Sunday, January 31, 2010

Amazon Capitulates

Well, it looks as if Amazon has blinked first in its big e-book battle against mega-publisher Macmillan. An announcement posted this evening by the “Amazon Kindle team” reads:
Dear Customers:

Macmillan, one of the “big six” publishers, has clearly communicated to us that, regardless of our viewpoint, they are committed to switching to an agency model and charging $12.99 to $14.99 for e-book versions of bestsellers and most hardcover releases.

We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it’s reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book. We don’t believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan. And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.

Kindle is a business for Amazon, and it is also a mission. We never expected it to be easy!

Thank you for being a customer.
No need to rub Amazon’s nose in it. Let’s just call this good news for all those Macmillan authors whose work will once more be easily available through the giant online retailer.

READ MORE:Looking Like a Fool with Your Foot in Your Mouth,” by Sandra Ruttan (On Life and Other Inconveniences).

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Friday, January 29, 2010

How to Publish, Not Perish

It sounds like a spam come-on, not the headline on an article in the blog of one of the most respected newspapers in the world:
How to publish your own book online -- and make money
Yet there it is: in backlit black and white, on The Guardian’s technology blog. Technology and economics columnist -- and fledgling poet -- Victor Keegan takes a very personal approach to the topic of self-publishing for fun and profit in a piece that clearly comes from outside of the book industry and approaches the matter at hand from many angles.
It doesn't have to be an embryonic bestseller because self-publishing is best suited to limited editions. Anything over 1,000 copies and you would be better off going to a traditional printer to take advantage of economies of scale. I know a lot people who are self-publishing a record of their own lives together with memories of their parents and grandparents as a bit of family history. That's not vanity publishing, just a great way to preserve memories for future generations and add to the archive of local history. Self-publishing is ideal for that.
Despite Keegan’s clear-eyed approach, I’m still not convinced you can do what the man said and “publish your own book online -- and make money.” But if self-publishing is something you might take a run at, you could do worse than Keegan’s primer.

The Guardian piece is here.

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Amazon’s Kindle Not Ready to Lie Down

The day after Apple released the device some industry watchers are expecting to help kill Amazon’s Kindle e-book reading device, Amazon released a statement seemingly set to diffuse the iPad’s early impact:
“Millions of people now own Kindles,” said Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of “And Kindle owners read, a lot. When we have both editions, we sell 6 Kindle books for every 10 physical books. This is year-to-date and includes only paid books -- free Kindle books would make the number even higher. It's been an exciting 27 months.”
As much as that sounds like bravado to some jaded ears, the Los Angeles Times seemed to have no trouble rounding up a group of users who are standing fast by their Kindles:
Since the Kindle was launched in late 2007 its advocates, including Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, have said that to reproduce the quiet, solitary experience of reading a book, e-readers should not tempt users with a panoply of digital distractions.

The iPad, on the other hand, is by design a multimedia device, equipped with dozens of entertainment features and primed to offer thousands more in the form of add-on applications.

Critics say that's not going to help anyone get to the end of the chapter.

“If you like your kids, get them an iPad so they can play games,” said Russ Wilcox, the head of E Ink Corp., which created the digital paper technology used by the Kindle and many other e-ink-based readers. “If you love them, get them an e-reader so they can actually read.”
The L.A. Times has much more to say, and it’s here.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger Dead at 91

Almost 60 years after the publication of his only novel, the seminal Catcher in the Rye, the mysterious and reclusive Jerome David Salinger is dead, just a few weeks after his 91st birthday. The New York Times obit is here:
Mr. Salinger’s literary reputation rests on a slender but enormously influential body of published work: the novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” the collection “Nine Stories” and two compilations, each with two long stories about the fictional Glass family: “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.”

“Catcher” was published in 1951, and its very first sentence, distantly echoing Mark Twain, struck a brash new note in American literature: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Last year, Salinger's name came up on these pages quite often in relation to an unauthorized sequel to Catcher that generated comment around the world. We talked about it here, here and here.

Today, the world mourns Salinger, possibly as much for the novels we never saw as much as anything else: it's not as though we, as a culture, knew him as well as we would have liked.

Time magazine writes about Salinger here. The CBC is here. The National Post is here. The Guardian here. Expect many, many more still to come.

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What the iPad Might Mean for Book Publishing

Into a sea of stories on Apple’s new iPad yesterday, covering everything from specs to speculation, the New York Times’ Motoko Rich piped up with some book-related facts and figures:
When Steven P. Jobs announced the new iBooks app, he said five of the six largest publishers -- Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster -- had signed on to provide e-book content for the new tablet.

In negotiations with Apple, publishers agreed to a business model that gives them more power over the price that customers pay for e-books. Publishers had all but lost that power on’s Kindle e-reader.
Rich’s piece is here. January’s entry into the sea of introductory iPad pieces is here.


Eat, Sleep, Poop Will be DreamWorks Feature

DreamWorks Entertainment has plans to make a feature-length comedy out of a witty work of non-fiction by a Beverly Hills pediatrician. Scott W. Cohen’s Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby's First Year will be published by Scribner at the end of March. From Reuters:
Nonfiction guidebooks on birthing and parenthood are hot in Hollywood. Two weeks ago Lionsgate and Phoenix Pictures teamed to bring pregnancy series “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” to the big screen.
The Reuters piece is here.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

iPad, iBook, iBookstore: the Works

Last week we asked if the much anticipated Apple Tablet would kill Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader. The beast was unveiled this morning. We now know it looks just like a giant iPod Touch, it’s called the iPad (shown at right with optional keyboard), it costs about half as much as expected and the answer to the question is, “probably yes.”

Everyone’s talking about the iPad, of course, but PC Mag is best at boiling stuff like this down, and they do:
After years of rumors, speculation, and leaks, Apple today announced its long-await tablet, the iPad.

Chief executive Steve Jobs complemented the introduction of the new device with a new e-bookstore, called iBooks, together with partnerships with four major publishers, and showed off new versions of its iWork application and third-party applications.

Jobs kicked off the company's launch event in San Francisco on Wednesday by highlighting the history of the company's mobile products. "We're the largest mobile device company in the world," he told the audience, showcasing the iPhone and the company's line of MacBook products.
The full piece is here.


Louis Auchincloss Dies at 92

Louis Auchincloss (The House of Five Talents, Last of the Old Guard), the Wall Street lawyer and prolific author best known for his books about the waspier bits of America, died last night of complications due to stroke, according to his son, Andrew.

Born in Lawrence, New York, in 1917, Auchincloss was both well regarded and widely celebrated. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1965, received the National Medal of Arts in 2005 and held honorary degrees from New York University, Pace University and The University of the South.

From The New York Times:
“Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs,” Gore Vidal once wrote. “Yet such is the vastness of our society and the remoteness of academics and book chatters from actual power that those who should be most in this writer’s debt have no idea what a useful service he renders us by revealing and, in some ways, by betraying his class.”
More from the Times here.


Crime Fiction: The Bricklayer by Noah Boyd

Lee Child spawned a new type of protag when he introduced former military cop Jack Reacher. Well, new but old. With roots in Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, Reacher is the contemporary drifter hero, a guy not really tied to law enforcement, but out to do justice nonetheless. Of course, that justice has some strange definitions. Lately, we’ve seen Matt Hilton with his ex-British Army “problem solver,” Joe Hunter, and even Child’s younger brother, Andrew Grant, with his renegade MI6 op, David Trevellyan, emerge as the modern cowboy, the one writing his own rules because the system’s rules just don’t work.

Which brings us to newcomer Noah Boyd’s The Bricklayer (Morrow). In it, a clever killer has set up a plot to frame the FBI for slayings he commits in the name of a bogus terrorist organization, the “Rubaco Pentad.” A reporter who blew the lid off corruption in the Bureau’s Los Angeles office is murdered. Then, when the FBI attempts to pay the Pentad extortion money, the agent sent on that errand is also done in. Another one disappears, apparently part of this growing conspiracy to disgrace the Bureau.

What’s a beleaguered FBI director to do?

In Boyd’s tale, he rehires an agent who had been fired for his inability to respect authority. Steve Vail was canned not for political reasons, but because he preferred to see a cop-killer go to prison rather than take down a superior so obviously guilty of manufacturing evidence. Vail has since found employment as a Chicago bricklayer, a job that requires little supervision or human interaction. However, he is lured back to the Bureau by an attractive former colleague, now the FBI’s deputy assistant director, Kate Bannon.

Vail soon begins to justify his rehiring. But he isn’t satisfied with his success. He hates loose ends. Rather than congratulate himself on solving a case when everything falls into place, he pulls on the investigative strands that remain unconnected. His wariness keeps him from being killed when the Pentad demands a nearly impossible money drop in an abandoned L.A. subway tunnel. Thinking three steps ahead of his foes, Vail realizes they’ve booby-trapped the drop.

In the wake of his survival, Vail looks more closely at who might stand behind this escalating mayhem and apparent revenge. There’s a lot of pesky evidence leading to the involvement of that missing FBI agent. Yes, the agent is now dead, an apparent suicide. Vail, though, doesn’t like that solution.

“Too neat,” he says.

Author Boyd flirts with giving Vail superhuman intellect, but manages to balance his aptitude by simply making him shy of accolades. While the rest of the Bureau’s L.A. field office is celebrating what they think is the end of the Pentad case, Vail is still asking himself the meaning of one unaccounted-for piece of the puzzle.

Thanks to Bannon’s presence here, Vail is not just another lone wolf outsmarting a stupid bureaucracy. Even a rival admits to Vail that the FBI is a bit rigid in its thinking. With Bannon, this is a double-edged sword. Vail’s loose-cannon approach to the case is something she admires, but it also underscores trust issues that infuriate her. At one point, Vail is even fired and wanted by the cops for theft.

And let’s be honest, it’s not like Vail is invincible. Escaping death by the slimmest of margins quite often hurts like a mother, and both Vail and Bannon come out of the experience physically scarred.

There are certainly weaknesses in The Bricklayer. The presence of Assistant U.S. Attorney Tie Delson is somewhat annoying, as she throws herself at Vail, kind of like the office coworker who can’t hide her crush on the new guy. Her ardor for Vail is eventually explained, but it strains the story in places.

Still, the person behind the Pentad is one of the more clever villains I’ve seen in a long time. He’s not really all that brilliant, but he is just smart enough to anticipate what the FBI will do next, and foil its efforts. Eventually, even Vail makes mistakes. Indeed, there’s a place in this tale where he should have been killed.

Boyd’s writing is solidly paced with few, if any, inconsistencies. Probably his greatest strength is in conveying through his writing the action and tension of a Jason Bourne movie or Casino Royale. Taut, rapid-fire and relentless.

READ MORE:Ex-FBI Agent Paul Lindsay Lays the Bricks for a Successful Writing Career,” by Jim Sullivan (Boston Herald).

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Biography: Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright

Clarrisa Dickson Wright is one half of British television’s Two Fat Ladies cooking team. When her autobiography was first published in the UK in 2007, it was met with wide acclaim. It’s not hard to see why.

The first official U.S. edition becomes available this month from Overlook Press and it’s a surprisingly complete book. In a way, Spilling the Beans has everything: fame, celebrity, addiction, heartbreak... and, of course, food. Lots and lots of food.

The only reason I can think of that it’s taken this long for Spilling the Beans to get to this side of the water is the very real possibility that a lot of people in the U.S. have never heard of Two Fat Ladies, or at least, had not until 2008 when the series that ended in 1998 after the death of Dickson Wright’s cooking partner, Jennifer Paterson, was released here.

Spilling the Beans recounts some of that time but the Fat Ladies years are only a small part of Dickson Wright’s journey to date. At its core, Spilling the Beans is a story of redemption. About the little rich girl -- Dickson Wright, of course -- with an abusive, alcoholic father. She grows to be a brilliant young woman (and ends up being the youngest woman in the UK ever called to the bar), a dilettante (she ends up partying away a significant fortune), her recovery through AA, then traveling the English countryside in the sidecar of a motorcycle with the late Paterson.

This is a well told, joyous memoir that, for me, is all about finding your way back. Even those largely unfamiliar with Dickson Wright will enjoy her humor and wit.

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Dictionary Banned for “Oral Sex”

Merriam Webster’s 10th edition joins an illustrious group of books banned from some American schools, including selected titles by Maya Angelou, Maurice Sendak, Toni Morrison, Judy Blume, Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Isabel Allende, John Steinbeck, William Golding and many, many others.

This newest ban comes after a parent in a Riverside, California, school district complained of a “sexually graphic” entry in the dictionary. The Guardian sums things up:
Dictionaries have been removed from classrooms in southern California schools after a parent complained about a child reading the definition for “oral sex”.

Merriam Webster’s 10th edition, which has been used for the past few years in fourth and fifth grade classrooms (for children aged nine to 10) in Menifee Union school district, has been pulled from shelves over fears that the “sexually graphic” entry is “just not age appropriate”, according to the area’s local paper.
That local paper indicates that not all parents are happy with the decision to pull the book:
“Censorship in the schools, really? Pretty soon the only dictionary in the school library will be the Bert and Ernie dictionary,” said Emanuel Chavez, the parent of second- and sixth-grade students. “If the kids are exposed to it, it’s up to the parents to explain it to them at their level.”

Board member Rita Peters questioned why one parent’s complaint would lead the district to pull the dictionaries.

“If we’re going to pull a book because it has something on oral sex, then every book in the library with that better be pulled,” she said. “The standard needs to be consistent ... We don’t need parents setting policy.”
Meanwhile, the fate of the dictionary in that school system remains uncertain, while most of the thinking world laughs quite loudly, here, here, and here as well as other places.


Monday, January 25, 2010

A Final Good-bye to Parker

Just a week after the unexpected death last week of detective novelist Robert B. Parker at age 77, The Rap Sheet has posted more than 70 tributes from Parker’s professional colleagues, friends, and critics. This collection was put together by Cameron Hughes and comes in two sections. Part I appears here. Part II can be found here.

Happy Birthday, Virginia Woolf

The writer Virginia Woolf was born on this day in 1882. According to Garrison Keillor’s wonderful Writer’s Almanac, the former Virginia Stephen “never went to school, but her father chose books for her to read from his own library.”
She was only allowed to move out of her family home after her father’s death, when she was 22. She moved into a house with her brothers and sister, and instead of writing letters about what she’d been reading, she began to write literary criticism for the Times Literary Supplement, and she became one of the most accomplished literary critics of the era.

Woolf believed that the problem with 19th-century literature was that novelists had focused entirely on the clothing people wore and the food they ate and the things they did. She believed that the most mysterious and essential aspects of human beings were not their possessions or their habits, but their interior emotions and thoughts.

She considered her first few novels failures, but then in 1922, she began to read the work of Marcel Proust, who had just died that year. That moved her to write her first masterpiece: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), about all the thoughts that pass through the mind of a middle-aged woman on the day she gives a party. Woolf went on to write many more novels, including To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931), but she was also one of the greatest essayists of her generation. In her long essay about women and literature, A Room of One’s Own (1929), she wrote: “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”
The Writer’s Almanac item is here. While you’re there, you might choose to contribute to support the Almanac. If you do, a $75 contribution will earn you “the official The Writer’s Almanac mug. The mug features Garrison’s signature sign off -- Be Well, Do Good Work & Keep in Touch.” Complete information on contributing is here.


Children’s Books: F2M: The Boy Within by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy

Eighteen-year-old Skye is a member of an all-girl punk rock band. Skye has never felt like a girl. Inside, (s)he is Finn, a boy. Making the decision to let Finn be outside as well as in involves a lot of work. How do you tell your family and friends and the members of your feminist rock band that you’re going to undergo female-to-male treatment and surgery? Fortunately, there’s a family precedent: great-uncle Albert ... or is that great-aunt Alberta?

Skye/Finn could easily be a victim, but refuses. It isn’t going to be easy for anyone, but (s)he decides, finally, that family, friends and rock band will just have to live with it. And they do.

F2M: The Boy Within (Ford Street) goes into enormous detail about the procedures involved in what is known as FTM. It’s a lot less common than the other way around -- male to female -- although it has been in the news in the last couple of years, when a man who had kept his female “equipment” had a baby because his wife couldn’t. I knew a female-to-male myself. Unlike Skye, Jan became “David” in her/his 40s. Nobody, but nobody dared to call Jan a woman, even when she was! And David’s family and friends accepted it as Finn’s family do in the novel. F2M: The Boy Within also explores the punk rock sub-culture, which is interesting in its own right.

Ford Street Publishing has become known for taking on controversial subjects. It probably needs an author as well-known and respected as Hazel Edwards to get away with this one. Ryan Kennedy, her co-author, is himself an FTM, so knows what he is talking about.

F2M: The Boy Within is well-written and answers a lot of questions. It will certainly appeal to those teenagers who are asking themselves questions about their own gender identities. There are some likable characters in it and some nice touches of humour. There’s even the whimsical presentation of a couple who are a female-to-male and a male-to-female. Who are, incidentally, managing just fine. Finn doesn’t like the FTM, Rodney, but hey, he doesn’t have to.

Whether or not it will have appeal for ordinary teenagers I am not sure. I suspect they will be uncomfortable with it, though this doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be out there. Will kids who say, “That is so gay!” about anything negative get enthused about characters who are not actually gay but have gender issues? I won’t know until I have put this in my library and seen how the students react. Watch this space.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

NBCC Shortlist Is No Reader’s Choice

The finalists for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced Saturday night in New York. Once again, the titles that made NBCC’s final cut seem to comprise a list more intended to make a small group of people feel erudite rather than making a large group feel passionate about books and reading.

On the other hand, these are not the people’s choice awards. But then, neither is the National Book Award. So where is the place where the passion of readers and the choices of critics can come together? And isn’t it time that the two become somewhat reflective of each other?

According to the NBCC’s Web site, the organization was “founded in 1974 at the Algonquin, is a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization consisting of some 600 active book reviewers who are interested in honoring quality writing and communicating with one another about common concerns.”

Some people feel that conversations about books are dwindling and, certainly, the inches offered to book reviews in newspapers are shrinking. What can we do -- what can all of us do -- to make discussions about books more vibrant and more relevant to an audience that seems to not be entirely convinced? I’m not sure of the answer, but I know that it isn’t esoterica.

Here are the finalists in the fiction category:
Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Marlon James, The Book of Night Women (Riverhead)
Michelle Huneven, Blame (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Holt)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Knopf)
Others shortlists are here.


Green Gables Author Suffered Depression, Suicide

A book of essays to be published mid-2010 by the University of Toronto Press will look at Lucy Maud Montgomery’s best known work, as well as pieces of her own tortured life. From CanWest News Service:
The scholarly collection of essays, co-edited by Ryerson University professor Irene Gammel -- Canada research chair in modern literature and culture -- follows a recent revival of interest in the Anne Shirley phenomenon with the 100th anniversary of the 1908 publication of author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s landmark work.

In Anne’s World: A New Century of Anne of Green Gables, to be published this year by University of Toronto Press, contributors probe the “global industry” in Anne tourism, the multitude of film, television and stage productions inspired by the story, and the “timeless and ongoing appeal of L.M. Montgomery’s writing” nearly 70 years after her 1942 suicide by a drug overdose at age 67.
The full piece is here. January looks at Gammel’s 2008 biography of Montgomery here and Budge Wilson’s 2008 Before Green Gables here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Crime Fiction: Gone ’til November
by Wallace Stroby

Readers (especially the American variety) have grown accustomed to seeing villains in crime fiction portrayed in starkly negative terms, or else given such repulsive quirks that whatever humanness they manifest must be considered suspect. So Wallace Stroby runs some risk in making his killer for hire, Nathaniel Morgan, the most engaging character in Gone ’til November (Minotaur).

African American, 57 years old, and the veteran enforcer for Mikey-Mike, a New Jersey drug dealer whose wares just aren’t as high-grade or in demand as they once were, Morgan has a girlfriend half his age, a vintage Monte Carlo he loves almost as much, and musical tastes that run to the rhythms of Sam Cooke, Walter Jackson, and the Impressions. He also pops Vicodin at an alarming rate, because he’s suffering from a rare form of cancer that may take him down long before any of his “business rivals” get their shot.

Lacking health insurance or even the prospect of appealing for limited social aid (how would he answer, after all, the application’s request for “current occupation”?), Morgan has made rather desperate plans for his future. He wants to ditch New Jersey, his girlfriend and her son in tow, and find a doctor somewhere far away who can administer the medical treatments he needs. If Mikey-Mike or his hired pistol-pushers try to track him down, Morgan figures “he could deal with that, too, protect what was his. What he’d earned.” All he needs before putting his plan into action is more money to add to the savings he has already hidden away. And that requires him taking on a last assignment for his narcotics-king boss.

Meanwhile, in far-off Florida, a late-30s sheriff’s deputy named Sara Cross has come to the aid of a fellow officer, Billy Flynn, who’s shot and killed a well-dressed young black man, Derek Willis, on the edge of a cypress swamp in the middle of a steamy night. Willis was driving a car with Jersey plates, and according to Flynn, when he pulled Willis over and asked that he open his trunk, the younger man made a break for it. Flynn thought his fleeing suspect had a gun, so plugged him three times in self-defense. Sara finds a zippered bag crammed with firearms and ammunition in the vehicle’s trunk, which might indeed have justified Willis’ actions. And though she has doubts regarding the incident -- why was there a baby seat in Willis’ car? Why didn’t Flynn call for backup before he approached the driver? -- she attests to her fellow officer’s account of the proceedings. It looks like a “clean shoot.”

However, as the immature Flynn -- who used to be Sara’s lover as well as her partner on the sheriff’s squad, but now has a new and jealous girlfriend -- tries to reignite their relationship, our heroine’s suspicions about the Willis shooting mount. Exacerbating them is the appearance of Willis’ “wife,” the mother of their child together, who comes to collect his corpse and “raise hell, most likely.” She tells Sara that Willis “never carried a gun in his life,” which is enough to provoke the conscientious sheriff’s deputy to look a bit further into the provenance of the dead man’s revolver.

Then there’s the mysterious guy who Sara thinks is following her, but whose face she can never quite make out in passing automobiles. She wonders what his role is in all of this -- not knowing that in fact it’s Morgan behind the wheel. His last job for Mikey-Mike, the one that’s going to give him his nest egg for a new life, turns out to be retrieving $350,000 that had been secreted in the car driven by Willis, who was also on Mikey-Mike’s payroll. Why were the weapons discovered, but no reports of all that cash? Morgan wants to know where the money went -- and whether he can steal it for himself, add it to his nest egg. Accomplishing that, though, will put him in dangerous contention with a couple of trigger-happy twins and the considerably more competent Sara Cross.

Stroby, a former editor at Newark, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger newspaper and the author of two previously praised crime novels, The Barbed-Wire Kiss (2003) and The Heartbreak Lounge (2005) -- both starring quondam state trooper Harry Rane -- is meticulous in entwining his narrative threads here, reaping drama, originality and suspense from what seem at first to be Gone ’til November’s familiar themes. But it’s his chief adversarial pair who keep one turning these pages: Morgan, the professional gunman who treats killing like any other occupation, and sees no percentage in surplus deaths; and Sara -- brave and smart, but flawed and too much on her own, struggling as her county’s only female deputy sheriff while she cares for a 6-year-old son whose life is as much at threat from leukemia as Morgan’s is from cancer. The older protagonist is certainly the more engaging -- it was worth every risk to make Morgan a nuanced, sympathetic figure -- but Sara Cross demonstrates potential for growth. That’s good, because her appearance here isn’t her last. As Stroby says, “there will be at least one more book about her, though it won’t be [my] next one. Beyond that, I can’t say, but she’ll definitely be back.”

Swiftly told but suspenseful, filled with moral choices and a bit of welcome ambiguousness at its end, Gone ’til November is
a small story with a hell of a kick.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Paul Quarrington Passes Away at 56

Award-winning Canadian author (Whale Music, The Spirit Cabinet) and musician died on Thursday of lung cancer. He was 56.

From his Web site:
In May 2009, Paul was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. From May 2009 to January 2010 he channeled his prodigious creative energy into the completion of many artistic endeavours, included his first solo CD release, the third PorkBellys Futures CD release, his memoir for Greystone Books, “Cigar Box Banjo,” the documentary film inspired by the book, “Life in Music”, and much more.

His brave battle ended on January 21, 2010. He passed peacefully at home in Toronto in the early hours surrounded by friends and family. It is comforting to know that he didn’t suffer; he was calm and quiet holding hands with those who were closest to him.
Contributions to the Quarrington Arts Society are being accepted in his honor.


Will Apple’s Tablet Kill the Kindle? (And Does it Really Matter?)

E-book watchers are betting that when Apple’s much-anticipated tablet finally reaches consumers some time between now and this spring, the presently precarious e-book market will solidify. The New York Times looks at recent developments:
It’s a formidable high-tech face-off: versus Apple for the hearts and minds of book publishers, authors and readers.

Amazon’s Kindle devices and electronic bookstore now dominate a nascent but booming market, accounting for more than 70 percent of electronic reader sales and 80 percent of e-book purchases, according to some analysts. And on Thursday it will take a page from Apple and announce that it is opening up the Kindle to outside software developers.
Not only that, but Amazon will also debut a shiny new Kindle device. Between that and the newly opened source, Amazon insiders expect things to be shaken up, but in a happy way:
Ian Freed, vice president for the Kindle at Amazon, said he expected developers would devise a wide range of programs, including utilities like calculators, stock tickers and casual video games. He also predicts publishers will begin selling a new breed of e-books, like searchable travel books and restaurant guides that can be tailored to the Kindle owner’s location; textbooks with interactive quizzes; and novels that combine text and audio.
Sound familiar? (There’s an app for that.)

All of this, just as Apple is about to unleash a device that is much more expensive than the Kindle, but also much more capable: a creature that will likely be very much like an iPod on steroids, capable of all types of computing and -- by the way -- acting as an e-book reader.

While all of this Kindle-killing speculation is fun for the media and interesting for those of us who will ultimately end up schlepping such devices, we’re still a very long way from fat ladies and singing.

Think of the epic battles between Betamax and VHS. Then think of what you’re recording video with these days.

Or how about eight-track and cassette or even -- heaven forbid -- reel-to-reel. What about eight-and-a-half inch diskettes, versus mini-floppies, then on to zip drives and rewriteable CD-ROMS and all the other storage devices we ended up spending big bucks on in the time leading up to now: I have a flash drive smaller than a lipstick that I need to keep in a special drawer in my desk for fear of it getting lost.

My point with all this memory lane stuff is this: while we work towards the answer, don’t anticipate that it’s right around the corner. It is not. But here is what I predict: in the end the medium will not matter. Nor will we care about the puny questions we bandy back and forth so seriously now. What really matters never changes, not in the long haul.

I want my full immersion reading experience. Work out the details, please. Fight quietly amongst yourselves. I need the quiet, because you see, I’m over here, in front of my fire, with my heart and my mind immersed in a book.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Are Your Kids’ Books Rated R?

In 1984, parents raised angry fists over Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in which the villain pushed his hand into the chest of a man and yanked out the poor guy’s beating heart. They said this sort of violence didn’t belong in a PG-rated movie. The result? PG-13.

In 2009, a suburban dad -- that would be me -- read an advance copy of a new novel called Will Grayson, Will Grayson and came upon this instant-messaging reparté:
boundbydad: thrust your fierce quivering manpole at me, stud
grayscale: your dastardly appendage engorges me with hellfire
boundbydad: my search party is creeping into your no man’s land
grayscale: baste me like a thanksgiving turkey!!!
This, in a book due in April 2010 from Dutton Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., and intended, says an informational note, for readers aged 14 and up.

14 and up, I thought. 14 and up? 14 and up?! To me, “14 and up” is just another way of saying PG-13. And the excerpt above is no PG-13.

Then, 30 pages beyond the quivering manpole, I came across this:
cock + pussy = a happy rooster-kitten couple
Um, would you want your pubescent child reading this?

Officially Worried
As the father of boys aged 13 and 9, who both love to read, I am now officially worried. Is this the stuff of books for Young Readers? For 14 and up? When I was a kid, I was free to read pretty much whatever I wanted, and my kids have the same freedom. While I’ve steered my older son away from, say, Disclosure, which is about sexual harassment, in favor of other, less sexually graphic Michael Crichton options, here’s the thing: When I allow my son to read novels for grown-ups, I know what we’re -- and more to the point, he’s -- getting into. And until now, I thought the same thing about books for Young Readers.

My fear: He picks up Will Grayson, Will Grayson on his own, intrigued by its very intriguing premise. (Two high school students named Will Grayson meet each other, and each changes the direction of the other’s life.) Eventually, he gets to page 70, then page 101. Before writing this article, I wondered if this was language he knew. But when I showed him the pages, he was so mortified that he didn’t know what to say. Neither did I.

Ratings are made based on vocabulary and situations. In terms of the former, if memory serves, one of the Motion Picture Association of America’s lines in the sand for what separates a PG-13 rating from an R is the word “fuck.” Sometimes it’s a question of how many times the word (or a form of it) is used, sometimes it’s about context. For example, if the word is used sexually, the film gets an R. says the word “cock” alone can move a film from PG to PG-13. Using these guidelines, Will Grayson, Will Grayson would be an R-rated movie.

But it’s a book -- and for books, what’s the standard? “There is no standard at all,” says Luann Toth, managing editor of the book review section of the School Library Journal. “It’s pretty arbitrary. Publishers do their own thing. Unlike multimedia, which tries to have a standard, there is no equivalent in the book world.”

So-called book ratings, like “14 and up,” indicate reading level, not content. And even when such indicators are used, they’re buried on the back, in tiny type, near the barcode. Hardly responsible publishing.

Driven by Ratings
Now, before you cry “Censorship!” understand that I am not advocating any form of artistic restriction. In 1988, Doubleday published my first novel, Total Eclipse. It featured teens, but in no way was it meant for teens; it was marketed to adults. My point: as an author, I consider censorship abhorrent. I would never suggest the book’s authors edit the lines out, but I would urge their publisher to add a rating that reflects its content.

Much of our culture, after all, is driven by ratings. We accept and trust them; we would think carefully and search for more information before taking a young child to an R-rated film, for example.

Ratings, of course, are based on content, not interpretation. For as long as I can remember, television has aired “viewer discretion is advised” messages when programming content warrants it, and now there are actual ratings, too. Videogames sport E (Everyone), T (Teens), M (Mature), and other ratings. And music wears on-pack parental advisory notices due to explicit lyrics. Such warnings have not discouraged sales, though some recording artists have produced “clean” versions of certain songs. In the end, all of these notices have simply created better-informed consumers. More, they have helped consumers maintain their own moral baseline, their own ethical center -- and no matter where your own ethical center happens to be, having the information you need to maintain it is the point.

If movies, television, music and videogames are rated according to their own systems, why aren’t books? Why are books marketed according to reading level but not content? Marketing books according to reading level alone is like rating videogames according to people’s ability to push the buttons on control devices. Imagine: THIS GAME IS RATED E BECAUSE, HEY, EVERYONE KNOWS HOW TO PUSH BUTTONS! Never mind that pushing those buttons shoots machine guns that reduce characters to piles of digital blood and flesh.

Ratings are not censorship; they’re a guide to what buyers will find inside the package. And before you accuse me of being homophobic, stop. While the IMs cited above happen to be between two male characters, would they be any less disturbing if boundbydad were a girl?

The Problem Is Marketing
The problem with Will Grayson, Will Grayson isn’t the book itself. John Green and David Levithan have written an entertaining novel that contains important messages about the power of self, creativity, friendship and love. It’s got an innovative hook, a cool premise, a compelling narrative and complex characters.

The problem is the way Dutton Young Readers is marketing it. When I spoke with the book’s publicist, she acknowledged that the publisher had anticipated this problem and told me I was the first of what they imagined would be many calls from parents about this book. She assured me that kids 14 and up have access to and use this sort of language all the time (this came as quite a surprise to my son). And she added that Dutton would be publishing the book on schedule.

Fine. But adding an honest rating to the book’s front cover would help Will Grayson, Will Grayson find the readers it is intended for. Its publisher -- and all publishers -- should take more responsibility for the books they publish by creating an independent organization whose job it is to establish a clear, objective system for rating books, including front-cover icons that indicate content. Whether they’re single-letter ratings or simply “explicit language” warnings, this level of honest publishing can only be good for everyone involved: authors, publishers, and readers. It would go a long way toward making sure that fiction is just in the books, not in their marketing plans.

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Love Story Author, Erich Segal, Dead at 72

The creator of the iconic 1970s book and film has died almost exactly 40 years Love Story’s debut. According to The New York Times, Erich Segal, who had suffered with Parkinson’s disease for 25 years, died of a heart attack at home in London on the 17th of January.

At his funeral, his daughter, the writer Francesca Segal, delivered a eulogy in which she said her father had “fought to breathe, fought to live, every second of the last 30 years of illness with such mind-blowing obduracy, is a testament to the core of who he was -- a blind obsessionality that saw him pursue his teaching, his writing, his running and my mother, with just the same tenacity. He was the most dogged man any of us will ever know.”

From The Guardian:
Segal wrote the bestselling book about love and bereavement, which became a chart-topping film, in 1969 when he was 32 and a classics professor at Harvard. As its most famous line, "love means never having to say you're sorry", entered popular culture, Segal became a celebrity and regular on TV shows, as well as a commentator on the Olympic games for the ABC network.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Terrorism Threat Derails Children’s Book

The Christmastime terrorism threat in Detroit that led to a widespread misunderstanding about books being banned on flights to the United States out of Canada continues to have literary repercussions.

A book by renowned children’s author Robert Munsch (Love You Forever, The Paper Bag Princess) will be postponed, at least for a while, though the author certainly understands why. According to the The Toronto Star, the story “about a child sneaking dolls on a plane has been put on hold given the heightened security at airports after the attempted Christmas bombing of a plane in the United States.”
Since then, airports have implemented a number of measures, from forcing travellers to undergo physical pat-downs or even body scans to a ban on carry-on luggage.

“We were going to do a story on a little girl who smuggles all these dolls onto a plane, but then that thing happened in Detroit,” said Munsch. “Scholastic calls me up in a panic saying, ‘Hold everything, that kid couldn’t smuggle anything onto the plane, she’s lucky to get onto the plane herself.’”
Munsch said he had no problem with the change, and even chuckled about the coincidence of a story of his clashing with a real-life situation. He is now in talks with the publisher on his next project.

The Star piece is here.


The Passing of Parker

Robert B. Parker, the Boston novelist who was highly influential in popularizing the detective fiction genre over the last four decades, died yesterday at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was 77 years old. The cause of his passing is being attributed to a heart attack, which took him in the midst of working at his desk.

Parker introduced his most famous series protagonist, Beantown private eye Spenser, in The Godwulf Manuscript (1973). He went on to pen more than 60 books, in at least two genres and with several lead players.

The Rap Sheet has the full story here. And there are links to many other Parker tributes at Sarah Weinman’s blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Literary Lions and Lolita

Many thanks to The Guardian’s book blog which, in a fairly pointless anti-list piece, included a link to what is arguably one of the most significant pieces of literary television journalism. Ever.

Three literary heavyweights sitting around a table – books and cigarettes all over the place. The trio: über critic Lionel Trilling, the author Vladimir Nabokov and -- since it’s a CBC interview -- iconic Canadian broadcaster and cultural archivist, Pierre Burton is acting as moderator. What’s under discussion is Lolita and the interview was broadcast at a time when it was the book that everyone was discussing.

A Canadian television archive site describes the episode in this way:
Nov 19, 1958 - Short of a change of plans -- and this program occasionally has to switch without much notice -- viewers should get a live interview with Vladimir Nabokov, conducted in New York by critic Lionel Trilling. Nabokov is the author of Lolita, the most controversial novel of the year. On a recent edition of Fighting Words no less an author than Nicholas Monsarrat thought it ought to be banned. Others have violently disagreed, called it a work of extraordinary art.
I have no idea why Burton isn’t mentioned, but that’s definitely him.

The episode did not air in two parts, but YouTube has it archived that way. The second part is here.


Friday, January 15, 2010

New This Week: Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Readers who enjoyed 2007’s Loving Frank by Nancy Horan are likely to be similarly enamored by Melanie Benjamin’s view through the looking glass with Alice I Have Been (Delacorte).

Like Loving Frank, Alice I Have Been fictionalizes the life of a real person in a way that is more creative and artful than biographical. Benjamin’s portrayal of the person Charles Dodgson -- who wrote as Lewis Carroll -- based his Alice character upon.

In her portrayal, Benjamin shows Alice Liddell’s entire life to have been directly impacted by having being immortalized as that girl from Wonderland. In Alice I Have Been Benjamin focuses on three periods in Liddell’s life: her childhood, when she actually met Dodgson; her young womanhood at Oxford; and as a wife and mother during World War I.

There has been much historical speculation about the nature of the relationship between the child who was Alice when Wonderland was created and Dogdson. Historically, there are loose ends in the story: ends that are unlikely to ever be tied up. In Benjamin’s telling, however, Dodgson himself fares better than he might have done. For the most part, Benjamin has opted to make her tale a sometimes dark, but gentle one. Considering some of the whispers in the intervening years, Benjamin’s choice was kind. But don’t read Alice I Have Been as a biography, at least, not your first time through. It is a memorable and even magical book. A good story. Sure, the historical relevance offers up some bonus tracks, but if you come to Alice I Have Been just to enjoy the feature, you won’t be disappointed.

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Cookbooks: Ciao Italia: Five Ingredient Favorites by Mary Ann Esposito

There are cookbooks that are so beautiful, so dream-inducing that you wonder if they’re really meant to be cooked from at all. Gorgeous photos. Fanciful ingredients. Complicated instructions. Books you would be happy to purchase and just spend hours reading and day-dreaming and never even opening in the kitchen. Ciao Italia: Five Ingredient Favorites (St. Martin’s Press) is not one of those books.

Author Mary Ann Esposito is well known to viewers of that other food network, PBS: the one that, arguably, made food shows happen in the first place. Esposito’s show, Ciao Italia, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. As anyone with a public television subscription will tell you, PBS cooking shows are stodgier and more of the earth than shows on other networks. That’s not a criticism. Neither is it praise. It’s simply a comment, and it’s one that certainly applies here. Ciao Italia is not a book that’s going to make anyone slip into raptures. It is, however, a earthy, absolutely foolproof and flawless cookbook. If you are a kitchen beginner who has a hankering to produce wholesome meals with a Mediterranean flair, Ciao Italia is the book for you.

The premise of the book is what makes this the perfect one for chefs low on experience, time or both. “When is less more?” Esposito asks in her introduction. “When you can turn just FIVE ingredients into something that is not only delicious but exciting, fun, and easy to make.”

And what exactly can you make with just five ingredients? As it turns out, quite a lot. My favorite from this book is Zuppa alla Pavese or Pavia’s Poached Egg Soup. Gorgeous, simple and gorgeously simple: basically toasted ciabatta bread, Parmigiano-Reggiano, chicken broth and eggs. Think French onion soup without onions, but with an egg poached in it, right in the bowl. The Parsley Gnocchi are simple and beautiful and have forever altered the way I do my gnocchi. (Fresh parsley chopped in: who knew?) And Esposito’s Mushroom Ragu is a perfect dish for those who want to entertain in simple but elegant style: some mushrooms, some cream and a handful of herbs and you have a dish that will impress anyone very quickly and simply.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Poet P.K. Page Dies at 93

The Canadian literary community is saddened today by news that one of the country’s best-loved poets has died. From CBC News:
Canadian literary grand dame P.K. Page, long renowned for her poetry and other writing, has died at the age of 93.

Page died early Thursday morning at her home in Victoria, CBC News has confirmed.

A companion of the Order of Canada, the British-born, Canadian-reared Patricia Kathleen Page was considered among Canada's most esteemed writers.
January Magazine most recently discussed Page’s work last year when contributing editor Monica Stark reviewed Page’s children’s chapbook, The Old Woman and the Hen (Porcupine’s Quill). “It’s a tiny, special, lovely little book,” Stark wrote, “clearly intended to be cherished.”

Page’s official Web site is here. Wikipedia includes extensive information on her here. The portrait of Page at left was done in 1947 by the painter, graphic artist and film producer Alma Duncan (1917–2004). It is held by Library and Archives Canada and can be seen online here.

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Naked Girls … Reading?

This could change the nature of author events, liven up the library and put a shimmy in the book industry. Imagine:
Naked Girls Reading is a group of beautiful ladies who love to read ... naked. That’s really it. There’s not a whole lot more to it. Should there be?

I mean, sure, we also like to do it in front all of you voyeurs via photos, videos and very special live events, but you don’t have to look for something larger here -- something pretentious or even seedy. Once you experience it, you’ll stop asking so many questions and just let the concept take you.
Not quite sure how we’ve missed the growing Naked Girl Reading movement. It started in Chicago early in 2009 and is spreading like wildfire wherever there are books and beautiful naked girls. Five U.S. cities currently offer Naked Girls Reading programs. Interested entrepreneurs take note: franchise opportunities are available.

We were alerted to Naked Girls Reading by this piece in The Boston Globe. The event mentioned at the Oberon Club is here. And visit the gen-u-yne Naked Girls Reading Web site here. The Naked Girls reading list is here.

In January, Naked Girls are Reading The Corpse Wore Pasties (Hard Case Crime) by Johnny Porkpie. Purchases of the book generated from the Naked Girls Reading Web site benefit Rock for Reading.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fiction: Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan

In the world of rock n’ roll novels, Bill Flanagan (A&R, New Bedlam) has got the most butt-kicking blurbs. Ev-ah. Dream up the two most perfect blurbers for this book and you won’t pull these two names. Ready? Bono (who says the book “feels truer than what really happened”) and Bob Dylan. You don’t need to go further than that. (Even though Flanagan does, with a blurb from book-writing, history teaching rock journalist, Sean Wilentz.)

Evening’s Empire (Simon & Schuster) looks behind the Faustian deals of the music industry and exposes a generational-saga-like tale of 40 years of life behind the curtain with fictional rock band, the Ravons, and their manager, Jack Flynn, our narrator on this journey.

We follow Jack and the Ravons from London in the sixties right through to the inevitable present day reunion tour. Oddly enough, though, it’s just not as fun as it sounds. This has nothing to do with Flanagan’s voice -- which is assured -- or his knowledge -- which is complete. It’s just that Evening’s Empire is a little... relentless. Where Flanagan’s landmark 2000 novel, A&R, had a certain raw energy and an undeniable muscularity, Evening’s Empire -- which in some ways covers similar ground -- is sometimes dark and dreary enough, you just want to throw up your hands or close your eyes. For me, this comes from the place Flanagan has chosen to stand in order to tell this story. Admittedly, it’s a place that might really work for some readers, but it did not do it for me at all.

Flynn narrates as though he were telling a rock biography. And not the kind of rock biography that makes you think you’re reading a novel, but the type penned by non-writers who have somehow ended up with a book contract to tell someone else’s story from a place that is nearby. I suspect that this rock biography voice is part of Flanagan’s art: that it’s a choice he’s made but, again, I found it distancing. I like the lines between fiction and non-fiction well-defined. I don’t ever want to have to wonder, or be lulled into thinking I’m reading something I’m not. In fact, if those lines are to be blurred, I’d prefer if go the other way: I sometimes like lyrical, poetic creative non-fiction. But fiction should sound... well... fictional. It should be a story that I ride away.

All of that said, those who enjoy seeing behind closed doors in the music industry will like Evening’s Empire. I might quibble with the way Flanagan has chosen to tell this story, but on every page of his novel, you know that the notes this author has hit are authentic and that the story he’s chosen to tell engages at a lot of the important levels.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Recall Sparks Concern

Books can be dangerous in many ways. Lots of people think that the ideas some books help spread can be dangerous to your mind and spirit. But can a book be physically dangerous?

Recently, for instance, I was afraid for my safety while reading Stephen King’s gargantuan Under the Dome (Scribner). It seemed possible to me that I might fall asleep while reading in bed and be crushed under the weight of all those pages. (Not that the book is sleep-inducing. Far from it, in fact. But, like a lot of people, I was reading to help me disconnect from my day.)

Today, however, Sunset Publishing is dealing with a different type of dangerous book altogether. They’re involved in a recall of almost one million copies of books published since 1975 that might lead you to start a fire: and not a literal one. From The San Jose Mercury News:
One of the most trusted names in DIY, Menlo Park-based Sunset Publishing, was forced to recall six of its titles after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said consumers who followed some of the wiring instructions in the books risked electrical shocks or could start a fire.
The books under recall are six of Sunset’s titles, including Sunset Basic Home Repairs, Sunset Complete Home Wiring and Sunset Complete Patio Book.

If you own a book that will fall under this recall, the Mercury News has included response specifics here.

Will E-Books Be 2010’s Digital Photo Frame?

Expert journalistic assessment or Luddite alert? Either way, while rounding up the latest in e-book technology, Money Control wonders if the e-book readers are really going to be all of that:
Digital Photo frames. A phenomenon that really should have taken off, and clocked in much more numbers in sales than it really has, but hasn't. My neighboring analog photo studio is still doing great business, with his 6 by 4 prints. What really happened to the digital frames?
Hmmm... I keep seeing them around. On sale. Still. I’m not convinced it’s quite the same thing. Still, it’s an interesting, somewhat thoughtful piece.


Val McDermid Wins Diamond Dagger

The British Crime Writers’ Association has announced that Scottish novelist Val McDermid is the recipient of this year’s CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger Award, honoring outstanding achievement in the field of crime writing.

The Rap Sheet has the full story here.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Crime Fiction: Dying Gasp by Leighton Gage

My earliest introduction to the jungle-embraced city of Manaus, Brazil, came in Black Orchid, Nicholas Meyer and Barry Jay Kaplan’s 1977 historical thriller about riches, romance and the devious purloining of rubber-tree seeds at the turn of the last century. Their story made the town sound almost as mythical and magical as it was politically corrupt--a place doing constant battle to protect its manmade wonders from the encroaching rain forest. Manaus sat in the heart of rubber-tree country, and as demand for rubber heightened in the 19th century, the town prospered. “Latex lords grew magnificently wealthy,” according to Greg Grandin, whose terrific 2009 non-fiction book, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, reintroduced me to this mysterious metropolis in the wild heart of the Amazon. “With their Beaux Arts palaces, neoclassical municipal buildings, electric trams, wide Parisian boulevards, and French restaurants, the cities of Manaus, located about nine hundred miles up the Amazon River, and Belém, the region’s principal Atlantic port, completed for the title of ‘tropical Paris.’”

Is it any wonder that, after enjoying Black Orchid, I promised myself I would someday visit Manaus?

Then again ... maybe not, now that I’ve read Leighton Gage’s third Brazil-set crime novel, Dying Gasp (Soho Crime). In his hands, Manaus is transformed from the pulchritudinous beauty of my vivid imagination into a decrepit, syphilitic whore. When told that he’ll have to go to Manaus on assignment, a federal officer lists the city’s dubious attractions: “Dengue, malaria, yellow fever, bad food--” No matter what the meal, everything apparently tastes like fish in Manaus. (A running gag here is the visiting cops’ daunting quest for an eatery serving something other than seafood.) The local weather appears to be unbearably hot, the streets filthy, and the people indolent and dishonest, or at least that’s what I gather from Gage’s tale. (If this portrayal is wildly askew from reality, Manaus tourism officials ought to have a serious talk with the author.)

The actual plot of Dying Gasp centers around kidnapping and the production of so-called snuff films. Teenager Marta Malan, the granddaughter of a prominent politician from Recife, has disappeared along with her older girlfriend, Andrea de Castro. Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Federal Police in Brasília has been called in to find her. A tip as to her whereabouts comes from far off Amsterdam, where videos showing the rape and decapitation of a young woman are traced back to Brazil. A voice on one of those videos sounds like that of Claudia Andrade, previously known to the chief inspector for supplying vital organs harvested from living subjects. Silva’s investigation soon leads to Manaus and José Luis Ignácio Braga, aka The Goat, a “whoremaster” specializing in adolescent girls. The Goat picked up Marta in one of his sweeps for involuntary employees, and he has imprisoned her until she agrees to do his bidding. But Marta is nothing if not headstrong, and refuses to cooperate. Since he can’t let her loose, The Goat decides to sell her to a woman who’s supposedly securing willing damsels for horny European clients -- a woman who is, of course, the notorious Andrade.

The white slavery theme isn’t exactly revolutionary in crime fiction, and the details supplied here may be too much for squeamish readers. Gage does, however, bring some new interest to the subject with his fictional participants in that business, especially the irredeemably repulsive Goat and the arrogant, well-hung scumbags who are recruited for snuff video performances. If Claudia Andrade seems too depraved to be believed, she’s at least balanced out by Mario Silva, a dogged but unheroic detective who’s indifferent to power mongers as well as to his politically ambitious (and expediently religious) boss, and who is married to a woman quietly searching for salvation from her personal pain at the bottom of every liquor bottle. The competent but “irreverent and sarcastic” Agente Arnaldo Nunes makes an excellent assistant to Silva, contributing many of this yarn’s lighter elements, and the priest who struggles to win the chief inspector’s help in rescuing other innocents like Marta Malan turns out to be far more interesting -- and stupid -- than one expects.

Although this is Leighton Gage’s third Mario Silva novel, following 2007’s Blood of the Wicked and 2008’s Buried Strangers, it’s the first I have read all the way through. Now I have to go find those earlier works again. Anyone who can combine horror and humor between book covers as deftly as Gage does deserves closer attention.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Art & Culture: Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books edited by Trevor J. Adams and Stephen Patrick Clare

Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books (Nimbus Publishing) is like a blueprint for what provinces, states, regions and even countries should be doing for their literature. In straightforward fashion and in easily accessible language, it rounds up the 100 greatest books of Canada’s huge and literarily formidable Atlantic region. Full stop. Then it bundles them all together under a bright, shiny cover, giving a couple of pages and a full color representation to each of the chosen 100 along with a breezy write-up and -- voila! -- a literary map for anyone who would like to hit all of the regional highlights.

Editors Trevor J. Adams and Stephen Patrick Clare asked local readers and reviewers for their selections and, in the end, compiled the list based on this input as well as their own considerable expertise. From the introduction:
We relied on invaluable input from hundreds of people, but ultimately, we take sole responsibility (or blame) for these rankings. You won’t agree with all our decisions. That is fine. In fact, that is ideal -- good books should spark debate and discussion, they should raise questions and challenge preconceptions.
As though to deliver on this promise of discussion-sparking choices, Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief takes the number one position. While MacLeod’s 1999 debut novel truly is a wonderful book, putting it in the number one spot would have taken some courage. There is, after all, a rich literary heritage to mine from the Atlantic provinces. To prove the point, the top ten of Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books almost looks like a list of Canada’s greatest books, depending, of course, on where you stand and how your tastes run. It’s certainly a great reading list for anyone:
  1. No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod
  2. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  3. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston
  4. The Mountain and the Valley by Ernest Buckler
  5. Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
  6. Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan
  7. Random Passage by Bernice Morgan
  8. The Lost Salt Gift of Blood by Alistair MacLeod
  9. Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
  10. Rockbound by Frank Parker Day

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Friday, January 08, 2010

New This Week: Catalyst: A Tale of the Barque Cats by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

Let me be honest, since this is essentially a book that features cats in space, if Catalyst: A Tale of the Barque Cats (DelRey) had not had Anne McCaffrey’s name on the cover, I would most definitely have given it a miss. But there is always, with McCaffrey, the possibility for real magic. And, of course, with her never-ending and impossibly enduring Dragon Riders of Pern series, McCaffrey has proven herself -- beyond doubt -- to be capable of forging moving and believable relationships between animals and humans.

And so here we are again, at the beginning of a journey, some 43 years after the first time McCaffrey partnered a dragon with a human. This time even describing the book makes me feel silly though, to be honest, it does not take long to get carried away by these characters and their connections.

Two of the reasons for this come from the authors. McCaffrey, of course, we know: one of the most significant, important and respected SF/F authors still working today. Her body of work is magnificent. I can honestly say I have never embarked on a literary journey with McCaffrey at the helm that I did not thoroughly enjoy.

McCaffrey’s co-author on Catalyst is a significant author in her own right. Washington State-based Elizabeth Ann Scarborough won the Nebula Award in 1989 for The Healer’s War and has co-authored 10 other novels with McCaffrey.

If you have loved McCaffrey’s work through the years, you will like Catalyst. Here we find specially bred Barque Cats assisting humans on their interstellar travels by controlling vermin, helping keep moral up and alerting crew to certain environmental hazards. Genetics being what they are, a single strain of Barque Cats prove even more superior. This line is kidnapped, put in danger and -- ultimately -- placed in a position where the fate of the universe depends on their furry shoulders. See? I told you it sounds silly. Yet somehow, it is not.

Cats is space. In other hands, perhaps, ridiculous. But this is McCaffrey and an able and talented cohort. This is magic. Escape. And, in some strange way, science fiction at its most primal and its best.

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Transport Canada Backpedals from Book Ban

Transport Canada has backpedaled from a security statement issued after Christmas that appeared to exclude books and magazines from being taken aboard US-bound planes. From The Globe and Mail:
Canadian travelers flying into the U.S. can take whatever books and magazines they want through airport security.

A spokesman for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority said today that “books and magazines were always allowed and still are on U.S.-bound planes.” Books and magazines, however, weren't included in a list of 13 “items” that Transport Canada approved Dec. 28 for carry-on purposes.
Except, of course, that they weren’t. As I said in a comment to the piece that ran in this space a few days ago, I always figured the “book ban” was a bit of red tape that ran amok. (One of those bureaucratic “oops” that later gets amended by an “oh well.” Which is pretty much what happened. The Globe piece concludes:
Transport Canada issued an “update” on its security measures Monday afternoon this week, but the list of approved items remained at 13, with no addition of books and magazines. The Air Transport Security Authority official indicated today that “a revised list that will be more specific” was in the works from Transport Canada but a media officer with Transport Canada would only say “there might be” a revised or new list.

Regardless, “books would never be refused.” she said. “They can be easily scanned.”
Except, of course, that they were refused at some airports, with reports of such refusals coming in via a Facebook group as recently as yesterday. Things should be better today, though, as CanWest News Service reports:
Transport Canada spokeswoman Melanie Quesnel said passengers in Canada heading to the U.S. "can bring books on planes" and screening officers have been advised to allow that.
Upshot: as expected, there never was an actual “ban” on books on flights bound to the United States from Canada, though there does appear to have been a temporary misplacement of intelligence.


Original Fiction at The Rap Sheet

While neither January Magazine or The Rap Sheet generally run original fiction, today January’s crime fiction-focused sister publication does just that. As Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce says:
We have a real treat for you today. To coincide with the debut of Loss, Australia-born Scottish author Tony Black’s third novel featuring Edinburgh newspaper reporter-turned-part-time private eye Gus Dury, The Rap Sheet is hosting Black’s never-before-published Dury short story, “Last Orders.” Like his first two novels, 2008’s Paying for It and last year’s Gutted (just released in paperback in the UK), “Last Orders” is a tough little yarn packed with characters not wholly good or altogether predictable, and a spare writing style that serves the plot well.
You can read Tony Black’s “Last Orders” here.

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New in Paperback: The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter

There’s a certain slim-hipped, youthful muscularity to Andrew Porter’s 2008 debut collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, out this week in a lovely Vintage paperback edition. Coming, as we just have, out of a year of strong short fiction, it seems a great time to experience Porter if you missed him the first time around.
The hole was at the end of Tal Walker’s driveway. It’s paved over now. But twelve summers ago Tal climbed into it and never came up again.
Porter delivers suburbia just exactly as you’ve experienced it, but with all the dark corners intact, and some of them even lit right up. Normal people, across America, struggling to discover the meaning in their everyday lives. His voice is even, often understated, so much so that at times, the sharp details he is able to illuminate come as a delightful surprise.

After you’ve read him, the awards come as no surprise: this collection won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, he has received a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellowship, an Iowa Teaching/Writing Fellowship and he has won the Pushcart Prize. More to come? We hope so.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Fiction: Cairo Modern by Naguib Mahfouz

While to the best of my knowledge, Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz’s 1946 novel, Cairo Modern, has never been out of print, this week Anchor Books publishes a beautiful new paperback translation (by William M. Hutchins) of the late Cairo-born author’s work.

As astonishing as it may seem, Mahfouz, who died in 2006, remains the only Nobel Prize winner in literature from the Arab world. Though he wrote over 40 novel-length works throughout his career, Cairo Modern remains one of the most accessible, an engaging story of love and loss in 1930s Cairo, a time when European ideas and morals were beginning to infiltrate Cairo society.

A young university graduate marries a politician’s mistress in a move that is meant to save fortunes and names but -- somewhat predictably -- creates more problems than it solves. What is not predictable is Mahfouz’s handling of his story, the deep humanity he bestows on his creations and the fine detail that burns the whole into memory.

This is an important and lasting work. “Mahfouz was Egypt’s Balzac,” The New York Times said. An interesting -- and telling -- comment. You may never see Egypt in quite the same way.


Books Banned on Canada-U.S. Flights

Are books dangerous? A new Transport Canada ban on almost all airline carry-on items would seem to indicate just that.

The new measures were put in place as part of a massive security crackdown following the Christmas Day terrorist attempt. According to The Edmonton Journal, “U.S.-bound air travellers were forced to stow all but the bare essentials in their checked luggage Monday as Transport Canada issued a new ban on almost all carryon luggage.”
The prohibition is intended to get planes running on schedule after time-consuming new security measures introduced on Saturday caused lineups, delays and cancellations across North America, spokesman Patrick Charette said.
And while keeping to schedule is laudable and passenger safety is everyone’s first concern, there is a place where common sense can go out the window. Here is that place:
Transport Canada issued a list of 13 items that are exempt from the new policy. Passengers can still carry-on small purses, coats, laptops, cameras, musical instruments and baby-care supplies. Medication, crutches, canes, walkers, medical devices, special needs items and containers carrying life sustaining items are also exempt.

“Technically, if it is not on the list, it is not allowed,” Charette said.
Surely books are less potentially dangerous than laptop computers and cameras? And, sure: you could theoretically clobber someone with a book, but that’s certainly true of canes, crutches and walkers, as well.
Edmonton International Airport spokeswoman Donna Call said the new rules mean all backpacks and rolling suitcases must be checked. Books, magazines and even children's toys must also be checked, she said. Finally, even exempt items will be limited, which means that a single passenger cannot carry-on a purse, a coat, a laptop and a diaper bag.
So while you’re checking that potentially dangerous book or magazine, the Journal points out that “small electronic devices such as iPods and portable DVD players will be allowed on board ... and passengers are free to purchase books, magazines, snacks and water once they are through security.”

Canadian author Mary Soderstrom has started a (thus far mostly ignored) Facebook group called “Stop Dumbing Down: Allow Books on Airplanes.” Writes Sorderstrom:
The news about what will be allowed on flights to the US from Canada (and perhaps from other countries) is appalling -- no books, it seems! There should be a vigorous protest from book lovers, publishers, writers and everyone concerned about the life of the mind -- or who just likes a good story.
Sorderstrom is right. What sort of message is being sent? And how did this even happen? Yes, safety is important. But cameras? Laptops? iPods? And not books? This is the oddest book banning I’ve ever heard of, one that, as Soderstrom says, should be protested and noted by all of those who love books. If nothing else, as one entry on the Facebook group notes, what are book lovers going to do on flights if they take away our books?


Monday, January 04, 2010

New Tomorrow: The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir

It is interesting to me -- yet not at all salient -- that the author photo of Alison Weir included in The Lady in the Tower (M&S/Ballantine) shows the accomplished British author looking not unlike the painting detail of her subject that graces the cover of her latest book. In these particular images, both Weir and Boleyn look attractive and mysterious and both wear just the trace of a Mona Lisa smile. As things turned out, the second wife of England’s Henry VIII had a lot less to smile about than does Weir, who has written a string of bestselling books -- both fiction and non-fiction -- that have captivated world wide audiences and shed light in dimly lit corners of some of history’s best known moments.

The Lady in the Tower is the first non-fiction exploration of the final days of Anne Boleyn whose demise may well have altered Britain’s religious make-up forever. Boleyn was charged with high treason and died not longer after, still protesting her innocence. This is an area of history that has fascinated Weir, and she has spent so much time researching various ultimately related works that is seems possible that she has made herself one of the world’s leading experts of the wives of Henry VIII. She is the author of two bestselling novels, Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth. Her historical biographies include Mistress of the Monarchy, Queen Isabella, Henry VIII, The Life of Elizabeth I and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Unsurprisingly -- considering the expertise she brings to this era -- Weir comes up with some details others have either missed or construed in different ways, including Boleyn’s innocence of the charges she was executed for and what might have motivated Thomas Cromwell to construct such an intricate case against the doomed queen.

As always, Weir writes compellingly and well. She manages to give the impression of great scholarship while maintaining an interesting and accessible tone. The Lady in the Tower is another very good book for this impressive writer’s résumé.

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