Thursday, April 30, 2009

Edgar Rules the Day

Tonight’s presentation in New York City of the 2009 Edgar Allan Poe Awards (given to works of crime fiction, both books and other media) seemed to go off with a minimum of foul-ups, but a few surprises. Wyoming writer C.J. Box picked up the Best Novel commendation for Blue Heaven, by C.J. Box (St. Martin’s Minotaur), beating out such works as Sins of the Assassin, by Robert Ferrigno (Scribner), and The Price of Blood, by Declan Hughes (Morrow). Francie Lin’s The Foreigner (Picador) captured the Best Novel by an American Author prize, and China Lake, by Meg Gardiner (Obsidian Mysteries), was named the Best Paperback Original. American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century, by Howard Blum (Crown)--one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2008--beat out some tough competition in the Best Fact Crime category.

You’ll find the full list of winners and also-rans here.

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New this Month: Love Stories in This Town by Amanda Eyre Ward

Though it’s early to be thinking this way, Love Stories in This Town (Ballantine) strikes me as the perfect beach read. Though Amanda Eyre Ward has been building her reputation on some really wonderful novels (including 2003’s extraordinary Sleep Towards Heaven, since optioned for film by Sandra Bullock and FOX Searchlight) this is her first collection and she proves here that she has an eye for the short take, as well as the longer haul.

In an interview, though, Eyre Ward explains that she came to short fiction first. “By the end of college,” she says, “writing a beautiful short story was the only thing I wanted to do. I wanted to be Raymond Carver, Rick Bass, and Richard Ford, so after a year abroad, I moved to Montana.”

Montana turns up in Love Stories in This Town, as do many of the places Eyre Ward has lived: San Francisco, Savannah, Texas: in a dozen stories, the author explores women and love with razor-sharp wit and a dazzling eye for detail.


Punctuation as Inflection

Stuart Jeffries at The Guardian wonders -- and then posits -- about why everyone in the “age of e-mail” is so excited all the time:
There are lots of people these days with figurative underpants on their heads. That’s because in the internet age, the exclamation mark is having a renaissance. In a recent book, Send: The Essential guide to Email for Office and Home, David Shipley and Will Schwalbe make a defence of exclamation marks. They write, for instance, ‘”I’ll see you at the conference’ is a simple statement of fact. ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you're excited and pleased about the event ... ‘Thanks!!!!’”, they contend, “is way friendlier than ‘Thanks’.”
Jeffries’ piece is lush, well thought out and here.

Religion Building 101

Though portions of SF Signal’s panel of experts ends up in the realm of the ethereal in no time flat, that journey is not inappropriate to this week’s question:
Where would Fantasy be without gods to bicker, argue, and meddle with the fate of mortals? In a created fantasy world, gods can proliferate by the hundreds. When building religious systems for fantasies, what are the advantages/disadvantages of inventing pantheons vs. single gods, or having no religious component at all?
Marie Brennan, Michael Swanwick, David Anthony Durham, Elizabeth Bear, Gregory Frost, Kate Elliot, Gail Z. Martin, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., John C. Wright and David Langford all weigh in and -- almost predictably -- our minds? They reel! The fantastic discussion is here.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New this Month: Clara’s Story by Clara Kramer

You know this story. Even so, it does not get easier to hear. Sometimes you want to look away. But you can’t. You must not. It’s an important story to remember, beautifully preserved here, but still difficult to look at straight on.

In 1939, Clara Kramer was a teenager in Poland. When the Germans invaded her small town, she and her family were given shelter by the family of their former housekeeper. With two other families, they created an underground bunker of sorts, where 18 people settled in to try to simply live through the nightmare that had fallen over their world.

In many regards, Kramer’s story echoes that of the doomed Anne Frank but, of course, for the happier ending. That alone is a miracle: of the 5000 Jews in Zolkiew, Poland before the War, Kramer is one of only 50 to have survived. In reading her story, though, there’s more than survival here. There is perseverance, desperation and grace, in equal measure. That grace is present in every word. From the author’s note of Clara’s Story:
Writing this book was like walking out my kitchen door in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and straight into my home in Zolkiew. Although the events in this book happened sixty years ago, they have never left me. As with many survivors, I relive them in the present.
Now 81, Kramer was one of the founders of the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University. It’s an organization she has been president of for the last 20 years.

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Humor as Human Characteristic

Over at our sister publication, The Rap Sheet, January Magazine contributing editor Ali Karim chats with R.J. Ellory, a crime fictionist who seems poised on the edge of Really Big Things.

Ellory’s The Anniversary Man will be released by Orion in the United Kingdom in September. In the United States, readers can look forward to Overlook Press’ release of A Quiet Belief in Angels the same month.
Ali Karim: Balancing the harder edges and disturbing aspects of your narrative, though, there is a gentle humor and a humanity. What’s your take on the usefulness of humor in crime and thriller fiction?

R.J. Ellory: I think the books that really work are the ones where your protagonist manages to be human. Humor is most definitely a human characteristic, and this black edge of humor that defines so many P.I.s -- people like Harry Bosch, Kenzie and Gennaro, Pike and Cole, Strange and Quinn, Rebus, Jack Reacher, Marlowe, all the classic detectives -- is the thing that endears them to us. It makes them more like us, and that gives us a feeling of real-ness and equality. I have always said that the books that really connect are the ones that don’t only entertain, they evoke an emotion, and humor is one of the ways in which authors make their characters real people, and thus make you feel for them. I think the great authors do it without thinking and without planning. Their characters are so real in their own minds that they just come out that way.
Their entire exchange is here.

Photo taken by Ali Karim at The London Book Fair, April 2009.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Young Adult: Fate by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

I loved it when Publishers Weekly described Fate (Delacorte) as being in the “teens-with-special-powers-and-destinies genre” and that really doesn’t miss the mark. Let’s face it, between PC Cast and Stephanie Meyers, this a deliciously well followed part of “literature” these days.

Barnes’ offering is not worse than many others and, in many ways, it’s quite a bit better. I share PW’s issue with the author’s use (overuse?) of italics. Barnes uses them for protagonist Bailey’s trips into the otherworld when she moves beyond being a high school student and becomes the third fate, she who holds the destiny of the world in her slender hands.

Fulbright scholar Barnes writes intelligently and -- for the most part -- engagingly. Did the world actually need yet another ancient mystical being? Sales appear brisk so, apparently, it did. Fate is recommended for readers 12 and up. The book follows 2007’s Tattoo.

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The Changing Face of P.O.D.

This is what micropublishers have been dreaming about for decades, really. One machine that does it all and makes it possible to have books printed and delivered, a single copy at a time. Is this what Print On Demand technology will look like in the not-so-distant future? From The Telegraph:
Crime and Punishment may take the average reader several months to complete, but Britain’s first “book vending machine” can print you a copy in just nine minutes.

A freshly-bound edition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic -- ordered by The Daily Telegraph -- was one of the first tomes to drop out of the Espresso Book Machine when it opened for business for the first time yesterday.

The novel is one of more than 400,000 titles including many rare and out-of-print books that can be printed on demand at Blackwell bookshop on Charing Cross Road in central London.
The bookstore of the future, then, might look very different, indeed. Not shelf upon shelf of books, but row upon row of machines churning out custom copies for waiting customers. Between that and the electronic streams of the e-books whizzing by, it’s possible that, a few years hence, bookstores will be very different places, indeed.

While that idea makes me a little sad, it has a hopeful edge. Back at Blackwell, The Telegraph’s copy of Crime and Punishment was better than all right:
The hefty work that skidded out of the chute, while slightly sticky to the touch, looked and felt like a standard edition, even down to the correct ISBN number on the back.

The paper and ink are the same quality used in larger presses, and the binding appeared flawless.

Phill Jamieson, head of marketing at Blackwell, said that the firm was uncertain how the £68,000 machine -- one of only three such printers in the world -- would be used during its three-month trial period.
And the moral of the story? It seems entirely possible that the death of the book so many have been forceasting will never come. We love our books. Witness the many thousands of readers that pass through January Magazine every day, not to mention other online magazines and blogs and discussion groups and book groups and all of this without even leaving the online world.

At their core and at heart, books themselves will not change. However, how the publishing industry delivers our books, how they sell and market and get them to the consumer, all of that might change quite a bit.

Consider a world without remainders. Now that doesn’t sound so bad.

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#Amazonfail Fiasco Leaves Bookbuyers Suspicious

The big story in the book world yesterday was the fact that Amazon went on a shopping trip. The Seattle-based bookseller acquired Lexcycle, the company that makes Stanza, which is a free e-book application for the Apple iPhone. From The New York Times:
Stanza allows users to browse a library of around 100,000 books and periodicals for the iPhone, many of them in the ePub format -- a widely accepted standard for e-books that Amazon has yet to support with its proprietary Kindle platform.
After the news was announced yesterday, the blogosphere and the Twitterverse (did I just seriously type those words?) started talking about what the move might mean: was there something darker and more sinister behind the announcement? Something beyond what Amazon “spokeswoman” Cinthia Portugal told the Times, that “Lexcycle is a smart, innovative company, and we look forward to working with them to innovate on behalf of readers.”

Consumer suspicion is understandable. The Amazon-Lexcycle deal comes just weeks after a “glitch” in Amazon’s ranking system was seen to be dropping many books with possible gay or lesbian content from its ranking system.

As I write this, I suspect that things still aren’t what they should be with Amazon results. At 12:15 am Tuesday morning, the number one result Amazon returned when the word “homosexual” was typed into its search bar was Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would: A Fresh Christian Approach (Brazos Press). Somehow that result doesn’t feel quite right. It’s possible Amazon needs to poke at their search algorithms still further. More importantly, it illustrates consumer’s wariness of Amazon right now, a wariness that has many former customers researching alternatives for online book purchasing and vending.

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Atwood at the Movies

It’s Margaret Atwood all the time this week at the National Film Board of Canada. The NFB announced yesterday that it would play an important role in bringing Atwood’s most recent book to the screen:
The National Film Board of Canada has just optioned the film rights to Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Payback is an investigation into the concept of debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature and the structure of human societies. The film will be directed by Jennifer Baichwal (Manufactured Landscapes) and produced by Ravida Din (Family Motel).
Perhaps to celebrate -- and certainly to highlight -- the cementing of this relationship, the NFB is currently screening Michael Rubbo’s 1984 film, Margaret Atwood: Once in August, right on their Web site. You can see the nearly hour-long film here.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

New This Month: The Secret Lives of Litterbugs by M.A.C. Farrant

Fans of west coast Canadian writer M.A.C. Farrant can be forgiven if they feel there’s a shadow of the familiar in her latest book, The Secret Lives of Litterbugs (Key Porter). That’s because she partly mines territory already covered in 2004’s My Turquoise Years, a memoir that takes place in 1960, Farrant’s 14th summer. But don’t let possible redundancy scare you away: it doesn’t happen here.

The Secret Lives of Litterbugs is a collection of personal essays about Farrant’s own youth in the 1960s, as well as some that reflect her own experiences as a mother: the coin, then, is viewed from both sides.

Where My Turquoise Years is bathed in a certain nostalgic light -- 14 in 1960, somehow those numbers seem to just want to add up to nostalgia -- Litterbugs deals with a broader spectrum in terms of both timeline and emotion. It seems to me there’s a sharpness here that was lacking in the earlier book. But, whatever it is, The Secret Lives of Litterbugs is bright and fresh and real, a deeply enjoyable slice of family life, then and now.

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Fiction: Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy

“I think I was dealt a good hand,” Maeve Binchy told the UK’s Saga magazine last year. “I have happy genes.” That would explain a lot. Despite the fact that her books seldom have happy endings, there is a positive beat at the heart of each one. Maeve Binchy’s books, then, would seem to have happy genes, as well.

The latest of these is Heart and Soul (Knopf), which, boiled down to its essence, is the story of St. Brigid’s Hospital, a heart clinic in Ireland. But this is Binchy -- classic Binchy -- and so, of course, there is more.

In one way, the clinic itself is a kind of moral center and the people who inhabit it -- doctors, nurses, residents, out-patients -- are its community. If we follow the metaphor, Dr. Clara Casey -- newly arrived as the book begins -- is the clinic’s spiritual leader. It is through them that we see the growth and feel the change that can happen when many hearts beat for the same goal.

Heart and Soul is classic Binchy, here in top form. Now almost 70, the author recently told The Irish Herald that both she and her husband are battling heart disease:
The much-loved writer has put her writing on hold to look after her husband who is recovering from a serious operation.

And Maeve has revealed that her own health is ailing and that she regularly attends a “heart failure clinic”.

However, the Dalkey-based author said that her main focus has been on caring for her husband, Gordon Snell, who had an operation just over a month ago.

“Gordon had a bypass but he’s grand after it,” revealed Maeve. “He’s now able to go out and go for a walk. He had it over a month ago.”
It seems likely that at least some of the research for Heart and Soul was done at uncomfortably close quarters. The book does not suffer for it: fans will adore Heart and Soul, quite possibly the book of Binchy’s own heart.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

New This Month: Inferno by Robin Stevenson

Aside from being a name to watch in the world of young adult publishing, Robin Stevenson’s story is the type of overnight success that really is one. While on maternity leave from her job as a social worker and counselor in 2005, Stevenson began to write seriously. Four years later, she is the author of six books.

The most recent of these is Inferno (Orca), Stevenson’s take on the teen angst novel. She does a terrific job, capturing the impossibly large emotion and the power that propels teenage girls. I think back on that age and shudder. One gets the feeling that Stevenson is able to recreate that feeling for herself with ease. Or it feels like ease, at any rate though, admittedly, good writing almost always looks like that.

In Inferno we meet 16-year-old Emily, though we meet her as Dante, after a series of events have caused her to rethink herself. Having read The Divine Comedy, she recreates herself as Dante because, as she tells someone early on, she liked what the author said about “how we need to take responsibility for the world. As individuals, I mean.”

Clearly, Dante is intelligent and somewhat different. These things, together with Stevenson’s understanding of human nature and developmental behaviors, combine to create a character young readers will have no trouble relating to. We all feel different sometimes. We all feel a desire for reinvention on occasion and so we relate to Dante who seems, at times, hell-bent on creating a divine comedy of her own.

Are there elements of the story and aspects of Dante’s character that seem stereotypical to this subgenre? I think so. But where do stereotypes come from? Readers who are on the other side of Dante’s 16 will remember that age and identify with the character. This is skillful writing featuring a strong female protagonist. A good story well told.

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New This Month: Gladiatrix by Russell Whitfield

In their review, Publishers Weekly came up with an elevator pitch for Gladiatrix (St. Martin’s Press) that eclipses almost anything else that might be said about the book. “Think: girls gone wild -- with swords.” Really, what more need be said?

Nineteen-year-old Lyssandra is a Spartan priestess with martial training. Oh, and she’s super hot. As Gladiatrix opens, she’s in the arena performing as a female gladiator. Her life as an arena slave is short-lived, however. She is scouted by the successful and beautiful gladiatrix, Eiranwen, who takes the young slave into her school and -- ultimately -- her bed.

Gladiartix is occasionally so overwritten, I had to avert my eyes. Take these two lines from the very first page:
The roar of the crowd was a living thing as it assaulted her and she staggered beneath its violent intensity. Row upon row of the screaming mob surrounded her, the ampitheatre stuffed full, as if it were a massive god gorging upon base humanity.
You don’t have to go far to find lines like that, either. These are from the first page, but I could have just opened the book at random.

But then, this is not high fiction. No one is going to be rushing in with any literary awards for debut novelist Russell Whitfield on this one. But if you like this sort of stuff at all, you’ll probably enjoy Gladiatrix. Intense action, gore, sex, Gladiatrix has it all. Could a movie be far behind?

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Awards from L.A.

Indiana author Michael Koryta last night won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the Mystery/Thriller category for his 2008 novel, Envy the Night. He was one of nine recipients of this year’s various honors, a list that also includes Marilyn Robinson (for Home) and Terry Pratchett (for Nation).

The Times’ Carolyn Kellogg reports that it was “a scaled-down awards ceremony” during which Koryta and the other victors were named, but one that featured “as much enthusiasm and humor as any of the more grandly produced affairs of recent years.”

Koryta is probably best known for his excellent series about Cleveland private eye Lincoln Perry (A Welcome Grave). But as Dick Adler wrote on this page not long ago, “Envy the Night is that rarest of literary creatures: a standalone thriller that you hope will generate a series” of its own. Koryta’s work has won plaudits as well from Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, and others.

A full list of this year’s L.A. Times Book Prize winners is here.


Is Style Dead?

Last October, The Longman Press published an anniversary edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which commemorated the 50th year since the first professional publication of this most influential guides to grammar in the English language.

Yesterday The New York Times asked five scholars, writers and grammarians to grade the aging guide and what they come back with was... well, at best faintly ridiculous and at worst a gross misuse of The Times’ now precious ink.

Patricia T. O’Conner
(Woe Is I, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language) offers what is perhaps the most lucid assessment from this five.

“Rereading Strunk and White on its 50th birthday,” O’Conner says as she begins, “is like meeting an old lover and realizing how much you’ve outgrown him. Things have changed, little book, and you have not, or not enough.”

She is less generous with the book later on. “But much of the grammar and usage advice in the rest of the book is baloney, to use a good concrete word.”

She concludes with still more concrete and forces a smile with a fact that is beyond dispute: “Finally, ‘six persons’ is not better than ‘six people.’ Show me a guy who invariably says ‘six persons’ and I will show you a fathead.”

She has a point. On the other hand, Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing), overshoots the mark. “If Strunk and White were a movie,” she writes, “it would be a blockbuster, but I find its hallowed status disturbing.”

Clearly, this is an ongoing debate of gently Biblical proportions. Ask half a dozen writers -- as The Times nearly has here -- and you’ll get half a dozen differently nuanced answers. And all of that said -- and more, so much more -- most of us still keep a copy of the book on our reference shelves.

The New York Times piece is here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Ecovore

Here’s an Earth Day special from The Washington Post in the form of an interview with Kate Heyhoe, author of Cooking Green (Da Capo Lifelong). Heyhoe brings up a whole lot of issues most of us have never considered, putting even your average vegan to planet-wasting shame.
You've coined two terms in "Cooking Green": cookprint and ecovore. They sound an awful lot like carbon footprint and locavore, two words we've been hearing in the green and sustainable worlds. How do your words differ from what's already out there?

I chose these words because they’re more specific and accurate to my intent. Cookprint is the entire chain of resources used to create the foods you eat, including water and land, and the waste produced in the process. Carbon footprint measures carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Shrinking your cookprint includes saving water and energy, as well as reducing waste and emissions.

Being green is all about making choices. An ecovore looks at the total impact of food with fluidity, not rigidity. Our food choices are, at any given time or in any given place, in constant flux, because of changes in ecosystems, economics, and technology. Ecovores eat foods that are in harmony with the environment, both currently and for the foreseeable future, locally and globally. An ecovore’s diet pivots on a series of judgment calls based on conditions at the time and place. This season’s local salmon may be sustainable, but next year it may not (and would then not be part of an evocore diet, even though the food is local). And conversely, as we make progress, what casts a carbon footprint last week may not be an issue tomorrow. World hunger matters, too. In a global rice or corn shortage, an ecovore picks a different food to eat.
Heyhoe has lots more to say, and it’s here.


Edible Schoolyard by Alice Waters

Alice Waters’ lush and lovely Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea (Chronicle Books) is a coffee table book about change and sustainability. You’ve heard the term grassroots? This is what it looks like, right here.

In the early 1970s, Waters introduced the idea of organic produce at her Berkeley Restaurant, Chez Panisse. While Waters’ star has risen considerably in the last 35-plus years, so has her clout. If Waters has an idea, she has both the resources and the respect to put it in motion. And since Waters’ focus has been green since before the color was chic, it only stands to reason that at least some of her good ideas are also going to be good for the planet.

In 1996, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Chez Panisse, Waters created the Chez Panisse Foundation. The Foundation’s big project has been the Edible Schoolyard, an acre that Waters and the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley have transformed from cracked blacktop to lush garden of learning. It is a tool for social lessons as well as a sustainability demonstration garden for over 3000 students and countless visitors since the garden first sank its roots.

Edible Schoolyard documents this transformation as well as Waters’ journey with it as well as the many young lives that have been touched by the garden. It’s an amazing, beautiful story.

While the world looks to Barak Obama, Al Gore and (for crying out loud) Bono to save the planet, foodies know that, for real grassroots change, you don’t have to go much farther Alice Waters. Edible Schoolyard is a gorgeous literary documentary of a good idea.

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Dateline: Earth Day

Almost on the eve of the 40th celebration of Earth Day, HarperCollins announces that it will publish a brace of books with a strong environmental focus by Charles, the Prince of Wales, over the next two years.

HarperCollins has said it will publish Harmony in 2010, followed by a children’s edition of the same title the next year.

Monster’s and Critics says that the “60-year-old royal -- who is a keen campaigner for green issues -- will not be paid for the project ... but his charity will receive some of the royalties generated.” M&C points out that Prince Charles project “is already being likened to former US Presidential candidate Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, which looked at the issue of global warming.” And they’re right: they are being compared in the media. After all, there are just so many connections. Both projects are being spearheaded by famous guys who are talking about saving the planet.

And because it’s Earth Day today, and we feel like doing something swell for the planet, we’ll give the Prince his soapbox, courtesy The Bookseller:
The book provides an analysis of how the world is viewed today. It argues that that in the pursuit of economic growth and technological progress humanity has become dangerously disconnected from nature.

The Prince of Wales said: “I believe that true ‘sustainability’ depends fundamentally upon us shifting our perception and widening our focus, so that we understand, again, that we have a sacred duty of stewardship of the natural order of things. In some of our actions we now behave as if we were ‘masters of Nature’ and, in others, as mere bystanders. If we could rediscover that sense of harmony; that sense of being a part of, rather than apart from Nature, we would perhaps be less likely to see the world as some sort of gigantic production system, capable of ever-increasing outputs for our benefit -- at no cost.”

Monday, April 20, 2009

Review: Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips. Says Leach:
Read this book slowly. You’ll want to speed up, because you’ll want to know what happens next, but you’ll be making a mistake. Set over three days in Korea, Winfield, West Virginia and Kentucky, Lark & Termite is comprised of slowly unfolding sentences that, for all their southern drawl, are honed down to essentials: the way a stray cat’s underbelly sounds dragging along dead grass, the rattle of freight trains, the muffled sounds of tunnels, the secrets families keep. Read too quickly, and you’ll miss something crucial.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

JG Ballard Dead at 78

JG Ballard, author of over a dozen novels including Crash, Empire of the Sun and Super-Cannes died Sunday morning after a long illness, according to BBC News:
His agent Margaret Hanbury said the author had been ill “for several years” and had died on Sunday morning.

Despite being referred to as a science fiction writer, Ballard said his books were instead “picturing the psychology of the future.”

His most acclaimed novel was Empire of the Sun, based on his childhood in a Japanese prison camp in China.

The author of 15 novels and scores of short stories, Ballard grew up amongst the ex-patriot community in Shanghai.

During World War II, at the age of 12, he was interned for three years in a camp run by the Japanese.
He later moved to Britain and in the early 1960s became a full-time writer.
According to Wikipedia, it was while the young Ballard was stationed in Canada for RAF flight training that he discovered the genre in which much of his work would be enfolded:

In 1953 Ballard joined the RAF and was sent to the RCAF flight-training base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. There he discovered science fiction in American magazines. While in the RAF, he also wrote his first science fiction story, “Passport to Eternity,” as a pastiche and summary of the American science fiction he had read.
Wikipedia also reports that Ballard’s work had a “notable influence on popular music”:

...where his work has been used as a basis for lyrical imagery, particularly amongst British post-punk groups. Examples include albums such as Metamatic by John Foxx, various songs by Joy Division (most famously “The Atrocity Exhibition” from Closer), the song “Down in the Park” by Gary Numan and “Warm Leatherette” by The Normal. Songwriters Trevor Horn and Bruce Woolley credit Ballard’s story, “The Sound-Sweep,” with inspiring The Buggles' hit, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and Buggles’ second album included a song entitled “Vermillion Sands.” The 1978 post-punk band Comsat Angels took their name from one of Ballard’s short stories.

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First Book for First Dog

After one whole day of being first dog to the American First Family it was announced that first Portuguese Water Dog, Bo, would star in his own canine romp to be published next week. Bo: America's Commander In Leash.

Publisher Mascot Books says the book will follow the First Family’s new dog “on an exciting adventure as he learns all about the White House and experiences the traditions that make it such a special place.”

According to The London Telegraph the book’s illustrator has been working on the book for the last couple of months, leaving space in places where the dog would appear when he was actually chosen. Once Bo was named and shown, he could quickly be inked in and -- voila! -- instant (ahem) art.

Virginia-based Mascot books is on familiar ground here, specializing as they do in children’s books about school mascots. As well, they have a division that hand-holds would-be authors through the publication of self-published books for children. It seems a safe bet that their timely unveiling of Bo: America's Commander In Leash and the international press attention the book has received will push this small publisher to a whole new level.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Author Snapshot: Kamran Pasha

Some people -- critics and supporters alike -- are watching the debut of Kamran Pasha’s Mother of the Believers (Washington Square Press) with deep political interest. Viewed a certain way, so much is at stake. Recently, on his blog, Pasha wrote that “controversy is inevitable when it comes to writing about Prophet Muhammad, who has the distinction of being simultaneously the most beloved and hated man in world history. Revered by his followers as God’s last messenger to humanity, and vilified by others as a false prophet, the founder of Islam has always been a figure that excites passionate emotions. So in writing a novel that looks at his life from the perspective of the woman he loved most, I have no doubt that I will become the target of those feelings.”

There’s more of that kind of thing swirling around Pasha’s novel. Doubtless, none of that will be bad for sales, which just a few days after the book’s publication date already look quite brisk. But, right here and now, none of that matters. What does matter: Mother of the Believers is a fascinating and beautifully crafted work of historical fiction. Set in Arabia in the seventh century, it is the story of Aisha, the favorite of the Prophet. Aisha tells his story with sharp and affectionate eyes. “I have been blessed -- and cursed -- with perfect memory,” Aisha tells us early in the book. “I can recall words said forty years ago as if they had been uttered this morning .... The Messenger ... used to say that I was chosen for that reason. That his words and deeds would be remembered for all time through me, the one he loved the most.”

As far as narrative devices go, having a beloved mate tell the story from her eyes is not a bad one. It gives her license to indulge her poetic heart and gives the author space in which to cloud his imaginings.

Mother of the Believers works on all levels. A deeply entertaining fiction -- nice and thick, just the way those of us who love historicals like ‘em -- as well as a bridge to understanding a way of thought and life that will be at least somewhat foreign to many of the book’s readers. Has there ever been a better time for both of those things?

A Snapshot of Kamran Pasha...
Debut novel: Mother of the Believers
Born: Karachi, Pakistan
Reside: Los Angeles
Web site:

What’s your favorite city?
Medina, Saudi Arabia.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
Go to the Tomb of Prophet Muhammad. Pray. Meditate. Go to the neighboring cemetery, Jannat al-Baqi, and visit the grave of my novel’s heroine, Aisha, the Prophet’s wife. Medina is the most peaceful city I have ever known. Six hours inside its sacred precincts would feel like both an eternity and a blink of the eye.

What food do you love?
Spinach. I have been addicted to spinach since I was a child. Sautéed or cooked in curry sauce, I could eat spinach for every meal!

What’s on your nightstand?
A copy of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. This is one of the most important books for any writer -- in fact, any artist. It explores why we procrastinate as artists, why put off doing what we love, and inspires the reader to overcome his or her blocks and live a creative life.

What inspires you?
Women and words. I have a work of art that hangs over my writing desk, symbolizing my two sources of inspiration. It is a black-and-white photograph of a beautiful woman wrapped in a veil of cursive script. The beauty of women and the power of words -- they are inextricably linked in my heart. Perhaps that is why I primarily tend to write about strong women, and why my first novel is told from a woman’s point of view. The Sufi mystics of Islam teach that the beauty of God is manifest in the feminine form, and my fascination with women has very deep spiritual roots. It is the never-ending quest to probe the depths of the female psyche, to explore the mysteries of the divine feminine, that keeps me creatively inspired.

What are you working on now?

My second novel, Shadow of the Swords. The book will follow the battle between Richard the Lionheart and the Muslim king Saladin to conquer Jerusalem -- and the heart of a beautiful woman.

Tell us about your process.
I am a night owl and normally don’t start writing until 10 PM, and then work until 2 AM in the morning. I am a screenwriter and I usually write a screenplay version of my novel first as an outline. With the dialogue and action already written in the screenplay, I turn to descriptive prose and shape the story into a novel.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I can’t remember anytime that I wasn’t a writer. One does not choose to be a writer. In fact, I would say most writers don’t “want” to be writers. That’s just who we are, we can’t help it. We may in fact hate the compulsion to write, since it takes us out of the social world and locks us into a private -- and sometimes lonely -- place.

There are times when I wish that I had some other passion, as writing is an exhausting process, both physically and emotionally. But words have power over me, and no matter how much I may want to resist, they summon me back to my writing desk. In Islam, creation comes from God using words. He says, “Be” and it is. It is therefore the power of the word that connects us back to our source, the ultimate creative force that imagined the universe into being. Words give me the fuel to live, to breathe. I cannot imagine doing anything else. Being a writer is more than a job. It is the essence of my soul.

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

I would be planted six feet under the earth. Writing is life. If I could not write, I would be like a plant denied water and sunlight. I would wither away and disappear.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
Securing my first book deal after spending nearly six years desperately trying to get agents and publishers to look at my manuscript. There is nothing as fulfilling as a victory that is long in the making.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
There is nothing easy about being a writer. I have no idea how I do it, nor perhaps why. Writing is very much like channeling spiritual energy. It feels like a force greater than myself takes possession of me and moves my hand across the computer keyboard. I often read over my words and am shocked, because I have no memory of having written them. That is usually true with my best writing. And as a result, I can’t really take credit for the best of my work. My conscious mind has nothing to do with the act of creation. Something deeper, something far more ingenious than my limited human mind, is doing the work. I’m just renting it the use of my hands.

What’s the most difficult?
Surrendering to that force, that muse, that is doing the creative work. My conscious mind is terrified of giving up control, and I will procrastinate for hours, days and weeks, before the internal pressure becomes too great and I force myself to sit at my computer and start typing. And the moment that happens, I go into a trance and lose myself in the process. My conscious mind checks out and the muse takes over. Writing is truly a form of possession, no less terrifying than Linda Blair’s experience in The Exorcist. If I had a choice, I would never allow that surrender of my mind to another power. But I don’t have a choice. I was made for this purpose, so I guess I have to just suck it up and deal.

Please tell us about Mother of the Believers.
My first novel is a historical fiction tale that follows the birth of Islam from the perspective of Aisha, the teenage wife of Prophet Muhammad. I was inspired by Anita Diamant’s wonderful book The Red Tent, which tells the biblical story of Jacob and his 12 sons, the forefathers of Israel, from the point of view of the women in their lives. I wanted to do a similar style novel within the Islamic tradition.

Aisha is such a remarkable figure in Islam that it was a tremendous pleasure to write about her. She was a scholar, a poet, a statesman and ultimately a warrior who led armies into Iraq. And at the same time, Aisha was the Prophet’s closest confidante and most beloved wife, and he died in her arms. Aisha single-handedly shatters every stereotype of subservient Muslim women, and I hope that my book will serve as a starting point for a much-needed dialogue about the role of women in Islam.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I have a crush on Audrina Partridge from the MTV series The Hills.

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Fiction: A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Robert Goolrick’s first novel, A Reliable Wife (Algonquin Books), isn’t your normal, everyday thriller. Normal, everyday thrillers, as you’ve probably noticed, are propelled by action. Villain threatens with A. Hero retaliates with B. Villain, wounded, strikes back with C. And so on. My point is, it’s action all the way.

A Reliable Wife
is a thriller of another kind. In this brief, brilliant book, it’s not what the players do that matters; it’s what they feel, what they think. The considerable action isn’t physical. Rather, it’s mental and emotional. The threats the characters wield require not bigger guns and sharper knives and smarter gadgets, but bigger hearts, sharper insights, and smarter dialogue.

Writing in an eloquent, precise, and sometimes repetitive style that mimics the meandering double-backs of thought, Goolrick sets his primary characters against each another as if they’re archetypes in a painting -- but they only look like archetypes. The middle-aged businessman, rich but lonely. The younger woman, come to bitterly wintered Wisconsin in 1907, having answered the man's ad for a reliable wife. It’s a snapshot, how they are at this moment. But what brought them here? What do they want? What are their secrets? And how will all of that propel their tale forward, knotting up their lives? By turns tantalizing, surprising and shocking, A Reliable Wife shows us how the past and its echoes can change one’s life as easily as a new realization can change one’s mind.

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SFF: The Temporal Void by Peter F. Hamilton

Looking back on it, much of the time I spent reading Peter F. Hamilton’s The Temporal Void (Del Rey), I was in a daze. And the book is 700 pages, so it was a significant amount of time. What dazzles me is the breadth and depth of Hamilton’s imagination. The world he has created for his Commonwealth Saga is... well... dazzling. I found it eye-popping when I first encountered this world in 2008’s The Dreaming Void. If anything, I am even more blown away this time. The Temporal Void is a significant accomplishment that bristles with the author’s shining ideas.

The dreams implied by the titles were created long ago by a human astrophysicist named Inigo. Inigo’s dreams were inspirational and were shared by hundreds of millions of people, resulting in a religion: Living Dream. Now, however, the dream has grown darker and time is running out. The fate of humanity rests in the hands of half a dozen people that we come to know in The Temporal Void. This is a fantastic, alien, complex series. Hamilton can’t write them quickly enough to suit me.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Author Snapshot: Gordon Aalborg

Gordon Aalborg began his writing career as a reporter, columnist and bureau chief at The Edmonton Journal in his native Alberta, Canada. In the 1970s, he followed his muse to Australia where he spent many years as a freelance journalist, radio and television broadcaster, ultimately reinventing himself as bestselling romance author, Victoria Gordon.

Though Aalborg is back to writing under his own name, Victoria Gordon survives 20 books in. The most recent novel to be published under that name, 2004’s Finding Bess, was co-written by Aalborg and the author who is now his wife, Denise Dietz (Strangle A Loaf of Italian Bread), before they married. Aalborg and Dietz wrote the book via e-mail when he was still living in Tasmania and she was living in Colorado. “What a hoot -- she kept wanting to kill people off and I kept wanting to get them into bed together.”

While Aalborg became what may have been the first man to write serious category romance, I would suspect that the Victoria Gordon novels were not the books of his heart, romance or no. Aalborg’s own passion seems closer to the surface in books like the newly published Dining With Devils (Five Star). “Thriller writing is much, much more difficult,” than writing romances he has said.

Though Dining With Devils stands alone, it follows up 2004’s The Specialist, a novel Booklist said hit “the creepy jackpot with his villain, a transcontinental Hannibal Lector wannabe with an appetite for the well-muscled thighs of comely female cyclists.”

The protagonist in that book, Tasmanian Police Sergeant Charlie Banes, is back again in Dining With Devils. “Don't start it at night,” warns author Jeffrey Cohen (It Happened One Knife), in a blurb for Aalborg’s book. “You won’t get much sleep!”

A Snapshot of Gordon Aalborg...
Most recent book: Dining with Devils
Born: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Resides: Sidney, British Columbia, Canada.
Birthday: February 5th
Web site:

What’s your favorite city?
I am not a city person, but if I had to choose: Hobart, Tasmania. I spent half my adult life in Australia and most of that in Tasmania, which I still think of as my spiritual home. Good people, good climate, spectacular scenery and world-class trout fishing.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
Go bush. With fly rod.

What food do you love?
I am a dedicated carnivore.

What food have you vowed never to touch again?
Various and sundry TV dinners.

What’s on your nightstand?
I have no such animal.

What inspires you?
The work of other writers, usually much better than I am. And of course my esteemed wife, Denise Dietz, who is also a mystery writer. I was forced into the genre in self-defense after multi discussions about which was easier/harder to write, mystery or romance.

What are you working on now?
The third and perhaps last in my Tasmanian mystery/thriller series. I’ve been back in Canada nearly ten years now, and it’s time for a change. Might try fantasy if I live long enough.

Tell us about your process.
Get up, have morning coffee, indulge in evasive strategies such as checking news, weather, crossword puzzle, etc. Having exhausted all possible excuses not to write, I eventually confront my computer, review the last efforts, usually rewrite some part of that, and then carry on bravely.

Cannot plot as such. I begin with a vague concept and let the story (hopefully) tell itself. If I plot at all, it is more a matter of searching for ways to link individual episodes in my characters’ journeys.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
Books, more books, still more books, some pictures, in a messy office with a computer that rules my life when Deni isn’t doing that.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’m not sure I ever wanted to be a writer. I fell into journalism at a tender age (long before there were computers), and it was downhill all the way after that. I woke up one morning and realized I was a storyteller. Once you realize that there is no going back -- you are doomed.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
Tell stories in hell, probably to people who’ve heard them before. Or write the stories -- I’m positive computers were invented by the devil. Or not be able to tell stories -- that would be hell!

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
Going over the page proofs of Dining With Devils and finding myself generally pleased with it. Realizing I’ve actually learned something about story-telling, even if I won’t live long enough to learn it all.

The worst, strangely enough, was during my romance-writing heyday, when I got a huge royalty check one day, having done little for the previous six months, and found myself wondering: Is this all there Is to being a writer? Lots of money -- but no satisfaction!

In those days, Harlequin didn’t acknowledge that any man could write category romance. I went to [a Romance Writers of America] conference back in the 1980s with the admonition: “Keep your head down and your mouth shut and remember you don’t exist.” That is an awful situation for a writer. We all crave attention, recognition, balm for our fragile but outsized egos.
And in recent years I’ve been doing a lot of freelance editing, which gives me immense satisfaction along with equal frustration. But when it’s good, there is no greater joy than finding and helping to shape raw, genuine talent in someone who’ll be a significant writer, if they work at it hard enough, long after I’m dead.

I was -- just for the record -- Kelli Stanley’s editor for her Nox Dormienda (A Long Night for Sleeping) Bruce Alexander Memorial Mystery Award Winner at Left Coast Crime just recently. I bathe in her reflected glory and thank my lucky stars for having had the sense to recognize a damned good book in its infancy. Some of my other authors have gained crash-hot reviews, but this is the first to actually get an award ... and for a first book, too!

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

You get to be your own boss -- and everyone else’s.

What’s the most difficult?
You get to be your own boss.

About once a year I would sell my soul just to have somebody else make the decisions for a change. Thankfully, that doesn’t last more than about half a day. More seriously, I believe writing is something that gets more and more difficult the better you become at it, because the challenges never stop -- they run right over you without even slowing down.

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

Deni often asks why I’m pestering her instead of doing my own work.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
“If we offer to pay you enough, will you come to ??? and address/teach/discuss….?”

What question would you like never to be asked again?
“You’re a writer? Have I ever read your books?”

Please tell us about Dining With Devils.
As I said earlier, Dining With Devils is the second in what might or might not end as a trilogy. The book is a standalone, but follows on from my earlier book, The Specialist.

On a remote Tasmanian grazing property, a gundog judge is murdered, at first glance by a blind man shooting blanks at a dead pigeon in an incident seen but not understood by Police Sergeant Charlie Banes and his close friend, visiting Canadian author Teague Kendall. Kendall’s almost-lover, Kirsten Knelsen, an ardent caving enthusiast, is kidnapped elsewhere in Tasmania, with nothing to even suggest the two incidents might be related. Then Kendall himself goes missing.

It takes all of Charlie’s “country cop” skills to discover the links, which involve Kendall’s vengeful Tasmanian ex-wife, a psychotic, American-hating ex-Viet Nam sniper, and a killer believed to have been dead for more than a year.

The killer everyone thinks perished in a Canadian cave is seeking revenge on Kirsten, the woman who trapped him there and left him to die. This time -- as before -- he intends to have Kirsten for dinner, and when Kendall’s ex-wife contributes Kendall to the menu, the killer fairly drools with anticipation.

Charlie’s rush to save his friends and end the killing spree is a race against time through the eucalypt forests of Tasmania’s east-coast highlands. Aided by a cranky old bushman and his Jack Russell terrier, Charlie also has help from the ubiquitous Tasmanian devils ... world-class scavengers with their own ideas about appropriate table manners.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.

I’ll pass on that. If two people know something it isn’t a secret anymore.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thoughts on Books and Tea Parties

In his usual stylish fashion, J. Kingston Pierce at The Rap Sheet socks it to ‘em with a trenchant post on death, taxes and book covers:
I’ve been waiting for months to post this book jacket. And I could hardly have picked a better day than this: April 15, aka Tax Day in the United States. While political right-wingers and FOX News talking heads, upset at President Barack Obama’s campaign to repair the sour U.S. economy left behind by his predecessor, gather in ragtag “Tea Parties” at various points around the country to protest progressive taxation, government spending, the supposedly detrimental ideas students are taught in college (as if ignorance were really bliss), and the general fact that one of their own isn’t in charge anymore, everybody else will be filing their tax forms or feeling smug that they already completed that annual deed weeks ago.

The title of this book comes, of course, from a saying attributed to U.S. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” However, Franklin makes no appearance in the novel.
Pierce’s full post is predictably engaging and it’s here.

Do you just love that cover to death? There’s more where that came from. Pierce has been collecting them at his Killer Covers blog. Along with -- you guess it -- still more trenchant observations. Kill Covers is a must stop because, as the blog tells us, “it’s what’s upfront that counts.”

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Fiction: A Raw Mix of Carelessness and Longing by Cecelia Frey

I’m a big believer in the contract between an author and her readers. I thinks it’s important that, early on, the author lets the reader know just what kind of journey to expect. It’s a subtle thing and it can be a small one, but, to my mind, it’s often the difference between a successful book and one that is not so much.

Whether by instinct or design, in A Raw Mix of Carelessness and Longing (Brindle & Glass) Cecelia Frey nods her tacit agreement to this principle. By way of proof, I offer the opening lines:
Terrabain Street goes around and around in my head like a song I can’t get rid of. It’s driving me crazy, I said to Zeke. It’s like a stuck CD.

Write it down, Zeke said. Get it out of your head and down on paper.

I don’t know how, I said.

Write it like a song, he said. You’ve written a hundred songs.
With these few lines, Frey skillfully establishes a sense of rhythm and place for A Raw Mix of Carelessness and Longing because, even if we don’t know right away where Terrabain Street is fixed on terra firma, we understand spiritually where it is: almost every major city has one, or did at one time. A street or a district overcome by youth culture, the rhythms and spirit of a time.

And these are rhythms that are impossible to resist. At least, they were for me. Frey’s characterizations are raw and sweetly familiar. The reckless and daring Lilah Cellini in love with musician Jamey Popolowski. The realities of traveling with Jamey’s band ultimately help Lilah to a better understanding of what she herself needs.

Those who were moved by Michael Turner’s Hard Core Logo will find resonance in A Raw Mix of Carelessness and Longing. It’s a very different story and, certainly, a very different type of book but, in a few important ways, the journey is similar. Frey’s novel is a beautifully told coming of age story set against the grimy backdrop of the Western Canadian music scene. A hypnotic, memorable book.


Amazon Won’t Get Off So Easily

Don’t blame the French! That’s what Silicon Valley veteran technologist Mary Hodder explains on TechCrunch. In a guest-blog-style posting, she tells us why online bookseller Amazon are probably being big, fat liars when they tried to tell shocked booklovers that their #Amazonfail fiasco of last weekend was a “glitch”:
The issue with #AmazonFail isn’t that a French Employee pressed the wrong button or could affect the system by changing “false” to “true” in filtering certain “adult” classified items, it’s that Amazon’s system has assumptions such as: sexual orientation is part of “adult”. And “gay” is part of “adult.” In other words, #AmazonFail is about the subconscious assumptions of people built into algorithms and classification that contain discriminatory ideas. When other employees use the system, whether they themselves agree with the underlying assumptions of the algorithms and classification system, or even realize the system has these point’s of view built in, they can put those assumptions into force, as the Amazon France Employee apparently did according to Amazon.
There’s a lot more, of course. As well, there’s a very entertaining exchange of comments that argues for and against Hodder’s arguments. You can find all of that here.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mockingbird Beats The Bible

What are the 10 most inspirational books of all time? The Telegraph offers up a list that will surprise you. We won’t take the stuffing out of their piece by running their top ten here, but it doesn’t give much away to tell you that Harper Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill A Mockingbird was voted into the number one spot, handily beating out The Bible.

For me, the other big surprise was finding J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel Catcher in the Rye on the list. It’s not a book I’d describe as inspirational: at least, not the kind of inspiration that earns it a place on a list like this. However, it is certainly interesting that two books most notable for having been written by authors whose early works brought expectations that were never fulfilled made the list. And it seems possible that both Lee and Salinger suffered from the same nasty malaise: massive early success that led to impossible personal expectations. And the loss is ours.

But I’m getting off topic: The Telegraph’s 10 most inspirational books can be found here.


#Amazonfail Sets Blogosphere A-Twitter

At this point, it just doesn’t seem possible that anyone hasn’t heard of the angry storm released by online bookseller Amazon this past weekend when rankings began mysteriously dropping from books with gay and lesbian themes.

We’d held off reporting on it because, for a while there on Sunday and Monday, the story kept changing from minute to minute and it struck us that half-baked reportage would do little beyond adding to the infamy of a few characters who emerged from the melee who seemed to have little else in mind. Even loading Amazon with additional attention seemed counterproductive under the circumstances. (Insert subliminal message here: buy indie!)

Even as I write this, very early Tuesday morning, I find myself reluctant to pronounce on this one, though it’s possible it’s just because I’m personally sick of hearing about it: somehow, there’s just a sort of nasty, tawdry feel about the whole thing. Seriously: are we even still playing these morality games? For some ridiculous reason, I’d thought more of Amazon. I know: I should have known better. (Buy indie!)

If you’re not sick of the whole sad mess, or if you’d like to explore the details on your own, did a nice job of rounding up the significant players in the reportage thus far, while The Wall Street Journal here explains how the whole #Amazonfail thing came to be and offers a very concise blow-by-blow of the whole messy business.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Q&Q Editor Derek Weiler Dies

The Canadian literary community was saddened today at news of the loss of Derek Weiler, editor of Quill & Quire and just 40 years old. Though the Canadian press was aflutter with the news, the most touching tribute I’ve come across thus far came from Globe & Mail’s Martin Levin, who offered a heartfelt essay on the Globe’s blog:
I’m in shock. This morning, a colleague came to my desk, teary-eyed, and told me that Derek Weiler died yesterday. Many of you reading this will have known Derek very well. He was, after all, the much-respected editor of Quill & Quire, which functions as Canada's books-industry bible, the equivalent of Publisher’s Weekly in the United States, though doing much more with many fewer resources.
The balance of Levin’s essay is on the Globe blog here. An obituary as well as a summary of the sad news is on the Quill & Quire blog here.

Weiler’s trenchant voice and passion for his subject and will be sadly missed.


Review: The Believers by Zoë Heller

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews The Believers by Zoë Heller. Says Leach:
Heller’s fine novel takes on the Litvinoff family, a tribe of New Yorkers utterly certain in their beliefs until, abruptly, they aren’t.

Patriarch Joel is a famous radical lawyer known for defending controversial individuals, most recently an American Muslim suspected of Al Qaeda ties. Joel, an ardent socialist and judgmental moralist, glories in his outsider status, gleefully scanning the morning papers for disparaging publicity.

Joel’s English-born wife, Audrey, fled her humdrum life as a typist to marry this American hotshot. Shy, overwhelmed by America, she constructed a protective carapace, a sharp-tongued, fiercely leftist character that has hardened into a vicious woman.
The full review is here.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Austen Zombie Author Will Write About Lincoln

This is just annoying: Seth Graham-Smith, the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Books) has inked a six figure two-book deal with Grand Central.

According to EW
, “The author’s first book with the publisher will be Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a re-imagined biography of the president, if he were a vampire hunter.” Ummm.... hello?

EW also reports that Hollywood is expressing interest. Was there ever any doubt?

And who said we weren’t ready for escapism? Let’s go to the bat-cave and discuss it.

In case you missed it, we previously wrote about Graham-Smith’s book here.

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McCain Fille Inks Big, Fat Book Deal

Meghan McCain, daughter of former US presidential hopeful John McCain has signed a six figure deal with Hyperion. As The New York Observer breathlessly reported:
John McCain's 24-year-old daughter Meghan has a book deal! Sources say Hyperion has prevailed over at least three other publishers in an auction that began earlier this week, following a round of meetings during which the in-your-face young conservative and the literary agent she shares with her father, Sterling Lord Literistic president Flip Brophy, discussed a number of possible approaches to the book with editors around town.

Several sources said the advance Ms. McCain will receive from Hyperion, which is owned by the Disney Company, is in the high six figures.
It all makes me wonder, maybe McCain pere was looking too far North for a running mate in the 2008 US presidential elections? I’m not suggesting that choosing author/daughter/blogger Meghan over Alaska soap opera maven Sarah Palin would have delivered him to the White House (that would be silly), but maybe everyone wouldn’t have laughed so hard while he took a run at it?

The New York Observer’s reportage of Meghan’s book deal is here. The New York Times chimes in here. McCain’s surprisingly sharp scribblings on The Daily Beast are here.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

SF/F: The Stranger by Max Frei

Before I say anything else I have to tell you that I’ve never looked forward to the publication of a book more than I did Max Frei’s The Stranger (Overlook). It’s been such a long time coming. I’ve been hearing about it for years but, in retrospect, it felt like whispers of things. Rumors from other lands. Something well imagined that could not possibly be true. Because both The Stranger and its almost iconic author, Max Frei, have taken on mythic proportions. All right, I’ll cop: in some circles, not so mythic. But in those circles, The Stranger -- and the books that come after -- had become almost the Holy Grail of books. If only, we said, Frei’s work could be translated into English, nothing would ever be the same as it had been.

And then, of course, it was. And nothing ever will be the same, but not in the way we anticipated. See: it’s simply not possible to come to a book with the expectations I owned and not be disappointed on some level. And, in certain ways, I was. I am. But I do understand that you simply can’t run out and translate a Russian novel and expect it to play perfectly in English. And I’m talking any novel here. But with something as chewy and nuanced as The Stranger, you can amp all of that up considerably. This isn’t just a book, it’s an event. Clearly, that’s a little tough to live up to.

The Stranger is epic fantasy on a quirky philosophical level. But if those words bring Terry Pratchett to mind, just clear your head: Frei’s work is nothing like that. In The Stranger, even the author is a fictional character. It has come to light that the actual author of Max Frei’s books is a woman named Svetlana Martynchik. Max Frei, the quasi author, is also at the center of his tales, which begin in The Stranger with Book One of the Labyrinths of Echo.

It took my tightly honed North American sensibilities quite a while to pick up the rhythm of Freis’ writing: the alternate universe of dreams, the fact that he is a sort of magical secret agent who must stop a murderer from our world from getting his way in the new one.

North American readers will find themselves slogging through at first: this is not your grandmother’s fantasy. But stick with it: all becomes clear after a while, as well as the density of wit we’re unused to reading English language authors.

The Stranger
is a fantastic book and the first of many to be published in English. If I don’t miss my guess, reading it now will put you in the vanguard.

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No Solitude for Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez (100 Years of Solitude, Memories of my Melancholy Whores) is denying reports -- broadcast widely earlier this year -- that he has put down his pen. From The Independent:
“Not only is that not true, but what is true is that I do nothing else but write,” Garcia Marquez said at the weekend. The 82-year-old Colombian father of magical realism, who is probably the best known living author in the Spanish-speaking world, was pressed by the Bogota newspaper El Tiempo on whether it was true that he was to publish no more books.
The Independent
also reports that Marquez recently completed an adaptation of his 1996 novel, News of a Kidnapping. The movie will begin production this coming fall and will star Salma Hayek “and possibly Benicio del Toro and Javier Bardem, the Argentinian director Eduardo Costantini said this week.”


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Fiction: Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand by Gioconda Belli

Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand (HarperCollins) feels like celebration; feels like the first day of spring.

Memoirist, poet and novelist Gioconda Belli here looks at the Western creation myth and weaves it into something magical and self-reflecting. We begin at the very beginning:
And he was.

Suddenly. From not being to being conscious that he was. He opened his eyes.

He touched himself and knew he was a man, without knowing how he knew. He saw the garden and he felt someone watching him. He looked in every direction hoping to see another like himself.
It should be remembered -- and once you begin to read, you won’t be tempted to forget -- that, despite mounds of research, Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand is fiction. As Belli tells us in a note:
This novel is not Creationism, it’s not Darwinism. It is fiction. Fiction based in the many fictions humankind has woven around this story since time immemorial. It is a close look at the difficult and dazzling beginning of our species.
It is also wonderful. Unforgettable. Ambitious. And even, as Salman Rushdie has said, it is sly. Your belief system does not matter here. This is good and beautiful storytelling, plain and simple. A perfect book. Simply nothing I would change.


Children’s Books: A World Full of Ghosts by Charis Cotter, illustrations by Marc Mongeau

A World Full of Ghosts (Annick Press) comes this close to being a really terrific book. Certainly, the idea is a good one: a catalog of ghost stories from around the world -- 25 of them in all -- skeleton spirits of Alaska, Jamaica’s rolling calf, the legless Yurei of Japan, background for Halloween and the Day of the Dead.

Presented in picture book form with luminous illustrations by Marc Mongeau, the information is good, the illos are great and there’s no problem at all with the idea.

How does A World Full of Ghosts fall short? In a way, it’s in the planning that it doesn’t quite come together. The stories are uneven, both in content and in the telling. For example, some of the stories are told in a straight-up, no nonsense non-fiction style. (“In Hawaii, the ghost gods are everywhere: in the trees, the roaring wind, the mighty volcanoes, and the pounding waves of the sea.”) Others are told from a more personal viewpoint. (“We had two cats: Loki, a white cat, and Bear, a beautiful Siamese.”) Was A World Full of Ghosts initially envisioned as two books that got blended into one? I’m not sure, but I think children might find this overlapping narrative voice somewhat confusing. I know I did.

That said, there is much here to recommend the A World Full of Ghosts, not the least of these are well told encounters with a dimension most children ages eight to 10 will find exciting.

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Ten Points For Mr. Happy

We’ve been predicting this for a while, but now The New York Times is agreeing with us, so it must be true. (Right? Right?)

According to Motoko Rich, recession weary consumers may be cutting back on many luxuries, but one they’re willing to pay for is a happy ending.
At a time when booksellers are struggling to lure readers, sales of romance novels are outstripping most other categories of books and giving some buoyancy to an otherwise sluggish market.

Harlequin Enterprises, the queen of the romance world, reported that fourth-quarter earnings were up 32 percent over the same period a year earlier, and Donna Hayes, Harlequin’s chief executive, said that sales in the first quarter of this year remained very strong. While sales of adult fiction overall were basically flat last year, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, the romance category was up 7 percent after holding fairly steady for the previous four years.
Motoko goes on to say that these numbers might be helped by the fact that the category generally offers up many titles in the less expensive mass market format. And romance isn’t the only area to be lit by the glow of a recession-era bounce:
Such escapist urges are also fueling sales of science fiction and fantasy, said Bob Wietrak, a vice president for merchandising at Barnes & Noble. Mr. Wietrak said sales of novels with vampires, shape shifters, werewolves and other paranormal creatures were “exploding,” whether they were found in the romance, fantasy or young-adult aisles, where Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series continues to dominate and inspire look-alike books like the House of Night teen novels by P. C. Cast and Kristin Cast.
The New York Times piece is here.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Writer in the Rye

Whatever happened to J.D. Salinger? According to Tom Leonard of The Spectator, he’s living in New Hampshire, eating sandwiches, attending the occasional church social and writing, writing, writing:
The recluse’s recluse, Salinger has lived in seclusion in the small rural community of Cornish, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, for more than 50 years. After writing The Catcher in the Rye in 1951 -- his generation-shaping masterpiece about teenage angst and rebellion -- he published only a few collections of short stories. A short piece of fiction for the New Yorker in 1965 was his last published work. He hasn’t spoken to the media since the early 1950s, breaking his Trappist silence only once in 1974 for a brief phone conversation with a New York Times journalist in which he said there was ‘a marvellous peace in not publishing... I write just for myself and my own pleasure.’ He added: ‘I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man. But all I’m doing is trying to protect myself and my work.’
Leonard’s piece is interesting, lengthy and here.


Monday, April 06, 2009

Pow Wow edited by Ishmael Reed with Carla Blank

Pow Wow (DaCapo) is an important book. Edited by the incomparable Ishmael Reed -- novelist, poet, playwright and essayist -- with help from Carla Blank, a writer and artist whose work you will be hearing about soon, Pow Wow’s subtitle offers a broad overview of the book: “Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience -- Short Fiction from Then to Now.” As that subtitle implies, the reader is in for the journey of a lifetime.

The contributors represented alone make Pow Wow a collection of interest. Russell Banks, Cecil Brown, Stanley Crouch, James T. Farrell, Benjamin Franklin, Ellen Geist, Chester Himes, Langston Hughes, Bharati Mukherjee, Ty Pak, Grace Paley, Gertrude Stein, Mark Twain and more and more and more besides. In all, 63 pieces represent a diverse view of American writing over the past 200 years.

“In assembling this anthology,” Reed tells us in his foreword, “I have read over four hundred short stories written by American writers of all backgrounds. It is a journey I recommend for all readers who want to know where American civilization has been and where it is going.”

Pow Wow sets us on that journey in a collection intended to mark our consciousness and our hearts.

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Books in Canada “Staple Not a Luxury”

Amid all the doom and gloom everyone keeps forecasting around the global economic crisis, it’s lovely to be able to share some really good news, not only for retailers, but for literacy.

BookNet Canada, the not-for-profit agency that watches book-related goings on in Canada, reports today that Canadian book sales have continued to show steady growth in the first quarter of 2009 over the same time period last year. Sales volume is up 6.7 per cent in the first three months of this year.

Michael Tamblyn, BookNet Canada’s CEO, sounds optimistic for the industry. “This was when the other shoe was supposed to drop, after Christmas when gift sales were no longer a factor. But in the face of declining book sales in the US and UK, we are still seeing steady performance in English-language Canadian book sales in Q1.”

Tamblyn feels that the numbers might indicate a change in perspective. “For the time being, Canadians continue to view books as a staple, not a luxury.”

BookNet offers up reporting information here.


Author Snapshot: Jill Mansell

While it’s possible you haven’t heard of Jill Mansell, that’s likely about to change. The Bristol-born author’s books have sold over three million copies in almost every place outside of North America. January Magazine caught up with her on the eve of her U.S. debut to ask her a few silly questions, a few important questions and a few that seemed designed to do little beyond determine what a good sport she is.

Twenty books into an exciting career, Sourcebooks today debuts An Offer You Can’t Refuse.

Says Booklist: “Mansell’s novel is the perfect read for hopeless romantics who like happily-ever-after endings.”

A Snapshot of Jill Mansell
Most recent book: An Offer You Can’t Refuse (Sourcebooks)
Born: Bristol, UK
Reside: Bristol, UK
Birthday: June 16th, many moons ago...
Web site:

What’s your favorite city?
Venice, Italy.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
Gaze around in awe and wonder, and fall in love with the place all over again. Sit outside a café in St Mark’s square and people-watch. Take a trip along the Grand Canal. Get lost down narrow side-streets. Look in the windows of real estate agencies and wish I could live there.

It really is completely magical. One warning though, that teeny-tiny cup of coffee at the café in St Mark’s Square will probably set you back 25 dollars...

What food do you love?

I’m a huge potato fan. (I don’t mean I’m huge, I just love them a lot.) Roast potatoes, creamed potatoes, fries, chips, sliced and baked with heavy cream and cheese... I’ve never found a way of cooking a potato that I didn’t like!

What food have you vowed never to touch again?
I was doing back-to-back phone interviews from an Australian hotel room earlier this year. I was really hungry, so during the minute-long break between calls I ripped open the packet of wasabi-coated peanuts I’d saved from my flight on Singapore Airlines. Briefly pausing to wonder what wasabi might be, I emptied the packet into my mouth... and my head nearly exploded. I then had to do a live radio interview with my mouth on fire and sweat breaking out on my forehead, whilst acting as if nothing was wrong. I think we can safely say I shall be steering clear of wasabi in future.

What’s on your nightstand?
Books, lip-balm, nail file, alarm clock. What should also be there is a notepad and pen for those brilliant plot ideas that always occur to you in the middle of the night, but the moment I put them there, you can guarantee someone will come along and steal the pen. A member of the family, that is. I'm not implying a burglar will break in and make off with it.

What inspires you?
The fear that if I don’t produce a book, my publishers will demand their advance back, which would be awkward as I’ve already spent it. Then they’d dump me and I’d have to go back to working in the real world. And I’d really hate that to happen because I like it too much in this unreal one!

What are you working on now?
My current book is about a female limo driver -- I was being driven to an event last year and got chatting to my chauffeur, who told me such amazing stories about his job that I knew I’d have to put some of them in a book. Some snippets of gossip are just too good to pass up...

Tell us about your process.
I write by hand, with a Harley Davidson fountain pen. I write the book itself in A4 pads, and keep notes and plot ideas in beautiful decorative notebooks. Weirdly, my handwriting is completely different in the notebooks. My mum used to type the novels up for me. Now my daughter is doing it. This is why there are no explicit sex scenes! Plot-wise, I tend to know what’s going to happen in the next chapter or two, but that’s it. If I try to plan out a whole book before writing it, I’ll get better ideas as I go along, so there’s no point. It’s scarier but more fun to improvise.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
I’m writing this in bed, with a great view from the window of the sports ground beyond our garden. It can be distracting sometimes, having fit hunky men playing soccer and tennis out there all day long, but I just have to tolerate it!

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I used to write a lot when I was a kid but never imagined I’d get to do it for a living -- it was a fabulous dream, right up there with wanting to be Miss World and sob photogenically on stage in a swimsuit and diamond tiara.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
I’d go back to my old job -- I was an electroencephalographic technologist, which means I recorded the electrical activity in people’s brains. I worked in a neurological hospital for 18 years and loved it.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
The day my editor phoned to tell me that I was number one on The Sunday Times bestseller list. I burst into tears.

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

Getting stuck in commuter traffic on the way to and from the hospital every day used to drive me nuts, so being able to work from home is an absolute joy.

What’s the most difficult?

Getting the book written is all down to me -- I can’t ask someone else to take over when I get to a tricky bit or realize I’ve made a hideous mistake that needs sorting out. I wish I could!

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
“Jill, my angel, would you pleeeease let me buy the film rights to your book and allow me to star in the movie?”

And I’d like George Clooney to be the one saying it.

What question would you like never to be asked again?
“Have you never wanted to write a serious book?”

(No, I haven’t wanted to! Never ever! Stop asking me!)

Please tell us about your most recent book.
It’s romantic comedy, feel-good fiction about a girl who runs a bookstore in London and is desperate to win back the love of her life. If you enjoy movies like Notting Hill and Four Weddings, you’ll like my book. And if you don’t like those kind of movies, you’ll really hate it!

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
George Clooney is madly in love with me and has asked me to marry him. But it’s a secret, so don’t tell anyone I told you.

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