorder, not plain hooliganism. The hero knows that if he’d been poor, he wouldn’t have been spared prison.

As it is, he is put on probation, on condition that he spends time in Tasmania with his grandfather, who lives out in the bush. Presumably out there the young IED sufferer won’t have anything to smash, except maybe some trees. He is to keep a journal -- through which we gradually learn what happened -- and he is to report to the local policeman.

Despite the hero’s city-boy attitude, he and his grandfather soon bond and it turns out the hero enjoys cooking and loves to offer his grandfather new taste sensations. Unfortunately, the policeman, Richie, has decided to make the “hooligan’s” life miserable, harassing him every chance he gets and as the boy has thrown out his medication, it’s only a matter of time before he suffers an explosion. Trying to control his rage is an important part of finding himself.

Jonsberg’s books are always worth waiting for. A teacher himself, he has plenty of connection with teenagers and knows how they think. His language is usually right for the kind of people his characters are supposed to be. Calma uses a lot of long words, but she’s an intellectual. The hero of this book speaks in simpler language. Perhaps a few too many “yo”s and “dudes” but maybe Jonsberg’s students speak like that.

I do have a few nitpicks, though. The ending is sudden -- literally a cliffhanger -- though it is positive. However, there are a number of unanswered questions. For example, who sent the mysterious text message that saved the boy when he was lost, early in the novel? It’s implied, near the end, that it was Richie. Trouble is, he hasn’t actually met Richie when the message arrives and there is no cell phone signal where he sees it. And why is the man following him around in the bush anyway?

Still, it’s a good story, which should appeal to teenage boys.

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Madonna Has a Brother?

Or maybe past tense -- as in had a brother -- would be on the mark since said brother is apparently working on a book that may be less than flattering to his famous older sibling.

From Australia’s Herald Sun:
Christopher Ciccone has signed a deal with publishers Simon and Schuster and will be working with Wendy Leigh, who's responsible for writing biographies on Liza Minnelli, Grace Kelly and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Living With My Sister Madonna will chronicle Christopher's 47-year relationship with the Material Girl singer and will have an initial print run of 350,000 copies.
The Herald Sun piece is here. MTV gives us basically the same info, but gets a bit chattier here. And Reuters lets us know that the book will be published next month, so I guess Ciccone is quite beyond working on the book: it’s all over but the kvetching.

Madonna news is endless, btw. The star denies divorce rumors here and (here’s a funny one) Duran Duran whines that she copied their smooth moves here.

Meanwhile, in Madonna-lore that is quite a bit more on point for this venue, the star’s latest book for children, English Roses: Being Binah # 6 (Puffin) will be published in July.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Author Snapshot: Victoria Holmes

Victoria Holmes is one of the three writers known as Erin Hunter, a pen name Holmes and fellow children’s authors Kate Carey and Cherith Baldry dreamed up to avoid confusing readers with a platoon of author names on the front of their books.

Holmes tells us that two new titles in their popular “Warriors” series were launched in April: Power of Three Book Three: Outcast and the final part of the Graystripe manga trilogy, Warrior’s Return.

“In Outcast,” says Holmes, “our three young heroes -- Lionpaw, Hollypaw and Jaypaw -- travel far from the lake to the mountains, where they meet the Tribe of Rushing Water and find out that the Tribe’s ancestors hold a dark secret linking them more closely to the Clans than any cat imagined. In Warrior’s Return, Graystripe and Millie embark on the final part of their journey to find the Clans. And this time, it’s Millie’s kittypet origins that are needed more than Graystripe’s warrior skills to tackle their biggest challenge yet.”

Meanwhile, readers can be on the alert for Seekers: Book One, which has been screaming up the charts since its release just a few weeks ago. No big cats this time, though. In Seekers, three bears of different species find themselves thrust together in unexpected adventure.

All paws on board? Great: let’s meet Ms. Holmes.

A Snapshot of Victoria Holmes
(one of the three writers known as Erin Hunter)...

Born: Berkshire, England
Resides: London, England
Birthday: July 17th
Web site:

What’s on your nightstand?
A lamp, an alarm clock, a picture of my son Joshua when he was two and a half, and always, always, always a book.

What inspires you?
Anything that isn’t man-made.

What are you working on now?
Power of Three Book Five: Long Shadows; Seekers Book Three (which doesn’t have a title yet, but it might be called Smoke Mountains); a manga trilogy starring Ravenpaw and Barley, Warriors Field Guide: Code of the Clans, planning my wedding and redecorating my apartment.

Tell us about your process.
I use pen and paper to make copious notes on plot, character, dialogue and anything else that pops into my head during the early part of planning a book. Then I create a document on my computer and shuffle everything around until I have a rough outline of the story. Finally, I go through each part adding details until I know exactly what happens in each scene, how the conversations will go, what the characters are thinking, and how the story needs to be moved forward. Once I have all this planned out (usually taking up half the length of the final book), I send it to Kate Cary or Cherith Baldry, my co-writers, who write the script out in full. Once they’ve filled in all the gaps, they send the script to me for a final check to make sure it sounds consistently “Erin,” and then I deliver it to my editor in New York. Yay! I work regular office hours, and most weekends. Writing is a job, but it’s also a way of life.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?

I’m in my hotel room in Los Angeles, with three hours to go before I speak on a panel about Writing for Tweens with Cornelia Funke and Rick Riordan. I woke at three am, quivering with nerves -- I just hope I’m not too star struck by my companions to say anything coherent! My hotel room is beautiful, way more glamorous than my apartment back home!

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always loved reading and writing stories -- and also poems, plays, newspaper articles, pretty much anything involving words. I grew up thinking it would be nice to have the chance to write a book one day; I never, ever dreamed I would be able to make a living by writing alone! I am the luckiest person in the world.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
Lots of things! I love horses and dogs, and spent a year riding professionally just after graduating, so my alternative career would be training young horses and helping people with their dogs. I’m particularly interested in troubled animals who need to re-learn normal behavior and the ability to trust.

And if the weather was too cold and wet to be outside with animals, I’d bake cakes for a living. My specialty is chocolate brownies, yum.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?

My first ever bookstore event at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?

Being able to work with nothing more than my imagination.

What’s the most difficult?
Having to rely on my imagination when it would rather be thinking about something else.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
Where do you get your ideas?

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
Please can I buy you a chocolate chip cookie?

What question would like never to be asked again?
Not so much a question, but someone at a school event once said: “The kids were so disappointed when I told them Erin Hunter doesn’t exist!” OH YES SHE DOES.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
My greatest ambition has always been to be a dancer but I’m too short and ungraceful.

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Martin Yan’s China

With the summer Olympics bearing down on us with lightening speed, there’s just enough time to get our culinary ducks in a row -- and not crispy duck, either -- in order to have local favorites at our fingertips while watching the Beijing games on television.

I understand that this is not the point of Martin Yan’s China (Chronicle Books), a wonderful and complete book by a well known author and television personality. If regional Chinese cooking expertly parsed for western markets and kitchens is what you’re after, you’d have a tough time going wrong with one of Yan’s many books. But this one, even more than the others I’ve seen, seems to embrace the fierce simplicity that characterizes the best of Chinese cooking. Bold flavors and colors, fresh ingredients and straight-forward explanations of techniques and foods that may be unfamiliar to some western chefs.

This is a really wonderful book. One of my favorite cookbooks thus far this year. Very good photographs are included throughout: not just great food and food styling, either but National Geographic-quality photos of a country currently undergoing great change. In all ways, Martin Yan’s China seems an important companion for those two weeks this summer when you’ll be glued to your television.

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Review: The Ice-Cream Man by Jenny Mounfield

Jenny Mounfield is fairly new to children’s and young adult fiction. The Ice-Cream Man (Ford Street) is only her third novel, though she also has a short story in Ford Street’s recent YA anthology Trust Me!. So far, she’s doing well.

The Ice-Cream Man
is a thriller. The book suggests that it’s really not a good idea to play silly jokes on people, especially those you don’t know well. At the same time, it features a protagonist with cerebral palsy, who regards his wheelchair as a tool of independence and has no intention of swapping it for a walker, as his well-meaning parents want him to do. In fact, his friends can hardly keep up with him.

When Marty, Rick and Aaron miss the ice-cream van one hot summer day, they show their annoyance by harassing the driver as the van drives on down the streets of their small town.

Big mistake.

This is a small town, after all. People know each other. Someone knows who they are and where they live. Someone even knows the number of Marty’s new mobile phone, bought by his overanxious parents to make him reachable, since he won’t give up the wheelchair. And he hasn’t told anyone yet!

Aaron has his own problems with a bullying stepbrother. Rick’s problems are even worse. Dad has died recently and his mother has hit the bottle and the sleeping pills. The last thing he needs is to hear the music of an ice-cream van parked outside his home after midnight.

The police aren’t helpful, either, with no details of the stalker or the caller.

When Rick disappears, apparently kidnapped, it’s up to Marty and Aaron to find him -- but that means entering the ice-cream man’s lair...

The Ice-Cream Man is a great introduction to the thriller genre for children in early secondary or late primary school. It shows a fairly positive image of a disabled person, without preaching. Marty is in a wheelchair. It matters to his parents, but otherwise he just gets on with life. In fact, there are some things he can do in the chair that he couldn’t do on foot.

It might have worked better with a photographic cover than the cover illustration of an ice-cream van, though the back cover is a little scarier.

In my opinion, this book is, so far, the best novel published by new Australian children’s and young adult publisher Ford Street Publishing.

Jenny Mounfield, I believe, has a bright future writing for young people.

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Review: The Art of Column Writing by Suzette Martinez Standring

Today in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, Mary Ward Menke reviews The Art of Column Writing by Suzette Martinez Standring. Says Menke:
The Art of Column Writing by Suzette Martinez Standring sounds as though it were written for newspaper columnists. Don’t let the title fool you: this is a book for all writers of non-fiction, and there are likely a few fiction writers who could benefit, too.

A past president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Standring is a syndicated columnist with GateHouse News Services. She has the chops to write a book on column writing based on her experiences alone, but she chose to pick the brains of the masters. Advice from greats like Art Buchwald, Arianna Huffington, Dave Barry and Pete Hamill fill the pages, making The Art of Column Writing a must-read for writers at all stages of their careers.

The full review is here.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

New in Paperback: Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

When it was released in hardcover last July, The New York Times called Karen Abbott’s biography of what was arguably America’s most notorious brothel “a lush love letter to the underworld.” What they didn’t say is that there are times in Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul (Random House) that you just want to shake your head and rub your eyes before continuing. It can be almost frightening when the reality sinks in: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Everleigh Club in Chicago was run by the sisters Everleigh, Minna and Ada at 2131-2133 South Dearborn Street at the early part of the 20th century. We get to know them quite well in Abbott’s book. “Their entrée in the madam business was a fortuitous accident,” she writes of the Everleigh sisters, “two proper Victorian ladies who decided that creating a fantasy for others was better than pretending to live in one.”


The Battle for Wine and Love by Alice Feiring

While the book is ostensibly about how wine writer Alice Feiring has been fighting back against the Robert Parker’s of the wine world (“How I saved the world from Parkerization,”) there’s more to The Battle For Wine and Love (Harcourt) than meets the eye. Most important of these is the fact that this is the memoir of a fabulously talented writer.

“When my world was still innocent,” Feiring tells us at the very beginning of chapter one, “I was drinking Manischewitz mixed with seltzer, but by the time my father ran off after a neighbor’s wife, I was drinking the partially fizzy Mateus.”

Earlier still, in the introduction, she lets us know about her mission. “When it comes to wine and love, I get attached. So when I realized that certain wines I had relied on and lusted after were disappearing from the universe, I lost sleep. In ingested. I sulked …. I could always find a different shade of lipstick, but there is no substitute for real wine or profound love.”

If, like Feiring , you view the world through taste-studded lenses, you’ll like The Battle For Wine and Love. It’s a beautiful journey with strong motivations and some great sub-plots.

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Review: Easy Innocence by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, Jim Winter reviews Easy Innocence by Libby Fischer Hellmann. Says Winter:
Cam Jordan doesn’t see a high-school hazing when her fellow female students dump a bucket of fish guts over Sara Long’s head. He sees a princess. Then he sees the princess killed. By the time it’s all over, Jordan finds himself holding a bloody baseball bat, wondering if he was the one who did her in.

The police don’t wonder. To them, Jordan -- an autistic man with a dubious sex-offender status -- is the perfect suspect in Sara Long’s murder. In fact, the Illinois State’s Attorney is hell-bent on convicting him, and thereby getting this case off the books. Yet something is clearly wrong when former Chicago police detective Georgia Davis is brought in to investigate all these doings.
The full review is here.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

The Indiana Jones Handbook by Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese

Those for whom the late May release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull reignited the thirst for all things Indie will be pleased to set their eyes on this book. The Indiana Jones Handbook (Quirk) bills itself at “The Complete Adventurer’s Guide” and, in some ways, it is. How else would you discover what to do if bitten by a tarantula? How to run on top of a moving train? If you have to cross a rope bridge? Or if you have to deal with rats? (“Damp, dark caverns are a paradise for rodentia,” the book warns at one point.)

Though tongues may well be in cheeks, they were neatly tucked away during the writing of The Indiana Jones Handbook. Like all those Worst Case Scenario handbooks so popular at the beginning of the decade, this Indiana Jones-themed book takes all of its questions quite seriously. Is the resulting guide funny? Well, a little bit. But it really helps if you’re already a fan, if for no other reason than to help you get the references to monkey brains and other purely Indie material. Looks of color illustrations -- many from the films -- as well as a solid little format contribute to the fun. And though it seems unlikely that most of us will actually benefit from learning how to survive for several days while clinging to a submarine’s periscope, the possibilities opened just by thinking about it are all a lot of fun.

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New This Week: How to Be Single by Liz Tuccillo

Because the lines between fiction and non-fiction have not been blurred enough, Liz Tuccillo -- one of the co-authors of He’s Not That Into You and one of the story editors of HBO’s Sex and the City -- delivers big with How to Be Single (Atria). Here we meet Julie Jenson, a Manhattan book publicist who quits her job in order to travel the world to see how women everywhere are dealing with being single.

What confuses here is the tone: the book is definitely a novel. In fact, that’s the subtitle: A Novel. Yet it reads like non-fiction and, if her bio and recent interviews are to be believed, the author did a fair amount of research for the book.

I don’t know: maybe it’s just me and my own expectations, but in some ways How to Be Single feels like one of those non-fiction fiascos, only backwards. Can real life pretend to be a novel? Well, I guess on one level, that happens all the time. Yet, when it does, there tends to be a stronger whiff of artistry in the air, a more palpable hint of magic. It’s not that How to Be Single isn’t good, in fact, there are some moments of great humor and even charm. But if it’s real, I want it real. And if it’s not, I want a little less reality.


Friday, June 06, 2008

Is This What the Mainstream Looks Like Now?

“Life with a sex demon is never boring.”


It seems like Ballentine is mass market paperback publishing Jennifer Stevenson’s “Brass Bed” series as quickly as she can roll them off her word processor. Point: The Velvet Chair, book two in the series, came out late May of this year. Book three, The Bearskin Rug, will follow – wait for it -- June 24th.

In the series debut, The Brass Bed -- published way back in April of this year -- readers met Jewel Heiss. And, according to the PR material, In The Brass Bed, Miss Heiss not only ended up “with a hot, slightly reformed con artist as a partner, but she managed to free a cursed, 200-year-old hunky sex demon from a brass bed, making him her (willing) sex slave!”

Some of you will be saying: “Wow! Where’s my copy? I have to find a beach. Now!” And others… well, others will be saying something else. Either way, I figure we’re not in Kansas. Anymore.


Children’s Books: The OK Team by Nick Place

Nick Place writes about serious issues and makes them hilarious, while still making his point. His first novel, The Kazillion Wish, featured two children making a wish for an “also-mum” to make their father happy after his divorce. The children -- who had very silly names -- were told they had to earn this wish and went off on a non-stop adventure with lots of silliness and fun.

The OK Team (Allen & Unwin), Place’s new novel, is themed around being happy with what you are and believing in yourself, but he tells it in laugh-out-loud style.

Thirteen-year-old Hazy Retina (again with the absurd names!) has a problem. When he’s frightened or stressed, he has a tendency to fall through walls or just disappear. His parents have become used to it, though his father has the irritating habit of trying to cheer him up with facts about freakish events worldwide. At school, he is teased as a freak. His only comfort is reading his superhero comics.

One night, he is visited by superhero Chameleon (Leon for short) who points out that his supposed disability is actually a power and that he is, in fact, a Hero himself -- Hero, Entry Level, Grade Two, to be precise -- and leaves him with a handbook and a remote control that will gain him access to a special Hero TV channel, which gives the information Heroes need to perform their good deeds against Villains (as opposed to villains). It’s suggested that new Heroes form teams rather than try to work alone.

In his first meeting with the Hero community, Hazy discovers that powers aren’t necessarily useful. They can range from speaking in Morse code to making all your food taste like boysenberry.

When Hazy -- with the new Hero name of Focus -- forms his Hero team, their superpowers don’t seem to be much use either. Beautiful Liarbird can’t tell the truth; her friends communicate by assuming she means the opposite of what she says. Cannonball can fly, but can’t choose his direction and tends to fly into walls. The Torch, grandson of a superhero, can make flames, but only from his index fingers -- not much use to the team, but useful to light villains’ cigarettes. Switchy is a shapechanger, who can change into anything from a crab to an iPod, complete with music, but can’t control it. In fact. he doesn’t actually know what he looks like in his normal body. Yesterday, the Girl Who can See Into The Past, is only with them because she’s Cannonball’s little sister and he has to babysit her.

After this team of klutzes has been defeated 14 times, including once by a bunch of aggressive ten-year-olds, they decide they need some coaching. Fortunately, Torch’s grandfather, whose single power isn’t much help to them, does have some connections in the superhero world and 94-year-old Mr. Fabulous (“You young punks wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes back in my day.”) is soon on his way to Australia.

In the end, the young Heroes do find a use for their powers, when used together, and when Mr. Fabulous is kidnapped and the Earth is being threatened by a meteor, it’s up to the team to use their powers to find their mentor.

The novel is great fun, and manages to get across its message without hitting you on the head with it. There are many books around in which a bunch of “loser” types work together and succeed, but in this one it isn’t only the kids who need self-confidence, Golden Boy, Australia’s top superhero and Hazy’s hero, has never actually saved the world and is now the only one who can do it. He suddenly loses his confidence in himself -- that’s a huge meteor, what if he can’t do the job? Time is ticking by, and if a superhero can’t stop that meteor from hitting, who can?

The book should appeal to late primary children up to early secondary students and older students who are reluctant readers, especially those who have enjoyed the X-Men stories, though X-Men was never quite like this!

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