Monday, August 31, 2009

Wag the Word

According to non-fiction editor Sandra Allen, the newly launched literary magazine, Wag’s Revue, is “aspiring to marry the freedoms of the Internet with some strictures of a traditional printed quarterly.”

Wag’s Revue is off to a great start with interviews with Dave Eggers, T.C. Boyle and N+1 magazine founder Mark Greif as well as original poetry and fiction.

The new publication can be found here.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Review: The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Anthony Rainone reviews The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly. Says Rainone:
Los Angeles Times cop beat reporter Jack McEvoy becomes another victim of downsizing when the paper gives him his Reduction in Force notice -- aka “pink slip.” But that doesn’t take the charge out of McEvoy’s instincts for a good story, especially if it means he can go out with a bang and leave some egg on his bosses’ faces. And McEvoy has just the article in mind.
The full review is here.

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So many stories... so little time! There’s a lot going on in the world of books and it’s quite beyond our mandate to talk about more than a bit of it. Here, however, are some of the things we’ve been microblogging about in the Twitterverse over the last few days.

Dave Eggers has confirmed that the first McSweeney’s newspaper will come out in October. “We’re giving a lot of writers huge amounts of room to work with,” Eggers tells the San Jose Mercury News, “no word limits, trying to present a forum for enterprise journalism. I started out at newspapers and lament the shrinking news hole. If, instead of retreating, we advance and use the beauty of print, maybe that will stanch the bleeding and bring people back into the fold (and) remind the powers that be of what can happen if they give their journalists and artists more space.” (Thanks to @ConsortiumBooks.)

Eat Me Daily offers up fall 2009’s astonishing cookbook preview. “Autumn brings more than just falling leaves and the return of legitimate root vegetables: it's also when publishing houses drop their most ambitious cookbook offerings, hoping to tap into the spirit of cooking (and book-buying) that pervades the pre-holiday season.” Hurray for the return of root vegetables! And hat tip to @JanetRudolph.

Popmatters continues to convince with “Dylan Dog vs. Hellboy: A Study of Pulp and Pop Pastiche.” This is great stuff! “Dylan Dog and Hellboy offer fascinating examples of pastiche in storytelling. They mine similar territory for their strange and macabre tales, but twist and develop their inspirations in different directions: where Hellboy hearkens to the pulp magazines and ‘weird fiction’ of the 1920s and 1930s, Dylan Dog is practically obsessive in its allusions to films.” All of that is here.

Zoiks! When books become a health hazard. ‘Nuff said.

First book lovers. What is Michelle Obama reading these days? How ‘bout her old man? (Pretty terrific to once again be able to offer up a presidential reading list and have a reasonable expectation that the president in question has either read the books or plans to.)

Regular January readers will not be surprised to learn we love The Huffington Post, but did you know that HuffPo is poised to get even better? They’ll be adding a book section next month. From The Wrap: “More than half of our traffic comes from people who are not interested in politics,” Huffington said. In the last two years, the site has launched a number of verticals, including entertainment, living and style. Next month, HuffPo will roll launch the books and technology sections next month. HuffPo Sports will follow in October.

Ever wondered at the connection between collector comic books and crystal meth? Now you don’t have to. (Hat tip to @gtoppo.)

Love books? Love television? The Halifax Reader very sensibly teams them up with this list.

This has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with books, but we tweeted it anyway. I mean, seriously: camouflaged toads from National Geographic? Sweet!

It’s possible you’ve heard about Dan Baum’s dust up with Rebecca Solnit over Baum’s (positive) Washington Post review of Solnit’s new book, A Paradise Built in Hell. I’m not going to restate it all, because the whole thing makes me queasy and more than a little confused. But here’s Baum’s side from his blog. You can find Solnit’s side somewhere else, I’m sure.

More on the Google book deal. When and where will it end? (Not here. Not yet.)

Bookstove opines on the Top 10 Science Fiction authors of all time.

There’s more, but that feels like enough. If you want to see everything we’re tweeting about – and perhaps even follow us, on Twitter -- January Magazine is here.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dear Diarist: Dominick Dunne Dead at 83

Vanity Fair special correspondent, victims rights activist and bestselling author: just three of the titles that could easily be hung on Dominick Dunne. Dunne died at home in Manhattan today. From the Vanity Fair Web site:
The cause of death was bladder cancer, said his son Griffin Dunne.

Dunne -- who joined Vanity Fair in 1984 as a contributing editor and was named special correspondent in 1993 -- famously covered the trials of O. J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, Michael Skakel, William Kennedy Smith, and Phil Spector, as well as the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. He wrote memorable profiles on numerous personalities, among them Imelda Marcos, Robert Mapplethorpe, Elizabeth Taylor, Claus von Bülow, Adnan Khashoggi, and Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. His monthly column provided a glimpse inside high society, and captivated readers.

His first article for the magazine appeared in March 1984 -- an account of the trial of the man who murdered his daughter Dominique. Throughout his life, Dunne was a vocal advocate for victims’ rights.
The Vanity Fair piece is here. January Magazine’s 2001 interview with Dunne is here.


“A Leader, a Statesman, and a Hero”

It was sad to wake up this morning to news that Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) has died at age 77. His demise comes as no great surprise; he was diagnosed last spring with brain cancer, and has not been able to cast a vote in the Senate for months. Still, the loss of this great “liberal lion” of Congress -- the brother of an assassinated president, the brother of a slain presidential candidate, and once a presidential contender himself, in 1980 -- is profound. “An important chapter in our history has come to an end,” President Barack Obama said in a statement this morning. “Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time.”

I won’t try and outdo others in heaping praise upon Kennedy. He was a man who had his faults, like all humans (except, I guess, those Republican’ts who insist that their political ascendancy was ordained by God), but he spent five decades strongly backing civil-rights legislation, worker-pay improvements, and efforts to make health care affordable and available to all Americans. Let me just direct you to some news items I think are valuable in understanding Ted Kennedy’s remarkable legacy:

• From Steve Benen of The Washington Monthly:Kennedy’s Unfinished Work,” “‘One of the Most Accomplished Americans Ever to Serve Our Democracy,’” and “Quote of the Day.”

• From The New York Times:Edward Kennedy, Senate Stalwart, Dies,” by John M. Broder; “Q&A About Senator Kennedy,”
by Adam Clymer

• From The Washington Post: End of an American Epoch,” by Joe Holley; “Edward M. Kennedy, 1932-2009.”

• From Salon:Remembering Teddy,” by Vincent Rossmeier; “ Ted Kennedy, Champion of Social Justice,” by Robert Reich; “The Senator’s Last Battle,” by Joan Walsh; “A Man of History,” by Vincent Rossmeier; “Emotional Biden Remembers Kennedy.”

• And from Slate: Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009): The Kennedy Who Most Changed America,” by Timothy Noah.


Atwood Pulls All Stops for The Year of the Flood

According to the Toronto-based design company she worked with, Margaret Atwood wanted an extraordinary Web site to help promote The Year of the Flood, out this September from various publishers around the world.

“She has created a heightened sensibility in the book of everything in the natural world,” Scott Thornley of Scott Thornley + Company told Design Edge Canada. “She wanted a site that would represent that but she also wanted to move it beyond being just about the book.”

In The Year of the Flood we’re back in a dystopic world similar to the one Atwood created for 2003’s wonderful Oryx & Crake. But, by all accounts, the view this time is a more gentle one. From the Web site:
Adam One, the kindly leader of the God’s Gardeners -- a religion devoted to the melding of science, religion, and nature -- has long predicted a disaster. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women remain: Ren, a young dancer locked away in a high-end sex club, and Toby, a former God’s Gardener, who barricades herself inside a luxurious spa. Have others survived? Ren’s bio-artist friend Amanda? Zeb, her eco-fighter stepfather? Her onetime lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers? Not to mention the CorpSeCorps, the shadowy policing force of the ruling powers... As Adam One and his beleaguered followers regroup, Ren and Toby emerge into an altered world, where nothing -- including the animal life -- is predictable.
The site Thornley and company created for Atwood includes several interactive elements and represents the publication of the book in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. More countries will be added as time goes on.

But though the Web site is thorough and impressive, it’s just the tip of the promotional iceberg for The Year of the Flood. Atwood herself is tweeting, blogging (“Favourite question afterwards: ‘Is there a plot?’ Ah yes. There is always a plot.”) and has even written an hour-long theatrical performance complete with original score.
The Year of the Flood Web site is here. The Design Edge Canada piece is here. January Magazine’s review of Oryx & Crake is here. Our 2000 interview with Atwood is here.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Author Snapshot: Philippa Gregory

Six novels after she swept us away with The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory brings us The White Queen and the magnificent Plantagenet family.

In some regards, The White Queen isn’t new territory for Gregory, whose 14 previous novels have covered a broad swathe of history but are nonetheless bound by their author’s tight attention to detail.

In a CBC interview around the time the film version of The Other Boleyn Girl was released, Gregory said that “It gives me a real authority to talk about the period. There’s nobody going to say to me, ‘Did you know such and such?’ and I won’t know it. The pleasure for me, then, is that I can then relax and write the novel. I don’t start writing the novel until I am as confident of the historical record as if I was going to sit down and write a biography.”

One can imagine, then, the place where the research ends and the magic begins. Research will take you a long way, sure. But Gregory’s powers as a storyteller are what has entranced so many millions of fans over the years. Some of those fans will get the chance to hear Gregory up close and personal as she tours in support of The White Queen. In Canada, Gregory will be in Toronto on September 17th and in Victoria on September 28th. Event details and US tour dates are here.

A Snapshot of... Philippa Gregory

Most recent book: The White Queen
Born: Kenya
Reside: Yorkshire, United Kingdom
Birthday January 9, 1954
Web site:

What’s your favorite city?

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

I get my hair cut, I go to the National Portrait Gallery and see the original paintings of the faces that I now know so well. I go to the London Library and read, I end up in the Berkley Hotel for the night.

What’s on your nightstand?
At the moment [The] Biophilia [Hypothesis] by Edward O. Wilson, and The Kingmaker’s Sisters, by David Baldwin.

What inspires you?

The history and the gaps in the history.

What are you working on now?
I am working on book two of the Cousins War series which will be about Margaret Beaufort, mother to Henry Tudor, and titled The Red Queen. I hope it will come out next year.

Tell us about your process.
I write on a laptop wherever I happen to be, I don’t need silence or study conditions, I write in airports and in my bed. I follow the historical record exactly wherever it is certain, and see my work as in a sense recreating the events that we know took place. When there is a gap in the record -- as happens so often especially for women's history -- I write the most likely, the most congruent with the facts we know, or the one that makes sense to me.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
I am in my study overlooking the North York Moors so I see a great side of hill with some trees, some craggy outcrops of rock and a big expanse of cloudy grey sky.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I never really wanted to be a writer, I wrote little stories from early childhood, but I did not know I would make my living from writing fiction until my first book was accepted by a publisher. Even then, I thought I would do it alongside my chosen profession of teaching history. But the history post never came up, and the next book did.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
There are so many things I would love to do. My first love was journalism and I would love to work in radio still. I would like to teach history in a university, I would like to run a conservation sanctuary in Africa, or train horses, or run an orphanage, or be a lady of complete leisure in a big house in the country...

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
I get a lot of pleasure when I have finished a book and I feel that it is as good as it can be. The Boleyn Inheritance was a very easy book to write; The Queen’s Fool, and The Constant Princess were very interesting to research and write too. I think The White Queen may be my best book and it has been endlessly fascinating to me.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
The hours and the work conditions -- just as I want.

What’s the most difficult?
I can’t honestly say anything is difficult. Sometimes the interviews are uncomfortable.

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

Where do you get your ideas from.

What’s the question you'd like to be asked?

I like to be asked complicated questions about history by people who are genuinely interested.

Please tell us about The White Queen.
It is the story of Elizabeth Woodville whose beauty, and (according to accusations at the time) witchcraft skills seduced the 20 year old King Edward IV into marriage. An attack by the rival House of Lancaster forced him to run for his life into exile and her into hiding in sanctuary in Westminster Abbey while his cousin, Henry VI recovered the throne. But Edward’s military brilliance meant that he returned to England, recaptured the throne, in two successive set piece battles, and rescued his wife from sanctuary where she had given birth to their first son. The royal couple had ten surviving children before the King’s death when Elizabeth decided to secure the safety of her thirteen year old son by seizing power. The king’s brother, Duke Richard of York, suspecting foul play from the newly widowed queen, captured her precious son. The boy was lodged in the Tower and Elizabeth again fled into sanctuary with her remaining children -- her younger son, Richard, and her daughters.

The conventional history (commissioned by the Tudor victors) says that she handed over her children to Richard III who was Richard Duke of Gloucester. I don’t believe it. I think she smuggled him out of the country into Flanders, in the care of his aunt, the Duchess of Burgundy. Many historians agree that one of the princes may have got to safety, but we have no evidence to show it was done, nor how it was done.

In The White Queen I suggest that she sent a changeling into the Tower in her son’s place. Elizabeth survived the reign of Richard III and clearly became friends with him, releasing her daughters into his safe-keeping while she went to live in the country. The novel ends on the eve of the battle of Bosworth with Elizabeth certain that her hidden son Richard, will be the York heir.

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Amis at 60: Love Him or Loathe Him?

As Martin Amis turns 60 today, The Independent finds “the literary world’s former enfant terrible still dividing critical opinion” and asks 15 well known wordsmiths if they love or loathe Kingsley’s arguably more famous son:
To his critics he is an arrogant misogynist who wouldn’t be where he is without his famous father, Kingsley. To his fans he is a brilliant chronicler of our times whose literary success -- and success with women -- has fuelled resentment and envy.
Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Post-Birthday World) captures my own feelings perfectly:
In general, I rue the public pettiness that has dogged Amis -- all that rubbish about his teeth, the ludicrously outsized indignation about his quite modest salary as a university tutor.

He’s intelligent, he takes risks and he is a skillful craftsman. He is a national treasure, and an underappreciated one.

I can think of no other writer who has been this good and this bad. Maybe that tells the story? The Rachel Papers (1973) was as wonderful as Yellow Dog (2003) was truly awful*. Does that not speak of a writer who is risking himself and trying new things? The memoir Experience is, in many ways, an extraordinary love letter to Kingsley Amis, the father with whom Martin had a dangerous relationship. (One does not get to be an enfant terrible without a bit of rebellion. They go together, after all.) And I’ve raved about The War Against Cliché in this space at every opportunity. When young reviewers approach me and say, “How?” the title of Amis’ 2001 collection of essays and reviews is the one I scrawl down.
* Truly awful. I adore the younger Amis’ work and tried to like Yellow Dog, but it just didn’t take. Before reading, I’d seen scathing reviews and thought those writers were being mean or hadn’t considered properly or had perhaps been reading in a bad mood, out to hatchet the enfant terrible for his various transgressions. Then I read it myself and understood.

January Magazine’s 2001 interview with Amis is here. The Independent’s birthday salute (?) is here. A new novel, The Pregnant Widow, is expected February 2010. (Though breath-holding is not a good idea on this one: it was initially scheduled for autumn 2008, then pushed back to... well... now.)


Monday, August 24, 2009

Don’t Adjust the Horizontal

Today in The Rap Sheet’s spin-off blog, Killer Covers, J. Kingston Pierce chats with Charles Ardai, publisher of Hard Case Crime, an outfit that has been publishing interesting -- and well covered -- books ever since it debuted five years ago.

Though Pierce and Ardai have chatted before, this time out their conversation stems from yet another bit of innovative publishing: one of Hard Case’s newest titles, Russell Atwood’s Losers Live Longer, sports the Robert McGinnis-illustrated horizontal cover shown above. Says Pierce:
I couldn’t fail to feature on this page the cover of Russell Atwood’s paperback novel, Losers Live Longer. Not only is Losers the brand-new follow-up to East of A (2000), the “tough little shaggy dog tale” that introduced New York City private eye Payton Sherwood and launched the authorial career of Atwood, a former managing editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine; but the book boasts a jacket illustrated by the renowned American artist Robert McGinnis -- and a horizontal jacket, to boot.
Pierce and Ardai’s conversation can be found here.

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Review: The Love Children by Marilyn French

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews The Love Children by Marilyn French. Says Leach:
Marilyn French spent the bulk of her writing career beneath the shadow of her magnificent first novel, the semi-autobiographical The Women’s Room. Published in 1977, the book is no less searing today than when it first appeared. And while it afforded French deserved fame, the five works of fiction that followed were uneven, ranging from excellent -- The Bleeding Heart, Her Mother’s Daughter -- to the downright bad: Our Father, My Summer with George. The Love Children, French’s final novel, falls on the weaker end of this mighty woman’s output.

The full review is here.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Art & Culture: Going Green edited by Laura Pritchett

Laura Pritchett’s bio tells us that, when she isn’t writing, “she’s Dumpster-diving to save what other people throw away.” So right away you know that Going Green: Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers and Dumpster Divers (University of Oklahoma Press) is not going to be an Eco Chic view of environmentalism.

In the preface, Pritchett explains the concept:
Gleaning junk from a beach leads to a discussion of the enormous amount of plastic waste in our oceans. Picking up a pair of pants from a gutter leads to a discussion of this country’s cotton industry. Finding a dead animal from the side of the road to eat leads to, well, raised eyebrows and a chuckle of admiration. Here are essays that not only explore the reusing but explore our culture at large.
I have no trouble admitting that my own ideas about environmentalism are probably closer to Eco Chic than Pritchett’s gleaning and I can’t imagine the set of circumstances that would have me diving into a Dumpster. Still, Pritchett’s collection manages to be thought-provoking. It’s yet another view of the green movement and the 24 voices here often seem raw and even primal: something remembered from wilder times (The 1970s, maybe?) when the world was less ordered and change wasn’t an option, it was a matter of course.

In the wonderful “Bin Diver” Christopher Buckley sums it all up:
Correct or incorrect as that might be, we have nonetheless, it seems clear, at least a responsibility to ourselves if not to those who follow us -- if not some perhaps spiritual obligation -- to recycle what little we can, to avoid wasting even the least bit given to us, in wealth or in relative poverty, to be resourceful stewards of the planet.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

New This Month: The Confessions of Edward Day by Valerie Martin

What is the price of success? That’s the unspoken question in Orange Prize-winning author Valerie Martin’s latest outing, The Confessions of Edward Day (Nan. A Talese/Doubleday). In a blurb, actor Blythe Danner notes that the book “reminded me of how exciting New York theater really was in the seventies.” It is that world that we come to know through Martin’s well drawn characters.

Though an actor’s New York in the 1970s provides the physical backdrop for The Confessions of Edward Day, a love triangle provides the emotional one. That triangle consists of Edward Day, the title character; the beautiful Madeline Delavergne and Guy Margate, an actor who saves Edward’s life on a fateful evening that alters the trio’s life.

The 13th novel by the author of Mary Reilly and the Orange Prize-winning Property, The Confessions of Edward Day reveals a journeyman storyteller exploring yet another new-to-her world. And aren’t we lucky to have such great seats for the ride?

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New This Month: The Devil You Know by Leonie Norrington

cDamien’s father, 88, is coming back. Damien is not happy. 88 is violent. Like many other perpetrators of domestic violence, he is constantly apologizing and promising to reform. Damien doesn’t believe it, but his mother is prepared to take her ex back. His only comforts are a book called Dangerous Creatures and the drawing and cartooning with which he can express his inner feelings.

What Damien isn’t expecting is that his father will be considered cool by his schoolmates, because of his fabulous motorbike, to the point where it will get him an “in” with the elite crowd. What happens to his friendship with the school outcasts? Will hanging out with the school bullies make him willing to be one himself?

The Devil You Know (Allen & Unwin) depicts vividly Arnhem Land, where the author herself lives. Aboriginal culture runs through the story, though the main characters are white Australians. Damien’s drawings are woven beautifully into the tale; the novel begins and ends with pages of graphic story. Artist Michael Camilleri has worked well with the story, doing a lot more than just illustrate. His beautiful illustrations are an integral part of the tale, as they are Damien's.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mockingbird Debate Continues

The debate around the removal of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from a Brampton, Ontario, high school earlier this summer washed not only over Toronto-area newspapers, but right here, onto January Magazine. The issues around the removal of To Kill a Mockingbird are more nuanced than they first appeared, as we witnessed under the weight of many carefully considered -- and a few heated -- comments to the piece we ran earlier this week.

The book has been removed from the school, but the battle is far from over, as explained today by The Toronto Star:

As the dust settles around the latest Mockingbird controversy -- in which a principal at a Brampton school removed the book from Grade 10 English curriculum in June after a parent objected to language in the novel -- another debate has emerged: Is there a better book to teach diverse, multiracial, multi-ethnic students in the GTA about race relations and anti-discrimination in 2009?

“It’s a great book, but how many great books, how many classics have been written over the past five decades that might do a better a job in dealing with these issues?” said George Elliott Clarke, a writer and English professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in African-Canadian literature.
And fair enough: if I were looking for a book to inform children about African-Canadian issues, well ... To Kill a Mockingbird would not be the place to look. But is that why high school students are assigned reading? As I said in a comment to that earlier post, choosing books for young people to read based on the lessons we can cram in is like giving them medicine. Or Brussels sprouts. It’s good for them? Oh stop! Reading is magic. That’s the lesson we need to teach.

To Kill a Mockingbird is slender and engaging. It’s a wonderful book, in many ways, but it’s not a complicated one. Even reluctant readers might find themselves discovering fiction in a way they hadn’t before.

So replace Harper Lee’s book. OK. But do it with something that will help illuminate the place in each child that might otherwise be left dark. The place where they discover that reading is not only about accomplishment, not simply about finishing the assignment, but about the same joy and enjoyment extracted from the other activities they undertake at their leisure. That’s the lesson -- the gift -- that they will carry through their lifetimes. What books will accomplish that?

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Children’s Books: Robot Riot by Andy Griffiths

Robot Riot (Scholastic) is the fourth book in Andy Griffith’s Schooling Around series featuring the students of Grade 5B at Northwest Southeast Central School. But like the others in this series, the book pretty much stands alone.

The stories are all over-the-top humorous and the characters mostly have names that suit their personalities. Gretel Armstrong, for example, is strong; Jenny Friendly is the nice one; Grant Gadget is the son of an inventor and invents plenty himself.

The stories are seen from the viewpoint of Henry McThrottle. In this latest adventure, Henry is convinced that logical, unemotional new girl Roberta Flywheel is a robot from the future, planning to wipe out the population of Earth, starting with the students of 5B.

As always, it’s delightfully silly and still makes good points about friendship. And wouldn’t we all like to have been in Mr Brainfright’s class, with a teacher who loves bananas enough to dress up as one and teaches that the world would be a better place if we would all just look at it through colored cellophane once a day?

Andy Griffiths is one of the most popular children’s writers in Australia, for good reason. He knows kids love to laugh and they love over-the-top laughs.

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Biography: The Supremes by Mark Ribowsky

As a culture, we just don’t seem to get sick of epic Motown girl group, The Supremes. We’ve had movies and television shows and, of course, books and books and books. None of this diminishes the pleasure of author Mark Ribowsky’s The Supremes (Da Capo). Nor, in some ways, does it diminish Ribowsky’s hubris: for himself and his chosen subjects. “[The Supremes] are the most important modern American music act after Elvis Presley, and this may well be the first real biography of them,” Ribowsky writes in his Introduction. Fair enough. Especially as he points out that this might have something to do with “the geology of female acts and gender-based assumptions of what is a ‘serious’ subject matter.”

As hinted at in these words, Ribowsky’s biography is no lightweight fan fluff. Rather, this is an intelligent biographic retrospective, worthy of any university press, but arguably more gripping. This is, after all, good stuff. From the girls’ 1960 audition for would-be starmaker Barry Gordy, to playing the Apollo and “living their dream” to the famous -- infamous -- riffs between the Supremes themselves that eventually led to their break-up.

As Ribowsky points out, “the Supremes’ saga has produced a good many fables, a convenient fallen dream girl in Diana Ross, and a heavy in Barry Gordy.” Good stuff, well handled. The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal is a terrific book.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Runaway Devil: How Forbidden Love Drove a 12-Year-Old to Murder Her Family by Robert Remington and Sherri Zickefoose

The only thing that prevents Runaway Devil (McClelland & Stewart) from becoming the sort of true crime schlock no one ever admits to reading is the expert journalistic handling of the material by Calgary journalists Remington and Zickefoose. But the subject matter itself? It’s awful.

In 2006, middleclass Alberta tween JR -- screen name Runaway Devil -- convinced her much older boyfriend to murder her parents and eight-year-old brother. Runaway Devil has it all: goth music, trailer parks, Internet subculture and good girls gone very, very bad.

Remington and Zickefoose professional distance works well here. Considering the subject matter and the major players, the novelistic approach favored by some true crime writers would have done nothing but soften the horror. As it is, Runaway Devil will have you checking the contents of your daughters’ iPod and watching how much time she spends on social networking.

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Review: Swimming by Nicola Keegan

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews Swimming by Nicola Keegan. Says Leach:
Philomena Ash, of Glenwood, Kansas, is a swimming prodigy. She’s tall and strong, with enormous feet and broad shoulders. Her coaches watch and whisper as she steadily breaks Kansas swim records like bundles of dried twigs. By the time she’s sixteen, the word Olympics is being whispered. But other things are going on.
The full review is here.

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Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman

Tears in the Darkness (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) is horrible, brave, compelling. In some ways it’s an awful book. And a brilliant one. You want to stop reading. You can’t look away.

The topic has been covered before. Of course it has. And it’s been covered well. But Tears in the Darkness is an expertly wrought passion play. One part history, one part journalistic retelling, one part literary non-fiction, Tears in the Darkness is likely the best account of the Bataan Death March of 1942 when more than 76,000 troops under American control laid down their arms.

“The single largest defeat in American military history,” the authors tell us. “The sick, starving, and bedraggled prisoners of war were rounded up by their Japanese captors and made to walk sixty-six miles to a railhead for the trip to prison camp, a baneful walk under a broiling sun that turned into one of the most notorious treks in the annals of war, the Bataan Death March.”

I’m quite confident that Tears in the Darkness will be among my selections for best non-fiction works of 2009.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

New this Month: Hitler’s War by Harry Turtledove

There is something vaguely comforting about a Harry Turtledove alternative history. Turtledove has written many, many books and a lot of those books have been set in familiar times, but where some -- or even several -- of the elements have changed. To Turtledove, it seems, the world is a constant Sliding Doors of possibility.

Change one thing

Turtledove’s books are deeply inventive and well thought out but, on a certain level, they are not deeply different from each other. Therein lies the comfort. One can rely on Turtledove. He writes well and with confidence. He develops strong plots. Delivers well considered storylines.

Take the most recent entry, Hitler’s War (DelRey). The novel is predicated on a single question: what would have happened if Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had refused to allow Hitler to annex the Sudetenland? Again, change one thing and, like a kaleidoscope, everything looks different. One piece falls another way and all things are altered.

I enjoyed Hitler’s War. It is solid writing and classic Turtledove. The book didn’t move me greatly, but I didn’t expect it to. I’ve seldom been moved by this writer’s work. But Hitler’s War did make me think and I enjoyed all of the time I invested into this large book.

Turtledove hits it once more.

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Madoff Mistress Writes Tell-All

Just when you think you’ve heard the end of Ponzi scheming financial slime bucket Bernie Madoff, another shoe drops.

This time, the dirt is being dealt by Sheryl Weinstein, a woman who not only claims she had a 20 year affair with the Ponzi jailbird, she’s written a book about it. Madoff's Other Secret: Love, Money, Bernie, and Me is due out later this month from St. Martin’s Press. From the Macmillan Web site:
Bernie Madoff has struck a deep chord in the American psyche. This well-coiffed, impeccably groomed, affable, yet sinister man has come to symbolize the entire financial sector for the countless Americans whose net worth has plummeted and whose jobs are either lost or in danger due to the continuing recession and tight credit.

Sheryl Weinstein, former CFO of Hadassah, controller of Lincoln Center, and graduate of the Wharton School of Business has seen Madoff up close for more than twenty years, as she reveals in Madoff’s Other Secret: Love, Money, Bernie and Me.
“Up close” seems a dangerous euphemism here. I love, for instance, the title CBC News adopted for their piece on the book: “Madoff Screwed Charity Then Slept with CFO, Says Book.” Kinda says it all, doesn’t it? ‘Nuff said.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ontario High School Bans To Kill a Mockingbird

This item from The Toronto Star is just sad:
The classic literary novel To Kill a Mockingbird is being pulled from the Grade 10 English course at a Brampton high school after a parent complained about the use of a racial epithet in the book.

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which challenges racial injustice in America's Deep South, will be removed from curriculum at St. Edmund Campion Secondary School following a lone complaint from a parent whose child will be in Grade 10 this September.
Though I’d seen a couple of stage versions over the years and, of course, the movie, I didn’t get around to reading Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel until this year. It was worth the wait: To Kill a Mockingbird is a subtly stunning work of fiction. If you haven’t read the book, add it to your must read list. And if there’s a teenager in your life, perhaps buy a copy for him or her, if only to protest that idiot St. Edmund Campion Secondary School parent who would ban a contemporary masterwork through their own lack of intellect and understanding.

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David Mamet Will Adapt Anne Frank Story for Film

The January offices were closed for summer fun last week when the story broke that Pulitzer prize-winning playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow) had been annointed by Disney (of all outfits) to write and direct The Diary of Anne Frank. The Guardian explains the book for the six people who might not be familiar with the work:
The Diary of Anne Frank records the teenager's experiences over 25 months while hiding out with her family in a secret annexe iLinkn a canalside warehouse in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. It became an international bestseller and made her an icon of the Holocaust when it was published in 1947, two years after she died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It has been translated into 60 languages and has sold more than 25m copies worldwide.
Because Mamet is not known for his delicacy and because the pairing seems odd on so many levels, spoofs of what Mamet’s script might look like are already beginning to surface. Here’s one from The Independent (scroll down). Another from The Village Voice. We’ll have to wait a while to see how far -- or not -- off the mark these jokesters were, though: the film is expected to be released in 2011.


Archie and Veronica to Wed

After all these years -- 67 of ’em, to be exact -- Riverdale will rock this month when Archie and Veronica tie the knot. At least, that’s what the Archie blog let readers know back in May when the announcement caused a hailstorm of “Oh, no, poor Betty!” type comments from deeply concerned fans.

It will take six comics to tell the whole story, but the first one, Archie Marries Veronic Part I: The Proposal, goes on sale September 1st. Our breaths? They’re held.

Meanwhile, the story of an angry Betty fan who sold the Archie #1 comic he’d been holding onto for many years broke yesterday. Don’t feel too badly for him, though: sale of the comic brought $38,837 at auction.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Crime Fiction: The Girl Who Played
with Fire
by Stieg Larsson

In the great mash-up that is our culture these days, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find anything that’s pure. There’s the adventure/love story. The family drama/serial-killer thriller. The coming-of-age shoot-’em-up. And here I sit, having read the new so-called thriller by Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played with Fire (Knopf), wondering how to categorize the thing.

Not that it matters a lick. Trust me. Larsson was a Swedish reporter and novelist who died suddenly, supposedly of a heart attack, although there are rumors that he was offed by some of the criminals he wrote about. The thing is, before he died he wrote three bang-up novels (and part of a fourth) that achieved best-seller status after he died, from one end of Stockholm to the other ... taking the really, really long way around. The first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was published in the States last summer; the second was just published; and the third is due out on this side of the Atlantic in a year or so.

The Girl Who Played with Fire picks up about two years after Tattoo. That novel’s unforgettable hero and heroine -- Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander -- haven’t seen each other in all that time, and life has only become more, well, lifelike since then. Blomkvist is writing for his magazine, on the lookout for his next exposé; Salander is living off the billions of kronor she siphoned away when no one was looking, trying to find something elusive: a normal life. They both seem kind of bored. And then a young colleague of Blomkvist is brutally murdered (along with his girlfriend), and so is Salander’s guardian. The prime suspect: Salander herself. And since no one but Blomkvist thinks the whole thing is a big mistake, it’s up to him to prove her innocent.

Larsson crafted Fire with the same deadpan, matter-of-fact style he used in Tattoo, and it works just as well the second time around. He lays out his plot and his characters in a way that almost makes you think very little is happening -- except, actually, everything is happening. He’s sly, Larsson, lacing details through his sentences that won’t become relevant for perhaps two or three hundred pages -- but when they do, you’re with him. You remember.

He’s filled this book with murderers, dirty lawyers, cops of all stripes, old and new friends, and a bad-ass Keyser Söze-type bad guy. To say each one is memorable would be a cheat. It’d be more accurate to say each one is indelible.

The problem I had with Fire is the same one I had with Tattoo: Larsson’s reliance on the geography of Sweden to tell his story. I don’t know why he needs to let us know every street’s name, every little shop, every little everything. The story would move so much faster (not that it’s not fast anyway) without these distractions; worse, the words are tough to pronounce, and so they slow you down, pull you out of the action. It’s a real irritation.

But aside from this -- and really, it’s a minor point -- The Girl Who Played with Fire is just a brilliant read. Larsson takes characters we know and could easily describe in some detail, then layers on fresh nuances, rich back-stories and complications galore. Sure, the story is new, and so naturally the characters will behave appropriately (as in any series whose author is paying attention). But on a much deeper level, it’s clear that Larsson knows these people far better than he’s letting on, and he’s content, in these books, to dole out just the information we need to be completely enthralled. I could keep reading these for ages, and I’m bummed there’s only one more.

The Girl Who Played with Fire -- oddly epic love story, ultra-violent crime thriller and classic buddy novel all at once -- truly defies categorization. I think that’s just one of the things that make it the perfect novel for right this minute.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

New in Paperback: My Name Is Will by Jess Winfield

The subtitle offers a superb summary: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare. Based on that alone, it’s clear that Jess Winfield’s debut effort isn’t simply another biography of the Bard.

In cleverly wrought twinned threads we meet a young William Shakespeare teaching Latin to youngsters in the England of yore. In another thread, we’re introduced to William Shakespeare Greenberg, a grad student in Santa Cruz in the 1980s. The realities of these two Wills are connected, of course. Those connections are often amusing, sometimes startling but always sharply shared.

Readers who noted My Name Is Will when it came out in hardcover last year but who didn’t get around to it then might like to know that there’s an very good reading guide bound into the newly released paperback edition.


Julie & Julia Inspires Book Sales … and More

Though it’s not unusual for a successful movie to spur the sale of related item, cookbooks and cookware are not usually among the things moviegoers line up for. From The Guardian:
Film merchandising usually comes in the form of unnecessary plastic objects or high-calorie fast food special offers, from Transformer toys to McDonald's tie-ins. It's an unusual movie that triggers sales of cordon bleu recipe books and Le Creuset cookware. But the latest Meryl Streep film, Julie & Julia, is having just that effect.
The 40th anniversary edition of Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cookery, was published by Knopf in 2001. At the time of this writing, the book was riding the #1 spot at Amazon.

The Guardian’s piece is here.


Thursday, August 06, 2009

Fiction: Fragment by Warren Fahy

Fragment, the new novel by Warren Fahy, arrived with not a little hype. A bidding war at the 2008 London Book Fair. Gushing comparisons to Jurassic Park and The Ruins. Jeez! I thought, Gotta read that one! And I'm about 80 per cent glad I did.

Fahy has created a rip-roaring, nature-gone-awry, cautionary tale. See, there’s this island in the middle of the Pacific, and no one’s been there for hundreds of years -- and when the last people were there, they didn't last long. They ended up in the ripped-to-pieces category. Before that, no one had ever been there. What that means is, this island's ecology has developed, since the beginning of time, along a different path than the rest of the planet. And what that means is, every square foot of the place is crawling with creatures -- animal, insect, and eye-popping, nightmare-inducing combinations -- that don't exist in our world, even though they exist on our planet.

Take disk ants, which are sort of like Frisbees on a terrifying diet of killer steroids. They roll around on their edges, then hurl themselves through the air to avoid predators or attack their prey, whom they latch onto with claws. Then they chow down. Oh, and their surface is coverered with bazillions of baby versions, little buggers which really know how to get under your skin—literally. Or take spigers, eight-legged tiger-like creatures whose ferocity makes hungry great white sharks look tame.

Fahy's catalog of the wild gone wild -- ingenious and entirely convincing -- goes on and on. Until about four fifths of the way through, which is when I came upon something that pulled more bile into my throat than all the killings and gross-out monsters combined: a character who's charming, funny, adorable -- and completely out of place in this book (and this world). What the hell, I thought, is this thing doing here? Does Fahy make it work? Yeah, sure. But that's just it: He makes it work, where the rest of the book just works on its own. The character -- in full and clichéd villain-turned-partner mode -- comes on the scene like a badly tuned piano in the middle of a piano-heavy symphony, and it damn near kills the whole thing. (My two cents for Hollywood: When you make this movie -- and you should -- find another way to energize the last section, or suffer the fate that Jar Jar Binks brought to the Star Wars prequel trilogy.)

The story? Oh, can't you guess? After millions and millions of years with virtually no human visitors, a group of hapless visitors happens upon the place (are there ever hap-ful visitors?) triggering a killing spree, global curiosity, and a master plan that puts many lives in harm's way. They also give the author a chance to do his soapbox dance about the danger of letting humans ruin our otherwise lovely planet, thank you very much. (I piled the lecturing into that same 20 per cent.) Is Fahy the new Crichton? He might be, one day. For now his characters are as thin as insect wings (so you sort of root for the creatures who've put them on the dinner menu), but he knows how to tell a story that makes you stay up way past your bedtime.

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Lightning Strikes Twice

January Magazine has been following Linwood Barclay’s career for many years. Thus we know, as well as anyone can, that his success with No Time For Goodbye certainly is no flash in the pan. As reported by The Bookseller:
Thanks in part to a spot in W H Smith's "£2.99 if you buy the Times" promotion, Linwood Barclay's Too Close To Home (Orion) has soared to the top of the bestseller lists, in another strong week for the trade.Barclay's follow-up to the 2008 smash hit, No Time for Goodbye (Orion), sold 45,622 copies during the seven days to 1st August, in a week when book sales jumped 2.5% on the previous week to 4.6m copies sold—a 2009 high. £30.9m was spent at UK book retailers last week, according to Nielsen BookScan Total Consumer Market data, up 5.1% year on year.And in exactly the same scenario as last year, Jeffery Deaver's latest thriller has to settle for second position behind Barclay. The Broken Window (Hodder), his second Kathryn Dance thriller, sold 32,795 copies through the market last week. In the same week last year, the continuing popularity of Barclay's "Richard and Judy" Summer Read, No Time for Goodbye, ensured Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme thriller, The Sleeping Doll (Hodder), was kept off top spot.
The full piece is here.

Linwood’s latest novel, Fear the Worst, has just been released, and the Canadian author and journalist is embarking on a virtual book tour:
Join Linwood Barclay as he travels the blogosphere in August 2009 with Pump Up Your Book Promotion Public Relations on his first virtual book tour to discuss his new suspense novel, “Fear the Worst” (Bantam Books).

One evening your child doesn’t come home for dinner. And just like that the world you thought you knew becomes a strange and terrifying place.

Tim Blake thought he knew his teenage daughter as well as he could know anyone. But when Sydney vanishes into thin air, all she leaves behind are questions. At the hotel where she was supposedly working, no one has ever heard of her. Even her closest friends can’t tell Tim what Sydney was really doing in the weeks before her disappearance. Now, as the days pass without a word, Tim uncovers secrets about a daughter he didn’t know and a dark world of corruption, exploitation, and murder right around the corner from his once seemingly safe life.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Budd Schulberg Dead at 95

Veteran screenwriter and bestselling author Budd Schulberg died Wednesday afternoon. His wife, Betsy, has said he died of natural causes at a hospital near his Long Island home.

The son of studio head B.P. Schulberg, Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel, See Sammy Run, created a stir in film industry circles when it was first published. Schulberg was best known for the screenplay for the 1954 film, On the Waterfront. The movie starred Marlon Brando who won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance. On the Waterfront received seven other Oscars and is widely considered to be one of the most important films ever made. From The Los Angeles Times:

Budd Schulberg, who exposed the dark side of American ambition in his acclaimed Hollywood novel “What Makes Sammy Run?"” and won an Academy Award for his screenplay depicting the mob-controlled longshoremen’s union in the film classic “On the Waterfront," has died. He was 95.

Schulberg, a one-time Communist Party member who was ostracized in Hollywood after naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s, died of natural causes Wednesday at his home in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., his wife, Betsy, told the Associated Press.

The Los Angeles Times piece is here. The New York Times Arts Blog chimes in here, but promises that an obit will follow shortly.


Twilight Plagiarism Drama Unlikely to Take a Bite from Stephanie Meyer’s Readership

Stephanie Meyer, author of the bestselling Twilight series of books, has been served with a cease and desist order. The letter was sent by lawyers acting for author Jordan S. Scott to Meyers’ publisher, Hachette Book Group USA. From The Guardian:
The letter claims that the latest volume in Meyer’s Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, which was published last year, “shows a striking and substantial similarity” to Scott’s book The Nocturne, and asks the publisher how it intends “to cease and desist from any further copyright infringement and to compensate my client for her damages.”

Hachette called the claim “completely without merit” and said that any lawsuit would be “defended vigorously.”
Unsurprisingly, this is a huge story, which makes it all the more odd that it’s been impossible to find anything solid about Jordan’s writing in general or Nocturne in particular. Jordan’s Web site lists the book as “sold out” and it is unavailable from Amazon. Google Books lists another title by the same author, Texas Aggies. This afternoon, The New York Times’ Art Beat added more about Meyer’s challenger:
Jordan Scott, who describes herself as a singer, screenwriter and college student on her Web site, wrote a little-known novel called “The Nocturne” as a teenager, releasing parts of it online before publishing it as a book in 2006.

Children’s Books: Parliament of Blood by Justin Richards

I have always wondered what would happen if vampires kept turning people into other vampires every time they bit someone. Most books suggest that it isn’t that simple, that the majority of victims simply die, or that vampires are born rather than made.

Parliament of Blood (Bloomsbury) gleefully runs with the notion that getting bitten infects your blood and turns you into a vampire almost immediately unless you can get hold of silver and holy water right away in order to clear the infection. Late in the Victorian era, the vampires have come to realize that they’re going to run out of supplies if they’re all awake at once. They operate in shifts, sleeping for decades or centuries and waking up to take their turn. Another problem: with the development of photography, they’re finding that they don’t show up. Humans are going to figure it out sooner or later.

Time to waken the Lord of the Undead, an ancient Egyptian mummy who conveniently speaks English. Luckily for the London vampire community, they have members in high places, centred around a gentleman’s club known as the Damnation Club. Unluckily for them, they have to contend with young engineer George Archer, currently working at the British Museum in a mysterious department not known to the general public, his boss Sir William, former pickpocket Eddie and their friend Liz.

The action is almost non-stop as the friends work in their various ways to stop the vampires taking over the Empire. Justin Richards has become known as the author of entertaining fantasy adventures for children and this delicious romp doesn’t disappoint. Kids will love it. Although it’s supposed to be for readers from ten to f14, I’d place it slightly higher, as the characters are nearly all adults or young adults. Still, just hand it to your kids. They will work it out.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

Carver Goes for Blood

Beginning today, our sister publication, The Rap Sheet, will begin posting -- in three parts, over three successive days -- a never-before-seen short story called “Bloodsport.” It’s the work of Tom Cain, the pseudonymous British journalist turned author who has won praise for his thrillers, including the new UK release, Assassin.

Like those novels, “Bloodsport” stars the shadowy Samuel Carver. Cain describes the plot of this first-ever Carver short story this way:
Samuel Carver is an angry man. The protagonist of The Accident Man, The Survivor, and Assassin, whose specialty is creating deniable assassination by means of unattributable “accidents,” has just discovered that one of his former brother officers in the SBS (Special Boat Service) has been killed in Afghanistan. The man died very horribly and painfully in the hands of the Taliban, lost for want of the helicopter that should have airlifted him to safety.

Suddenly, a situation that has long been a matter of principled outrage to Carver has become very personal. So he reacts in the way that he knows best. He decides to make a bad thing happen to what he believes is a bad person; the person he holds responsible for the death of his friend and many other fine soldiers, the prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In the tradition of Rogue Male and The Day of the Jackal, Carver stalks his prey. In this case he does not choose the boulevards of Paris as his hunting ground, nor the hills and forests of Germany. Instead he goes to the hills of northern England, where the prime minister is taking his summer holiday.
Click here to read the opening installment of “Bloodsport,” along with Cain’s disclaimer. And click here to enjoy Ali Karim’s interview with the author, which includes some background on “Bloodsport.”


Free Is Always the Right Price

As addicted as I am to books-oriented Web sites and blogs, I’d never heard of Ms. Bookish until yesterday. Written by aspiring novelist Belle Wong, it’s a very ambitious blog that covers the gamut of genres. Wong also puts together regular lists of book giveaway contests being held on the Web. Who knew that there were so many? Her newly updated list features more than 100 current competitions for free books, including The Rap Sheet’s contest to win one of three free copies of Joseph Finder’s forthcoming thriller, Vanished.

Try your luck. Maybe more than once.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Fiction: Better by John O’Brien

Better is what it sounds like inside the head of a man drinking himself to death. Overconsumption is a common theme in the work of John O’Brien (who also gave us Leaving Las Vegas) and, sadly, in his foreshortened life as well. In Better (Akashic Books), O’Brien’s final novel, he tells part of his tale within the surreal confines of a mansion owned by a man known only as “Double Felix.” William is a slacker who drifted into Felix’s orbit, and wound up staying. His only duties are to drink Morning Vodka and share an evening libation with Felix. The rest of his day consists of imbibing gin, watching Love Boat reruns and bedding the various female guests of the mansion, including partygoer Maggie and one-time call-girl Zipper. When he’s not doing those things, he sleeps a booze-induced sleep on the back deck.

But then another girl named Lisa arrives and upsets Felix’s perfect little world of hedonism. Felix is obsessed with her, and her presence alarms the other women (and one other man). She even drives Zipper to try and get William to quit drinking.

Better is a bizarre story written in a jarring style. O’Brien seems to be invoking F. Scott Fitzgerald, another writer who battled demon rum and lost. However, this novel, with its aimless pursuit of pleasure, also suggests influences from another literary heavyweight, Jack Kerouac, in its abandonment of the real world in exchange for meaningless sex and endless booze. The cracks are showing at the beginning, however, when Felix declares that things are not entirely well with his source of income. Lisa seems to be at the center of it all, her connection to Felix eroding his control over the house. She even causes a rift between Felix and William. By the end of the story, William is pondering running off with Zipper, the whore who ironically loves him, and drinking himself to death.

I don’t think Better is an appropriate title for O’Brien’s last novel. The destruction of Double Felix’s private pleasure dome over the course of a day invokes yet one more literary masterpiece.

Paradise Lost.

READ MORE:John O’Brien’s Better,” by Devin Tanchum
(Book Soup Blog).

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