Thursday, July 31, 2008

New Today: The Goddess in Love with a Horse by Eugene Mirabelli

From the very first line of Eugene Mirabelli’s seventh novel, you are led to understand that The Goddess in Love with a Horse (And What Happened Next) (Spring Harbor Press) is a very different kind of book:
The first time Ava saw Angelo naked was on their wedding night (11 may 1860) when he strode into their bedroom, accidentally revealing to her startled eyes that from the waist down he had the hindquarters of a stallion.
There are echoes of fable in The Goddess in Love with a Horse; reverberations of every romantic classic that ever gripped your heart. A slender volume that still manages to inspire epic thoughts. Sensuous. Delicious. A delight.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Captain McCain Meets Obamaman

Though we’ll have to wait to see if this is funny, silly or otherwise, a San Diego-based publisher is planning comic books starring our favorite news hour action heroes: presumptive American presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama.

San Diego’s IDW Publishing, whose recent titles include The Transformers and Everybody’s Dead, promises that this particular dynamic duo won’t be finding themselves in sensational situations. According to AP:
Don’t expect Captain America-versus-Superman hijinks or super-villains threatening the electoral process. Trading sound bites for word balloons, the books purport to tell McCain and Obama's life stories, independently researched and illustrated by a veteran team of writers and artists.

"We're not doing anything that is sensational here," said IDW special projects editor Scott Dunbier, adding that neither campaign was involved in the development of the books. "We're sticking to the facts."

On Oct. 8, the books will be released in comic book shops and go on sale online and for reading on cell phones.
The AP piece is here. IDW can be visited online here.

Rushdie or “Scruffy”?

After reporting that Salman Rushdie was awarded the Best of the Bookers this month for 1981’s Booker winner Midnights Children; I was amused to read that Ex-Special Branch detective Ron Evans writes less flatteringly about the award winning author in the UK Telegraph:
In his autobiography On Her Majesty's Service, Evans paints an unflattering picture of Rushdie as tight-fisted, rude and arrogant, and claims the team of protection officers nicknamed him Scruffy because of his unkempt appearance.

He said the protection team were expected to pay him rent for their sparse lodgings in a safe house, and were on one occasion confined to their rooms so Rushdie -- codenamed Joe -- could spent an intimate evening with girlfriend and later third wife Elizabeth West.

Evans was assigned to armed protection duties in 1989, when the controversial author, now 61, wrote the Satanic Verses, which was condemned for its allegedly blasphemous depiction of the Prophet Mohammed and banned in India, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The revelations make for amusing reading especially when they locked Rushdie in a cupboard and went to the pub. The Telegraph piece is here.

Meanwhile, Rushdie has been nominated for yet another Man Booker. (This time for The Enchantress of Florence.) You can see that longlist here. The shortlist will be announced at the beginning of September with the winner being awarded on October 14th.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Review: The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso

Today in January Magazine’s biography section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso. Says Leach:
Sarah Manguso is a poet, and if the beautiful, terse sentences in The Two Kinds of Decay are any indication, she is a fine one. In this short, sharp memoir, Manguso describes the head cold she caught in February 1995. She was 21 years old, in college, second soprano in a choir scheduled to perform Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere” on March 5, 1995. She managed to keep her cold in check until after the concert, where the choirmaster praised her work. She went home for spring break and began a nightmare of illness that would last for next nine years.

Sarah Manguso has chronic idiopathic demyelinating poliradiculoneuropathy. In layman’s terms, this means her immune system secretes antibodies, which travel to the peripheral neurons, eat away the protective sheath covering the nerve cells -- myelin -- then eat the cells, which sometimes recover, sometimes not. Symptoms include numbness and tingling in the extremities, paralysis, and the inability to breathe.

The full review is here.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

King’s Short Treats

As someone who is surrounded by books, I have to prioritize my reading carefully. Unfortunately some books get left behind on my To-Be-Read pile when a favorite author’s work arrives on my doorstep.

One writer whose new releases automatically leap to the top of my TBR pile as soon as the postman calls is Stephen King. I have collected his work since I was an adolescent and was amused to see how much his older works are worth because, according to Books and Magazine Collector, he is the third most collectable author in the United Kingdom. The new issue Books and Magazine Collector devotes a lengthy section to collecting Stephen King first editions.

While at the Harrogate crime fiction festival earlier this month, I was graciously invited to celebrate Peter Robinson’s 21 years of Inspector Banks at a cocktail party hosted by Hodder and Stoughton, Robinson’s British publisher. While sipping chilled chardonnay with Robinson, we remarked at how fortunate we had both been when at a party specially organized by the same publisher to celebrate Stephen King’s release of Lisey’s Story back in 2006, King himself had come over to talk to us. It had been a very special moment, during which we discovered that King is a fan of Robinson’s Alan Banks series. I also discovered that I lost the ability to speak coherently in the presence of King.

I have been recently enjoying more from King than I had expected; after Lisey’s Story we had the “lost” Bachman book Blaze. Earlier this year we had the wonderfully creepy Duma Key. This fall we can expect another King work, a collection of short stories called Just After Sunset. The Hodder and Stoughton team know of my fascination for all things King and were kind enough to send me a proof volume of his new collection containing four of the stories as well as a new introduction and afterword from King himself. Just After Sunset is the fifth collection of short stories from King. It collects work that has been published at various publications in the past.

The sampler sent to me contained four stories that I hadn’t read, so to celebrate this treat considering that the weather was so good this weekend, I took out a bucket of ice into my garden and filled it with bottles of beer, and put on my reading glasses, seated myself on a reclining chair and read through the samples. These are my thoughts:

“Willa” is a creepy little story about the victims of an Amtrack rail crash in a small town in Wyoming. While the passengers wait for a recovery train to take them away from the station that they appear stranded upon, David searches for his fiancé, Willa, who has left the station and gone to a bar in town. The premise of this story is signposted early on, but this doesn’t detract from the tale because it really is an examination as to the continuity of life after death. Willa is an interesting tale of love, and how it may remain alive after death.

“The Gingerbread Girl”
is a full blown Stephen King horror novella and one that makes the pages fly by as it is a tense tale of survival and madness. Emily and Henry are a loving couple whose relationship disintegrates after their infant child dies. To cope, Emily takes up running, not just jogging, but serious running at every possible opportunity. She leaves her husband and moves into her Father’s beachside holiday home, where she encounters a serial sex-killer and finds that perhaps her running has got her into deep trouble; trouble that could cost her life. However, Emily is not a quitter and perhaps something in her ability to run may save her life. Part horror, part chase thriller, and part a peak at how people cope with grief, this little tale packs a satisfying punch. Reminiscent of
Gerald’s Game in terms of style and motivations.

“Mute” was my favorite story from this samplerr. A morality tale about a traveling salesman who picks up a mute and deaf hitchhiker and passes the time by telling him about how his wife left him for an older man, and how she left him in debt and with a compulsion to buy underwear and lottery tickets. This is a throwback to King’s early style, more pulp than literary, and bloody great fun with a killer ending -- literarily.

“Ayana” is somewhat like “Willa” in that it is also an examination of what may happen between the transition between life and death. When a young girl passes a healing touch to an old man dieing of pancreatic cancer, a chain of events occurs that may indicate that life is far more mysterious than the death that awaits us all. A haunting tale that lingers in the mind.

I would add that I enjoyed previously “Stationary Bike” which was released as an audio novella as well as the post 9/11 novella “The Things They Left Behind.” But as for the others, I’ll have to wait for November to read them all. However from reading this quartet of samples, I know the wait will be well worth it.

But if waiting until November for these stories seems unbearable, why not read one of them online at The New Yorker. The publication here offers up “Harvey’s Dream” from 2003.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review: Dervishes by Beth Helms

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, Cherie Thiessen reviews Dervishes by Beth Helms. Says Thiessen:
Dervishes has to be an ironic title. While the 12-year old protagonist, Canada, later remembers having seen dervishes, describing them as isolated figures spinning endlessly in place, drawing a parallel between the lives of the novel’s two main characters and this religious Sufi Muslim practice is totally inaccurate. Superficially, it may look the same: a shallow and self-absorbed mother and her neglected daughter go in circles, ever faster, and getting nowhere. Dervishes, however, spin to achieve religious ecstasy. Moreover, Wikipedia points out that dervishes as known for their extreme poverty and austerity, and are indifferent to material possessions. They are also known as being a source of wisdom, poetry, enlightenment and so on. This bears no relation to the novel’s females.
The full review is here.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Chandler at 120

“When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball.”
The author Raymond Chandler would be 120 today. J. Kingston Pierce has that story at The Rap Sheet and it’s here.

San Diego Readies Itself for Hyper Reality

The big story around Comic-Con this year is not the hordes of fans expected to fill the San Diego Convention Center for the next four days, but rather the fact that, with theaters filled with super heroes this summer, a 120,000-strong geekfest might be just the place to corral and sell audiences for future projects. From the LA Times:
The biggest challenge for Hollywood used to be making the audience believe a man can fly. Now it's getting noticed in a crowded skyline. This summer, theaters have been visited by heroes such as Indiana Jones, Batman, Hulk, Hancock, Hellboy and Iron Man, and there are dozens more in the pipeline for upcoming seasons. On Tuesday, Favreau said Marvel Studios was considering opening its own studio lot because of the boom in business.

This year every major studio is at Comic-Con, and the movies they are bringing -- such as "Hamlet 2," a loopy, R-rated comedy -- go well beyond the men-in-tights fare. There will be film presentations all four days this year and international press coverage. Comic-Con is the Super Bowl of popcorn cinema. And that's not even mentioning the TV networks looking to introduce audiences to their upcoming programs.
In 2008, Comic-Con is expecting some 120,000 attendees. The 38th Comic-Con begins this evening with a preview, though the convention officially opens tomorrow and runs through Sunday at the San Diego Convention Center. But if you’re in the area: don’t bother rushing down there: the Comic-Con Web site tells us that registration is closed, closed, closed!


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: Slip of the Knife by Denise Mina

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, M. Wayne Cunningham reviews Slip of the Knife by Denise Mina. Says Cunningham:
Denise Mina, the Glasgow-based author of Slip of the Knife (or The Last Breath, as it was published last year in the UK), has seen herself at times as “a bit of a cheeky cow.” Her Glaswegian and Tartan Noir colleagues, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, have stated their views of her too. Rankin once described Mina as “one of the most exciting writers to have emerged in Britain for years,” and McDermid has referred to her as Scotland’s “Crown Princess of Crime.” Heady accolades, indeed, from two of Scotland’s crime-writing best, but well substantiated from a reading of this third volume in Mina’s planned five-book series about Patricia “Paddy” Meehan, her Glaswegian Irish-Catholic journalist turned sleuth.
The full review is here.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

National Book Fest Set for September

The 2008 National Book Festival will be organized by the Library of Congress to be held on the National Mall on September 27th. From AP:
Salman Rushdie and Tiki Barber are among 70 authors scheduled to participate in the 2008 National Book Festival.

The Library of Congress is organizing the festival for Sept. 27 on the National Mall. The event was started by first lady Laura Bush as a way to celebrate reading and books.

The recently named poet laureate Kay Ryan is among the participants.
Authors participating in this year’s festivities include Tiki Barber, Bob Lanier, Kadir Nelson, Judy Sierra, Neil Gaiman, R.L. Stine, Michael Dobbs, Tony Horwitz, Cokie Roberts, Paul Theroux, Louis Bayard, Sandra Brown, Philippa Gregory, Francine Prose, Peter Robinson, Salman Rushdie and Alexander McCall Smith. (Though if you check out the author’s index page, you might be as mystified as me to discover that, apparently mystery is not fiction.)

The AP story is here. The Festival’s own Web site is here. Festival podcasts are being added here.

“Philistine Blunder” Cry LA Times Editors

Four past book editors of The Los Angeles Times have gotten together to let people know they “are dismayed and troubled at the decision by Sam Zell and his managers to cease publishing the paper’s Sunday Book Review.”

Sonja Bolle, Digby Diehl, Jack Miles and Steve Wasserman only barely contain their venom when they write that “Angelenos in growing number are already choosing to cancel their subscriptions to the Sunday Times. The elimination of the Book Review, a philistine blunder that insults the cultural ambition of the city and the region, will only accelerate this process and further wound the long-term fiscal health of the newspaper.” They call for “readers and writers alike to join with us as we protest this sad and backward step.”

LA Observed runs the letter from the editors in its entirety here and brings news of the “new upscale magazine” being launched in relative editorial secrecy here. While Publishers Weekly offers up a bit of backstory here.


Review: Dishing With the Kitchen Virgin by Susan Reinhardt

Today in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, contributing editor Mary Ward Menke reviews Dishing With the Kitchen Virgin by Susan Reinhardt. Says Menke:
The writer who Booklist called the “modern-day, Southern-fried Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry” has done it again with Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin. Susan Reinhardt’s third book (Not Tonight, Honey: Wait Til I’m a Size 6 and Don’t Sleep With a Bubba Unless Your Eggs are in Wheelchairs were numbers one and two) is another hilarious endeavor for the syndicated humor columnist born and raised in the South, whose talents apparently don’t carry over into the kitchen.

In Reinhardt’s words, Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin:

“… is the book for all of us who have felt guilty because our pot holders don’t have the burn marks of a real kitchen queen, whose pans aren’t scratched and half-scorched from overuse, whose Cuisinart has never been taken from the box and even still sports the old, yellowing bows from the Land of Unwanted & Unopened Wedding Gifts including Salad Shooters and Chop Wizards.”

The true audience is much wider, though. The book will appeal to kitchen virgins and trollops alike, as well as those who enjoy (or not) the results of their efforts and those who just want a good laugh.

The full review is here.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Interview: Noam Chomsky

In an exclusive interview for January Magazine -- with accompanying photos by Lily Prince -- Richard Klin asks Noam Chomsky all the important questions and gets a little swept away by some of the answers:
“The man who needs no introduction” is the most hackneyed showbiz catchphrase imaginable. It is oddly apropos when applied to Noam Chomsky. How is it possible to adequately summarize his work and impact? Since the 1960s he has provided an ongoing, devastating critique of power, empire and oppression. Then there is the Herculean productivity: a voluminous written output, talks and appearances all around the world -- not to mention the long shadow he has cast over the field of linguistics.

It is, not surprisingly, a full schedule and our allotted time with Chomsky was brief. Because of this, the topics covered were a sort of grab-bag, with no attempt at a discrete theme. I could have asked ten times more.

The interview was conducted at Noam Chomsky’s MIT office in Cambridge. He is startlingly devoid of pretense, with an unassuming demeanor akin to that of one’s thesis advisor.
The complete interview is here.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fiction: On Account of Conspicuous Women by Dawn Shamp

Deep into On Account of Conspicuous Women (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne) a young man muses on the superior nature and attributes of the woman who has made him “twinkle.”
And the way she wore her hair without a lot of fussing, all natural with soft ripples and curls. Even the times he’d seen her perspire, it stayed fluffy and sanitary. It had the fragrance of a thousand flowers and it glowed like the sunset. Why, it was downright electrical.
A few minutes later, his father’s voice cuts through his thoughts and it’s as though that man has read his son’s mind, even while bringing us the title of the book:
“Why, Son, that kind of woman’s a blessing if you ask me. She’s what you might call conspicuous. Special. Like a wood duck during breeding season. And every conspicuous woman needs a considerate man behind her.”
It’s a charming moment, one of many in a book that is never cloying, but still manages to be as bracing and comforting as sweet tea. Dawn Shamp’s debut effort takes place in Roxboro, North Carolina mostly in the early 1920s. It focuses on the lives of four young conspicuous women who are moving from girl to womanhood at a time of great change. And so we see the first time American women may vote, we see racial strife and inequity as well as the introduction or increasing acceptance of inventions that will change the world -- telephones, motion pictures, automobiles -- all from the safe vantage of the eyes of these four young women who really have much more important things on their minds.

On Account of Conspicuous Women
is the exact opposite of an epic novel. It is quiet, unassuming, even gentle yet ever so worthwhile. In one way, it is more like a tool for time travel than almost any book I’ve ever read, offering up a simple -- and, yes, sweet -- peek into the lives of four conspicuous women in a very different time.


Children’s Books: Grk and the Hot Dog Trail by Joshua Doder

In a FAQ at his Web site, author Joshua Doder (who also writes as Josh Lacey) lists the three books he would most like to have written. The three selected speak volumes about this particular writer’s work:
I suppose the books that I would most like to have written are the ones that I’ve read again and again throughout my life, so they’ve become part of me. If I was going to pick three -- because I can’t just pick one -- they would Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray and Tintin in Tibet by Hergé.
If you’re in a position to read books for children and you’ve not yet come across Doder’s Grk books, wait for it because they’re coming fast. The order in which they come will depend on where you live. For instance, in the United States, Grk and the Hot Dog Trail was published by Delacorte just last month, while those that watch book lists out of the UK would have seen Andersen publish the book back in 2006.

The order in which they come to you does not matter: you don’t need to read the Grk books in publication order to follow along. Here is what is important: each book is set in a different county: A Dog Called Grk (Stanislavia); Grk and the Pelotti Gang (Brazil); Grk and the Hot Dog Trail (USA); Grk: Operation Tortoise (the Seychelles); and Grk Smells a Rat (India).

This time out, while playing tourist during a visit to New York, Tim sees that someone has stolen the Golden Dachshund, a statue worth a billion dollars. Only Tim and his dog Grk can save the day. Doder’s Grk books are lightening fast adventures stuffed with sharp-humored charm.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Children’s Books: The Detachable Boy by Scot Gardner

John Johnson keeps losing his head -- literally. And his feet and arms and legs. He is a detachable person -- and not, as he discovers, the only one. In fact, that’s the problem. When John’s friend, Crystal, is kidnapped by men in vinyl suits and taken to an underground base in America, full of detachable people being used as spare parts, he has to follow, while his parents think he’s on a school camp. He can’t afford to buy a plane ticket, but Ravi, his genius friend, designs a suitcase that will fit his bits and posts him to the U.S.

And that’s only the start of a story that becomes progressively sillier and funnier as it goes. It has the grossout factor that kids enjoy without ever becoming too disgusting. The characters are amusing (my favourite is the American pretzel-collector -- among his collection is one shaped like Elvis and another like the Eiffel Tower -- who helps John and Crystal). I did wonder how Ravi, who has a distinctly Indian accent, had a surname like Carter, but never mind. Suspend disbelief. The young readers won’t care.

Heath McKenzie’s delightful illustrations add to the story.

Scot Gardner’s The Detachable Boy (Allen & Unwin) is aimed at boys between the ages of nine and 12, but let the girls read it too -- they’re just as likely to enjoy it.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Author Snapshot: John McFetridge

Though The Toronto Star recently described John McFetridge as Canada’s answer to Elmore Leonard, in some ways that doesn’t even begin to cover it. If anything, McFetridge’s voice is colder, starker than Leonard’s, something likely due the fact that this Made-in-Canada author wears his nationality like a Hudson’s Bay blanket. McFetridge is one of a new breed of Canadian crime fictionists, building neo noir that seems touched by both the humor and self-consciousness of life north of the 48th.

Publisher’s Weekly called McFetridge’s most recent book, Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, a “noir love song to Toronto,” while in an early review for Quill & Quire, Sarah Weinman also chose the Leonard comparison, saying that “both writers seamlessly mix the police procedural with perp procedural to underscore the parallel lives of members of the opposing teams. But where Leonard tends to favour Hollywood-homicide banter, McFetridge keep the quips to a minimum, preferring punch to panache. As a result, the only time his prose gets purple is when fists are flying.”

Clearly, and like a growing number of his readers, one gets the idea that Weinman understands that this is an author everyone knows is going somewhere.

A Snapshot of John McFetridge
Born: Greenfield Park, Quebec
Resides: Toronto
Birthday: November, 16 1959
Web site:

Please tell us about Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
The blurb is: an urban grow operator under house arrest must decide whether to trust a too-sexy stranger when a murder investigation threatens her business.

Which I guess sums it up, but it does start with an, “Arab-looking” guy falling 20 floors off the top of the apartment building she runs her grow op in, her 21-year-old daughter is in the mix, bikers are moving into town and going to war with the mob and the cops are in the middle of a huge corruption investigation, so there are some other complications.

What’s on your nightstand?
The Big O by Declan Burke, What Burns Within by Sandra Ruttan and the non-fiction McMafia: a Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld by Misha Glenny.

What inspires you?
Character, it’s all about the people. I spent a long time avoiding writing about people I knew, about their stories and situations, but the older I got the more I wondered, why? No one else seemed to be telling their stories, certainly not very many trying to do it in their voices (which is also my voice). So, I’m inspired by the people I’ve met, my friends.

What are you working on now?
More of the same, I guess. Another book with many of the same characters -- new main characters, though, that’s the series style I’m aiming for. Many of the same cops and the same crime figures involved in the lives of new people. I like the continuity of it, the way life goes on and the people keep doing what they’re doing, but I like new faces. In this book, Go Round, an ex-US Army guy and an ex-Canadian Army guy who met in Afghanistan are back home and bringing drugs and guns with them. The Canadian guy is JT, a biker we meet in Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

Tell us about your process.
It’s changing. When I started writing novels my kids were very small. Jimmy was just over a year and Doug was two and a half. I was (and still am) a stay at home Dad. So, the boys and I would often go to the park in the morning and while pushing them on the swings or watching them in the sandbox, I’d work out stuff in my head and maybe make notes if I could find 30 seconds with a pen and piece of paper. Then, in the afternoon while they napped, I’d type up what I had on an old laptop at the kitchen table.

As the boys have gotten older, I’ve gotten more time. Now Doug is in grade four and Jimmy’s in grade two so I drop them off at school in the morning and work till lunch. Then, I am the mack daddy of grilled cheese and pizza pops. In the afternoon I do research, poke around on line, get lost on blogs and webzines like this one and stuff till 3:30 and it’s time to pick up my boys at school. I’m looking forward to when they’re in high school and no longer come home for lunch (well, looking forward and not, at the same time).

As for the writing, I don’t work out plots or outline or plan too far ahead. My books aren’t mysteries with a crime being solved, they’re about ongoing crimes. I work from character and theme. Very basic themes. Dirty Sweet is about opportunity – how is it that some people see opportunity everywhere and some people never see it? Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is all about how did I end up here? I get characters I’m interested in and then I put them in situations I think are interesting and I see what they do. Then I see what they do next and around about page 250 I start to wonder, wow, how are they going to get out of this (or not get out of it)?

Francis Ford Coppola said that the idea is the question and making the movie is how you try and find the answer. Then he added, “Just try telling that to the money guy.” It’s a funny line when you’re talking about movie money, but I find it actually works with books. The idea is the question and writing the book is finding out some of the answers. I don’t know what the answers will be ahead of time, I have to write the book to find out.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
One one side is my kitchen and living room, my dog is sleeping on the couch (hey, get off the couch!) and on the other side is the window to my front yard and the street. I really like to feel plugged into my neighbourhood, to my city. I don’t work well in solitude (well, I say that having lived in cities my whole life so I don’t really know, but I strongly suspect...). I’m a couple blocks from the library and the grocery store and the park so I walk everywhere. It’s a nice neighbourhood, very homey and like a small town in the middle of a big city. I know many of my neighbours and I like running into people when I’m out.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

When I read Elmore Leonard’s Swag? I don’t know. I wasn’t much of a reader when I was a kid, but I loved the movies. I moved around a lot in high school (I went to four of them) and at the last one I met a guy I’m still friends with named Randy McIlwaine (he’s now a cartoonist, very funny stuff). We went to lots of movies and decided to try and write one. We called it Opening Night at the Bijoux (we were in Montreal, see, and bijoux means jewelry in French, and we thought we were so clever, we imagined it as the sign outside an adult movie theatre, the Bijou X) and we still feel we pretty much invented the high school sex comedy. It pre-dated Animal House and Meatballs and Porkys.

Anyway, we showed it to some producers in Montreal and a couple were interested and it was fun (and extremely frustrating), but it never went anywhere. Anyway, I thought I could make movies. For twenty years I tried -- not always full-time, head on trying, but on and off.

After a while I realized all the movies I really liked were either made by John Sayles or based on a book. I was intimidated by the idea of trying to write a novel -- every novelist I ever heard talk was well-educated, well traveled, confident. Then another buddy of mine from my high school years, Michel Basilieres, convinced me most novelists were just faking it, so I gave it a try. Michel is also a writer, his novel Black Bird won the in Canada Best First Novel Award a few years ago.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
I don’t know. Not much. Maybe I’d be a dog walker. I drifted aimlessly through a lot of my life. Dropped out of high school, moved out west, worked on construction sites and in warehouses, went back east, enrolled in university as a “mature” student and changed majors a few times before landing in English lit and history, dropped out and got kicked out a couple times before graduating at age 31. I thought I might be a teacher but after a dozen teacher’s colleges turned me down I got the hint. I didn’t have good enough marks to get into a master’s program. And like I said, my 20 year attempt at filmmaking was a complete bust.

My brother just retired after 39 years as an RCMP officer and sometimes I think I should have done that.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
It’s all been pretty good. I co-wrote a book of short stories, Below the Line, with my friend Scott Albert and getting that published was great. Then, when Jack David at ECW accepted Dirty Sweet and asked me if I could write some more books, that was pretty good. Working with Jack and Michael Holmes and everybody at ECW has been terrific. Being able to dedicate books to my wife after all she’s put up with is pretty sweet, too, and makes me very happy. I was very surprised when Dirty Sweet and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere got picked up by Harcourt in the US, and pretty happy about it.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
Because I write crime fiction maybe the easiest is that the world keeps giving me material. Every time I open the paper some criminal has done some wacky, dumb thing and I just try and imagine what could have possibly led up to that and I have a scene.

Writing crime fiction is also a good way to deal with the huge amounts of hypocrisy I see every day. I write a scene in which a bunch of bikers talk about how they’d be out of business if marijuana was legalized and I feel like I’ve done some social commentary and maybe been a little entertaining at the same time.

What’s the most difficult?
Working alone all the time. One of the things that kept me trying to make movies all those years was the social aspect of it, the hanging out on set with a bunch of funny people doing something they liked (I always felt almost all that on set bitching was fake). I know writers are supposed to love the solitude, the quiet contemplation and all that, but it drives me crazy.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
Oh, the usual, where do the ideas come from. That way I know the person asking isn’t from Toronto or they’d recognize almost every crime in my books from stories in the newspaper.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
Not this one, that’s for sure ;) I don’t know, I’m pretty open about trying to answer whatever people ask.

What question would like never to be asked again?

I was confronted after a reading once by a very angry guy demanding to know why I would put young black men committing crimes in my book. I don’t actually mind the question, I think it’s good to start the dialogue and I think we avoid difficult questions too much in Canada, but he was a pretty scary guy and he kept shoving me and saying it was, “at your peril” (he had an odd accent and the phrase seemed to fit him). We talked for a while. I don’t think he ever agreed with me that we need to get this stuff -- racism, crime, sexism, inequality -- out in the open, we need to talk about it even if it makes us uncomfortable (or because it makes us uncomfortable) if we’re going to see the end of it, but at least we didn’t come to blows.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
For most of my life I wanted to play goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. When I was a kid I was such a bad hockey player I was too embarrassed to tell my friends. Now I want to play soccer for Toronto FC.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Honey of an Opening

The story that goes with that amazing bit of video is at The Rap Sheet today. J. Kingston Pierce continues his series of the best of television crime drama openers with an intimate look at a classic heroine of the page and the small screen, Forrest and Gloria Fickling’s deliciously dangerous Honey West.
Replete with humor and plenty of risqué innuendos, the novels made Honey out as “the nerviest, curviest P.I. in Los Angeles -- or anywhere else for that matter,” to repeat one description. She was also an important precursor to some of today’s best-known distaff dicks, including V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone. “Of course, these days nobody would dare call her a feminist icon,” wrote Kevin Burton Smith in a 2004 profile of Gloria Fickling for Mystery Scene magazine, “but in her time she was a rarity -- an independent woman calling her own shots. She may have been prone to frequent ‘wardrobe malfunctions,’ but she was out there knocking on doors, taking down names, and answering to nobody but herself.”
Pierce’s story on Honey West is here.

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Non-Fiction: House Calls by Dogsled by Keith Billington

At first blush, it is the very opposite of a summer read, which quite often seem to be books whose covers feature iced drinks or miles of sand or seashells stretched on the seashore. House Calls by Dogsled: Six Years in an Arctic Medical Outpost (Lost Moose/Harbour Publishing) clearly does not meet that criteria for summer read. Yet it was the cover that finally forced the book into my hand on a hot day. And I’m glad.

So that cover. The arctic outpost of the subtitle. A line of dogs pulling a sled through the snow. And not recreationally, oh no: it’s clear that these dogs are doing serious snow business, keeping travelers alive by moving them through their arctic world. I felt 10 degrees cooler just touching the book.

Author Keith Billington’s story is warming, however. In 1963 and while still in their 20s, Billington, a nurse, and his wife Muriel, a midwife, arrived in Fort McPherson, 1700 miles north of Edmonton to work with the Gwich’in people. In the time the Billingtons spent in the Arctic, the Gwich’in taught them as much about life and the way the world works as the couple would help them. House Calls by Dogsled is that story.

Billington is no lyricist, nor does he even make an attempt. The material here is so rich, however, that it stands on its own: a fascinating glimpse into a culture foreign to many of us, with the narrating Billington most often the proverbial fish out of water. It’s a memorable book. And just the thing to lower the temperature on a hot day.

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Children’s Books: Crossing the Line by Dianne Bates

Seventeen-year-old Sophie is intelligent, good at her studies and a fine poet. She also cuts herself when she’s feeling stressed. And she has plenty about which to feel stressed. She has been fostered since early childhood, after losing first her neglectful mother, then her beloved aunt and uncle when they divorced. She has been with one foster-family after another, constantly changing schools and unable to make friends because she keeps moving.

Now it seems things will improve, since she has been allowed some independence and has started sharing a house with the likeable and kind-hearted Amy and Matt. She’s made friends at her new school and is hoping to finish her last year.

Will these be enough for a girl who feels a desperate need for family -- especially a mother? A spell in a mental hospital introduces her to psychiatrist Helen Marshall, to whom she clings, mistaking treatment for affection.

Can her new friends help her? Will Matt’s affection be enough?

Sophie is a lucky girl, actually, to have friends as patient as Amy and Matt. There were times in the book when I felt like telling her to get over it. The first-person narrative worked well, however, making it easier to understand what was going on in her head.

Self-harm has become known as the new anorexia among teenage girls. It has been estimated that one in ten girls in Australia is a self-harmer. Girls who feel they have no control over their lives may cut because that’s something they can control. Sophie does it as a form of release, or even a tribute, in the form of initials cut into her arm. It’s a major issue in this day and age and veteran Australian children’s and young adult writer Dianne Bates handles it well, in a readable and gripping book. The characters and storyline are believable. I believe Crossing the Line (Ford Street Publishing) will make it into classrooms, as it includes a lot of material for discussion.

Highly recommended.

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Barclay 1, Potter 0

I got in a spot of bother with a post about Harry Potter last year, from which you can gather I have probably been struck off J.K. Rowling’s Christmas card list. However I am definitely a fan of the United Kingdom’s currently bestselling book: Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye. I am pleased to see that, despite having Harry Potter and his cabal of friends making a nuisance of himself in the UK book charts, Canadian Linwood Barclay has seen off the pesky schoolboy wizard, as reported by The Bookseller:
Linwood Barclay’s No Time For Goodbye (Orion) has retained top spot for a second week with a 56,291 weekly sale, up 2,354 week-on-week. Barclay achieved the feat despite competition from the paperback release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Bloomsbury), which became the fastest selling book of all time upon its release in hardback last year.

The children's edition of J.K. Rowling’s seventh Harry Potter instalment sold 37,644 copies through the market at an average selling price of just £1.96 - 78.2% off its £8.99 r.r.p.
Note that neither Orion Publishing or Linwood Barclay didn’t need the heavy -- and in some cases suicidal -- discounting that Bloomsbury and Harry Potter enjoy. However in fairness, Barclay does owe a great deal to having his UK debut being selected as a Richard and Judy book.

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Silence Falls on Publishing News

The two trade publications that represent the book business in the United Kingdom are The Bookseller and Publishing News. I know many of their writers, so it was with alarm that I read this:
PUBLISHING NEWS, THE book trade weekly, is to cease publication. The issue of Friday July 25th will be the last. The news was announced in a statement today (Wednesday, July 15 2008).

The publication, founded in 1979, has been hit by the same problems that have affected all magazines and newspapers, as advertisers have shifted increasing proportions of their spend to online and direct sales. PNL’s founder and Chairman, Fred Newman, commented: “This has been a sad and difficult decision to make, but the nature of the book trade which today offers a multiplicity of ways for publishers to sell books both to booksellers and to consumers has changed dramatically. For the biggest book publishers, the trade press is now only one of many options for the promotion and sale of their titles.”

This is yet another symptom of the global economic downturn and the transfer from print publication to online, with many advertisers joining the migration. It is not all bad news however -- even though this is only keeping a brave face on such terrible news.
Newman stressed that all other activities of PN Ltd are unaffected by the closure of Publishing News. The company will continue to organise the British Book Awards and has recently signed a new two-year contract with its headline sponsor, Galaxy.
Read the full report here, while rival The Bookseller reports here.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Review: Comfort: A Journey Through Grief by Ann Hood

Today in January Magazine’s biography section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews Comfort: A Journey Through Grief by Ann Hood. Says Leach:
In a world overrun with memoirs, parsing the good from the overwrought, the treacly, or even the completely faked can be nearly impossible. One need only look at the Frey hoopla (surely I wasn’t the only person, way back when, who questioned his claims of Novocain-free dental work?) to know that a genre capable of giving readers so much has taken some dents lately. The garbage, replete with talk show spots and new age affirmations, rises right to the top, while the finer works -- raw, honest, refusing ersatz comforts -- fall from sight, read by only a sleuthing few. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking transcended all that, but then again, she’s Didion.

Enough soapbox. Ann Hood’s
Comfort is about the death of her five-year-old daughter, Grace, who contracted a full-body strep infection that killed her in three days. Comfort was excerpted in a book I reviewed a few months ago, Nell Casey’s An Uncertain Inheritance. At the time I wrote:

You have Ann Hood writing about the Strep infection that carried off her daughter Grace in three days. Grace was five. I have no idea where Hood found the strength to write this essay. Be sure you’re at home when you read this one. And make that drink a double.

Indeed, do read this at home -- at 188 pages, it is an evening or two’s reading -- have that drink nearby (Hood drank single malt whiskey, a fine choice), and keep the tissues handy.
The full review is here.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

New Today: Life With My Sister Madonna by Christopher Ciccone

You might love her or hate her or be completely indifferent, but you know her face, her voice and some of her woes. You know who she is. Which is why, though you might not run out and buy the whinefest penned by her brother, Christopher Ciccone, you will probably be at least a little interested in knowing what’s inside.

Life With My Sister Madonna (Simon Spotlight Entertainment) is an absolutely unexceptional sibling memoir. In certain ways, we learn more about sibling jealousy and the nature of that green-eyed beast than we ever do about the author’s famous sister.

There is a breathlessness to Ciccone’s voice here -- as helped along by celebrity biographer Wendy Leigh (True Grace, One Lifetime is Not Enough) -- and even the most mundane bits of fact-sharing can sound like shocking revelations. Here, for example, Ciccone spills the beans on Madonna’s trouble sleeping:
Madonna’s insomnia only became apparent to me when we were living together in downtown Manhattan at the start of her career. Whenever I woke up during the night, she would be in the living room, perched on white futon, which -- no matter how many times we washed the floor -- was always dirty. She was usually dressed in a white oversize men’s T-shirt, baggy, white cowboy-print sweats, sucking Hot Tamales, her favorite cinnamon-flavored candies, and reading poetry -- often Anne Sexton whose lines sometimes inspired her lyrics. Or the diaries of Anais Nin, who along with Joan of Arc, is one of her heroines.
In Life With My Sister Madonna we’re told a great deal -- the book is 352 pages long, after all -- but we don’t really learn very much, which shouldn’t really be a surprise: Ciccone admits he and his sister have not been close since her (currently headline grabbing) marriage to Guy Ritchie in 2000. And, honestly, discovering at this late date that Madonna lost her virginity to some guy named Russell is not a revelation. We did know she’d lost her virginity as some point, did we not? Giving him a name adds nothing to the tale.

Life With My Sister Madonna is already selling well and fans will not want to miss it and likely won’t be disappointed. Clearly, Ciccone can provide childhood details that few could duplicate. Others won’t need to stand in line, though: there’s little here beyond the expected.

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Review: Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Tony Buchsbaum reviews Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks. Says Buchsbaum:
Devil May Care is a terrific resurrection. Ignoring the last, oh, 43 years, the novel picks up, more or less, a short while after the action of Fleming’s final 007 novel, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965). Not only do the movies not exist, but neither do the couple of dozen novels written by Kingsley Amis (using the name Robert Markham), John Gardner and Raymond Benson, each of which pitted Bond against villains large and threatening, in time zones both in the near and far distance. Here, Faulks doesn’t bother with any of that because it’s simply not in this universe. Instead, he provides any number of nods, both subtle and blatant, to Fleming’s works, mentioning names and places and brands that the average Bond aficionado will recognize with love. I’m tempted to say this is Faulks’ way of placing this Bond -- his Bond -- in proper context with Fleming’s. But then I go back to that dust jacket conceit: “writing as Ian Fleming.” This isn’t Faulks’ Bond, we’re meant to think, but Fleming’s.
The full review is here.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Salman Rushdie and the Best of the Booker

We reported earlier this week about the Best of the Booker award. Here's part of the BBC 's announcement:
Sir Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children has won the Best of the Booker prize, as voted for by the public. The 1981 book beat five other former Booker winners shortlisted from the prize's 40-year history. Sir Salman, who was unable to attend the London ceremony as he is currently on tour in the US, sent his thanks via a pre-recorded message. It is the third Booker award for the author, who was also the winner of the Booker of Bookers in 1993.

"Marvellous news -- I'm absolutely delighted and would like to thank all those readers around the world who voted for
Midnight's Children," the author said.
The other Booker winners that made up the shortlist for this best of award were:

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999)
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988)
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer (1974)
The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell (1973)
The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (1995)

The Independent reports:
Rushdie's post-colonial story about the partition of India won 36 per cent of the vote. At least half the voting public was aged under 35 and more than a quarter of the 7,801 votes cast came from the US. Rushdie, 61, who was born in Mumbai but educated in England, is currently promoting his latest book in Chicago but sent a video message conveying his thanks to voters. His sons, Zafar and Milan, collected the trophy.

He said: "[I think of] how astonished my younger self writing Midnight's Children in the late-1970s would have been about this. It was written with such hope but not with the expectation that this book would still be interesting and relevant to people who were not even born when it was written."

His youngest son, Milan, 11, said while he was still to read his father's magnum opus, he was born just eight minutes before midnight, similar to the protagonist of the novel, who was born on the stroke of 12.
Meanwhile, The Guardian features several downloads:

Audio: Salman Rushdie talks to Stuart Jeffries

The Guardian Book Club have a treat for Salman Rushdie readers as he will be appearing at a special event at The Shaw Theatre in London at 7 p.m. on July 28, talking to John Mullan about Midnight's Children. Tickets are £10/£8 and can be bought direct from the venue Tel (0044 871 594 3123) or from the UK 0871 594 3123.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Live from the Back Stacks

Over the last three months, ever since Derringer Award-winning Detroit author Patti Abbott first suggested that bloggers who cover the world of literature begin reminiscing on Fridays about “books we love but might have forgotten over the years,” the close of each business week has opened up new opportunities for readers. Participation in this project remains high, with contributors unearthing older favorites from all over the belletristic spectrum.

Just today, for instance, suggestions of novels that deserve to be rediscovered include The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone, by Matt Cohen, Lockout, by Lillian O’Donnell, Kate Vaiden, by Reynolds Price, Control, by William Goldman, Portrait in Smoke, by Bill Ballinger, and No Human Involved, by Barbara Seranella. That last choice, by the way, comes from January Magazine’s sister publication, The Rap Sheet, which has tapped a succession of different writers to pick their favorite “forgotten books.” Seranella’s 1997 novel, for instance, was chosen by Louise Ure, the author most recently of The Fault Tree (2008). Previous installments of The Rap Sheet’s Friday blog series have been penned by Mike Ripley, Kirk Russell, Tony Broadbent, David Corbett, and others. So far, at least, there has been surprisingly little overlap with The Rap Sheet’s first-anniversary “one book project,” which invited more than 100 crime novelists, book critics, and bloggers from all over the English-speaking world to choose the one crime/mystery/thriller novel that they thought had been “most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years.”

Every Friday, Abbott (who, by the way, is the mother of Edgar Award-winning novelist Megan Abbott) posts a list of that week’s participating blogs at her own site, Pattinase. If you’re a blogger and are interested in adding your own selections to the growing “forgotten books” roster, contact Abbott at

Remember, the newest books aren’t always the best ones. And a little dust never hurt a good story.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Review: Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, editor Linda L. Richards reviews Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey. Says Richards:
Considering how he got here, it was inconceivable that James Frey’s first work of actual fiction not be brought to Earth on a wave of controversy. I myself came to Bright Shiny Morning fully prepared to loathe it. How could it be otherwise? Frey had gotten his shot with a couple of well-published and well-promoted biographies. He’d gotten his shot and blown it in a grand and noisy style. Shouldn’t Frey, in the tradition of historical wannabes everywhere, just go off with his tail between his legs and leave us alone on our various paths to finding books that matter?

But he did not. Instead, he took himself quietly off and emerged with a stout and ambitious book. Inevitably, fire was drawn.

Like many others, and with an admittedly jaundiced eye, I started to read. And was astonished. Bright Shiny Morning is not perfect. There are weirdly wide flaws. But it is utterly, completely original. More: the book’s flakey, broken narrative and bumper-to-bumper pace captures the feeling that is Los Angeles while its sharp little vignettes grab some of the context.
The full review is here.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Review: The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, Cameron Hughes reviews The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow. Says Hughes:
I’m hoping The Dawn Patrol changes things for Don Winslow, that this is a huge success, and that he is hereafter mentioned in the same breath as modern giants such as Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos, because this new book is one of the best private eye novels I’ve read in years.

Boone Daniels used to be a cop. Now he’s a surfer in San Diego, California, obsessively checking how high the waves are and tracking where the epic swells will be on any given day. To support this habit, he does the bare minimum of work necessary, as a P.I. Life seems pretty darn good for Boone Daniels and his surfer buddies on “the Dawn Patrol.” So why is Daniels’ bank account empty? And why does he now spend countless nights trying to find the suspected rapist and killer of a 6-year-old girl -- a case that got cold fast when he was on the San Diego Police Department and refused to torture information out of the favored suspect?

This is a novel chock-a-block with hidden secrets and depths, and Winslow lets you know that right off the bat when he introduces the members of his Patrol by their nicknames only. Other than Daniels, we have Hang Twelve, Dave the Love God, Sunny Day, High Tide and an occasional comrade known as Red Eddie. Don’t you dare let anyone spoil the fun by telling you ahead of time what these names mean. Even their group’s appellation -- and this book’s title -- has a second, darker meaning.
The full review is here.

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Fiction: The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell

Jack O’Connell’s most recent book was just one of those that was never going to get the attention it deserved, no matter what. In the first place, O’Connell’s The Resurrectionist (Algonquin) had the misfortune of being given a distinctive moniker that got used by another popular book in roughly the same time period. James Bradley’s book by the same title -- published in 2007 by Faber & Faber in the UK -- has been getting a lot of attention, including being a Richard & Judy Pick for Summer 2008.

In the second place, there is no single space where O’Connell’s The Resurrectionist has a tight fit. There are elegant slashes of noir here but it is not a work of crime fiction. There are strong reaches into other worlds, but it is not quite SF/F. One could argue for straight up literary fiction, but the writing engages too sharply for that. And there is a fully developed plot, characters that can be understood and identified with and even dances with a bizarre comic book world where anything can happen.

As the book opens, a pharmacist named Sweeny has just had his young son, Danny, transferred to the Peck Clinic, a place where they specialize in comatose patients. It does not take us long to realize that, though the Peck Clinic has a good record for awakening patients in comas, there is a lot swirling just below the surface: just slightly out of our grasp. There is more to Sweeny, too, than meets the eye.

The Resurrectionist begins on a sharp and steady noir/crime fiction beat, and becomes ever more surreal until, by journey’s end, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s real and what is not.

O’Connell’s work has been compared to that of Kafka, William Gibson and Wambaugh. While he does not suffer under such comparison, it isn’t entirely fair. While, for me, there were moments when The Resurrectionist bent under its own weight, this was a journey I enjoyed from end to end. More: while I read, there was no voice to whom I felt O’Connell’s must be compared. This is great stuff: and unlike anything you’ve probably ever read before. Highly, highly recommended.

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Goodbye Mr. Disch and Mr. Budrys

Two recent losses have saddened fans of science fiction and beyond. Both Thomas M. Disch and Algis Budrys were major fixtures in the genre. Their influence has been lasting.

Cult science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch passed away on July 4th. I read most of Disch’s output, but perhaps my fondest memory is reading his novella The Brave Little Toaster to my eldest daughter when she was an infant. I will miss the work of this strange writer/poet who pushed the genre into the literary with masterworks such as 334 and Camp Concentration. Although an American, Disch was associated with the British new-wave of SF/F in the 1970s when he resided in the UK. The Telegraph reports on his passing away in a lengthy obituary:
Though an American, Disch was often associated with the New Wave of science fiction in Britain -- where he lived during the late 1970s – which was centred on writers such as Michael Moorcock and M John Harrison, rather than with figures such as Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin in the United States, who were also engaged in broadening the field from its pulp origins.

Disch's work was self-consciously literary and ambitious -- and became more so as time went on -- and was notable from the first for its sardonic wit, chilly anger, cynicism and reliance on irony and allegory. In his later novels and poems, it often seemed that satire had given way to bitterness.

The critic John Clute judged him “perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers.” He was well-regarded for his poetry (which he wrote as Tom Disch) by many who had no idea that he wrote genre fiction.
The Telegraph’s obituary is here.

Disch’s last interview was with Bat Segundo and is available as a podcast downloadable here. In a surreal twist, Disch is asked about Algis Budrys who passed away in June. Disch appeared to predict Budrys’ passing:
Correspondent: I wanted to also ask you about A.J. Budrys, who I know you -- I saw your LiveJournal where there were many caustic remarks directed his way. But I should point out that when I received this galley well before June 9th, when he died, you referred to him as “the late Algis Budrys.”

Disch: (laughs) Yes!

Correspondent: I’m wondering if you had some inside dope or if this is another example of your divine powers.

Disch: I guess so. I mean, I never know what my divine powers are going to do often, until they’ve done it. And this is certainly a case where I had picked the right horse without even knowing.
Influential and award winning writer Algis Budrys passed away on June 9th. The Chicago Tribune took a fond look back:
Known to friends as “A.J.,” Mr. Budrys' books, particularly 1960’s Rogue Moon and 1977's Michaelmas are highly regarded by critics and students of the genre. His work explored “the way a person feels or develops, more than with wild space adventures,” said his wife, Edna.“A lot of his books are about identity, who we are and why do we do what we do,” said Charles Brown, editor of the science fiction magazine Locus. The plot of Michaelmas touched on computer hacking and domination of human behavior by machines, “which pretty much predicted a lot of what’s going on today,” Brown said. “He was well ahead of his time.”
The full piece is here.

In a recent interview, Budrys’ was asked what the future held for him and replied somewhat poignantly considering his passing
I'll probably be found draped over my computer keyboard at some point. I’m 70 years old. I don’t know how much longer I can go, but I plan to keep going until I stop. I don’t have anything else I’d rather do, and since there’s no retirement income here (although I've been drawing Social Security for some time), I’ll just keep going.
The Times reported:
Algis Budrys was one of the writers who made his name alongside such luminaries as Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick in the early-1950s boom in science-fiction magazines.

Budrys’s first two published stories, in 1952, were The High Purpose (in Astounding Science Fiction) and Walk to the World (Space Science Fiction). He went on to write more than 100 stories in the next decade. In Silent Brother (Astounding, February 1956), the hero finds an alien intelligence living in his mind, with mutually beneficial results for both of them and the entire human race.

Other exceptional stories from this period are The End of Summer (1954), Nobody Bothers Gus (1955), The Man Who Tasted Ashes (1959), The Distant Sound of Engines (1959) and Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night (1961). The Edge of the Sea (1958), a seminal first-contact story, narrowly missed out on winning a Hugo award.
The Independent reported that Budrys’ later career was not without controversy –
In the early 1980s, a new professional role began to occupy Budrys's time, and changed his life. His involvement in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future brought him far too close, in the eyes of many, to Scientology, both as a controversial religion and as the corporate backer of the series of anthologies Budrys edited – 18 of them in all between 1985 and 2007. This programme was of immense use to many young writers, which goes some way to justifying Budrys's sometimes strenuous defence of his advocacy, in word and deed, of Hubbard himself.

It was also in the 1980s that Budrys decided to come to England for the first time, to attend the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention being held that year in Brighton. To do so he had to modify his technical statelessness, and gained an American Green Card to make the trip (in the 1990s he took out American citizenship). Unfortunately the Brighton experience was shadowed by a perception on the part of British science-fiction professionals that the Church of Scientology, which maintained a highly visible sponsoring presence at the convention, was attempting to take over the event.
Meanwhile, Locus Magazine published this excellent essay on Budrys’ work shortly after his passing.

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Summer Publishing Program Full Steam Ahead

The Summer Publishing Workshops at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University began on July 2nd and run until August 2nd, offering programs in four areas of publishing: books, magazines, editing and design.

The program began at The Banff Centre in the early 1980s and was shifted and honed in the mid-1990s when it was moved to SFU. The program is well-attended by publishing professionals from around the world who come to learn and to take the pulse of the industry through the carefully monitored and nurtured set of programs. SFU tells us that, this year, “more than 100 faculty, and approximately 450 participants, will come to SFU Vancouver in the downtown core for 38 workshops in books, magazines, editing, and design.”

Participants take part in one and two-week immersion workshops offering hands-on projects, lectures and discussions. Included are Book Publishing Immersion, Book Editing Immersion and the Book Cover Design Intensive. As well, a series of shorter workshops and lectures are offered.

The full slate of programs can be viewed here. As well, the 2008 Symposium on the Book will take place on July 12th. This year’s program features a tight look inside crime and thriller writing:
Six of Canada’s top crime writers join a crime fiction book reviewer, an editor of crime writing, and a mystery bookstore owner to discuss the subgenres of crime writing – thrillers, mysteries, cozies, detectives and true crime – and will also engage the audience with an in-depth look at the position of crime writing in Canada.
Panelists include William Deverell, Anne Emery, Daniel Kalla, Anita Daher, Michael Slade, Margaret Cannon, Dinah Forbes, Walter Sinclair, Mary Jane Maffini (who will moderate the proceedings) and January Magazine editor and co-founder, Linda L. Richards. Registration information can be found here.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Copycat Covers Continues

More than two years into his crusade to suss out and expose all the duplicate covers in bookdom, Rap Sheet and January Magazine editor J. Kingston Pierce is astonished that “vigilance and increasing negative publicity seems not to have deterred publishers in the least from trying to save a few rubles by using stock images -- even when those photographs and illustrations have already appeared on the covers of other books.”

This time out, Pierce brings us surprising visual duplications on books by top selling, debut and international authors, while letting us know that, with help from his readers, “my mission continues.”

The most recent Copycat Covers expose on The Rap Sheet can be found here. Find all of them archived here.


Behind the Best of the Booker

We’ve written about bibliophile Mariella Frostrup in the past. Frostrup fronts BBC Radio 4’s Open Book program as well as presenting Sky Arts Book Program. She is also one of the judges of the “Best of the Booker” award which will be announced in just a few days. The Independent reports that Frostrup is a real renaissance woman as well as a friend of actor George Clooney:
The Best of the Booker, [is] arguably the most prestigious literary prize ever awarded in this country [Britain]. The winner will be announced on Thursday, once the public has elected the finest of the 41 novels to have won the Booker Prize. Salman Rushdie is favourite with Midnight's Children, and you can vote online now. But there is a catch. Your own preference -- Pi, say, or Amsterdam by Ian McEwan -- may not be available for selection. The contenders have already been cut down to a shortlist of six, by a panel of three judges including Mariella Frostrup.
The article explains how Frostrup’s life became entangled with her love of books which developed into her fronting TV shows, radio and her own journalism:
She grew up in Ireland, in a house full of books. Her mother was an artist from Scotland, and her father a Norwegian who wrote for the Irish Times. He died of alcohol poisoning when she was just 15. Frostrup was still in shock when she found herself living in a squat in Shepherd's Bush. "Despite the posh tones, I had almost nothing. Even when I was partying a lot, I was also driven by the need to pay the bills."

She broke into TV as a film reviewer but expanded into all kinds of arts and discussion shows. Sexism means it will not last, she says -- “look for the women past 40 on mainstream TV” -- but for now she is not above doing a voiceover for Marks & Spencer while Myleene Klass cavorts in a bikini. Books are what keep her on screen: she has been canny enough to parlay a surprise invitation on to the Booker panel in 2000 -- “I was flabbergasted” -- into a leading role in the literary world. Why was she asked? “For the same reason they ask a lot of people who don’t have a direct connection with books: to lend a common touch to the proceedings, in terms of books being reader-friendly as well as wonderfully crafted and important.”
The full article is here. More information on the Man Booker Prize is here. The Best of the Booker will be awarded at the London Literature Festival on July 10th. Look for the longlist for the 2008 Man Booker Prize to be announced at the end of this month. It will be whittled down to a shortlist on September 9th, with the prize itself being awared in mid-October.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Review: France: Instructions for Use by Alison Culliford and Nan McElroy

Today in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, Cherie Thiessen reviews France: Instructions for Use by Alison Culliford and Nan McElroy. Says Thiessen:
“When all else fails ... read the instructions,” is the tongue-in-cheek advice on the cover of this diminutive book, setting the lighthearted tone for this latest offering in the Instructions for Use travel series. (Earlier books were on Europe and Italy.)

Well, there’s only one way to test out a travel book, so obviously I had to pack my bags, tuck the small compendium into my backpack, and fly to Europe. France: Instructions for Use made for entertaining reading on the plane, although my sudden bouts of laughter may have woken my neighbor more than once.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Books Boiled Down

Slashdot releases a firestorm with their thoughts on reducing book plots to their algorithmic essentials:
[Aaron Stanton’s] original prototype examined over 200 books, plotting 729,000 data points across 30,293 scenes -- but its universe of analyzed novels is about to become much, much bigger.
The (very brief) Slashdot piece is here, but pay special attention to the many, many comments (some of them even lucid) and the links.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Children’s Books: The Dangerous Alphabet by Neil Gaiman

If you think this is an actual alphabet book, even a quirky one, think again. It does use the letters of the alphabet, but only as an excuse for the 13 rhyming couplets that form a story. The letters aren’t even all in order and sometimes they’re rather strange. For example: “’L is, like ‘eaven, their last destination.” Indeed, there’s a warning at the start of the book: “The alphabet, as given in this publication, is not to be relied upon and has a dangerous flaw that an eagle-eyed reader may be able to discern.” And children are eagle-eyed with pictures. Just ask any child who has run an eye over Graeme Base’s Animalia or the Where’s Wally? books.

It’s a story, using the alphabet to hang on. Most of it is a “piratical ghost story,” starting with “A is for Always, that’s where we embark” in which two Victorian era children start on their adventure on a fish-shaped boat, accompanied by their pet gazelle. Gris Grimly’s deliciously scary illustrations really tell as much of the story as the words. Perhaps more. There are monsters, pirates, treasure, constant movement.

Like everything else that Neil Gaiman is involved with, The Dangerous Alphabet (HarperCollins) is great fun. It’s well worth reading with your child.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Betancourt’s Independence Day

Wonderful to hear about the release of former Columbian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. I won’t comment on the controversy surrounding the release because, in a way, it doesn’t matter. What does matter: Betancourt is alive and free after so many years. For a time, many of us doubted if either of those things would ever be true. In any case The Telegraph deals with that aspect, and all others, with an even hand here.

Not long after Betancourt was taken hostage six years ago, I reviewed Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia (HarperCollins/Ecco), the then-new biography of the “beauty contestant-turned-social-activist.” From my 2002 review:
Until Death Do Us Part is a compelling book. It reads, at times, like fiction. The well-bred girl making the perfect match and throwing it all aside in order, she feels, to save her country. A knowledge -- or even an interest -- in Colombian politics is not required. In simple -- and often quite lovely -- prose, the book is a true life political thriller, a deeply personal tale and -- at its core -- the story of a courageous woman making difficult choices.

“Now that I’ve arrived at this point,” Betancourt writes in Until Death Do Us Part, “will they kill me too?” One hopes, having read her frank and generous book and considering her current perilous position, that they do not.
I’m so, so glad that our worst fears did not come true.

Pol Positions

Today is Independence Day in the United States (cue the fireworks, barbecues and patriotic speechifying!) -- a perfect occasion on which to catch up with Los Angeles author Gary Phillips’ developing political thriller, Citizen Kang.

In case you haven’t been keeping track, Phillips -- who’s best known for writing the Ivan Monk private-eye series (Violent Spring, Only the Wicked), but also edited the recently published anthology Politics Noir -- has been penning Citizen Kang for The Nation magazine’s Web site for the last six months, ever since mid-January. (New installments appear each Monday.) The story follows Cynthia Kang, “a left-wing, bisexual, 40-something Chinese-American congresswoman from California,” who is struggling in her bid for re-election. Making her task particularly onerous have been the suicide of her mentor, Kang’s discovery that “a mysterious billionaire is pulling strings to affect this year’s presidential election,” and the disappearance (kidnapping?) of her chief of staff.

Writing in our sister publication, The Rap Sheet, Phillips lays out some of his own challenges, as he tries to keep this weekly serial hopping and -- in the next few months -- bring it to a bang-up, 40th-episode conclusion. One of the chief hurdles, he writes, has been smoothly incorporating real-world political developments into his evolving tale:
[I]n Citizen Kang I reference topical and newsy issues now and then, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent landmark ruling on gun ownership, John McCain’s gaffes and flip-flops, and so on. Those events may occur out of their real-time sequence, for I’m having to collapse my storyline in order to give this serial novel a feeling of immediacy. Two days in Congresswoman Kang’s world might, as a result, contain a week’s worth of real-world occurrences. But that’s just the way these things work.

This business of syncing up my fiction with real-world developments is something I can smooth out later on, when I get around to re-editing Citizen Kang for publication in book form. Real-deal politics also messed with me early on, when I was conceptualizing this work. As I’ve mentioned before in The Rap Sheet, Cynthia Kang was originally supposed to run as an independent candidate for the Oval Office, á la the satirical Tanner ’88 that showed on HBO (created by Robert Altman and Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau). Although former Michigan Congressman Jack Tanner was actually running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, in both Tanner ’88 and Citizen Kang, real, developing political stories were meant to influence the fiction’s progression. The trouble was, as states started moving up their primary election dates, and as Barack Obama began raking in money like it was free lunch, who in their right mind would have jumped into such a race?

I mean, besides windmill tilters -- or is that would-be spoilers? -- like Bob Barr and Ralph Nader.
You’ll find Phillips’ full post here. And to catch up -- and then keep up -- with Citizen Kang in The Nation, simply click here.

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