Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review: Tuck by Stephen R. Lawhead

Today in January Magazine’s SF/F section, Iain Emsley reviews Tuck by Stephen R. Lawhead.

Setting the native British mythology against the conquering Norman stories, Lawhead echoes Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur in trying to recover the real person behind the legend. Says Emsley:
Stephen Lawhead's Tuck is the final installment of the King Raven trilogy. A retelling of the Robin Hood stories, Lawhead moves away from the Middle Eastern settings in his previous novels to the Marches, the borderlands between England and Wales, after the Norman conquest.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

New in Paperback: The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley

If you were to ask cookbook aficionados for a list of the ten most influential cookbooks of all time, I’m betting that most all of them would include Larousse Gastronomique somewhere on that list. First published in 1938, that book is much more than a cookbook. It is an encyclopedia of gastronomy from the French perspective. You don’t necessarily read Larousse, you graze it, browsing at various entries as your make your way, in leisurely fashion, from back to front, or however else you want to enjoy it. You’re safe in knowing that, every time you go in, you’re going to take something new out. It’s not so much a cookbook, then, as an amazing, never-ending literary lunch.

In many ways, all of these things also describe The Oxford Companion to Italian Food (Oxford) very well. In many ways, it’s set up just like Larousse, with two columns per page of smallish type with the entries arranged alphabetically. And so we learn about Burrida, (“… a Sardinian way of serving fish like skate…”) Burrino, (“a kind of butter of ghee”) and Butter all on a single page.

Those accustomed to glossy cookbooks featuring fashionably out-of-focus photos of food and pride in the few words required to share a recipe might take some time becoming acclimated to The Oxford Companion to Italian Food. Because this is more than a cookbook: it is, as Chef Mario Batali says in the foreword, a tour of “Italy’s rich culinary history.”

If you want to know how to make pasta, other books will likely get you there more directly. But if you also want to know how pasta came into the vernacular, how it was invented, developed and how it can variously be prepared, then The Oxford Companion to Italian Food will be the book for you.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Conrad v. Conrad

Joseph Conrad’s masterwork, Heart of Darkness, first published in book form in 1902, is one of the best known works of fiction in the English language. It was the inspiration -- and more -- for Francis Ford Coppola’s amazing 1979, Apocalypse Now starring a brilliant but off-kilter Marlon Brando and a beautifully sweaty Martin Sheen. The book itself is at once darkly luminous and disturbing. An unforgettable novel that has left an indelible mark on the literature of this language.

Though he died in 1924, Conrad’s line has gone on. And on. One of the better known of his descendants is Lauren Conrad, whose own dark heart appears to beat for fashion. Twenty-three-year-old Lauren’s life is being documented on the MTV hit reality series The Hills. The Hills follows Lauren through her fashion-focused world. It’s not a world that invites literary expectations. Using the word “literary” in the same sentence as Lauren’s debut novel, L.A. Candy (HarperCollins), is probably pushing things a bit. (Well, they both do have words, after all.) But stir in the pedigree and -- voila! -- if nothing else, the publication of the novel calls up the potential for satire. Here The Daily Beast answers that call with a quiz that challenges the reader to take a stab at telling the difference between the work of Conrads, old and new. In some cases, making the determination would demand an expert eye:
A. The place was beautiful, all vintage ivory wallpaper and polished oak floors. In the center of the room, a circular glass table displayed a single white orchid.

B. The room seemed to have grown darker, as if all the sad light of the cloudy evening had taken refuge on her forehead.
With others, it’s a little easier to tell.
A. To tell you the truth, I was morbidly anxious to change my shoes and socks.

B. “You look pretty in that dress. And those peep-hole shoes are hot.”
Either way, it’s a fun exercise that invites us to laugh at our own pretensions. (And I’m still not going to watch The Hills.)

So can Conrad fille write? I don’t know: HarperCollins -- probably wisely -- didn’t send us a copy. The reviews I’ve seen have mostly been more about the fashionista author than they have about what’s actually in the book, though the cover and the publisher’s promotional material both paint an astonishingly empty picture. (“Los Angeles is all about the sweet life: hot clubs, cute guys, designer ... everything. Nineteen-year-old Jane Roberts can’t wait to start living it up. She may be in L.A. for an internship, but Jane plans to play as hard as she works, and has enlisted her BFF Scarlett to join in the fun.”) But as Sherryl Connelly points out in her review for The New York Daily News, “what the heck. No reality stars were harmed in the making of this novel. And Conrad has a future to forge. With two more books to come, she has at least one iron in the fire.”

UK Indie Rushing Michael Jackson Biography to Press

They’re probably not the only ones rushing a biography of pop prince Michael Jackson to press. However U.K. independent publisher, John Blake, is getting some ink just days after the pop star died in Los Angeles on Thursday. From The Bookseller:
Michael Jackson -- King of Pop: 1958-2009 is being written by Emily Herbert, a long-time fan of Jackson, who has interviewed him “on several occasions” in the past. It is scheduled for release on 24th August and will be a B-format paperback, priced £7.99.

Blake said he had not intended to publish a book on the star, and that his decision to do so came in light of widespread requests from retailers. “The trade asked us to do it,” he said. The publisher is now planning an initial print run of 100,000 copies, and making the author available for “all forms of publicity” including radio and newspaper interviews.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Author Snapshot: Clea Simon

We engage with the work of the authors we love on many levels. In the case of fiction, that engagement is often about a careful blend of passion and voice. In non-fiction, it seems to me it’s about heart and sincere understanding of the material under study. It’s why the authors who excel at both fiction and non are rare. Those four things -- passion, skill, heart and research -- are unlikely to surface in a single person. When it does crop up, more often than not, the writer in question is a journalist.

Clea Simon is not the exception to the rule. A respected journalist whose credits include The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, Ms. and Salon, Simon wrote three critically acclaimed works of non-fiction before penning her first novel, 2005’s Mew is for Murder, the first in a series of popular mysteries featuring Boston rock journalist, Theda Krakow and her well loved cat, Musetta. The fourth book in the series, Probable Claws (Poisoned Pen Press), was published in April. Despite the punny titles and the strong cat connections, Simon points out that the cats in her books don’t talk. In fact, Simon has referred to the books featuring Theda and Musetta as “kitty noir,” something she says with a smile but is only half-joking about. And she’s right: there is a whiff of the darkness at the edges of the tales she’s chosen to tell here. Murder, mystery and music via the Boston club scene that Simon herself knows very well. A strong core of animal rights and welfare run through Simon’s books, though never in a self-righteous way. Readers knowledgeable about animal protection issues will find themselves nodding in agreement, those who aren’t will find knowledge shared in an interesting way.

Mystery, music, nightclubs, animals in danger: on a certain level, it’s an unlikely combination, yet, somehow, it works very well. And why? That special blend, I think: passion, heart, understanding and voice, voice, voice. Simon’s is as strong and clear as the passion she brings to the stories she tells.

A snapshot of... Clea Simon
Most recent book: Probable Claws
Born: East Meadow, NY
Reside: Cambridge, MA
Birthday: July 27 (I’m a Leo!)
Web site: www.cleasimon.com

What’s your favorite city?
Well, I adore Cambridge, where I live, but I’d have to say New Orleans. Not sure I could live there, but I need regular fixes, for sure.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
Eat oysters at Acme, browse the “early novel” shelves at Beckham’s Books (where I have found many wonderful, sentimental turn-of-the-20th century finds), stop in at Louisiana Music Factory, and then head out to Tipitina’s, where through some marvelous happenstance Rebirth is opening for, oh, let’s say Dr. John. If there’s any time left, I’d end up at Coop’s or Clover Grill before the celestial ride home.

What food do you love?
Easier to say what I don’t... um, all seafood? Pheasant, quail, and andouille gumbo? Spicy boiled crawfish? (Can you tell I’m recently back from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest?)

What food have you vowed never to touch again?
The pre-cooked crawfish that a dear friend had shipped to me as a present. Very well intentioned. Very scary.

What’s on your nightstand?
Lens cleaner, a glowing squirt frog to squirt water at the cat when she gets rambunctious at four a.m. (the fact that it’s a glowing squirt frog helps), the books from the pile up the side of the nightstand that are leaning onto it for support. Clock radio set on the local college station.

What inspires you?
Talking with friends about making art (music, painting, writing).

What are you working on now?
I have just sent the sequel to Shades of Grey off to my agent. I’m sure she’ll suggest more revisions before we send it to my editor, but right now, I’m catching up on a lot of freelance and other things that had been pushed aside. Shades of Grey is the first in a new series, slightly paranormal, that Severn House will publish in September, but the sequel, tentatively titled “Grey Matters,” is due on May 31. It’s very odd to be finishing up the sequel before having any real-world feedback on the first book, but I’m grateful for Severn’s interest! At some point, I want to start revising my tongue-in-cheek pet noir, find a publisher for that...

Tell us about your process, please.
Although I try to write mornings, these days I find myself needing to get the money work (editing, mostly) done first and the creative stuff really kicks in mid-afternoon. I usually write to a word count (i.e., 1,000 words a day), five days a week. And although I have a basic idea of the book’s direction and a white board with sticky notes all over it of ideas I’ve had that often make little sense within 24 hours (such as “He has green eyes!” Or “Lloyd shows up at Bullock’s”) I tend to need to write the book out, then revise it to make sense.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
My iPod recharging, my various cat fetishes. A wilting daffodil and the cereal bowl from my breakfast.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I always knew that’s what I wanted. It just took a few years (as a journalist, an editor and in various other publishing jobs) before I realized it was feasible.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
Pulling my hair out? I don’t know. Probably just cooking a lot more, or maybe studying zoology. I always wanted to be a herpetologist. But that’s because I love frogs and toads. I hated having to dissect them.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
This one changes. But I still have saved, on my answering machine, my agent singing “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas...” from December, when we got the Severn House offer.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
The dress code. Right now, I’m wearing sweats and big fuzzy socks. Several years ago, I gave away all the suits I had from my days working as a magazine editor.

What’s the most difficult?
The waiting. I don’t even mind the rejections so much as the waiting. When someone rejects something, you can revise it and send it out again. But not knowing? The worst.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
Where do I get my ideas? To which I don’t have a good answer. Also, if my heroines are me. To which I can only say, all my characters are part of me.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
I’d like to be asked about specific plot or character developments in the book -- why did this character do that? More generally, how do your stories/characters develop?

What question would like never to be asked again?
“Why don’t you send a copy to Oprah?”

Please tell us about Probable Claws.
It’s the fourth, and I suspect maybe the last, Theda Krakow mystery. Theda has reached a turning point in her life. Her friends’ lives have all changed: Bill, her boyfriend, has retired from the police and is managing a jazz club, a job that takes a lot of his time. Bunny is about to become a mother. Violet is fully ensconced in her own relationship and her shelter work. The newspaper business is changing. Theda has to figure out where she stands in this new world, and there are no easy answers. It’s funny, because my editor thought it should be obvious that the next step for Theda is to get married. I don’t think it’s obvious. I think that things cannot stay the way they have, but that she has legitimate concerns and interests pushing her various ways.

This is all set against a backdrop of a very real, and possibly unresolvable conflict in animal welfare: the issue of euthanasia. Nobody wants to kill healthy animals, but there are too many cats, dogs, etc., for shelters to care for. So lots of places are trying innovative campaigns to reduce the necessity of euthanasia -- better matching people and pets, fostering animals, etc. -- but it’s an asymptotic approach to the absolute of eliminating the practice. And there is a lot of tension between shelters with different philosophies, a tension ratcheted up by the struggle for funds. Well, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that in this conflict, you might have a murder. A “no kill” murder, if you will.

Because, oh yeah, there’s also a murder!

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I was about to type, “I’m very lazy at heart and only write out of fear of deadline.” But a lot of people know that. So, um, I’ll have to come up with something else. But then I’d have to kill you.

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“The Day the 70s Died”

Will June 25th be remembered as the day the 70s died? That’s what some social-media mavens were asking yesterday when two 1970s pop-culture icons passed away within hours of each other.

Former Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett, 62, died of complications resulting from the cancer she had been publicly battling for some time, while 1970s child star -- and publicly off-kilter adult -- Michael Jackson, 50, died of cardiac arrest, the direct result of an intentionally lethal drug overdose.

You don’t need to go far to find news stories on either icon. Or both. Of all the ones we saw, though, the most relevant to January’s readership (aside, of course, from J. Kingston Pierce’s delicate send-off of Fawcett, “An Angel Gets Her Wings”) was Amy Wallace’s piece on Fawcett for The Daily Beast. Wallace’s piece illustrates Fawcett’s little known “brainy side” as well as the star’s friendship with the writer Ayn Rand.
A recent e-mail exchange with the late Farrah Fawcett reveals the unlikely friendship between the Charlie's Angels star and the novelist Ayn Rand, who helped the actress understand her place in culture -- and longed to cast her in a TV version of Atlas Shrugged.
Wallace tells us several things “almost no one knew about Fawcett”:
1) Fawcett and the writer Ayn Rand shared a birthday, February 2.

2) Rand, the inventor of the philosophical system called Objectivism, never missed an episode of Charlie’s Angels. She was such a Fawcett fan, in fact, that she sought to cast the actress as the lead in a planned TV miniseries version of her best-known work, the gargantuan novel Atlas Shrugged. (NBC later scrapped the project).

3) Rand, perhaps better than anyone else, helped Fawcett understand her place in American culture.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Holden Losing His Hold?

We have been keeping track on this page (see here, here, and here) of efforts to publish 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, a takeoff on J.D. Salinger’s best-selling novel, Catcher in the Rye. But as The New York Times observes, Salinger’s teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield, “may have bigger problems than the insults of irreverent parodists and other ‘phonies,’ as Holden would put it.” Writes Jennifer Schuessler:
Even as Mr. Salinger, who is 90 and in ailing health, seeks to keep control of his most famous creation, there are signs that Holden may be losing his grip on the kids.

“The Catcher in the Rye,” published in 1951, is still a staple of the high school curriculum, beloved by many teachers who read and reread it in their own youth. The trouble is today’s teenagers. Teachers say young readers just don’t like Holden as much as they used to. What once seemed like courageous truth-telling now strikes many of them as “weird,” “whiny” and “immature.”

The alienated teenager has lost much of his novelty, said Ariel Levenson, an English teacher at the Dalton School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Holden’s home turf. She added that even the students who liked the book tend to find the language--“phony,” “her hands were lousy with rocks,” the relentless “goddams”--grating and dated.

“Holden Caulfield is supposed to be this paradigmatic teenager we can all relate to, but we don’t really speak this way or talk about these things,” Ms. Levenson said, summarizing a typical response. At the public charter school where she used to teach, she said, “I had a lot of students comment, ‘I can’t really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City.’ ”
The full Times article can be found here.

READ MORE:Oh, Holden. Life Is Still So Hard for You,”
by John Green.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: A Short History of Women
by Kate Walbert

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, Diane Leach looks at A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. Says Leach:
Dorothy Trevor Townsend is starving herself to death. Her cause is not anorexia, but suffrage. The year is 1914, and though a war is on, the brilliant Townsend is doing her best to make a statement, to be heard of above the horrible din of war. She is willing to die for her cause, heedless of her children, Evelyn and Thomas, of her lover, William Crawford, of her mother, who will be stuck with her orphaned children. Dorothy dies for her cause, and is immortalized on a commerative postage stamp, a burden or honorific to be borne by her descendants.

Author Kate Walbert has created an interleaved narrative of five generations of Townsend women, moving across time from England to San Francisco to New York City. In each era another Townsend finds herself fighting for her place among men.
The full review is here.

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New in Paperback: Close by Martina Cole

It seems to me that there is almost no chance that North American readers will cotton to Close (Grand Central), UK megaseller Martina Cole’s official U.S. debut. It’s not that Close is bad. In fact, it isn’t. It’s just very, very different.

On this side of the pond, we are used to a certain amount of polish and finish. If we encounter a run-on sentence or a dropped semicolon, we head to a writing forum and bemoan the fact that editors no longer edit. We have a certain -- I’ll just say it -- expectation of gloss. It was one of the things that struck me last year about the much ballyhooed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I remember thinking that book would never have been published in the United States as it was. There were raw edges, sometimes odd jumps. The book was artful -- late author Stieg Larsson was a journalist, after all. But I think a lot of what was good and raw about that book would have been sanded away if it had been published first in the United States.

Now, don’t misunderstand: this is absolutely not meant to be a comparison of the work of Larsson and Cole. In fact, I feel safe in saying there is no planet on which these two should be considered comparable books. Neither of them are American books, certainly. But in very different ways. In fact, were I to compare Cole’s work in Close with anyone at all it would be the films of Guy Ritchie. I wouldn’t even be surprised if someone were to tell me that Ritchie is a fan of Cole’s and admires her work. There is the same sort of breathless abandon in Close that there is in, say, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. The same sort of gritty hyper-reality. The England of both Ritchie and Cole has less in common with Austen and Eliot than it does with -- just say -- the moon. Inhale deeply on a summer Saturday evening and you will not smell the English countryside. No flowers, no forest, nothing growing at all. Instead you’ll get the slightly rancid hit from the dodgy chip shop down the way and the pong of the cheap perfume worn by the scantily clad young tarts who are still desperately trying to meet the young men who will ruin their lives.

For both Ritchie and Cole, the London underworld is culture as well as community. Sure, there are cops... somewhere. But, mostly, law enforcement doesn’t figure in: more occasional nuisance -- and perhaps plot device -- than any real threat.

On-screen, however, the lack of cohesion in a Ritchie film comes off as artful, whereas in Close, it sometimes just seems like a mess. I spent a lot of time going backwards, especially at first, before I caught Cole’s rhythm. She jumps us ruthlessly and relentlessly from scene to scene. Quite often the jumps seem pointless. There is no sense of bringing readers carefully to one place so they can then savor the next. Rather, you feel as though Cole simply had enough talking about that bit, and wanted to move onto something else.

Cole is not a writer’s writer. There is little craftsmanship in what she does here and in some ways, that isn’t a criticism. As she moves us through the misspent lives and careers of the Brodie family and those whose lives touch theirs, she spends more time belaboring the contents of their skulls than she ever does the exciting ways in which those contents are sometimes released. If you’ve ever heard that writers should show a thing, not tell it, and you wanted to know exactly what was meant, read Close: I’ve never been told so much all in one go.

All of that said, one never doubts that Cole knows her stuff and, for whatever reason, she seems to understand this world. More importantly for the reader: despite all the things she does “wrong,” Close is a very tough book to put down. Cole is, after all, one of the United Kingdom’s top-selling authors and all 15 of her books to date have been bestsellers. A television adaptation of an earlier novel, The Take, made headlines in the UK earlier this month. With that kind of success, it’s clear Cole is doing something right. I’m just not sure North American audiences will be able to see past Cole’s ham-fisted prose in order to glean what those things are.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

New This Month: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton is, first and foremost, a philosopher. Just a few months shy of his 40th birthday, de Botton is perhaps one of the most important philosophers alive today. Arguably, of course. But then, that’s part of the point of philosophy, is it not? Everything we see isn’t always what it seems and where we look is not necessarily where what is searched for will be found. Things like that. Philosophy is intended to help us not only answer questions, but -- perhaps more importantly -- to help us work up the right answers. It’s a field that is too often ignored or overlooked in our busy world.

Case in point: the word “philosophy” comes up not once in de Botton’s bio for his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. He’s called “a bestselling author.” This is, of course, not inaccurate: de Botton’s books sell very, very well. But it is interesting that the word at the core of his work -- the word that drives it, if you will -- has been, as much as possible, struck from conversations about his writing. This can’t be unintentional. For some reason I still can’t comprehend, the word “philosophy” strikes terror into the hearts of many people. And it should not, which is why I belabor it here. Once again. (The first time I did so in this space was in a review of an earlier de Botton work, The Consolations of Philosophy, way back in 2000.)

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is another enjoyable foray into serious thought with a witty, knowledgeable and considerate guide. As much as anything, de Botton is a keen and practiced observer and through his eyes we see what is delightful and horrible and defeating and satisfying about how we put bread on our tables.

More than any of his previous books, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is as much art project as powerful social statement. In many ways, it is a deeply personal book, one that I suspect will be interpreted differently -- personally -- by each reader. As he journeys, de Botton asks and leads us to answer: why do we work? What makes work joyous? Is it meaningful? In the larger picture for our planet, is work worth it?

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Excerpt: Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton

Horse Soldiers (Scribner) is the dramatic account of a small band of Special Forces soldiers who secretly entered Afghanistan following 9/11 and rode to war on horses against the Taliban:
Trouble came in the night, riding out of the dust and the darkness. Trouble rolled past the refugee camp, past the tattered tents shuddering in the moonlight, the lone cry of a baby driving high into the sky, like a nail. Sunrise was no better; at sunrise, trouble was still there, bristling with AKs and RPGs, engines idling, waiting to roll into the city. Waiting.

These were the baddest of the bad, the real masters of mayhem, the death dealers with God stamped firmly in their minds. The city groaned and shook to life. Soon everyone knew trouble had arrived at the gates of the city.
Read the full excerpt here.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cookbooks: Dad’s Awesome Grilling Book by Bob Sloan

Why has our culture seemingly gone out of its way to link cooking outdoors over flaming coals with men? When looked at very carefully what, truly, does one have to do with the other? Something primal, perhaps? Something hunter to a woman’s gatherer? In his reasonably impressive new Dad’s Awesome Grilling Book (Chronicle Books) award-winning food writer Bob Sloan tries to sum things up.
Like so many Dads, I love to grill. Perhaps it’s being so close to the fire that harkens back to an earlier, simpler time -- before, say, income tax or Jerry Springer. The grill is, after all, just a man, a pair of tongs, and heat.
What could be simpler? And Dad’s Awesome Grilling Book is simple but it’s also, in some ways, quite beyond simple. Do you really think, for instance, you can dismiss “Lamb Picadillo,” “Scallops & Prosciutto on Rosemary Skewers” or “Grilled Halibut Reggio Emilia Style” as simple? They might be easy, but we’re several layers beyond grilled weenies and reheated beans.

The recipes here are uniformly terrific: well-planned, creative, original and -- based on both tests and observations -- all quite do-able. Sloan’s descriptions of the grilling experience is lucid and recommendations on necessary equipment and “must-have” materials are right on target.

Dad’s Awesome Grilling Book joins a very long line of excellent outdoor cooking books, including 2008’s excellent Patio Daddy-O at the Grill and Weber’s Way to Grill, which I talked about in this space a few weeks ago.

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Biography: We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals by Gillian Gill

When a biography is very good and is also big and muscular, it’s common to compare the book to a novel. And what makes such a comparison valid? Certainly not -- or hopefully not -- a strong element of fabrication. Rather, how the book impacts the reader draws compare. A very good biography -- well researched, written with passion and competence, on a subject worthy of close examination -- will sweep the reader away. Take him or her to the special place in the imagination that good books inhabit. The characters -- or in the case of biography, the subject -- seem emotionally to leap off the page. They become real.

If, in fact, this is what is necessary for a biography to be crooned over as novel-like, then We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals (Ballantine Books) will be. Author Gillian Gill is that rarest of combinations: an academic (she’s taught at Northeastern, Wellesley, Yale and Harvard) who knows just how to spin a tale. She demonstrated same with earlier biographies of Florence Nightingale, Agatha Christie and Mary Baker Eddy. In We Too she tells the complicated story of one history’s most important and complicated royal couples: Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort, Albert.

Gill reveals a relationship much more complex than has popularly been thought. A passionate marriage, but one fraught with power struggles as well as a family trying to find its way through the confounding corridors of a life lived on center stage.

“At a distance,” Gill writes, “Queen Victoria and Prince Albert can look like charming tapestry figures, unicorns among flowering meadows, irrelevant to our modern world. But if we listen to their voices up close, we find to our surprise a forerunner of today’s power couple -- a husband and wife, each with a different personal agenda, but lovers as well as partners in a great enterprise, both leading meticulously scheduled, constantly monitored, minutely recorded, and carefully screened lives.”

Gill brings us their voices. It’s impossible to imagine a better biography of this deeply interesting and historically important pair or a more vivid picture of the times in which they lived.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Fiction: Fishing for Bacon by Michael Davie

I’m beginning to think that 2009 might well be remembered as the year that potential Canadian YA masterworks got lost in the waterfall of mainstream fiction.

First there was Alan Bradley’s lively but clearly juvenile The Sweetness of the Bottom the Pie (Doubleday Canada). Now comes Calgarian Michael Davies’ cheerfully abrupt Fishing for Bacon (Newest Press). The book features fresh-from-high school lost youth, Bacon Sobelowski who claims, almost from the very first, that he has bad timing. He gets stuck with the name “Bacon” during his birth, when his mother can think of nothing but her breakfast.
Afterward, when a nurse informed my mother that I was a boy, she curled around her pillow and sighed, “Bacon.” When the nurse asked her if she had a name for Baby Boy Sobelowski, my mother starred at the cold, grey wall and sniveled, “Bacon.”
The writing is crisp and sharp and though the story is somewhat thin, so is the book. While some of the theme’s are clearly adult, Bacon’s youthful verve would have been much tougher to resist in a slightly refocused package.

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Fast Takes…

Here are some of the things we’ve been microblogging about over the last week or so.

• Today is Salman Rushdie’s birthday. Here’s the interview we did with him back in 2002. An interesting side note: January art director, David Middleton, did a photo shoot with Rushdie with predictably smashing results. And one of the unexpected results: Middleton’s Rushdie images continue to be among the top stolen from January’s pages since the piece was initially published. Other favorites: Middleton’s portraits of Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, The Given Day) and überchef Emeril Lagasse.

• RIP poet David Bromige (via @globebooks )

• From Gawker: Che’s Granddaughter Just Like Che: Naked, Covered in Produce

Unreality Magazine brings us the 10 most polarizing movies of the past decade. (via Largehearted Boy.)

• Does language shape our thinking? (Maybe yes. Maybe no.)

• Stuart Woods in named new editor of Quill & Quire. (Bookishly awesome.)

The Times Online talks about how Stephen King’s inner demons have shaped his writing career.

• NPR on the Dictionary of Regional English and the fact that Art Creation is Up and Attendance Down. (Implications are vast, when you think about it.)

National Geographic on what “Persian” means to Iranians.

LifeDev looks at eight ways that reading makes you better at life.

• And is it getting to be 3-Day Novel writing time again already? Well, time to think about it, anyway. (If thinking about it is what you’re planning.)


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Art & Culture: The Artist’s Mother, introduction by Judith Thurman

Like exhibitions loosely grouped around a theme, books with a themed core seem to come in one of two categories. They’re either lame excuses to connect that which probably shouldn’t have been connected in the first place, or wonderful triumphs that have us looking at the topic in a new way.

In almost every regard, The Artist’s Mother (Overlook) falls into the latter camp. “Maternal love takes many forms,” author and journalist Judith Thurman writes in her introduction, “not all of them benign, but one of the most essential is to provide an experience of attunement.”

We don’t experience that attunement in all of the work collected here, but one does get a glimmer of what Thurman means as well, in some cases, the connections some painters maintain with where they’ve been as well as how they’re getting where they’re going.

The book opens on a fantastic portrait of Albrecht Dürer’s mother, Barbara. Painted when the artist was just 19, it is a masterwork that clearly lays the groundwork for the genius still being developed. For a later glimpse of that genius, a charcoal sketch of Dürer’s mother done just months before her death captures the woman as she was, not idealized as was dictated by the fashions of the time. Both works are remarkable, but it’s terrific to see them almost side-by-side.

Delivered chronologically, the book ends on Andy Warhol’s 1974 portrait of his mother, Julia Warhola. In between is a history of art in maternal form: John Constable, Rossetti, Paul Cézanne, Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo and that most famous mother-painter of all James Abbott MacNeill Whistler whose “Portrait in Gray and Black” has come to be known as “Whistler’s Mother.”

The Artist’s Mother is a wonderful short course in art history as well a terrific tribute to one of humankind’s most lasting bond.

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Doctorow’s Little Brother Optioned for film

Author Cory Doctorow has announced that his vastly entertaining young adult novel Little Brother (Tor Teen) has been optioned for film.

Early this morning, Doctorow blogged that “Don Murphy, producer of such films as Natural Born Killers and From Hell, has bought a film option on Little Brother. I’ve talked it over with Don and feel confident that if he makes the movie that he’ll do it justice -- I’m guaranteed a spot as a consultant to ensure that it all comes out right, too!”

Little Brother was among January Magazine’s picks for best children’s book of 2008. Here’s what January contributing editor Iain Emsley said about the book at that time:
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is a timely book which teases out the implications of the war on terror and comes in a year which Neal Shusterman’s Unwind was published in the United Kingdom. Both novels challenge us to ask “what type of world are we now living in?” Doctorow asks us to continue questioning the underlying logic of the post 9/11 world which has been presented to us. Marcus, a teen hacker, is caught up by the security services in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. His treatment leads him to start using technology to subvert the increasingly authoritarian environment and to link together with his friends and acquaintances. It is a call to arms but it does consider the implications of technology in a social context rather than just seeing it as a panacea. It is quite possibly his most thought-provoking novel to date.

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Non-Fiction: Squirrels of North America by Tamara Eder

At first blush, Squirrels of North America (Lone Pine) sounds almost ridiculously esoteric. Squirrels. In North America. Super specific and about a topic that -- let’s face it -- most of us give little thought. (ie: squirrels.) However, not long after my initial scoff, I spent an enchanted hour or so lost in the pages of what is essentially a field guide. That fascination is understandable and to be encouraged, especially in the young. As author Tamara Eder points out, for most of us, there is not a lot of nature that can be observed right in your own backyard:
In this time when most wildlife in North America is confined to national parks and protected areas, we often overlook the wildness in our own backyards. Few animals have adapted to human urbanization, and of those that have, almost none are mammals.
And then there are squirrels.
The squirrels’ ability to thrive in our urban domain might be the reason that many people disregard and even disdain squirrels. If you look more closely at these fellow mammals, however, you will discover extremely sociable and familiar creatures.
And look closely Eder does. Sixty-six species are grouped and color-coded, regions indicated, weight and general appearance noted. Illustrations include points to look for when making identifications. (Especially important with some of the chipmunk types, which seem very alike until the details are pointed out.

A charming and well-executed book, Squirrels of North America is sure to please the amateur naturalist in your life.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

U.S. Publication of Holden Caulfield-ish Novel Delayed

It seems to me that, even if the American publication of 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye by “J.D. California” is delayed forever, the free publicity this book has gotten will sell a lot of copies around the world.

Today, another chapter was added to the ongoing saga. From The New York Times’ blog:
The judge, Deborah A. Batts, said a new book that contains a 76-year-old version of Caulfield cannot be published in the United States for 10 days while she weighs a copyright infringement case filed by lawyers for Mr. Salinger. The lawyers contend that the new book, published in Britain, was too derivative and that Mr. Salinger’s most well-known character was protected by copyright.
Clearly, the story is not over yet. But for one impossibly tiny Swedish publisher the outcome probably doesn’t matter very much: internationally, this windup bird is gonna have wings.

We’ve been covering this story for the last few months. See previous pieces here and here.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Rowling’s Originality Under Question Again

I don’t even want to think about the possibility that J.K. Rowling ripped off the work of another author in creating her beloved and top selling Harry Potter series of books. However, since everyone else is thinking about it, I don’t have to. Here are some of those links: The New York Times, Coventry Telegraph, E! Online, CBC, Sky News, Entertainment Weekly and The Daily Mail who go to the trouble of encapsulating the whole mess:

JK Rowling and her publisher are being sued for £500million for allegedly copying Harry Potter from an earlier children's book, also by an English writer.

Adrian Jacobs's book Willy The Wizard -- also about a child discovering he has magical powers - was published in 1987, ten years before the first in the Harry Potter series and three years before Miss Rowling says she came up with her idea.


Trillium Prize Winners Named

The $20,000 Trillium Prize has been awarded to Pasha Malla for his debut collection, The Withdrawal Method (House of Anansi). “It’s awesome,” Malla told The National Post, “it’s just weird. I [feel] completely bewildered by it.”

Pasha wins in a very tough field that included Kevin Connolly (Revolver), Helen Humphreys (Coventry), Ibi Kaslik (The Angel Riots), Nino Ricci (The Origin of Species) and Charles Wilkins (In The Lane of Long Fingernails).

Never a shrinking violet, Malla was enthusiast when he spoke with The Post. “To me, $20,000 -- you win more money on The Price is Right than that. But to me it just seems like a fucking fortune.”

The Trillium Book Award/Prix Trillium was awarded in four categories:
Trillium Book Award in English-language
Pasha Malla, The Withdrawal Method (House of Anansi Press)

Trillium Book Award in French-language
Marguerite Andersen, Le figuier sur le toit (Les Editions L'Interligne)

Trillium Book Award for Poetry
Jeramy Dodds, Crabwise to the Hounds (Coach House Books)

Trillium Book Award for Children’s Literature
Paul Prud'Homme, Les Rebuts : Hockey 2 (Les Editions du Vermillon)


Happy Bloomsday!

Bloomsday is celebrated each year on June 16th in honor of James Joyce and his novel Ulysses.

The name comes from Ulysses’ central character, Leopold Bloom, though the date actually commemorates the very first romantic date shared by Joyce and his future wife, Nora Barnacle. The year was 1904 and the couple walked to the Dublin village of Ringsend. Though the relationship would be fraught with ups and downs, in 2004 Sotheby’s sold an erotic letter from the writer to his lady for £240,800.

Bloomsday is most enthusiastically celebrated in Dublin, however Joyce aficionados can find Bloomsday activities around the world.

In Dublin, start at the James Joyce Centre at 35 North Great Georges Street, the hub of all things Joycean. Among other things, the Centre’s Web site rounds up Bloomsday activities from Paris to Poland and from Broadway to Brazil. Look for walking and talking events, rallies and even entire literary festivals dedicated to the life and works of this most celebrated Irish writer.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Biography: Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns

Appearances can be deceiving. For example, it is easy to look at Lowside of the Road (Broadway), veteran music writer Barney Hoskyns’ biography of music icon Tom Waits, and be impressed by the apparent breadth and depth of the work: it’s a big, fat book. However, once you delve in deeply, it becomes obvious that Hoskyns is stretching some very excellent material mighty thin. And that’s a shame because, while Hoskyns clearly has both the talent and the passion to write the definitive biography on this subject, Lowside of the Road isn’t it. And why? Because not only did Waits himself not cooperate, he instructed everyone he knew not to, as well.

Even so, Hoskyns does a credible job with what he does have: some really excellent interviews with both Waits and some of the people close to him, done, however, before work began on this biography. Hoskyns uses these along with some good old-fashioned footwork plus the view from his own not inconsiderable experience in the music industry to craft a very informative and informed view of the notoriously private Waits.

Does Lowside of the Road lack some of the depth a sanctioned biography would have had? I think so. But, in the end, this is currently as good as it gets. Want something closer to the artist himself? For that you’ll just have to wait.

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Plum Outrageous

Fifteen books into her extraordinarily successful Stephanie Plum series, Janet Evanovich answers ten questions from her fans via the new issue of Time magazine.

Among other things, Evanovich responds to questions about the ongoing quality of the series, whether or not fans can anticipate a Plum movie any time soon and if she’s planning on ending the series. Interestingly enough, she’s not, if for no other reason than even the author can’t decide between those two hot guys.

“You know,” Evanovich tells Time, “I wake up some days and think Stephanie should go off into the sunset with Joe Morelli and have babies, and then I wake up the next day, and I’m like, Oh, no, she’s gotta go with Ranger. I don’t see myself ending it anytime soon, just because I’m having a lot of fun with it.”

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen (St. Martin’s Press) goes on sale June 23rd.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

New This Week: Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

If you love SF/F and have not yet encountered Brandon Sanderson, you can forgive yourself: the whole thing has happened pretty quickly. That said, don’t stick your head in the sand on this one. He may be relatively new, but expect him to be around for a while.

Sanderson is a writer with talent, vision and chutzpah, a combination that put him into awards line-ups and bestseller lists almost from before the first moment. This because Sanderson was hand-picked to write the conclusion to Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series after Jordan’s death in 2007. Being heir apparent to one of the genre’s most legendary writers did nothing to detract from Sanderson’s reputation, but when you read his work, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have gotten there on his own. He is a writer that not only can write, but does. He’s so good, he makes it look effortless, to the point where Warbreaker (Tor) was more or less written online. Sanderson explains on his Web site:
And so, I did something crazy. I went to Tor and asked if they'd be okay with me posting the entire version of Warbreaker AS I WROTE IT. Meaning, rough drafts. The early, early stuff which is filled with problems and errors. They thought I was crazy too (my agent STILL thinks this project is a bad move) but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do something that would involve and reward my readers. For those who are aspiring novelists, I wanted to show an early version of my work so they could follow its editing and progress. For those who are looking to try out my novels, I wanted to offer a free download.
And that’s just what he did. The book published this month is much more than an intact testament to Sanderson’s great online experiment, it is a book that grows out of this author’s involvement with his community. Not a bad starting point at all.

The book itself is... well, it’s wonderful. Sanderson is one of those world-building authors who replies heavily on strong characterization to convince readers of the viability of the environments he creates. This is not a technique that can work for writers who are short on either skill or imagination and Sanderson has lots of both.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

New This Month: The French Gardener Santa Montefiore

As I sniffled and sighed my way through The French Gardener (Touchstone Fireside), I longed for the beach. It’s just the sort of book that begs a quiet cottage on a rainy day, or a languid one on sand and under an umbrella.

The French Gardener has it all: an attractive mysterious Frenchman -- named Jean-Paul, of course -- arrives to repair both a garden and a damaged family. It’s not just romance, but also family drama traditionally done so well by fellow Brit Rosalind Pilcher, with whom Montefiore is often compared.

“Posh tosh,” said The Mirror when The French Gardener was published in the United Kingdom early in 2008, “but oddly gripping.” Just the thing to gnaw away at while under that umbrella.

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Top Ten Graphic Novels: A List in the Making

If you love graphic novels, chances are you’ve debated -- alone or with friends -- on what’s at the top of the list in the genre. Or, further still, what are the top ten graphic novels of all time?

All through June CBCs Canada Reads program celebrates the graphic novel with interviews, a look at how graphic novels can progress to film and -- a CBC favorite -- a month-long run at putting together a list of the top ten graphic novels of all time. Since, arguably, the form has been around for over 100 years, respondents will have their work cut out for them. You can follow the action here.

100 years? Editor’s note: I did say arguably, did I not? For instance, one could argue that the dark and skilled Max and Moritz, first published in Germany in 1865, was a graphic novel.

And in 2007, January Magazine contributing editor Lincoln Cho reviewed then-new Graphic Witness (Firefly), a stunning collection of four graphic novellas of a historical nature. You can see that review here.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Book Burning Alternative Will Be Considered by Court

When a Milwaukee-area’s demands that Francesca Lia Block’s 1995 young adult novel Baby Be-Bop (HarperCollins) be removed from local libraries was refused, the group decided to try another approach. From American Libraries:
Milwaukee-area citizen Robert C. Braun of the Christian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU) distributed at the meeting copies of a claim for damages he and three other plaintiffs filed April 28 with the city; the complainants seek the right to publicly burn or destroy by another means the library’s copy of Baby Be-Bop. The claim also demands $120,000 in compensatory damages ($30,000 per plaintiff) for being exposed to the book in a library display, and the resignation of West Bend Mayor Kristine Deiss for “allow[ing] this book to be viewed by the public.”

In her 1995 review for Booklist, Frances Bradburn said, “Librarians who are daring -- and caring -- enough to include this evocative, skillfully wrought, and sometimes surrealistic novel in their YA collections will help teenagers begin their adult journey toward love and the realization that, as Dirk’s great-grandmother Gazelle says, ‘Any love that is love is right.’”

Back in Wisconsin, both sides seem to be settling in for a trench war:
For the immediate future, West Bend officials will be dealing with the CCLU’s legal claim. Describing the YA novel by celebrated author Francesca Lia Block as “explicitly vulgar, racial, and anti-Christian,” the complaint by Braun, Joseph Kogelmann, Rev. Cleveland Eden, and Robert Brough explains that “the plaintiffs, all of whom are elderly, claim their mental and emotional well-being was damaged by this book at the library,” specifically because Baby Be-Bop contains the “n” word and derogatory sexual and political epithets that can incite violence and “put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.”

As always, January Magazine urges you to protest book-banning activities by reading a banned book.


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Children’s Books: The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks

Catherine Jinks is one of the most versatile writers I know of. Historical fiction, SF, fantasy, thriller, ghost stories, children’s, YA, adult -- there are very genres she hasn’t set her pen to at one time or another.

In The Reformed Vampire Support Group, she visits the vampire story, although I suspect this is not the kind of novel that would be relished by all the girls at my school who are devouring the Twilight series. If anything, this sends up the vampire tale.

Catherine Jinks asks her readers to think -- really think -- about what being a vampire might involve, especially in modern Sydney. You can’t eat anything you used to enjoy. You’re unlikely to be able to drive, unless you got your licence before you were turned. If you were elderly, like Bridget, a former nun who was turned at the age of 80, you’ll have arthritis and other aches and pains involved with being elderly forever. You still have to make a living, but you can’t do a normal job. Not if you turned in 1908, anyway. Nina, the narrator, who died in the 1970s, writes adventure novels with a feisty vampire heroine. But Nina was turned at 15, which means she will be a teenager forever, with all the problems this involves.

These vampires don’t live in crypts, though they do have weekly group therapy sessions at the local Catholic church. This means they have to find homes with blackout facilities. And they have nothing to do all night but watch dull television shows.

Fortunately one of them has discovered a way to avoid fanging humans, which they really don’t want to do, as biting humans always turns them and the last thing they need is a planetful of vampires.

But someone has killed a vampire. They have to find out who it is and persuade them not to do it again. Trouble is, there’s more to it than vampire killers.

The Reformed Vampire Support Group has a lot of fun with the vampire genre, especially right now when everyone and his dog is publishing it. All I can say is that the authors of the Deadly Serious vampire tales deserve everything they get in this deliciously funny novel.

Catherine Jinks triumphs again!

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Author Snapshot: Denise Dietz

You don’t see her without a smile. That’s not a surprise. People who have read her books suspect that the author, too, will be humor-filled, that she will be wicked smart and that the smallest of her comments will drip with a good-humored wit. In person, Denise Dietz, author of the Ellie Bernstein Diet Club mysteries is all of these things, and more.

Though Strangle A Loaf of Italian Bread (Five Star) is Dietz’s 14th novel, it is the fourth to feature diet club leader Ellie Bernstein who has replaced her eating habit with one for solving mysteries.

“Denise Dietz is like Robert B. Parker on estrogen,” author Marshall Karp has written. “Her heroine, diet guru Ellie Bernstein, is fiendishly clever, blatantly sexy, and uproariously funny. Trust me, ladies, this is not your maiden auntie’s murder mystery.”

Dietz lives on Vancouver Island off Canada’s westernmost coast with her husband, novelist Gordon Aalborg. Like most of Dietz’s work, her current novel in progress sounds deliciously funny. Called Gypsy Rose Lieberman, the books stars “a Vaudeville ghost who was -- oops! -- sawed in half by her magician husband.”

Dietz’s fans are likely already laughing in anticipation.

A Snapshot of... Denise Dietz
Most recent book: Strangle A Loaf of Italian Bread (Five Star)
Born: Manhattan, New York
Resides: Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Birthday: January 29
Web site: www.denisedietz.com

What’s your favorite city?
Colorado Springs, Colorado. I chose to live in Colorado, inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which I “borrowed” from my mom’s bookshelf when I was a kid. I don’t agree with Rand’s ideology, but she’s one heck of a wordsmith!

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
Only six hours? Inhale and absorb the scenery, especially Garden of the Gods, say hi to the librarians at the Penrose Library, and browse my favorite thrift/consignment shops.

What food do you love?
A perfect meal would be raw oysters, prawns and lobster, and New York cheesecake.

What food have you vowed never to touch again?
Cottage cheese.

What’s on your nightstand?
Potpourri. I’m rarely sick, knock on wood, but when I get the flu, my nightstand holds a copy of Stephen King’s The Stand. When I read The Stand I feel much better.

What inspires you?
Change the question to “who” and my answer is readers. I once had a long wait at the DFW airport and started chatting with a young woman. When I told her I was an author, she said, “Have I ever heard of you?” Exhausted, I merely said, “I doubt it.” She wanted to know my name. I said “Denise Dietz” and she said, “OMG, Beat Up a Cookie! I loved that book! My dad loved it, too.” That happened more than 10 years ago and it still inspires me. Another, more recent inspiration is Susan Boyle.

What are you working on now?
Gypsy Rose Lieberman, starring a Vaudeville ghost who was -- oops! -- sawed in half by her magician husband. I’m also writing the second book in my Sydney St. Charles apothecary series. Title: Toe of Frog. Working title: “The Da Vinci Toad.”

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
A huge, framed poster of Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, a photo of my husband, novelist Gordon Aalborg (Dining with Devils), and a stuffed “deadline” vulture named Michael Seidman.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I wrote a story for my high school magazine called “Is the Bronx Zoo in Brooklyn?” and it made everyone laugh. That was cool. In my second story, “Red Corduroy,” I killed a dog. Everyone wept buckets, including me, but I’d never kill a dog, or a cat, today, I swear, Girl Scout’s honor, cross my heart...

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
I can’t imagine not writing books, but I suppose I’d be looking for singing gigs. In my next life I want to be a stand-up comedian. Or the first woman to win racing’s Triple Crown.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
Seeing my first published book -- Throw Darts at a Cheesecake -- in the library. It was shelved with the new books. I ran up and down the aisles and shouted, “Come! Come! Come!” over and over. Several people followed me and when I reached the shelf, I pointed to the book and said, “Me! Me! Me!”

For you, what is the easiest thing about being a writer?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t find writing easy. It’s gobsmackingly gratifying -- especially when you hit page 170 and realize there was a good reason for the three wonky paragraphs you wrote on page 30 -- but it takes an incredible amount of self-discipline. That’s why, when people say “Someday I’m gonna write a book,” I try to stifle my snort.

What’s the most difficult?
Waiting for reviews! You send your “baby” out into the world and hope someone doesn’t say, “What an ugly baby!” I’ve been lucky with starred reviews for The Landlord’s Black-Eyed Daughter (written as Mary Ellen Dennis) and rave reviews for Footprints in the Butter and Fifty Cents for Your Soul. However, I’ll always remember a lazy reviewer who, obviously, hadn’t read my book. She compared me to Diane Mott Davidson: Colorado locale, 40-ish sleuth, food title, and then wrote: “So I suggest you buy a Diane Mott Davidson book, instead.” Diane is a fellow Coloradoan and a friend, but our “voices” are very different. Before I could vent my ire, I discovered that my sales had spiked. It seems the only thing people remembered was the comparison to Diane.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
It’s a toss-up between “How long does it take you to write a book?” and “Have I ever heard of you?”

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
“Would you be our Toastmistress at Left Coast Crime (or Bouchercon or Malice)?”

What question would you like never to be asked again?
“My life would make a great book, will you write it?” To that end, an attorney once asked me to ghost-write his John Grisham rip-off. He offered me 50 per cent of his royalties.

Please tell us about Strangle a Loaf of Italian Bread.
The title is from a quote by the late, great Gilda Radner. She said: “Eating is self-punishment; punish the food instead. Strangle a loaf of Italian bread. Throw darts at a cheesecake. Chain a lamb chop to the bed. Beat up a cookie.”

Sara Lee, a waitress at Uncle Vinnie’s Gourmet Italian Restaurant, plans to try out for the John Denver Community Theatre’s production of Hello, Dolly! Before she can, she’s strangled with a Daffy Duck necktie and trashed in her restaurant’s Dumpster.

Diet club leader and mystery maven Ellie Bernstein wants to know why everybody didn’t like Sara Lee. At the same time, Ellie -- who has never owned a dog -- is dog-sitting a diet club member’s Border collie and coping with her cat, Jackie Robinson’s reaction to the canine guest. Then Ellie discovers that the dog’s owner has disappeared into thin air.

Eventually, Ellie’s search for Sara Lee’s killer lands her at the Hello, Dolly! auditions. Only problem is, Ellie can’t sing or dance.

This is the fourth book in the series but, like all of my books, it stands alone.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
My life is an open book (hee!) But very few people know that I sang on a cruse ship with a British rock and roll band. Our most popular song was “Happy Anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Abramowitz...”

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Library Industry Anticipates Record-Breaking Conference

The library industry is gearing up for the 2009 ALA convention, this year to be held in Chicago on July 9th through the 15th. This year’s conference is anticipated to be a record-breaker. From Library Journal (who is definitely in a position to know about such things):
There is joy among those who have the funds to go to Chicago for the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference, July 9–15. Every librarian knows there is nothing better than a Chicago gathering, with the city's wonderful haunts, museums, restaurants, and fine memories of past conferences. Despite the economy, and maybe because of early signs of recovery, we expect record-breaking attendance.
Library Journal
also offers up their annual “Picks and Pans” for the conference as well as a very solid guide for every of this important date on the library calendar. LJ’s coverage is here. The ALA conference Web site is here.


Now in Paperback: Keep Going: The Art of Perseverance by Joseph Marshall III

Since it was first published in hardcover in 2006, Keep Going: The Art of Perseverance (Sterling Ethos) by Joseph Marshall III has touched many people and, if the stories are to be believed, altered many lives. That being the case, it’s good to see it turn up now in a tiny and elegant paperback volume.

Marshall is the whole package: a historian, educator, motivational speaker and Lakota storyteller. All of these things come into play in Keep Going, a book so slender it could fit into the inside breast pocket of a good suit jacket, yet is so packed with storytelling punch, aspects of this message might stay with you forever.

On first reading, I was put in mind of that 1970s sensation, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It offers the same winning combination of wisdom and innocence, a sort of knowing unknowing that compels the reader on. Nor does the reader need to be compelled far: just 130 pages in a small format paperback, it’s not beyond thought that Keep Going could be finished in a single sitting. I’m not totally sure why you’d want to do that, though. This is a book that’s about enlightenment, knowledge and strength, all concepts best savored, not inhaled.

Marshall is the author of The Lakota Way and The Journey of Crazy Horse, among other books. His written voice has a soothing quality. I anticipate revisiting Keep Going many times in the future.

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Review: Liars Anonymous by Louise Ure

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Jim Winter reviews Liars Anonymous by Louise Ure. Says Winter:
“I got away with murder once, but it looks like that’s not going to happen again.”

That is how Jessie Dancing begins the tale of her former life coming back to haunt her in Liars Anonymous. Jessie works for HandsOn, an OnStar-type service for motorists in distress. The trouble begins when real-estate developer Darren Markson is involved in a collision out in the Arizona desert, and Jessie fields his call. At first, it seems like nothing, a late-night accident; but then Jessie hears sounds of fighting over the phone. By morning, Markson is reported missing, and Jessie is summoned from Phoenix to go to Tucson, where she’s to talk with police and meet Markson’s wife, Emily.

Tucson is the worst place for Jessie to go. It’s been three years since she stood trial there for the murder of abusive Walter Racine, only to be acquitted of the crime. She has since changed her name, her look and her life. But her mother has shunned her from their family’s life. Only Detective Deke Treadwell of the Tucson PD and Jessie’s father believe she’s innocent.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Children’s Books: Nibbling on Einstein’s Brain by Diane Swanson

Nibbling on Einstein’s Brain (Annick Press) is a newly revised edition of a book that was initially published in 2001. This new edition is more-ish in every way: it’s longer, brighter and better realized, intended to provide children with a gentle foundation for scientific learning.

In a way, the book is based on the idea that a little science can take you quite a distance, especially when it comes to dispelling the myths that bad science spread around.

Nibbling on Einstein’s Brain is really quite good. Where non-fiction books aimed at this age group can be overly simplistic and facile, Swanson is expert at sharing information in a fashion that is both lucid and interesting. And, truth be told, she should be good at it: she’s over 70 books into a career of doing just that!

Subtitled The Good, The Bad and the Bogus in Science, Nibbling on Einstein’s Brain is the perfect primer to the way science works in our lives and the various roles it can play. In some ways, the book does even more than that: touching at times on ideas that are quite philosophical in nature, at others sharing skills crucial to critical thinking. Nibbling on Einstein’s Brain is a whimsically illustrated treasure trove of learning for young minds.

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Life Too Short, Novels Too Long

Seemingly inspired by the fact that John Sayles was having a problem finding a publisher for his latest novel, Jean Hannah Edelstein used the news to frame a piece for The Guardian’s booksblog that suggests that contemporary readers no longer have the patience for books that are very long. At one point, Edelstein says that “we are living in an era where novels of epic length are unlikely to be of interest to most readers.” This because four short books are better than one long one? Yes, says Edelstein:
And when there are so many thousands of books to enjoy, it seems inefficient to read a single volume of 200,000 words if there’s any risk that it won’t be a work of staggering genius ... when the time could be equally spent enjoying a diversity of works from several different writers.
So Edelstein is telling us we must stick to the task at hand. It’s not about the journey, but the destination. And she who has read the most books before she dies wins? Never mind lingering over the perfect prose of a wonderful writer, there are stacks of books to be gotten through, people. We must stay on target, we must keep on track.
And that's a reading culture that has cultivated the short, snappy writing of our best contemporary prose stylists -- and, indeed, of the efforts of our best editors, the ones recognise the difference between brilliant lyrical prose and fatuous overwriting. Consider the Booker prize winners of the last few years .... Thanks to these models of modern literature, I now find it difficult to read a novel that is much longer without feeling impatient, without fighting the urge to whip out my red pen and start crossing out the extraneous bit because the editor didn't, because the author was too proud ... to accept that quantity is not the same as quality.
It seems to me that these are the words of someone who has read only childishly and without depth.

Reading for pleasure is not a race. The person who gets to the end of the book first does not win. You are not a more successful reader for having gotten through more books.

Further, the length of a book has nothing at all to do with its quality. I’ve read 1000 page books that weren’t long enough and books of barely 100 pages that were much, much too long. A story should take as long as it needs: not one page more or less. And, yes: publishing fashion will determine some of that. We’re in a shorter cycle now, a few years ago every other book I saw was a toe-breaker. Those cycles will come and go again. But to equate length with poor editing or slack author judgment is just... well, it’s silly. Should Melville have reduced his thoughts on the whiteness of whales to tweet length? Should Rand have had her Atlas merely grimace, not shrug? Should Tolstoy have edited out all the War and just kept the Peace?

If Edelstein is feeling impatient when reading books she feels are too long, she should either choose her reading material with greater care or cut down on her sugar intake. Perhaps both. But certainly anyone who can talk about “the difference between brilliant lyrical prose and fatuous overwriting” with a straight face, should not also be talking about her urge to whip out her own red pen.

Cookbooks: Weber’s Way to Grill by Jamie Purviance

When it comes to cookbook excellence, Jamie Purviance’s Weber’s Way to Grill has two strikes against it coming right out of the gate: with a big name barbecue manufacturer right in the title and a big ol’ lifestyle magazine publisher right on the spine, there are a lot of people who would give Weber’s Way to Grill (Sunset/Oxmoor House) a miss before they even cracked the first page. Truth be told, that would be a shame because readers who are serious about grill cooking are in a position to learn a great deal from Weber’s Way to Grill.

Now understand the distinction I made there: this is not a book about barbecue, as in the style of regional cooking brought to high art in the Southern part of the United States. Weber’s Way to Grill focuses on contemporary grill cooking, of the type that can cook just about anything on a well-designed grill surface. “Culinary details matter,” author Purviance tells us in the introduction. On subsequent pages, he takes us through it bit by bit: working with charcoal, arranging the coals, judging the heat levels, working with a gas grill, must-have grilling tools and then many, many easy to follow and illustrated recipes for grilling probably anything you’d ever want to grill.

Weber’s Way to Grill is comprehensive, well executed and complete. If you are interested in cooking on an outdoor grill you could go a long way before finding a better book on this topic.

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Fast Takes...

Since joining Twitter, we’ve been spending more time thinking about news in smaller packages. Here are some of the things we’ve found tweetworthy over the last few days.

Bestselling SF/F author David Eddings dead at 77.

UK book industry looks to “bookaholism” for a bail out.

The Bookseller offers up a prize for the oddest book title.
(Do yourself a favor: don’t try to guess.)

Does computation set us free? Havard Press has some perfectly good reasons for thinking it does not. Computers, culture, data and control.

Think something you’ve written has been plagiarized? Plagium helps you put the rumors to rest. (via @noveloflife)

Love poetry is hardest to write, says new poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy (personally, we’re still not so sure.)

ESPN The Magazine is gearing up to be the latest to charge for online content. (via @PersiaWalker)

From the weirdly reimagined book-to-screen series:
Blade Runner is about to get a prequel Web series.

The 2009 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards are here.

And finally -- and surprisingly -- after nine years, good-bye to Readerville. (Or, as Karen Templer notes on her final Readerville post: “
I’m counting on this being not so much goodbye as see you around.”


Thursday, June 04, 2009

New this Week: East of the Sun by Julia Gregson

Julia Gregson’s debut novel puts one instantly in mind of The Far Pavilions, M.M. Kaye’s epic 1978 novel of mid-19th century India. While there are similarities, they are largely on the surface. As befits its early 20th century setting and the sharp, smart voice of its journalist author, East of the Sun (Touchstone Fireside) takes a grittier run at India during the time of the British Raj. It’s an enjoyable and transporting experience.

East of the Sun introduces us to Viva Holloway who travels to India in the fall of 1928 aboard the Kaisar-l-Hind as chaperone to a young bride on her way to marry a man she barely knows, and her two friends.

East of the Sun was a Richard and Judy pick in the UK last summer, where the book became an instant bestseller under the duo’s Oprah-like bounce. It seems likely that, now that the book is available in North America, it will continue to stun readers on the far side of the pond.

Gregson delivers 1928 India in livid, vivid color. East of the Sun is a fantastic book, one that endures in the mind long after the final page is turned.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Biography: Triangular Road: A Memoir by Paule Marshall

As literary tales go, Paule Marshall’s is a good one. It has elements of Cinderella, with the happy fact that no one was ever required to turn into a pumpkin.

Here is the how story goes. One day in 1965, Marshall -- just one magnificent novel and a single short story collection into her young career -- received a letter from the US Department of State. Before opening the envelope, she flopped the words around in her mind -- “State Department” -- and quite naturally thought the worst. “The letter just had to be bad news of some sort,” Marshall writes in Triangular Road (Basic Civitas). “Why else would the State Department be writing me?”

When she finally gathered her courage enough to open the letter, she found not a nightmare, but a young writer’s fantasy. The world-renowned author and poet Langston Hughes would soon be conducting a month-long cultural tour of Europe and had insisted that “two young writers, of his choosing, be included on the tour.” Did Marshall wish to be one of them?

Triangular Road is not Marshall’s story of that tour. Rather it is, in some rather important ways, her own story. From a historical standpoint, it is perhaps more important to note that the book also tells the story of her stories. Or rather, it shares the experiences that fueled the literary journeys this marvelously talented writer has shared with us.

It’s a slender book; an easy read. A love song to a life well-spent, published on the 50th anniversary of Brown Girl, Brownstones, the debut novel that paved the way for Marshall’s astonishing and deeply engaging career.

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Authors Top Time List of Reclusive Celebrities

When it comes to rounding up the most reclusive celebrities, a disproportionate number of writers make the cut. At least, that’s what Time found when they made a list of the top ten most reclusive celebrities ever.

Topping Time’s list is JD Salinger who, over the last few weeks, has been getting way more attention than he probably wants. We’ve recently written about Salinger here and here. But, really? Whatever else we might think, it’s just so easy to make noise about him because our hearts collectively weep as the truth sinks in: after all these years, it seems very unlikely that this deeply talented author will ever follow up The Catcher in the Rye. (And, clearly, we’re not about to be fooled by imitations.)

Harper Lee comes in at number four on Time’s list, which actually makes me wonder a bit: just how much is Time scratching here? By all accounts, the To Kill A Mockingbird author is not that reclusive, she just opts not to spend time talking to reporters. Since she hasn’t had a book to flog since Mockingbird, why would she want to? No one talks to reporters if they don’t have to, do they?

Also included is Emily Dickinson, who Time tells us, was a “textbook recluse.” Dickinson didn’t even leave the family’s property for the last 20 years of her life.

Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, who “retreated from the public eye” in 1995 is followed on Time’s list by Thomas Pynchon who has avoided media since the publication of his first book in 1963. The single known exception was for an “appearance” on the animated series The Simpsons in 2004. Pynchon was drawn with a bag over his head but, in case you saw the episode and wondered, that really was the author’s own voice.

Finally, we’re told that Marcel Proust spent most of the last two decades of his life in his soundproofed Paris apartment. Time charmingly tells us that “When Proust met James Joyce in 1922, the two literary geniuses barely spoke. ‘Of course the situation was impossible,’ Joyce later said. ‘Proust's day was just beginning. Mine was at an end.’”

The Time piece is rich with photos and anecdotes and it’s here.