Sunday, August 31, 2008

Stalking the Wild Novel

A couple of years ago, Julie Wilson had a bizarre idea. Rather than reviewing books, she’d observe what people were reading in public, then she’d use her blog to tell people about what she’d seen. Hence Seen Reading, a blog that could be infinitely missable, but is made sublime by Wilson’s wit and sense of timing, fun and style.

On Seen Reading, Wilson herself explains the concept:
What is Seen Reading?

1. I see you reading.
2. I guesstimate where you are in the book.
3. I trip on over to the bookstore and make a note of the text.
4. I let my imagination rip.
5. Readers become celebrities.
6. People get giddy and buy more books.
Each day’s entry begins with a description of Wilson’s chosen target. Here, for example, is what Wilson reported for Seen Reading on July 31st. The book in question is Harlan Coban’s The Final Detail:
Doctor’s office, masked and waiting.

Caucasian woman, mid 30s, with shoulder length blond hair, wearing blue T-shirt, khaki capris, and leather sandals. She coughs nonstop, mask tied, hands free.
This is followed by a short excerpt taken from about the place in the book where the subject was reading followed by a few warmly Wilson-style remarks. Nor must you actually read Seen Reading: each entry has a podcast version, as well. (Says Wilson: “I highly recommend you listen to it while riding the subway or bus. I cannot, however, condone you listening to it while riding a bike.”)

Want to get your book reviewed on Seen Reading? Not gonna happen. “Sightings must take place in the wild,” says Wilson. “Part of the thrill for me is encountering readers in their natural habitats.”

For my part, I know that my own arrival as an author will be complete when Wilson reports she’s seen someone reading one of my books. In the meantime, I’ll track her finds right here.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Review: The Mirror’s Edge by Steven Sidor

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, David Thayer reviews The Mirror’s Edge by Steven Sidor. Says Thayer:
Steven Sidor’s latest novel, The Mirror’s Edge, slips the reader more than a few Mickey Finns before its final scenes unfold. Chicago freelance writer Jase Deering is the ideal protagonist for this jarring story; his sweating palms and trembling fingers mask an inner toughness as he embarks on a prolonged and horrifying search for the truth about a mysterious kidnapping. Twin boys vanished in broad daylight from their suburban home. Were they kidnapped or murdered? In either case, Jase understands this kind of loss from personal experience: his older brother vanished in the woods long ago.

The full review is here.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

New This Month: Exit Lines by Joan Barfoot

Dark and funny and dangerously nuanced, in Exit Lines (Knopf Canada) Joan Barfoot manages another notch on an already impressive double bandolier of high impact Canadian novels.
At three o’clock in the morning, that defenceless hour when anything feels possible and nothing human or inhuman out of the question, the Idyll Inn’s only sounds are the low hum and thrum a complicated building makes to keep itself going. Like any living body, even a sleeping or unconscious one, a building has to sustain its versions of blood and breath, so there’s a perpetual buzz to it, white noise in the night.
Four new guests a retirement home form a pact of “pleasurable rebellion.” The concept is funny and, on the surface of things, the approach is lighthearted. However, Barfoot deals here with topics most of us would much rather skate past: mortality, morality and a diminished twilight as a footnote to a vibrantly lived life.

Like her previous novel, the Giller-finalist Luck, Barfoot captures humanity in a way that both resonates and makes one wonder at a world slightly askew. Barfoot’s vision is always worth watching, and there’s no exception to that rule in sight in Exit Lines.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

New This Month: Shimmering Images by Lisa Dale Norton

You’ve always wanted to write the story of your life, but didn’t know where to begin. Or, you’ve felt the tug to set things down on paper, but thought you were too busy. Or that no one would care. Or both. If any of these things ring true for you, author, teacher and founder of the Santa Fe Writing Institute, Lisa Dale Norton has written the book you didn’t even know you were looking for.

Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir (St. Martin’s Griffin) is spare, slender and entirely to the point. In her introduction, Norton writes that the book “gives you the steps without a lot of fancy mumbo jumbo about literature and books you haven’t read and never will.”

Despite this grassroots-ish sounding advice, Norton manages to chase through to the beauty and spirit of powerful storytelling. As Norton says:
Story, the essence of narrative, is art. Writing life stories borders on the mystical because you, the writer, become the master of reality. You make sense of chaos. You bring order to life events through narrative; you attach meaning to events. The act is more than reporting facts; it is an act of creation. Art is creation. Memoir is art.

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Adventure Travel Author Dies at Home

In retrospect, the introduction to the 1999 book he co-authored seems prescient: “This life is a short journey,” he wrote as he began 100 Things To Do Before You Die (Taylor Trade Publishing). “How can you make sure you fill it with the most fun and that you visit all the coolest places on earth before you pack those bags for the very last time?”

Little did author and adventure seeker Dave Freeman know that, less than 10 years later, his number would come up, not under the feet of bulls in Pamplona or scaling a peak or even tumbling nude from a surfboard in Australia, but at age 47, hitting his head after a simple fall at his home in Venice, California.

From The Daily Mail:
“It’s very odd, very sad and very freaky,” [Freeman’s co-author] Mr Teplica told the Daily Mail. “There was no heart attack. He was physically very capable -- not the sort of person to just fall over. His death is unfathomable.”

According to Mr Teplica, his friend’s mantra was: “You should live every day like it would be your last. There's not many people who do.”

Mr Teplica said: “He didn’t have enough days but he lived the life he wrote about.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review: Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

Today in January Magazine’s art & culture section, Diane Leach reviews Reading the OED by Ammon Shea. Says Leach:
I planned to begin by writing that Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED is THE book for word lovers. I ran to look up the word for word lovers (lexiphiles? vocabularians?) but immediately ran into what I always called “the dictionary problem.” That is, if you don’t know the word, or know it but cannot spell it, you’re out of luck. Thanks to Ammon Shea, I now know the technical term for my the dictionary problem is onomonomatia: vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word. If you are true wordarian, or whatever, there is the OED online, which will solve this problem for you via its search engine, provided you are willing to subscribe. Or you may follow Ammon Shea’s example. Wordarian to end all wordarians, Shea read the Oxford English Dictionary cover to cover, the way others might take on Swann’s Way. Caveat Emptor: The Oxford English Dictionary runs 21,730 pages, requiring 20 volumes. The set weighs 137 pounds. Start making shelf space, and working with free weights, now.
The full review is here.

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Review: The White King by Gyorgy Dragomán

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, Cherie Thiessen reviews The White King by Gyorgy Dragomán. Says Thiessen:
Somewhere in Transylvania during Romania’s repressive Communist regime in the 1980s, eleven-year old Djata is playing chess with a frighteningly real looking African robot. Surrounded by various spooky African “trophies” owned by one of this country’s corrupt military leaders, Djata is soon aware that he cannot win. Refusing to give up, he grabs the robot’s white king and thrusts it in his pocket. He would rather steal than give up.
The full review is here.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Obama, McCain Looking Good on Paper

Adam Tschorn of the Los Angeles Times reports that one of the biggest showdowns between presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain might be entirely on paper:
That’s because the super-flat senators are the sartorial subjects of renowned paper doll artist Tom Tierney, who casts the candidates and their spouses as ready-to-dress paper people, each with about half a dozen wardrobe changes (Oddly, Barack Obama’s daughters Malia and Natasha are included -- each with a single cold-weather outfit -- but John McCain's brood of seven is absent).

Despite the kitsch factor, the books stand on their own (as do the
senators, with the proper folding and a drop of glue) as miniature style archives for both men, by depicting them in historically accurate garb. “History” going about as far back as their respective wedding days: McCain in white tie and black peak lapel tailcoat for his 1980 nuptials to Cindy Hensley, and Obama in a black tuxedo with satin peak lapels for his 1992 “I do” to Michelle Robinson. The books wind through looks from public appearances early this year, such as McCain's white-and-blue check button-front shirt, red baseball cap and khaki-colored bullet-proof vest for a visit to Baghdad in April, and Obama’s “lightweight ‘Western’ suit and a regional hat” from a February whistle-stop in Texas.
The books are published by Dover and are widely available. The L.A. Times piece is here.

Blyton’s Five Set to Return

A half century after their troublesome debut, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five will storm the world in a new set of books for children, beginning with the UK publication of The Famous Five’s Survival Guide set for publication next month.

From Reuters this morning:
Chorion, which owns the rights to Blyton's characters, has authorised the book’s release along with new versions of some of the author's other popular children's classics including the Faraway Tree, The Wishing Chair, The Secret Series and Malory Towers.

Twenty newly commissioned books will be released, with the latest Famous Five and Faraway Tree novels due out in Britain next month.

The other titles will follow during the next two years.
And from The Times Online:
The author wrote 700 stories and eight million of her books, including more than one million Famous Five tales, are still sold worldwide every year. After her death in 1968 her creations were criticised as sexist and racist, with many modern copies given a politically correct rewrite. But she has come back into favour recently and was named the nation's best-loved author at this year's Costa Book Awards, beating Shakespeare, Dickens and Roald Dahl.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Suskind Gets Gonged

The Central Intelligence Agency has responded officially to “charges in the current Ron Suskind bestseller, The Way of the World (Harper), related to the agency taking part in falsifying evidence related to WMD in Iraq.” So reports Editor and Publisher in an item released yesterday.

The Editor and Publisher item is lengthy, interesting and here. However, at least one thing about it causes concern: the CIA took the time to send an official response to dispute Suskind’s claims. Here’s the disturbing part: does all of this mean that Gong Show host and inventor Chuck Barris really was a CIA hitman as he claimed in his 1982 book, Confessions of A Dangerous Mind (republished two decades later when it was made into a film featuring Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney and Julia Roberts)? After all, Barris made all of these outlandish (some would say ridiculous) claims and the CIA sat on their hands and stayed mum. What’s it all mean?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Rushdie Really Isn’t Scruffy

We reported recently about the controversy around On Her Majesty's Service (John Blake Publishing), Ron Evans’ account of spending 15 years as a special protection officer in the UK.

After the previously reported brouhaha, the publisher agreed with Rushdie’s lawyers that there were “falsehoods” in the manuscript. Alison Flood reports in The Guardian:
The authors of a book which claimed that Salman Rushdie was nicknamed “Scruffy” by his police protection officers have admitted there were falsehoods in the manuscript and have made amendments accordingly, according to Rushdie’s lawyer. The publisher of On Her Majesty’s Service hopes to release a revised version of the book next week.

On Her Majesty’s Service by Ron Evans with Douglas Thompson was originally due to be published on August 4 but was delayed after Rushdie threatened legal action following the publication of extracts in the weekend papers. Rushdie said these portrayed him as “mean and arrogant”; one claimed that during the fatwa against him, Rushdie’s guards “got so fed up with his attitude that they locked him in a cupboard under the stairs and all went to the local pub for a pint or two”.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Children’s Books: The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum

Quite often, the flap material on a book does little to bring clarity to the material within. This is not, however, the case with The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum (Schwartz Wade Books). This single line tells the story absolutely:
Here is an original fairy tale that feels like a dream -- haunting, beautiful, and completely unforgettable.
This is one of those rare children’s picture books that just works on every level. Though Kate Bernheimer has never before written for children, her writing is well known and respected and as the editor of Fairy Tale Review, she’s certainly never out of depth with the material she’s chosen here.

On the other hand, Nicoletta Ceccoli is a highly regarded illustrator of children’s books. It’s not difficult to see why. In 2006 she was awarded the silver medal by the Society of Illustrators. In 2001 she won the Anderson Prize, awarded annually to Italy’s top children’s book illustrator. Her illustrations for The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum are wonderful. This is work so luminous, it seems backlit even on the page. The details are splendid, as are the colors and the otherwordly quality you see throughout works very well with Bernheimer’s story about a girl trapped within her magical world.

The book is recommended for children aged four to eight, but this is a stunning book: it’s my guess many of this edition will end up in the hands of collectors.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Age-Rating Books for Children: Right or Wrong?

While BBC News today asks if age-rating books books for children is right or wrong, I think a better question might be: useful or not? Do parents really need someone else’s opinion on what reading material is “suitable” for their children? Some publishers in the UK seem to think so because, later this year, a scheme to add an “age band” to books will begin:
Each book will carry a specific marking indicating whether they are suitable for readers aged 5+, 7+, 9+, 11+ and 13+/teen.

Research within the book industry suggests people buying books for children would welcome the guidance.
The mere suggestion of an age writing system for books strikes me as ridiculous and even wrong. I’m not alone in my reaction. Some 750 authors and illustrators have gotten together and formed a group called No to Age Banding. The authors speaking out against age-rating books include Terry Pratchett, Andrew Morton, Anne Fine, JK Rowling, Celia Rees, Neil Gaiman, Roddy Doyle, David Almond, Allan Guthrie, Diana Wynne Jones, Anthony Horowitz and many, many others. The reasons they offer against age banding books are compelling. Here are a few of them:
• Each child is unique, and so is each book. Accurate judgments about age suitability are impossible, and approximate ones are worse than useless.

• Children easily feel stigmatized, and many will put aside books they might love because of the fear of being called babyish. Other children will feel dismayed that books of their “correct” age-group are too challenging, and will be put off reading even more firmly than before.

• Age-banding seeks to help adults choose books for children, and we’re all in favour of that; but it does so by giving them the wrong information. It’s also likely to encourage over-prescriptive or anxious adults to limit a child’s reading in ways that are unnecessary and even damaging.
We agree. If you do to, you can visit the No to Age Banding Web site and add your voice to the growing number already there.

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Devil Won’t Care

Don’t look for the film version of the Sebastian Faulks James Bond novel published earlier this year. Daily Variety reports that Eon Productions, who have had a hand in 22 of the 007 movies that have made it to the big screen thus far, have passed on bringing Devil May Care to film. And while it might appear that Eon’s shake of the head would mean opportunity from other avenues, that won’t be the case here. Says Variety:
Bond’s just not up for grabs. Eon parent Danjaq has controlled the copyrights and trademarks to the franchise for films since the 1950s, locking out anyone else from producing pics featuring the British spy, with the exception of Warner Bros.’ “Never Say Never Again” in 1983. It also has a major role in choosing who distributes the films, which MGM will return to producing after “Quantum of Solace” unspools in November.

Even if producers could acquire the film rights to “Devil,” jointly owned by the Ian Fleming Estate and Faulks, they wouldn’t be able to use the James Bond name, his 007 call sign, the James Bond theme or gun-barrel sequence, for example.
But Variety tells us that Eon didn’t pass because they didn’t like the book. Rather they got cold feet around the Cold War backdrop:
Eon toppers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson claimed that the book’s 1960s setting made it less desirable as a Bond pic property, at least for now.

“We love the book, but because it is set in the 1960s, we haven’t considered making it in the near future,” Broccoli and Wilson told Daily Variety.

The Cold War-set adventure takes place in 1967 and revolves around the international drug trade that takes Bond to Iran, the Caspian Sea and Russia and features a villain with an oversized monkey’s paw for a hand.
But don’t think that will leave the world lacking for new Bond films. Look for Daniel Craig, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, Gemma Arterton and Jeffrey Wright in Quantum of Solace, scheduled to hit a theater near you on November 7th.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Signing Books Without All the Heavy Lifting

It would be easy to think that top-selling authors are a lot of lazy louts. First, as The Guardian points out, you had JT LeRoy hiring stand-ins for public appearances, then Margaret Atwood cooked up her LongPen so that authors could sign at a distance. Now an anonymous publisher is using Craigslist to hire people to fake signatures. From The Guardian:
One smart publisher seems to have devised a way of easing the pain for the millionaire bestseller writer: they have posted an advert on the listing site, Craigslist, inviting a team of part-time workers to fake the signatures and get paid in cash for the privilege.

The advert says it is looking for 14 people who can do a blitz of false autograph signing on behalf of two unnamed co-authors of a newly released, and equally anonymous, book.
And I love this part, where The Guardian gets down and dirty and does the math:
The advert says the fake signing, to be held in Los Angeles, will run over two days at eight hours a day.

Each signing will take 15 seconds or less, and at that rate the team of 14 could sign up to 53,760 copies.
What’s next? No, never mind. Don’t answer that. The possibilities are endless. And I guess we’ll tell you about it when they come. Meanwhile, here’s The full piece from The Guardian.


Review: Bonk by Mary Roach

Today in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, Caroline Cummins reviews Bonk by Mary Roach. Says Cummins:
Years ago, Mary Roach paid the bills as a freelance travel writer. Being Mary Roach, however, she tended to pick offbeat locations (Antarctica) or offer goofy takes on the familiar (poking gentle fun at taxi drivers for a three-days-in-London story). Roach is best known now, of course, as an irreverent science writer. But she’s still picking unusual destinations, or finding the funky hiding in the familiar.

Her three books -- Stiff, Spook and now Bonk -- boldly go where most other writers fear to tread, into the realms of cadaver research, scientific attempts at tracking the afterlife and the hush-hush history of sex studies. They’re beloved because, unlike most non-fiction books about science, they’re laugh-out-loud funny. But under the humor is a serious mission: to report on the valuable, if bizarre and/or embarrassing, work that science is doing on the nature of death and sex.
The full review is here.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Children’s Books: The (Not Quite) Perfect Boyfriend by Lili Wilkinson

The (Not Quite) Perfect Boyfriend is the latest in Allen and Unwin’s Girlfriend Fiction series. If they were all the kind of book suggested by the hearts on the covers and the series titles throughout I would probably not be reviewing all of them. Some of the Girlfriend Fiction series are simply teen romances, if well-written ones, but others could be published as straight young adult fiction. In some ways, The (Not Quite) Perfect Boyfriend is one of them. Yes, it’s a teen romance and yes, it sticks to the formula that the heroine, something of a Cinderella, falls for the good-looking guy, who turns out to be a pill, and then ends up with the nice boy she has considered just a friend throughout the story (or, in this story, the one she finds irritating, but has to work with). But there’s more to it and this one is very funny.

Midge (whose full, cringeworthy name, is Imogen) is “sweet sixteen and never been kissed,” unlike her best friend Tahni, who always comes back from holidays with stories about all the cute guys she has dated.

To get Tahni off her back, Midge invents a boy she supposedly met during the holidays. His name is Ben, he is British and romantic and, best of all, he went back to England, so she doesn’t have to introduce him to anyone and after a couple of weeks, she can pretend to break up with him. As she’s intelligent and good with language, she writes e-mail in his name and invents a Facebook profile for him, to fit with the romantic image she has built.

The trouble is, when a gorgeous British boy called Ben turns up at the school soon after, everyone assumes he’s the non-existent boyfriend. Ben is willing to go along with it, and for a while, Midge enjoys her new “boyfriend,” but he has a price for his co-operation. Is Midge willing to go along with this blackmail or will she decide it isn’t worth the price? (And no, it isn’t anything physical). How will Tahni feel, now that Midge has overtaken her one source of pride, her ability to get boys?

And what about George, the other new boy at the school, nowhere near as attractive, with a mysterious past and with whom Midge is stuck on an English assignment? What is he doing on those days he disappears? Why does he doodle all those dragons and medieval images on his schoolbooks? And where did that injury come from?

I must admit, I figured out the mystery about George pretty quickly, but only because I was in the Society for Creative Anachronism and have a half-finished novel on my computer that begins, “The trouble is, my mother spends her weekends hitting Vikings with broom handles.” I doubt the girls reading this novel will work it out so easily and what they will think then, I can’t be sure. But they will have had a good laugh along the way, and thought about friendship and beauty being only skin deep.


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Rankin and Mosse Join the Quick Reads Roster

Ian Rankin (Exit Music) and Kate Mosse (Sepulchre) are the latest in a long line of well-known authors pressed into service writing Quick Reads, a four year old UK initiative creating terse but exciting books by bestselling authors and celebrities. The books are aimed at adults who are new readers, out of the habit of reading for pleasure or who simply prefer a quick read.
It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but it’s been very, very interesting,” Mosse told the Guardian. She explained that writing the book in line with the Quick Reads guidelines, which demand very short sentences and no words longer than two syllables, was an “enormous challenge … it might be called a Quick Read but It’s been far from a quick write for me.”

Crime author Ian Rankin has also written a new book for Quick Reads: his A Cool Head is the story of a young man Gravy who finds himself caught in the middle of a robbery gone wrong. Other contributors include John Boyne with The Dare, told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy whose mother hits a child with her car, and a book from the Dragons’ Den entrepreneurs about finding success. Jacqueline Wilson has written an introduction for a title about getting your child to read, while Murder Most Famous winner and Coronation Street actress Sherrie Hewson has contributed her debut thriller, The Tannery.
The new titles will be available on World Book Day, which happens every March. While you wait, you can check out the available titles at the Quick Reads Web site. The full Guardian piece is here.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Biography: Shopping for Porcupine by Seth Kantner

Darkness -- huge and boundless, with only my one scoop of light, which thins across snow to gray, grayer, blackness. No assurance out there of another human, not on this planet anyway. I shovel my cave by headlight. Pitch in twin sleeping bags, a caribou hide, food. It’s small inside; big out here, and silent, a few flakes coming down, and a few stars blurry up there and not sharing their hard-traveling light. The air is not cold, only sixteen below, but a north breeze sears my cheeks.
There are times in Seth Kantner’s memoir of growing up Arctic that we encounter this sort of cold, Northern poetry. A kind of love song to the harsh land that fed -- perhaps nurtured -- the talent in his young soul.

Through Kantner’s sharp eye we see not only his own coming-of-age, but the transformation of the land he so obviously loves. Not all of the transformations are good.

This carefully wrought memoir is his first book-length work of non-fiction. Kantner’s fiction debut, Ordinary Wolves, brought the author wide acclaim in 2004. Shopping for Porcupine (Milkweed Editions) will bring him still more.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Books as Exciting as Film

Booklovers won’t be surprised by the results of a new Dutch study. It may, however, give them the ammunition for a few I-Told-You-Sos. From Quill & Quire:
The next time someone tries to tell you that movies are a more visceral, exciting medium than literature, you can counter their arguments by pointing to a new scientific study that has just been released in the Netherlands.
Researchers at the University of Groningen hooked test subjects up to various cool monitors, showed them short film sequences, made them read and asked them to imagine stuff. Then they watched their brain activity. In all three instances, the anterior insula lit up in the same way. One of the researchers explains that the “anterior insula is the part of the brain that is the heart of our feeling of disgust. Patients who have damage to the insula, because of a brain infection for instance, lose this capacity to feel disgusted. If you give them sour milk, they would drink it happily and say it tastes like soda.”

OK, so, what does that mean to us in real degrees? The same researcher tells us that “whether we see a movie or read a story, the same thing happens: we activate our bodily representations of what it feels like to be disgusted -- and that is why reading a book and viewing a movie can both make us feel as if we literally feel what the protagonist is going through.”

We’ve brought you the short version of this. Quill & Quire has the whole meal deal on their blog, and it’s here.

Fiction: Abbeville by Jack Fuller

Even if you set out reading Abbeville (Unbridled Books) without knowing that Jack Fuller is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the author of six novels as well as a work of non-fiction, you would understand that this is the work of a journeyman.

Fuller tells his quiet little story well, managing to build a peaceful muscularity into the tale of Karl Schumpeter. Abbeville is told more or less through the eyes of Karl’s grandson, George Bailey, who after the dot com bomb of the early 2000s, is unwittingly treading in some of his ancestor’s footsteps.

Abbeville is, in a way, the central Illinois town that Karl built, putting together a fortune even while open-handedly creating the kind of place where everyone wants to raise their children. Karl’s way of life comes to an end with the stock market crash of 1929 and the economic Depression that followed. The one time mogul is reduced to raising chickens and doing janitorial duties at the local school. He does both with a dignity that his grandson will only come to appreciate long after Karl is dead.

In this deceptively simple Midwestern-set tale, we discover the universal threads that connect us. What’s important in life? How do we find it? Will we know it when we see it? Fuller’s control is such that he brings us there so easily, we don’t even know we’ve been brought. Abbeville is a gentle masterwork.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Review: Missy by Chris Hannan

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, Linda L. Richards looks at Missy by Chris Hannan. Says Richards:
The US edition of Missy, by award winning Scottish playwright Chris Hannan, is an object lesson in what to avoid when designing a book. A cheery chartreuse cover splashed in bright red with that single word title, at first glance, Missy looks like a classic example of contemporary children’s book design. In this instance, this is not a good thing.

The story of an opium-addicted prostitute making bad choices in the American west, Missy is about as far from being a book for kids as can be imagined.
The full review is here.

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Review: New England White by Stephen L. Carter

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach looks at New England White by Stephen L. Carter. Says Leach:
Yale University law professor Stephen L. Carter is obsessed by power, particularly of the backroom variety. In New England White, his thickly layered whodunit (originally published last year, but only recently released in paperback), he pits Julia Veazie Carlyle and her husband, Lemaster, against a shadowy, frightening group out to quell the release of certain information, which has ramifications all the way up to the White House. That the shadowy and powerful are a tiny African-American elite adds a level to this mystery that many others lack: a glimpse into a world rarely seen by whites.
The full review is here.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Non-Fiction: Wake Up to Your Weight Loss by Alyson Mead

Though I’m not, at this point in my life, especially interested in dieting, this line on the back of Wake Up to Your Weight Loss: Using the Art of Personal Narrative to Achieve Your Best Body by Alyson Mead caught my eye:
“What if the Buddha dieted?”
How could that not pique someone’s interest? A whiff of blasphemy and a hint of fun leads potential readers to think endless quantities of both might be found between these covers. And the fact is… well…. not so much. At the same time, Wake Up to Your Weight Loss is anything but stodgy. It begs us to find and reinforce the things inside us that are good, while letting go of much that is bad, including extra pounds.
When we want to say that someone or something is serious or dignified, we say it has gravitas, meaning substance …. So when did weight become synonymous with fast, lazy and dissolute?
I suspect that, like all self-help books, how much you manage to pull out of Mead’s latest book will depend entirely on you. However, her message of empowered self-acceptance and self-love that can lead to physical change is a positive one. Change your mind, she seems to say. And, in order to change you body, change your heart.

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New in Paperback: Keeping the World Away by Margaret Forster

When Margaret Forster’s Keeping the World Away (Ballantine) was first published in 2006, Salley Vickers’ review for The Guardian was thick and mostly enthusiastic. “The novel’s focus is the historic problem posed for women by the stringencies of art and the sacrifice of other potential, but competing, goods which the serious pursuit of it entails.” While this is pulled from a positive review, it doesn’t leave room for the imaginative dance of this novel, which explores the history of a single painting, Red Violin-style, as it travels from hand to hand, impacting the lives of the women it touches.

Though she has written several novels (Lady’s Maid and Diary of an Ordinary Woman among them), Forster is best known as a biographer. Her work in that area has included a Heinemann Award-winning biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and a Fawcett Society Book Prize winning biography of Daphne du Maurier.


Children’s Books: The Dragon in the Sock Drawer by Kate Klimo

I don’t remember the last time I encountered a children’s book with a premise as clever as the one Kate Klimo’s The Dragon in the Sock Drawer (Random House) is based upon.

Here’s the idea: when an ordinary rock -- a thunder egg -- tucked into a 10-year-old’s sock drawer hatches into baby dragon, there are a few challenges. For one thing, it turns out that baby dragons are extremely noisy. For another, as cousins Daisy and Jesse discover, finding out what to feed an infant dragon is nearly impossible.

The Dragon in the Sock Drawer
is the whole package: smart, sometimes wise, thoughtful and funny. Klimo’s debut effort has the feel of an instant classic.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Review: The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, Linda L. Richards looks at The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe. Says Richards:
For this reader, a single thing marred the sharp perfection of the plotting and prose of The Calling. That was the secret identify of the literary superhero who penned the book.

Since publication -- heck, since prepublication -- it has been understood that The Calling was written under a pseudonym by “a well-known North American writer.” Since the book was announced in 2007, a lot of ink has been spilled over guesses as to the identity of this writer. To be honest, having now read The Calling, I feel as though I have a fairly good idea who the writer is. In my opinion, there are few authors with the talent and experience to create characters this vivid and then place them in a plot this engrossing and intense. And, by the way, if you’re hanging in to hear my guess, give it up: I’m not going there. I suppose that, at least for now, part of the experience of reading The Calling is this mystery within a mystery. Who wrote the book? Time will tell.
The full review is here.

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Still Counting...

We have no reason to try to find out how many books the average visitor to January Magazine reads in a month but, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it’s way easy to hook up one of these polls and start asking away.

Look for other unnecessary but probably interesting polls in the near future. In fact, maybe we should take a poll about which polls to poll on?

Meanwhile, add your two cents in the column at right.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

God and Vladimir

It strikes me as the height of hubris, though the strike it makes on you might be different (lightening, plagues of locusts, ad nauseum) but a book review of The Bible? C’mon. And it isn’t as though the Book needs the sales bump: by all accounts, it does pretty well even without a full time literary publicist. Even so, today at The Globe and Mail, author Donald Harman Akenson (Surpassing Wonder) takes a stab at The King James Version. Fer cryin’ out loud:
Like Vladimir Nabokov, the Almighty did his best writing in English. His Hebrew and German (I mean He, not Nabokov) were also excellent, but His Greek and Latin were a bit sloppy. Still, no one's perfect. The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible of 1611 (also called the Authorized Version) was a new creation. If it still is the best rendering of the Hebrew and Greek originals in English, it nevertheless changed utterly the way the Tanakh (the Hebrew scriptures) and the so-called New Testament are read. The magisterial language of the KJV loses in its solemnity the Hebrew puns and word games of the Tanakh and covers up the verbal messiness of the Greek New Testament.
The full piece is here.

Muslim-Themed Novel “Shelved”

It seems to me that, after 9-11, there was a lot of talk about the fact that terrorists could only succeed if they managed to cow us, bow us, influence our course. Yet here we are again. From The Guardian:
A romantic novel about Aisha, the child bride of the prophet Muhammad, has been withdrawn because its publisher feared possible terrorist acts by Muslim extremists.

The Jewel of the Medina, a first book by Sherry Jones, 46, was to have been released on August 12 by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House. But the publishers apparently panicked after Islamic scholars objected to the work.
From all accounts, we’re talking about a fairly innocuous historical novel. Think Gone With the Wind with a lot of veils and sand. It was never meant to be an “important” book and the author appears to have no political agenda. From BBC News:
Jones has never visited the Middle East, but spent several years studying Arab history and said the novel was a synthesis of all she had learned.

“They did have a great love story,” Jones said of Muhammad and A'isha.

The author, who has just completed a sequel examining her heroine's later life, is free to sell her book to other publishers, Random House said.
So while the word “postponed” has been used a few times, Random has clearly pulled the plug and, for the moment at least, The Jewel of Medina is dead in the water. Chalk up another 10 points for the thought police. We live in dangerous times, indeed.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

New This Week: Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu

“In cooking class, I learned a startling array of things. Eating fish head will repair your brain cells. Spicy food is good for your complexion. Monosodium glutamate is best thrown in a dish just before it comes off the wok. Americans are fat because they eat bread, while Chinese are slim because they eat rice. If you work as a cook in America for three years, you can come back to China and buy a house.”
Jen Lin-Liu was a Fullbright scholar and is a food critic and the co-author of Frommer’s Beijing. And though Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China (Harcourt) would be engaging at any time, with the Olympics just moments away, it moves from interesting foody travel book to one of the must-reads of the season.

Even if you plan to get no closer to Beijing than your television, Serve the People will fill in some of the blanks with a great deal of style. Not only does Lin-Liu know this material, she can cook and she can write.

Serve the People is terrific. It might change your view of China, in a good way. And just in the nick of time.

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Rushdie and the Law

Sir Salman Rushdie has been in the press rather a lot lately. His novel The Enchantress of Florence has been nominated yet again for a Man Booker Prize marking its spot on the controversial longlist. The shortlist will be announced at the beginning of September with the winner being awarded on October 14th. Rushdie is likely a favorite for the award, as last month he was awarded the Best of the Bookers for 1981’s Booker winner Midnights Children. I read last week that Ex-Special Branch detective Ron Evans mentions Rushdie in a negative manner in his autobiography On Her Majesty's Service which is due for release shortly. One of the negative comments alleges that the team of protection officers nicknamed Rushdie “Scruffy” as we reported here last week.

This has reportedly enraged the well-known author, especially as the story has spread like wildfire from traditional print media -- in this case The Telegraph -- into the blogsphere, as reported by the Guardian, who devoted the whole of its page two on the matter under the headline “‘I was never called Scruffy’ -- Rushdie set to sue over former bodyguard’s claims:”
Ron Evans, the book’s author, claims Rushdie was imprisoned by his guards who “got so fed up with his attitude that they locked him in a cupboard under the stairs and all went to the local pub for a pint or two. When they were suitably refreshed they came back and let him out.”

The author was alerted to the claims by a newspaper story about the alleged cupboard incident last weekend, which has subsequently been picked up on
websites and blogs.

Rushdie said: "The simple fact of the matter is that nothing of this sort happened. My relationship with my protection team was always cordial, certainly entirely professional. This kind of absurd behaviour never occurred. There are three references in his article to drinking on duty - it is absolutely forbidden for police officers, particularly in possession of firearms, to drink on duty. They did not do so.

"The idea of them raiding my friend's wine cellars then me asking them to pay for this is completely fictitious. It is absurd the idea that they would lock me in a cupboard and go to the pub.

“It is like a bad comedy. My relations with the protection officers were cordial and I am still friendly with a few of them. At the end of my nine years of protection they held a reception for me. I had a lot of sympathy and understanding from the police. Our relationship was the exact opposite of what has been written. I never heard myself called by the name Scruffy in nine years.”

Read more about why Rushdie is employing lawyers to prove his name that he was never referred to as “Scruffy.”


Friday, August 01, 2008

Author Snapshot: Kelli Stanley

Noir is in the eye of the beholder. While some people feel that fiction called “noir” must take place in a narrow band of geography or time, others understand that noir is a condition of light and spirit rather than time or place.

At first blush, it would seem that Kelli Stanley understands all of these things better than most, having set her debut novel, Nox Dormienda (Five Star), in 1st century Rome for a style that Stanley and those who have read her are calling Roman Noir.

On her Web site, Stanley explains that Roman Noir is based “on my classically-trained and educated interpretation of Roman culture.” It is “lightning-paced” and “rooted in the ‘30s hard-boiled style, especially Chandler.”

A classics scholar, Stanley lives in San Francisco but writes and lectures internationally and secretly still does “a killer Mae West” impression.

A Snapshot of… Kelli Stanley
Most recent book: Nox Dormienda (A Long Night for Sleeping)
Born: Tacoma, Washington
Resides: San Francisco, California
Birthday: June 11, 1964
Web site:

What’s your favorite city?
San Francisco, of course. Followed by Rome, London, Chicago, Paris and New York.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
First, I head over to Sam Woh’s in Chinatown for some yang chow fried rice. Then hop on a vintage F-car on Market Street to the Hyde Street Pier, and visit the historic ships. Walk back up to Buena Vista Café and order an Irish Coffee (they invented it there). Take a drive through the Presidio to Ft. Point, located under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge, and find the spot where Jimmy Stewart dove in the Bay to save Kim Novak in Vertigo.

By then, it’s time to head back home … but fortunately, I live here.

What food do you love?
Baked potatoes. Organic russets, with sour cream, garlic salt, chives, and plenty of pepper. And dark, dark chocolate for dessert.

What food have you vowed never to touch again?
Fast food. I haven’t eaten any in about five years … no McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, In and Out Burger, et. al.

What’s on your nightstand?
An antique lamp, two harmonicas, three meditation balls from Chinatown (the kind you roll in your hand), a notepad, a magic box of metal crickets (also from Chinatown), two pens, and a lot of books.

What inspires you?
People. What I call the unexpected delights in life -- a sudden smile, a small act of kindness. Misery is something I expect, I suppose, it seems to be around us all the time. So I look for signs of hope. Nature constantly inspires me as well -- a raven on a garbage can, a hawk on a street lamp, a eucalyptus tree. Or, when I’m not in the city, Redwood trees, space, animal sounds. When I’m in the city, that magical mix of gracefully aging architecture and diverse populations and energy and urban decay. And neon signs.

What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up a very dark novel set in 1940 San Francisco, featuring a female private investigator. I love writing about this era; it was a period of great beauty in every day life (the architecture, fashion, film, music) that coexisted with much ugliness.

Tell us about your process.
I write in the afternoons, generally, because that’s when I’m home from work. If I can write in the morning, I prefer it. I’ve written at all times of the day or into the evening, particularly if I’m finishing a segment or chapter. I take notes with pencil and paper, sketch my plots and chapter/scene events out the old-fashioned way -- more of an outline, since characters will often do something completely unexpected when I’m actually writing them.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
A mess! Lots of to-do lists, vitamins, green tea, and a large, black and white Springer Spaniel that needs a bath.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Writing is something I’ve always done. Because of that, I think, as a child I never had the goal of becoming a writer. Writing was always there, and I suppose I sort of took it for granted. I planned to become an actress when I graduated from high school, and I wanted to direct films. But by the time I was an adult, I realized that I actually needed to write (and in a more disciplined way than scratching out poetry or essays). So I started with screenplays initially, and turned to novels when I was back in college, finishing up my Master’s Degree. Nox Dormienda was my first attempt at writing one. And now, of course, I wouldn’t trade being a writer for anything.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?

Making films. My parents always urged me to go into law, and my friends tell me I’d make a great psychiatrist! What that says about me and my friends, I don’t know...

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

January 17, 2007. The day I received news about my publication. I graduated just six months earlier, hadn’t joined any organizations, didn’t know anything about the publishing business. But the fact that a company -- even a small company -- was willing to give me money -- even a small amount of money -- for thoughts in my head that I’d shaped into a novel was, well, miraculous. I could invest in myself at that point, since others were willing to. And I’ve found that the writing community is full of wondrous and wonderful people, amazingly generous and supportive. So I’ve stayed happy ever since.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
Wanting to write. I’m always composing, thinking, mulling, storing something away, some act or person or moment I’ve observed. I constantly write, even when I’m not near a keyboard.

What’s the most difficult?
Reviews. Setting your book free and relinquishing all control of what reviewers may do to it. But that’s part of the business reality of writing. Publishing is a privilege. It’s a tough business, as all creative enterprises are. So another challenge is figuring out the right decisions for yourself. I’m lucky. I have a very smart, supportive family, and recently signed with the best agent in the universe, Kimberley Cameron.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
I’m usually asked to explain what Roman noir is, which I happily do. And I’m also asked what everyone is asked, namely “Where do you get your ideas?”

What’s the question you’d like to be asked? Probably what I’m trying to achieve with my book. Themes, literary motifs, messages, intentions.

What questio
n would you like never to be asked again?
There’s no question about writing or my books that I mind answering, no matter how many times I’ve been asked it. It’s when people stop asking that I worry!

Please tell us about Nox Dormienda.
It’s a historical mystery-thriller, written for people who don’t like historical fiction without (hopefully) displeasing those who do! It’s been described by Ken Bruen as “Ellis Peters rewritten by Elmore Leonard” and by other reviewers as a fantasy collaboration of Lindsey Davis and Raymond Chandler. The style and pace are classic hardboiled, 1930s-style vintage noir, while the setting and background are authentic first century AD Roman Londinium.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.

As a freshman in college, I won a part as a courtesan (in The Comedy of Errors) by auditioning with a Mae West impression. I can still do a killer Mae West!

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