Friday, October 31, 2008

“Take It Easy, But Take It”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, activist and radio host Louis “Studs” Terkel died at his Chicago home Friday. He was 96. From CNN:
Terkel had grown frail since the publication last year of his memoir, "Touch and Go," said Gordon Mayer, vice president of the Community Media Workshop, which Terkel had supported.

"I'm still in touch, but I'm ready to go," he said last year at his last public appearance with the workshop, a nonprofit that recognizes Chicago reporters who take risks in covering the city.
Terkel received a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1934, though he opted not to pursue the practice of law. He was perhaps best known for his radio show, The Studs Terkel Program, that was heard in the Chicago area from 1952 until 1997 for one hour every week day.

His first book, The Giants of Jazz, was published in 1956. He received the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for The Good War.

“Studs Terkel knew the real America,” Dennis Kucinich wrote Friday in an essay for The Nation. “The America of grit and gumption, heart and soul, passion and nerve. He chronicled five generations of American history with a compassionate and deep understanding of the American character.”

In an affectionate good-bye in The Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote:
Was he the greatest Chicagoan? I cannot think of another. For me, he represented the joyous, scrappy, liberal, generous, wise-cracking heart of this city. If you met him, he was your friend. That happened to the hundreds and hundreds of people he interviewed for his radio show and 20 best-selling books. He wrote down the oral histories of those of his time who did not have a voice. In conversation he could draw up every single one of their names.
And Ebert ends on a quote so completely Terkel, I must end on it, as well:
There will be no tombstone, although being Studs, he has written his epitaph: “Curiosity didn’t kill this cat.”


Bullet Points for Halloween

• In the spooky spirit of this Friday, Bruce Grossman, who writes in Bookgasm about pulp crime novels both classic and, well, questionable, this week recalls “three books with icons of Halloween in the titles.” His choices include Bats Fly at Dusk, by “A.A. Fair,” a pseudonym used by Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner. I’ve recently had the good fortune to acquire a small trove of Gardner/Fair’s Bertha Cool and Donald Lam private eye novels, including Bats Fly at Dusk. With Grossman’s recommendation, I really look forward to reading it.

• James Hynes offers his top 10 Halloween reads, while Brad Leithauser comes up with his own intriguing rundown of the five best ghost-story books.

• The new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, continues to raise doubts, this time from CHUD reviewer Devin Faraci. More thoughts on the movie from novelist and Rap Sheet contributor Declan Burke.

• Peter Rozovsky’s latest “Noir at the Bar” event in Philadelphia will be held this Sunday. The guest is Stoker Award-winning novelist Jonathan Maberry. More details can be found here.

• For the true James Bond movie fan: books about the making of the films. Unfortunately, says Double O Section’s Tanner, the new entries in this series are slimmer on the text than the previous installments. Doesn’t anybody read anymore?

• On the DVD release front: The sixth and final season of The Rockford Files, starring James Garner, is due out on January 20 of next year. Meanwhile, the three-disc set Columbo-- Mystery Movie Collection 1990 is scheduled to reach stores on February 3.

• Zoë Sharp is the latest guest blogging author at St. Martin’s Minotaur’s Moments in Crime site. She follows Stuart MacBride, who was a hoot and a half last week.

• Well, so much for Amazon Shorts.

• There’s a nice piece in the Los Angeles Times by Sarah Weinman about the largely forgotten, 19th-century fictional sleuth James Brampton. The piece is here. Hmm. That’s odd. The copy I ordered of Leaves from the Note-Book of a New York Detective: The Private Record of J.B, “edited by” John Babbington Williams, seems to have gone missing in the mail. Hope it shows up soon.

• An Internet Books Database? I like the idea.

• David J. Schow’s Gun Work, the new release from Hard Case Crime, seems to be getting an awful lot of favorable attention. There’s this review from Independent Crime’s Nathan Cain, this other one from Craig Clarke of Somebody Dies, and the author himself steps into the grilling box at The Big Adios. Looks like I’ll have to move that novel up closer to the top of my to-be-read pile.

Trenchant political analysis from novelist Barry Eisler. Boy, I’ll be glad when this current U.S. presidential election is over, Barack Obama begins assembling his cabinet, and we can all go back to obsessing over books again.

• And one of today's most reliable and prolific private-eye novelists, Loren D. Estleman, gets the feature treatment in Detroit, Michigan’s mighty Metro Times.

Fiction: The Book of Lies by Brad Meltzer

The Book of Lies (Grand Central Publishing) is an interesting, even arresting read. I can’t say I loved Brad Meltzer’s new novel, but I sure wasn’t bored. I read somewhere that Meltzer said this was the book he was born to write and that he was actually sort of afraid to do it ... though I can’t imagine why. I mean, yeah, the plot’s a stretch -- to say the very least -- but since when is that a reason not to write?

Follow me, if you can: In the early part of the last century, young Jerry Siegel, misfit Jewish kid, invents Superman, possibly our nation's most enduring super-icon. How did this come about? Meltzer posits that it was a direct result of the boy's father's sudden death. Was it a heart attack, as official reports have it? Or was it murder (which makes for a much better story)? And if it was murder, was it somehow linked to the old Cain and Able story from The Bible? You know, the one where God creates a mark of Cain after he murders his brother?

Add in a present-day frame about the novel's hero and his dad -- from whom he has been estranged since boyhood -- and you have the makings of a trifecta of parallelism. Siegel pere and fils. Frere et frere. And hero Cal and his dad. Nice, huh? Except it's a bit too nice, too neat, and too convenient. And perhaps even a bit too far-fetched. I'm more than willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good yarn, but I do expect a good-looking sweater at the end of the day, if you know what I mean. And unfortunately, The Book of Lies, while not exactly a bad-looking sweater, doesn't exactly fit in all the places it should.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

New in Paperback: Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I kept coming back to his face. Earnest. Hair swept back rakishly. Eyes straight ahead to a glorious future. This is the face of evil, wreathed still in youthful innocence. It’s difficult to imagine.

And I kept coming back to the question: nature or nurture? Who wouldn’t want to know that? The product of the original dysfunctional family -- a violently alcoholic father, a sexually ambitious mother -- a youthful Josef Stalin goes off to study for the priesthood, a turn of events perhaps not expected from the man who will grow to become one of history’s bloodiest dictators.

In Young Stalin (Vintage) Simon Sebag Montefiore takes us there elegantly. His research is exhaustive, yet seamless. That is, we’re so swept away by the story he tells, that we can’t see it or feel the work it took to get us there. That’s as it should be. Nor is there any doubt that the author knows his way around this material. And know it he does. In its publication year, Young Stalin won the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Political Literature, the Costa Biography Prize and the LA Times Book Prize in Biography.

And if you love this author and just can’t get enough, in November look for Sashenka: A Novel (Simon & Schuster). The byline is different but similar -- Simon Montefiore – as is the time we spend. Sashenka begins in Russia in 1916 in an odd calm before the storm.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

New This Month: The New Annotated Dracula by Leslie S. Klinger

In 2004 he rocked us with The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, a look at the classic fictional detective that was closer -- and in some ways more intimate -- than any that had gone before. Author Leslie S. Klinger offered up an almost line-by-line commentary on the great work. In the process, he unearthed bits and pieces that had been left behind over the years -- a bit of literary archeology, if you will. Fans were floored at the offering of riches about the much celebrated Holmes. On the one hand, the book seemed to cover every possible corner of Holmes legend and lore. On the other, it brought it all together in a handsome volume worthy of gift-giving and collection. The only question left, really, was: What comes next? How do you follow up that sort of action? And with what? After all, not every literary icon is worthy of the Klinger treatment. But, certainly, there are a few.

Klinger found one worthy of his attention in Bram Stoker’s original Dracula. And here again, Klinger follows Stoker’s tale line by line, offering up trenchant observations and tidbits of all sorts of information about this classic novel. We begin with an introduction by Neil Gaiman. “Dracula is a book that cries out for annotation,” Gaiman tells us. “The world it describes is no longer our world.”

And Klinger responds, in a way, with his annotations: perhaps making our worlds collide. As he says in his own preface, “My principal aim ... has been to restore a sense of wonder, excitement and sheer fun to this great work.” He succeeds.

There is a fiction is Klinger’s annotations, however: he proceeds as though Stoker’s Dracula were a historical non-fiction. The device works -- adds, somehow to Klinger’s magic -- and while reading The New Annotated Dracula (Norton) you often feel transported, as though to a world that never existed, an in-between world where magic is real... and ever so frightening.

Ironically -- or perhaps not so much -- Eric Nuzum’s very successful 2007 non-fiction work The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula (St. Martin’s Press) is released this month in paperback. January Magazine reviewed that book favorably when it was published last year, but I mention it here because, while Nuzum and Klinger’s books are very, very different what we have here is not an either-or type of proposition. In fact, you may just find that one fuels the need for the other: there is no duplication between the two books, only an ever-broadening knowledge in a fascinating -- and fictional? -- field.

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Bookbrowse Unveils Facelift

Bookbrowse, “your guide to exceptional books,” today unveiled a complete redesign that promises to bring the online publication’s content to readers in a fresher, more effective style.

“Our original site layout was effective,” says Bookbrowse founder and CEO Davina Morgan-Witts, “but over time had begun to look outdated. As we were constantly adding new content and capabilities, the older layout was becoming more difficult and complicated to use. We needed to go back to our core value -- recommending only the best current books and providing all of the information a visitor needs to find the book that’s just right for them -- and rebuild around that user-centric objective.”

Morgan-Witts adds that the 11-year-old site will continue to offer in-depth reviews and the stories behind the books as well as previews of upcoming books, their bank of author bios and interviews as well as advice on starting and running a book club and other book club rich features and the ability to browse and cross reference by more than 70 themes, including by time period and geographical setting.

“Initial feedback has been excellent,” says Morgan-Witts of the redesign. “We set ourselves aggressive targets, and I am proud to say that we have met them.”

The newly redesigned Bookbrowse is here. The current week’s recommendations are here. Information on the enhanced content available to Bookbrowse members is here.


Morgan on the Failure of Capitalism

I’m a big follower of the work of Gumshoe nominated Richard Morgan, having known him since he debuted with Altered Carbon. Morgan was recently interviewed at the SF Web site IO9 and his insight is always of interest, especially in these economic meltdown days.

I was intrigued at Morgan’s response to Alex Carnevale’s question relating to Morgan’s take on the economic situation and what he had written in an earlier novel:
Market Forces was a screenplay and you picked it apart for a novel. It's eerily prescient -- what does it have to say about what's happened with the economy?

I'm kinda torn because on the one hand it's always nice to be right. On the other hand, I own a house like everybody else. And I don't want to see its value drop by a third. I am constantly perplexed by the reaction to Market Forces, especially the reaction in America. I didn't really think I was saying anything startlingly off the wall. To me it seemed like I was extrapolating a fairly obvious line. Anyone who knows anyone who works in high-risk financial institutions. Anybody who has friends who are merchant bankers, or stockbrokers or commodity dealers or has anything to do with that world will tell you, and I had a number of e-mails of people saying this, this is how these people operate. It's a high-testosterone environment. These people thrive on risk and massive fast success. It's a self-reinforcing loop. The more successful you are, the more testosterone you build, and the bigger risks you're prepared to take. Inevitably you're heading for a crash with that, it's impossible to sustain.

The book was really written as a critique not so much of the systems but of the mindset of this kind of boorish American business model asshole machismo. I didn't really think I was saying anything spectacularly unusual. I thought anybody who looked at would say, "Oh. Yeah, that's right." I ran into an awful lot of people for whom market forces are a kind of religious faith. I hate to caricature, but I do think American culture has a faith problem in the sense that there's much more of a willingness on that side of the Atlantic to take things on faith, and just accept stuff and believe in something wholeheartedly.

In Europe people just seem to be a lot more cynical about these things, whatever it may be, if it's religion or politics or whatever. And yet it would appear there are a lot of people for whom free markets are tantamount to a kind of religious faith. And by writing the book I'd stomped on that as if I had written a viciously anti-Christian satire. That may be it, I don't know. It may be that it was a book in which it's hard to sympathize with everybody because the characters are all fairly unpleasant.

As for what's happened now, I can just say, "Yep, see." It's not a very emotional "Yep, see," because to me it doesn't take a whole lot of smarts to predict something like this.
Read the full IO9 interview here and there’s more from Alex Carnevale here in “Novelists Write Our Way Out of The Financial Crisis” or stick around IO9 with Meredith Woerner and get really depressed when you discover “Why the Economy is to Blame for More Night Rider.”

Photo of Richard Morgan (left) and Ali Karim taken around the time Altered Carbon was first released. Photo courtesy Ali Karim.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

New Last Week: The 12-Step Bush Recovery Program by Gene Stone

Sometimes you just have to laugh in order to avoid crying. Alternately, one could say: it would be funny, if it weren’t also true.

From Step 3. Deal With Embarrassment:
Maybe these last few years have been tough, but they could have been worse. After all, my lawn is still green, I can drink my tap water, and the enormous oil derrick spewing vile crap outside my ocean-view window has become very attractive to me. Do I really have a problem?
Each person’s definition of a problem is different. Some people grasp their problem quickly, others don’t. Also, what is a problem to some is not a problem to others. Maintaining objectivity is difficult in this area. Skilled parishioners must always be careful not to judge. However, you have a problem.
The reality is this: no matter the outcome of next week’s election, this part of the problem will be removed. The 12-Step Bush Recovery Program: A Lifesaving Guide to Shaking Off the Horrors of the Last Eight Years, with Practical Advice on Relapse, Remission and Recounts (Villard) is clearly satire. It tweaks the classic 12-step recovery program into a direction never quite before seen. Trenchant essays by talented contributors (Nathan Richardson, John Hartmann, Tony Hendra, others) fill the book out beyond the merely spoofy. This is hard-hitting political satire done up in a way we hope we won’t need to see again for a long, long time. It’s paperback original. It’s slender and it’s cheap. Get it while it’s hot. Because -- may the force be willing -- we won’t need to be laughing at this stuff much longer. And Gene Stone, also the author of The Bush Survival Bible and Duck! The Dick Cheney Survival Bible, will be looking for a new job. Thank God, yes? We’ve been in limbo long enough.

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Children’s Books: The Time Paradox: Artemis Fowl Book 6 by Eoin Colfer

In Eoin Colfer’s The Time Paradox: Artemis Fowl Book 6, and only a short time after returning from Limbo, saving an entire fairy species and finding the world has moved on by three years, 14-year-old Artemis -- who should be closer to 18 by now -- has another crisis to deal with. His beloved mother is dying of a magical plague that nearly destroyed the main fairy race some time ago. The only cure for it lies in the past, in an animal the younger Artemis had helped to wipe out.

Time travel is possible with the help of demon warlock Number 1, so Artemis travels back nearly eight years with his friend, fairy police operative Captain Holly Short, in hopes of changing the past. But older Artemis has developed a set of ethics and, although he’s still a genius, he has to compete with his younger self who is a criminal genius and firmly convinced that the end justifies the means. Also, he wonders what Holly will say when he has to confess to her the lie he told to convince her to come along on the time journey.

The pair soon find themselves in the middle of a non-stop adventure involving people from their past -- friends, friends-to-be and one particularly nasty enemy. They’re also having to fight to keep their precious almost-extinct animal from the clutches of a crazy cult that hates animals so much that the members are mostly vegetarians who will happily wipe out entire species but won’t eat them!

As with all Eoin Colfer’s novels I have read, I happily sat back and let myself be swept along. The author has cleverly worked out his time paradox so that the ending explains things about the beginning of the series. Despite that, there are hints that this is not the last in the series, though he’ll have to end it some time -- I mean, how long can Artemis stay a teenager? And what about Minerva, the girl genius he met in the last novel? Will she turn up again?

As in the previous novel, there are “Gnommish” letters forming a message at the bottom of the pages, but I can’t tell you what they say because there is no key at the back of this one. I think there should have been, since it’s less bother than having to go back and haul out Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony. I simply ignored the letters and enjoyed the story.

One more little nit-pick. The novel takes place over the space of three days. During that time, almost nobody seems to eat, sleep or go to the bathroom. Not just that they don’t -- they don’t have time to do it! Well, maybe younger Artemis does, because he has his faithful bodyguard Butler to pilot the plane and make arrangements for him. But present-day Artemis and Holly don’t. Now, it may be that fairy biology allows them to stay awake for long periods (and by the way, fairies do go to the bathroom, as is mentioned in passing). But older Artemis is awake -- apart from a bit of unconsciousness -- the whole time. He gets tired now and then and finally sleeps when the main danger is over. But that’s after three days of running around from Ireland to Africa and back and travelling through time.

Still, the book is a fine addition to this delightful universe. I’ve said it before and will say it again: this series is going to be a classic.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Review: Angel’s Tip by Alafair Burke

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Jim Winter reviews Angel’s Tip by Alafair Burke. Says Winter:
“In a city full of victims, it’s hard to choose just one.”

So goes the tag line to Alafair Burke’s second Detective Ellie Hatcher novel, Angel’s Tip. The story begins with wild Chelsea Hart from Indiana becoming Manhattan’s latest victim. She spends the first chapter dragging two friends from one party to the next on their last night of spring break.

The following morning, Hatcher finds Chelsea’s hacked-up body during a morning jog through East River Park. Hatcher is not even on duty, but she and her new partner, J.J. Rogan, catch the case. Their boss, Lieutenant Dan Eckels, would prefer to give it to someone other than Hatcher, but he nonetheless puts the pair to work.
The full review is here.

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Oprah Goes “Gaga” for E-Book Reader

The book world knows that a nod from Oprah Winfrey can cause sales to rocket and alter careers. But now Amazon boss Jeff Bezos must be wondering if the Oprah-effect will cause a similar sales eruption for electronic readers after the Chicago-based television host waxed enthusiastic about Amazon’s Kindle last Friday. From the Seattle P.I.:
Winfrey went nuts over the device -- stomping her feet, waving her arms and shaking her fists with excitement. She said she received one of’s electronic book readers as a gift over the summer and it changed her life.

Members of the audience each got free Kindles. The women shrieked with joy after unwrapping the devices. The camera cut to one woman who was crying.

Amazon, of course, was delighted. sported an Oprah show preview on its home page Friday. CEO Jeff Bezos was a guest on the show, appearing bewildered at his luck.

He didn’t say much -- but he didn’t have to. Winfrey was sold.

“When I get something this great I have to share it with everybody,” Winfrey said. “For those of you at home, I’m sorry I couldn’t get you all one at home too. ... I’m really not a gadget person at all, but I have fallen in love with this thing.”
The electronic book industry has been collecting itself for success for much of the last decade. A new generation of electronic readers have put slicker, smaller and more easy to use reading devices into the hands of hundreds of thousands of readers over the last year or so. This combined with such a glowing endorsement from the queen of books seems likely to push the electronic book into the stratosphere. It’s possible that Winfrey has opened the floodgates on a brand new day.


Author Hillerman Passes

Celebrated New Mexico-based author Tony Hillerman passed away on Sunday afternoon:
Tony Hillerman, author of the acclaimed Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels and creator of two of the unlikeliest of literary heroes -- Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee -- died Sunday of pulmonary failure. He was 83.

Hillerman's daughter, Anne Hillerman, said her father's health had been declining in the last couple years and that he was at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque when he died at about 3 p.m.
AP offers up details here, as well as a glimpse into Hillerman’s life.

The writer’s death comes less than two weeks before The Hillerman Conference, sheduleded this year to take place at the Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque, New Mexico, November 5-9.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bullet Points

• Even though some in the London press are noticeably unimpressed by the forthcoming, 22nd James Bond, Quantum of Solace; and even though the captivating Eva Green will apparently not reprise her Vesper Lynd role in this new picture, I’m willing to sample Solace for myself. Having seen 21 Bond adventures already, I am obviously addicted.

• All Bond, all the time. Total Film magazine is rolling out a month’s worth of content to celebrate the debut of Quantum of Solace. My favorite features thus far: “A-List Actors Who Must Never Be Bond” (stick to your day job, Johnny Depp); “9 Sexy Starlets Who Should Be Bond Girls” (Kate Beckinsale in an Ursula Andress bikini--I’d pay triple for the tickets to see that one); and “Real-Life Celebrities Who Should Be Bond Villains” (Rupert Murdoch, yes, but how about the erratic John McCain, too?).

• Lee Goldberg considers the worst Bond film moments.

• Thirty years after publishing The Stand, Stephen King tells Salonwhat haunts him about religion and today’s politics.”

• Uh-oh. It looks as if plans are delayed as far as turning the 1970s British TV series The Persuaders into a big-screen hit. According to the blog Double O Section, one of the film’s stars, Steve Coogan, told Total Film magazine that “it’s in development hell …,” but not dead yet. “The actor seems confident that The Persuaders will still find its time; that time just hasn’t come yet.” For more on the original series, starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis, check out Permission to Kill’s developing commentary about its individual episodes.

• Screenwriter David Mills offers up some tidbits about the proposed HBO-TV dramatic series Tremé, from The Wire’s David Simon. Read his comments here.

• What sorts of books are readers turning to in these bad economic times? Cookbooks and crime fiction, according to Reuters.

Zöe Sharp submits her novel Third Strike to Marshal Zeringue’s “Page 69 Test.” You’ll find the results here.

• Hard Case Crime’s Charles Ardai talks with National Public Radio.

• B.V. Lawson champions established authors who produce short-story collections.

• With the 125th anniversary of Sherlock Holmes’ debut in print coming this Christmas season, the magazine Mental Floss invites you to take a not-too-difficult quiz that tests your recollection of the revered Holmes canon.

The Republican Party has fallen and it can’t get up. But at least this and this give me hope for the country’s future.

• I’m not usually persuaded by book trailers, but the one created for John le Carré’s new novel, A Most Wanted Man, has caused me to move that book up in my TBR pile.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Vancouver Dreaming

The Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival continues through October 26th, bringing together 100 authors and 14,000 readers in an eclectic collection of programmed events.

A recent Vancouver Sun article recalls the history of the 21-year-old Festival, now one of Canada’s most important literary events:
Alma Lee invented the Vancouver extravaganza. While attending a packed reading by Margaret Drabble elsewhere, it occurred to her that she should create a writers' festival here. At the time, such events only existed in Adelaide, Australia, while in Canada there was the somewhat exclusive but renowned Harbourfront in Toronto. Edinburgh's had begun in 1983 but was sporadic.

Not many members of an audience would decide to create a festival, but Lee is made of different stuff. Today the world is crawling with writers' festivals and Vancouver's is among the most popular. That's because it was conceived not just as a showcase for writers -- it puts major emphasis on readers. That's you.
Authors participating in this year’s Festival include Mariko Tamaki, Mary Swan, Anne Simpson, John Ralston Saul, Austin Clarke, Jonathan Raban, Donna Morrissey, Nam Le, Ursula K. Le Guin, Rawi Hage, Gail Jones, Mark Billingham, Damon Galgut and even yours truly.

The Festival Web site is here. Event tickets can be purchased here. Check in with Festival bloggers here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Peter J. Levinson Passes

January contributing editor Tom Nolan brings us the sad news that, after a life spent in music, author Peter J. Levinson passed away earlier this week. From Variety:

Veteran music PR exec and jazz music expert Peter J. Levinson died Oct. 21 of head injuries due to a fall at his Malibu home. He was 74.

For nearly two years, he had suffered from ALS, (Lou Gehrig's disease) and was unable to speak. However, with the aid of his talking computer, he was able to carry on business as usual until the day he died.

In addition to repping musicians and actors from Count Basie to Mel Torme to Joel Grey, Levinson was also a noted biographer. His books included "Trumpet Blues -- The Life of Harry James," "September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle" and the Tommy Dorsey biography, "Livin' in a Great Big Way." He had recently completed his fifth book, a study of the life and work of Fred Astaire, "Puttin' On the Ritz," which will be published in March.

In the opening paragraph of an affectionate 2001 interview for January Magazine, Nolan remarked:
As America ages, it more and more disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that American lives have no second acts. Case in point: Peter J. Levinson, who in the last few years has transformed himself from one of America's premier jazz publicists into one of America's most enterprising vintage-popular music biographers.
Nolan lets us know that, in the time since “we ran that Q&A, Peter wrote a well-received biography of Tommy Dorsey, and he’d finished one on Fred Astaire which will be published next spring.”

Tom Nolan’s January Magazine interview with Levinson is here.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

New This Month: The Show That Smells by Derek McCormack

If your tastes run to beach reads or other light going that makes you smile in the sun, give The Show That Smells (ECW Press) a wide berth. Toronto artist, author and fashion journalist Derek McCormack here pushes the envelope on what is fiction, what is story and what is satisfying read. And while such envelope pushing can often be tiresome and even yawn-inducing, in this novella-length tale, McCormack delivers a staccato epic with punch and verve. The Show That Smells is a story that, even if you try to forget it, it’s tough to make go away.

Cowering, cringing, crying -- Chaney acts like an actress.
“You’re afraid of perfume?” Carrie lords the bottle over him. She drips a drop onto him. It burns like battery acid. Blended with bleach. Skin smokes. Seared skin. Seared seersucker. Stinks. Chaney No.5.
“Hillbillies, high fashion, and horror!” trumpets ECW, which sums it up tightly, yet in some ways doesn’t even come close. It doesn’t, for example, convey the beat rhythms and the aberrant -- yet present -- story lines. McCormack’s previous book, The Haunted Hillbilly, was named a best book of the year by both The Village Voice and The Globe and Mail. Those wanting to see if The Show That Smells will repeat that performance will have to wait a while: the book is available now in Canada, but U.S. readers will have to wait until next summer when it is published in America by Akashic Books.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Excerpt: The Muslim Next Door by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

In a review earlier this month, I said that I felt that The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing by Sumbul Ali-Karamali was an important book. From that review:
The Muslim Next Door should be required reading in the West at this time. Ali-Karamali clearly knows her subject both on a personal and professional level. Raised a Muslim in a country that didn’t at that time have a lot of Muslims in it, the author has a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and has served as a teaching assistant and research associate in Islamic law.
Now January offers up an excerpt from The Muslim Next Door, so that readers can experience Ali-Karamali’s lucid style first-hand:
My father tells a story of tea etiquette. In India, he says, if your host offers you tea, you must decline, because to immediately accept a cup of tea would show greed. If your host offers you tea again -- as he must, if he is at all hospitable -- you must decline a second time, showing your host consideration and a disinclination to be troublesome. But the third time your host offers you tea, as he will, because no host would willingly allow a guest to depart his house bereft of refreshment, then you may gratefully accept.
The full excerpt is here.

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Children’s Books: Word of Honour: Volume 3, The Laws of Magic by Michael Pryor

Rejoice! Aubrey Fitzwilliam, that Miles Vorkosigan of alternative universe Edwardian England, is back for yet another deliciously entertaining outing, along with his friends George and Caroline.

After their excursion to Lutetia (Paris) in Heart of Gold, the trio are finally back to start their first term at university. But Aubrey is never going to be allowed to study in peace. For one thing, he’s still having trouble with his condition (being technically dead). He hasn’t told his parents, though Caroline has figured it out. Then there’s the outing on a new submersible ship for the navy, which someone is trying to sabotage. And that’s not all they’re trying to do. Someone tried to assassinate Lady Rose, Aubrey’s scientist mother, while she and Caroline were on an expedition to the Arctic. And Aubrey’s nemesis, Mordecai Tremaine, formerly Sorcerer Royal, who had killed Caroline’s father while attempting to start World War I, is back in Albion, singing in light opera. Only trouble is, Aubrey seems to be the only one who can recognize him. What can he be up to?

Aubrey, George and Caroline have to save Albion yet again, and very enjoyably they do it too, in yet another breathtaking adventure laced with plenty of humour and characters you care about.

For those who missed out on the first two books of this series, the premise is that magic not only works, but can be taught. It works like science -- hence the “laws of magic” of the series title. I laughed out loud during one scene when George suggests an outing to see a sleight-of-hand artist (this universe’s version of a stage magician) and Aubrey sneers that these so-called sleight-of-hand artists are just using magic. But because of this one difference, the world is run very differently, though it seems very similar to ours. There are medical magicians and research magicians. Even electricity is run by magic. A magical damper is used in one scene to protect a bank from robbers who might otherwise use magic.

This is a terrific series that just keeps getting better. Start with Blaze of Glory or Heart of Gold then come back to this one. You won’t regret it.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Author Snapshot: Sean Chercover

He comes from many places, varied walks. Is that the texture that reaches into his work? Perhaps. Raised in Georgia and Toronto. Once a PI in New Orleans and Chicago. He’s written documentaries for children. Been a film editor. A director. A waiter. Truck driver. Nightclub magician. And perhaps others he is less interested, these days, in talking about.

Whatever else he is, in this moment, Sean Chercover is a bestselling author. Two rich and compelling novels of crime have earned him a growing audience and a list of glowing reviews that he always seems less interested in talking about. What does interest him: the stories he’s telling and the heart that goes into their telling. Because, whatever else is true about Chercover, it’s clear that he likes what he’s doing right now. “Writing is the only job I’ve had where I don’t feel like I should be doing something else.”

Both Chercover’s debut novel, Big City, Bad Blood, and the newly released Trigger City (both from Morrow) are PI novels featuring Chicago detective Ray Dudgeon. Since both Chercover and his fictional character have private investigation backgrounds, a lot of people feel that the author’s writing must be autobiographical. The author reports that they are not. “It’s fiction after all. A pack of lies. I use some small details from my life, but I’m not saying which ones.”

Chercover, his wife and young son share their time between homes in Chicago and Toronto.

A Snapshot of Sean Chercover...
Most recent book: Trigger City
Born: Toronto
Reside: Chicago and Toronto
Birthday: December 29, 1966
Web site:

What’s your favorite city?
To live: Chicago. To visit: New York.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
You arrange to stay longer.

It’s folly to try and cram too much into a short visit. You hear people say, “We spent a day in Rome and we saw Michelangelo’s David and the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican and the Catacombs and the Coliseum and Trevi Fountain and we had espresso and gelato at an outdoor café in some square with marble fountains carved by a guy who’s name starts with ‘B’ and…”

Of course they never stopped moving long enough to get the feel of the place.

So if you really only have six hours, pick one destination that gels with your personal interests and stop long enough to hang out in the surrounding neighborhood. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, each vibrant and distinct. Pick one.

If you love art, go to the Art Institute, one of the best galleries in the world. Within walking distance you can visit Millennium Park and see The Bean and the cool fountains and the Frank Gehry walking bridge and band shell. A great place to take in the Michigan Avenue skyline. You can walk to the Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College. You’re a short walk from the Printer’s Row neighborhood, a good place to go if you dig architecture. And stop in at Buddy Guy’s for some live blues.

But frankly, if you’re an art lover, you’ll probably spend all six hours at the Art Institute. It’s a hard place to leave.

If you’re a baseball fan, head to Wrigley Field (or as I call it, Mecca). Then walk down Clark Street and into Lakeview, for great restaurants and bars. Jake’s Pub is my home away from home, so stop by and have a pint with me, and maybe toss some darts. Across from Jake’s is the Duke of Perth, with an awesome selection of single malt scotches and one of the top-ten burgers in town.

What food do you love?
What food don’t I love? Well, I’m not crazy about Chicago’s deep-dish pizza. New York rules the pizza universe. And Pittsburgh makes great pizza. Chicago, not so much, for my taste.

Anyway. I love pizza, obviously (as long as it ain’t deep-dish). And an expertly prepared burger is a thing of beauty (as long as it ain’t overcooked). I love Cajun, Caribbean, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Ethiopian, Chinese. Hell, I just love good food. I even love haggis.

What food have you vowed never to touch again?

Deep-fried Mars bars.

What’s on your nightstand?
A reading lamp. An alarm clock. A radio. A glass of water. Books. Many, many books. Mostly children’s books, to read to my son. And right next to the nightstand is a bookshelf, crammed and overflowing...

What inspires you?
The people I love. My dog. The ocean. Good books. Music. Nicotine.

What are you working on now?
This interview. Oh, and I’m finishing a couple of short stories for anthologies.

Tell us about your process.
You mean there’s a process? Damn, maybe that’s my problem.

I am, by nature, a nocturnal writer. In recent years, I’ve been trying to convert myself into a morning writer, with mixed results. I write mostly on a computer, but I do a lot of brainstorming with fountain pen and notebook. I often listen to music as I write. I’m not much of an outliner -- I need to know the ending and some major scenes along the way, and I need to have the main characters worked out, but I don’t get very detailed with the outline.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
My computer screen, perched on top of an old Royal typewriter case. Behind it, a window, through which I can see some brick wall, a few trees and a lot of blue sky. An Ernie Banks bobblehead stands on the windowsill. Left of the window, a photograph of my maternal grandfather sitting on a horse, a pipe in his mouth, a shotgun in one hand and a dead turkey in the other. Beside it, a photo of his brother, in his WWI RAF uniform. To the right of the window, a bookshelf full of reference works. A pipe rack full of pipes and jars full of tobacco.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Sometime around the fifth grade. But it took a long time for me to get up the gumption to do it.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
I might just chuck it all, move down-island and work as a SCUBA instructor.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
When my 2-year-old son held up the ARC of Trigger City and said, “Trigga Ciddy! Da-da book!”

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
Writing is the only job I’ve had where I don’t feel like I should be doing something else. Hard as it is, it just feels right. And that’s a great feeling.

What’s the most difficult?
Trying to get the critical voices in my head to shut the hell up.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
Because I used to work as a PI, people always ask how much of my writing is autobiographical. The answer is: very little. It’s fiction after all. A pack of lies. I use some small details from my life, but I’m not saying which ones.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
Is it OK if we give you a million dollars for your next book contract?

What question would like never to be asked again?
“I’ve got this great idea for a novel, but I just don’t have the time to write it. How about I tell you my idea, you write it, and we split the money?”

Sure thing, jerkass. How about I tell you my idea, you write it, and we split the money?

Please tell us about your most recent book.
Trigger City is the sequel to Big City, Bad Blood. A grieving father hires Chicago PI Ray Dudgeon to learn the truth about the daughter he never really knew. The killer left a signed confession on her body and immediately committed suicide. An open-and-shut case. But as Ray delves into the details of her life, he discovers connections to a private military contractor that is the subject of a congressional investigation.

What begins as a routine case soon becomes anything but, and Ray runs afoul of both the contractor and of certain powers within the US intelligence community. He’s in way over his head, and knows he should walk away. But to do so would be to abandon a young widow and her daughter -- two innocent witnesses whose lives are in danger.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I can’t listen to “Kentucky Avenue” by Tom Waits without crying.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

A Puddle of Calm for Global Panic

The Frankfurt Book Fair kicked off yesterday with perhaps less than its customary sizzle. As the Guardian’s books blog reports, this year’s Fair is a puddle of “calm amid global panic.”
Hundreds of thousands of people who love books all in the same place - it must be fun, right? Not exactly. Frankfurt Book Fair, which kicked off today, might be buzzy, busy, exhilarating, exhausting – but most people aren't here to muck about. The biggest event of the year for the publishing industry, this is where the deals are made, from foreign rights in an obscure British textbook to the mega-bucks deal for the yet-to-emerge “book of the fair” (which at the London Book Fair in 2007, incidentally, was Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning The White Tiger).
Part of the reason for the ultra-calm is due the nature of the Frankfurt Fair. Though this is a large and important stop for the international book scene, Frankfurt is known more as a rights fair than anything else: the place where publishers and their agents go to buy and sell international rights to new and already published works. As the Guardian explains:
Although there are lots of authors here (Orhan Pamuk, Karin Slaughter and Gunter Grass, to name a few), this is really a trade event. The German public will descend en masse come the weekend to snaffle new titles from their favourite authors, but for the rest of the week, it's business first.
And of course, the big question on everyone’s mind is this: how will an international financial crisis impact on the book industry? The answer: it already has.
There are fewer exhibitors here than there were last year (7,373 compared to 7,448), and a recent survey of 90 German publishers shows that business was down 3% in Germany over the first nine months of the year.

But publishers here are resolutely optimistic about the fate of books in a recession - one agent said that “books are good in the good times, and great in the bad times”. In the words of Richard Charkin, former Macmillan chief, now Bloomsbury executive director, “banks may crash, derivatives flounder, hedge funds wither, dotcoms rise and fall but somehow or other writers, publishers, booksellers, literary agents, publishing consultants and old bookish friends always manage to congregate for the autumnal bunfight known by the single word, Frankfurt”.
Personally, I’m with Louise Tucker who offers up a thoughtful “Prescription for Thrift” for the Fifth Estate:
I’m not sure that a few sessions with Alain de Botton could do much for our failing banking system but, unlike the economy and the economists, most of us are not beyond bibliotherapy. For a start, compared to a cinema ticket in London, a £7.99 paperback is still a bargain, since, if loved, it provides several hours, or even years in the rereading, of pleasure. Having scoured my shelves at work and at home I came up with three suitable books for this current climate: two practical and one pleasurable.
Tucker hits it perfectly, too, going from necessary generalities to ending on a specific:
My final prescription is for a novel, for my favourite life-affirming, light at the end of a tunnel book: The Shipping News. If Quoyle can survive his various depressions and disasters on the bleak Newfoundland coast then so can we all…
One can almost -- thought not quite -- take that to the bank.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Review: The Book of New Israeli Food by Janna Gur

Today in January Magazine’s cookbook section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews The Book of New Israeli Food by Janna Gur. Says Leach:
To her credit, Gur doesn’t attempt to delve deeply into the complex cuisines of this tiny country. (For the bible on Jewish cuisine, see Claudia Roden’s magnificent Book of Jewish Food.) Instead, she gives us tastes, with explanations all along the way. For example, I had no idea why the many Israelis I know are all salad freaks. I learned that every meal -- including breakfasts and snacks -- includes some kind of salad, most often chopped cucumber, tomato, onion and garlic. The variations on this “Israeli Salad” are endless. I also learned why the Israelis I know are indifferent to red meat: Israel is not cattle country. Instead, the nation thrives on chicken, turkey and lamb. And eggplant. It’s safe to say Israelis view eggplants the way Americans view potatoes: a foodstuff as essential as water.

The full review is here.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

New Today: The Eleventh Man by Ivan Doig

There’s something sweetly sentimental in all the testosterone lurking not far beneath the covers of The Eleventh Man (Harcourt), a football novel that melds into World War II from Ivan Doig (This House of Sky, The Whistling Season). That would seem a contradiction in terms -- sweet sentiment. Masses of testosterone -- but somehow it’s not. Somehow it works in a book that manages to be epic in scope and fact.
The war licked its chops over the battle of Leyte Gulf, as it came to be called, with the inevitability from day one that history would speak of such a gang-fight of fleets in the same breath with the Spanish Armada, Trafalgar, Jutland, and Midway. Ben all but moved into the wire room at East Base to follow reports of the military struggle shaping up around the Philippine Islands. It proved to be like reading War and Peace standing up.
Ben Reinking is the 11th man, left behind to chronicle the exploits of his former football teammates as they make their way through various theaters of war. An exciting book with all the right stuff. The Eleventh Man might well be the very best thing Doig -- an acclaimed and respected author -- has done to date. I loved every word.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Art & Culture: We Will Be Heard by Bud and Ruth Schultz

For more than a quarter century, Bud and Ruth Schultz have been collecting American stories, taking people’s pictures, all on a single theme: repression in America. In We Will Be Heard: Voices in the Struggle for Constitutional Rights Past and Present (Merrell) the couple present us with 90 stories -- each one accompanied by a photographic study of the subject.

In the Preface, the work is explained:
It has been more than twenty-five years, now, since we first began to interview and photograph those for whom the promise of American democracy – freedom of expression, freedom of association – has been denied. Seeking people targeted by government for their political beliefs and activities, we, of necessity, focused on those advocating the right to unionize, an end to racial segregation, and an end to war, movements that helped define and transform the twentieth century.
For the most part, you won’t recognize their faces. You won’t know their names. (Ring Lardner Jr. is an obvious -- and deeply interesting -- exception.)

We Will Be Heard
will make you wonder; make you think; perhaps even make you cry. It will not, however, leave you untouched.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Children’s Books: Sovay by Celia Rees

Several years ago, I read this author’s first book, Witch Child, an historical adventure set in 17th century Massachusetts, in a colony started by people thrown out of Salem for being too extremist. It was an enjoyable piece of historical fiction and the author has since written three more books.

Sovay (Bloomsbury) is set in 18th century England and Revolutionary France. As in Witch Child, the story is seen through the eyes of a young woman. It appears to be inspired by a traditional ballad which was about a girl who dressed as a man and held up a coach to test her sweetheart. The boy in the ballad passed the test. The fiancé of the heroine of this novel fails spectacularly, but it turns out to be the least of her worries.

Sovay Middleton, daughter of a middleclass radical, has been left alone on the estate. Her idealistic father has gone missing, as has her student brother, who has similar opinions to their father. She knows someone is coming with papers that could destroy her family, but when she uses her highwayman disguise to get them, she finds a lot more than she was expecting. Her father has some dangerous enemies.

On her way to London, to find out what has happened, she is helped by a number of good people, including her family steward’s son, an American spy and a genuine highwayman. But she needs to escape England and her troubles spill over into France, where Robespierre rules and all English are considered spies.

Sovay is another enjoyable adventure which may appeal to girls who like a little more than the standard teen romance. The only thing is, there are a number of men who seem to be attracted to Sovay and you aren’t quite expecting the man she ends up with. It’s as if the author has decided Sovay has to have someone and added a character for that purpose. Sovay is a strong character, if a little too perfect and the novel gives a good picture of the era.

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Biography: The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: A Memoir

For those not keeping score, Grandmaster Flash has been to urban music what Todd Rundgren has been to MOR pop. Clearly, both would exist without these important early purveyors, but -- and arguably -- the resulting genres would have been quite different.

In The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats (Broadway), Flash -- with the help of bestselling author David Ritz (Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, Rhythm and the Blues) riffs through his early life and career with the aplomb one would expect from the man many consider to be the father of contemporary hip hop.

There are times he tells his story calmly: one word neatly marching behind the other in accepted fashion. Other times he shares his remembrances in rhyme and still others when he tells his story in a sweet blend of both. Here, for example, he shares the disappointing result after an early performance:
Maybe my speakers weren’t loud enough. Maybe the people didn’t recognize the jams. Maybe they weren’t in the mood. Maybe they just didn’t understand.

Whatever it was, you could have heard a pin drop in that park, and my stomach was starting to twist. I looked over and saw Miss Rose, Penny, Lilly, and Mom. They could tell I was crushed. I could see them hurting for me, but there was nothing they could do.
Career-wise, of course, things got better from there. Flash’s tale does not end with his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, but it’s close. And though the book concludes on a hopeful note, one gets the feeling a lot has been left unsaid. In some ways, though, that’s OK. On the journey he gives us a taste: the misunderstood talent, the larger-than-life success, the almost inevitable addiction followed by recovery followed by the reevaluation of a life that needs to be richly lived. If the latter years of The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash seem sketchy -- and they do -- it may just be that the book itself is a bit premature. This is a story still in progress with many chapters still to write.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Graphic Novels: Henry V by William Shakespeare

It may well be an idea whose time has come. Not simply a graphic novel based on William Shakespeare’s classic work, but the graphic novel, done up three ways.

Based in the United Kingdom, Classic Comics has a name for each portion of the trio of books they’ve published under the Henry V title: Original Text is just as it sounds, the Bard’s original prose, set here against stunning full color illustrations, beautifully reproduced. (“O for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention! A kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarch to behold the swelling scene!”)

Plain Text delivers the same gorgeous illos, but this time with a contemporary translation of the original text. (“It would be great to have some goddess of creative fire, to help us enact this play with a true representation – to have an entire kingdom for a stage and princes for actors and to have royalty watch the performance!”)

Finally, the Quick Text version offers a simplification of the original text. (“If we had some help from the gods, we could give a better performance of this play.”)

Age will not inhibit the reader’s enjoyment of these works. That said, Classical Comics does seem to have aimed their books at young readers: the press kit that accompanied the trio of Henry Vs informs reviewers that the text is currently being test driven by young people at several schools in the UK. They also tell us that lesson plans, whiteboard toolkits and other teaching resources are available for each book.

Meanwhile, Henry V was just the first of these modernized classics out of the gate. Classic Comics has since introduced Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Macbeth, Frankenstein, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and -- just in time for the beginning of holiday 2008 sales -- Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Non-Fiction: The Muslim Next Door by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

When she was growing up in Los Angeles, Sumbul Ali-Karamali would often be the only Muslim child in a classroom, at a birthday party, or the house of a friend. She found herself constantly dealing with questions and sometimes even shocked disbelief from people who didn’t even know where to begin to understand her religion. And that was before 9/11. Since that time, of course, North American’s misunderstandings around Islam have grown far worse. As Ali-Karamali tells us in The Muslim Next Door (White Cloud Press):
… the common Western perception of Islam has become a contorted, evil caricature of the real thing, like some reversed portrait of Dorian Gray, where the normal reality hides in the attic and the visible portrait becomes increasingly repulsive. Especially since the end of the Cold War, we in the United States have been bombarded with daily, unchecked, untrue, public denigration of Islam to an irresponsibly defamatory degree.
The Muslim Next Door
should be required reading in the West at this time. Ali-Karamali clearly knows her subject both on a personal and professional level. Raised a Muslim in a country that didn’t at that time have a lot of Muslims in it, the author has a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and has served as a teaching assistant and research associate in Islamic law.

Just as important, Ali-Karamali writes lucidly on every imaginable aspect of her topic. The subtitle’s The Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing is a terrific starting point, sure: but she goes so much deeper than that. The Muslim Next Door is an important book.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

Children’s Books: Araminta Spookie #5: Ghostsitters by Angie Sag

Araminta Spookie #5: Ghostsitters (HarperCollins) is the fifth in a popular children’s series about Araminta Spookie, who lives in a sort of Addams Family mansion with her Uncle Drac, her Aunt Tabby, Brenda and Barry Wizzard and their daughter Wanda, as well as three ghosts: Sir Horace, his page Edmund and their dog Fang.

Don’t worry if your child hasn’t read the four earlier books in this series. The book stands alone quite well.

In this adventure, the adults go off for a week’s holiday in Transylvania, leaving Araminta and Wanda to be babysat. The babysitter is Minty’s cool Goth cousin, Mathilda. Unfortunately, Mathilda, whose parents are ghostbusters, is accompanied by two teenage poltergeists, Jed and Ned, who proceed to turn the house upside down and cause Sir Horace, a mild-mannered old ghost, to threaten to leave. What’s most annoying is that nobody will be making a fuss of Minty on her birthday.

Children should find Ghostsitters to be just gross enough to be amusing, but not truly disgusting. The worst you’ll find in this is grilled gummi bears on toast and inedible pizza that has been dropped in the mud. It’s likely to be enjoyed by children in the middle to late years of primary school.

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New this Week: Red Dog Red Dog by Patrick Lane

Though thousands -- and thousands upon thousands -- of books are published every year with the literati barely raising an eyebrow or collecting up a sigh, every so often a book comes along that, for various reasons, is different. In Canada this fall season, one of those books is Red Dog Red Dog (McLelland & Stewart) by Patrick Lane. And the reason for our attention is not difficult to discern: though not known as a novelist, Lane’s work to date in other forms has been amazing. He is, arguably, Canada’s best known poet and certainly ranks in their number. He is a past winner of the Governor General’s Award -- for the memoir There Is a Season in 2004 -- and a winner of the British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He is the author of 20 books of poetry and he has won another Governor General’s Award for his poetry as well as a couple National Magazine Awards.

And then he goes and writes a novel.

And so we watch.

Red Dog Red Dog is narrated in part by a small, dead child. In fact, we open on her burial.
I watched from a branch of the apple tree in the neglected orchard, his little Alice, and knew the tears were flowing down inside his skull, his dark eyes dry as glass.
It sounds like a stretch, a reach -- this telling of a story from eyes that could not have seen -- yet Lane makes it work. Little Alice is, in a sense, the ultimate omniscient narrator: she has no stake, no part, yet her slice of the story leaves its own nuance. It must.

Red Dog Red Dog
is set in the 1950s. It takes place over a single week in a small town. There is a secret. And the need for the secret to be kept is juxtaposed over its own need to be told and both seem to shimmer against the stories that have been woven to keep them it from coming to light.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Interview: Mark Billingham

In a January Magazine exclusive interview, contributing editor Ali Karim sits down with British crime fictionist Mark Billingham (In the Dark, Death Message) and asks why the author has decided to take a break from police procedurals, how he took to composing a standalone novel and how he constructs credible dialogue. Says Karim:
Mark Billingham is a very interesting writer. That’s true not only because he’s one of Britain’s most sought-after stand-up comedians (though his act can be somewhat R-rated in places) and has also worked as an actor, but because he launched right out of the gates with a strong and astonishing debut novel called Sleepyhead (2001). That book heralded the start of a major London-based police procedural series featuring Inspector Tom Thorne and his team of inner-city cops. There have since been half a dozen additional Thorne novels, the most recent being last year’s Death Message, which showed that text messaging can have a decidedly dark side.
The full interview is here.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Art & Culture: 100 Road Movies by Jason Wood

If I were to compile a list of road movies -- or any other kind, for that matter -- it would be tempting to try and make it a sort of best of. Filmmaker and writer Jason Wood resists that temptation in 100 Road Movies (BFI), something he explains in his introduction:
I would argue that one of the objectives of any kind of “list” or guide style of book is to stimulate debate, conjecture and hopefully, if only very occasionally, agreement.
And so you have the films you would expect -- Wim Wenders Kings of the Road from 1976, for example; The Grapes of Wrath from 1940 and Thelma and Louise from 1991 -- alongside movies you might not have expected or, in fact, would not have thought of or even known about at all. Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing from 1984 numbered among these for me. If I’d ever heard of this film, I’d forgotten about it, and I’d surely never seen it. “A witty, 1980s teen variation of It Happened One Night,” writes Wood, “the affectionately regarded The Sure Thing was an early success for Capra-loving director Rob Reiner.”

The Sure Thing is notable, also, for the introduction of an 18-year-old John Cusack in the first of what would became a familiar role for him. He plays, as Wood puts it, a sour-faced cynic who still manages to charm and engage his audience.

Though Oliver Stone’s 1994 Natural Born Killers does not immediately jump to mind when you think “road movies,” in so many ways, it really is, and it’s here.

Obviously, I don’t have the space here to comment on any but a very few of Wood’s choices, but though the book is fairly tiny, it’s also quite excellent. And, just as the author desired, at least some of the 100 films he’s chosen to include are sure to spark some debate and conversations with fellow film buffs.

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More from the Maritimes

Though authors hailing from the Canadian Maritime provinces are no slouches in the lining-up-for-awards department, it seems that 2008 -- particularly this latter half -- has produced some especially astonishing fiction.

We recently contemplated Kenneth J. Harvey’s Blackstrap Hawco: Said to Be About A Newfoundland Family (Knopf Canada) and though that book is wonderful -- and epic and masterful -- it’s also not alone. Other books with strong Maritime ties that have been wowing both readers and longlist compilers include Donna Morrissey’s What They Wanted (Penguin Canada), the story of yet another Newfoundland family, this one dealing with the effects of a shrinking local economy and the price that must be paid for working “away.”

Lesley Crewe’s Ava Comes Home (Vagrant Press) is a very different take on a similar theme, where a successful actress -- the title’s Ava -- returns to Glace Bay, Cape Breton and the changes she’s gone through as well as the secrets she left behind.

Though The Lost Highway (Doubleday Canada) was published in 2007, it’s longlisted status in the current Giller competition brings it again to mind, as does the fact that it’s difficult for many Canadians -- myself included -- to think about Maritime authors and not think about David Adams Richards. The Lost Highway might well be the very best work from one of Canada’s most celebrated living storytellers.

Earlier this year, Nova Scotia’s Anne Simpson told January Magazine that her latest novel, Falling (McLelland & Stewart), is about “how ordinary people rise to meet enormous challenges in their lives.” And it is -- it certainly is -- but it’s about so much more, as well.

It seems to us that when a celebrated children’s author has a novel published, it’s big news, indeed. Such was the case last summer when we saw the publication of Sheree Fitch’s first “big people” novel, Kiss the Joy as it Flies (Vagrant Press). If you’re not familiar with the Nova Scotian author’s work, you’re either not a Canadian kid or the parent of one: because they all know her work through books with such engaging titles as Mable Murple and There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen.


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

New this Week: Death With Interruptions by José Saramago

The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one.
So begins Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago’s most recent novel and though that may not be the longest second sentence in a book in history, it’s probably in the top ten. Yet somehow -- curiously, skillfully, exquisitely -- that seemingly meandering and overlong collection of words manages to sum up the main concern in Death With Interruptions (Harcourt) even while it sets the frenetic and relentless pace to come. And whatever else that sentence is, one thing is certain: like Death With Interruptions itself, it is pure Saramago.

It should perhaps not be astonishing that a writer in his 85th year takes a run at death. In fact, Death With Interruptions could just as easily be called Death Takes A Holiday. More: Saramago has been a self-described communist, atheist and pessimist since at least the 1960s. His work and views are so controversial that the writer and his family moved to the Canary Islands many years ago. This is perhaps why Saramago’s work is always so deeply original: with everything torn away, he comes to his thoughts from new angles and fresh perspectives. The resulting books are often mentally challenging, but they are always deeply interesting.

And, while we’re talking about Saramago, fans should take note: a large screen version of the author’s 1995 book, Blindness, and made under the direction of Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) will be released this fall.

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Children’s Books: Naomi and Ely’s No-Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

In Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, the title characters -- two university students in New York city -- have known each other since early childhood. They live in the same huge apartment block. At one point, Naomi’s father had a brief affair with Ely’s lesbian mother and then left. Since then, Naomi has had to look after her own mother, who hasn’t stopped grieving.

Beautiful Naomi can have almost any boy she wants and has had boyfriends (Bruce 1 and 2). The trouble is, the only boy she wants is Ely, the one she can’t have, because he’s gay -- and not only gay, but promiscuous. So the two of them, to keep their friendship intact, have created a “no-kiss list” -- a list of boys neither of them will kiss. When Ely breaks the rules and starts a relationship with Naomi’s current boyfriend, Bruce 2, he risks the friendship -- and Naomi has to ask herself what she really wants and what is most important to her. Likewise, Ely has to decide whether he can keep his current lifestyle going or whether there is something more important to him now.

Cohn and Levithan wrote another book together, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which was set in the course of one night and had a similar style, though the main characters were heterosexual. It was seen alternatively from the title characters’ viewpoints.

This one has more viewpoints, but somehow it works and the various strands pull together. The style is whimsical, the ending is positive and on the whole it’s a readable book, but heavens, how the characters swear! As in Nick and Norah, the book is filled with four-letter words. I have worked with teenagers for most of my career and, while they do use four-letter words a lot and look at you in surprise if you suggest they are swearing, they don’t do it that much. I don’t think it’s necesssary to write it into a book in the interests of “realism” and about half the swearing would have been plenty. You really can overdo it. It is, in my opinion, well and truly overdone in this novel.

Keep this one for the older teenagers in your life.

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