Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Margaret in the Twitterverse

It sounds like it could be the title of one of her very own children’s books, yet Margaret Atwood’s tales of her experiences on Twitter are as real as a cyber-experience can be. Here from The New York Review of Books blog, “Atwood in the Twittersphere:”
The Twittersphere is an odd and uncanny place. It’s something like having fairies at the bottom of your garden. How do you know anyone is who he/she says he is, especially when they put up pictures of themselves that might be their feet, or a cat, or a Mardi Gras mask, or a tin of Spam?
You can become one of Atwood’s nearly 35,000 followers here. And though January has quite a few less than 35,000 followers, we’re here.

Meanwhile, The Giller Prize’s Twitterfeed points us at an interview with Atwood for Germany’s Inspired Mind series. “Anyone who writes a book is an optimist. No matter what the content. The optimistic thing about this is: It’s a book. It hasn’t happened yet. Keep it inside those covers.”

January’s 2001 interview with Atwood is here.


Cookbooks: Eat Ate by Guy Mirabella

I feel absolutely remiss in having not managed to get my hands on Eat Ate (Chronicle) until now. It’s a terrific book in every way and really should have been on January’s best of 2009 list in the cookbook category and perhaps in the art and culture section as well. I should explain that. While Eat Ate is clearly a cookbook -- it has recipes and was written by someone who has become best known as a chef. Australian/Italian Guy Mirabella started out as a book designer and teacher of graphic design. And it shows: oh, yes. It shows.

Before you even get anywhere near the food, Eat Ate is the most beautiful cookbook that ever was. That’s a huge statement, but I defy you to prove it untrue. Quite beyond the stellar photos and fetching recipe designs of other beautiful cookbooks, Eat Ate is an artistic manifestation of the very idea of a cookery book. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and, if I have, it’s not a cookbook at all, but a visual literary adventure as designed by Nick Bantock. That is to say that, in every way imaginable, on the visual front, Eat Ate is unbeatable. Mirabella explains his innovative approach:
Unlike traditional cookbooks, there are no starter, main meal and dessert chapters in this book. Rather, the recipes are organized according to the themes that give me the comfort and freedom to express the way I cook, eat, design and paint.
Nor, when we get to it, does the food disappoint. It is uncomplicated, healthful Italian, most often simply prepared and frequently innovatively presented.

Eat Ate
is a perfect cookbook. An art book with food that you’ll never want to part with.

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A Man of Influence, D’oh!

There is not much argument that William Shakespeare’s voice has been one of history’s most influential. But if you were to choose the wordsmith whose words have carried the most influence, who would that be? The choices are many, after all. The possibilities almost endless. Don’t try to guess the answer, though: the name is one not likely to be near the top of your list. Homer Simpson. Yes, that Homer. From Digital Journal:
“Homer Simpson must be the most influential wordsmith since Shakespeare,” said Jurga Zilinskiene, CEO of Today Translations. “And thanks to The Simpsons, combined with the power of the Internet to spread new words, ours must be the greatest golden age for new words since Shakespeare’s own.”
All right: if we’re very honest, at its most stout, the “facts” presented in this article seem thin at best. Never mind: it’s a fun look at an unlikely subject and it’s here.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Biography: Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll by Robert Hofler

Seventies Hollywood excess is perfectly rendered in Party Animals (Da Capo), Robert Hofler’s latest foray into the seamier side of Tinseltown.

Hofler is a senior editor at Variety and the author of The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson as well as Variety’s The Movie That Changed My Life. As a writer and reporter, Hofler knows his beat well. If there was ever any doubt, there isn’t after reading Party Animals, where he delivers a front row look at the crazy life that surrounded producer Allan Carr (1937-1999).

Carr was best known for some great films and some awful ones, as well as stellar parties and for producing the Oscars remembered as the worst ever (Carr was banned from future Oscar attendance after this fiasco).

The movies most associated with him include Grease, Tommy, La Cage aux Folles as well as the Village People musical some people attribute with the death of disco: Can’t Stop the Music.

Hofler’s account begins at the end: with filmmaker Brett Ratner (Red Dragon, Rush Hour) purchasing the recently deceased Carr’s infamous Benedict Canyon home for 3.6 million dollars in 1999.

From there we’re spun back into the 1970s, where Carr is beginning to make a huge impression as a host and producer. Hofler takes us through these two huge aspects of Carr’s life with raw abandon: lavish partiesand productions display a life lived beyond the edge. If you enjoy tales from inside Hollywood, you’ll like Party Animals, even if you never knew much about Carr.

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Fiction: Deloume Road by Matthew Hooten

Debut novelist Matthew Hooten’s Deloume Road (Knopf Canada) is imaginative, masterful, ambitious and occasionally cloying. It’s a startling combination and one that, for this reader anyway, never quite gelled.

Told in three time segments and one location -- the title’s Deloume Road, a Vancouver Island backroad with a community connection. While Hooten lives on Vancouver Island and was raised there, he completed a Masters in creative writing at Bath Spa University in England. While he was there, Deloume Road was awarded the Greene & Heaton Prize for the best novel to emerge from the program.

While much of Deloume Road is smooth and lovely, the artful metaphors Hooten reaches for are sometimes just a little too much and, likewise, description sometimes moves from descriptive to a place slightly beyond.

I was put on alert in the book’s first paragraph, where a child is described as having “cobalt eyes.” While an argument against the possibility of eyes that color can be made, it is the fact that the writer felt the need to include them that I found bothersome. It feels like athleticism for the sake of showing how high one can jump where, to my mind, the purpose of description is to help grow the reader’s understanding of the picture.

Aside from this quibble with Hooten’s airs above the ground, Deloume Road really is quite fantastic. A complicated arc is wound within a story that on the surface appears simple... and that I describe only in very broad terms for fear of giving some of the delight away.

Deloume Road is part of Random House Canada’s New Face of Fiction program which has, since 1996, discovered a remarkably good crop of young authors, Yann Martel, Lori Lansens, Timothy Taylor and Ann-Marie MacDonald among them. Will Matthew Hooten come to be one of the sharply remarked of this group? Time will tell.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Art & Culture: Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser edited by William Irwin and Richard Brian Davis

“...We don’t just want to know how deep the rabbit-hole goes .... We also want to know how to make sense of what we discover when we suddenly land ‘thump! thump!’ in Wonderland and pass through the looking glass.”

These words from the introduction to Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy (John Wiley & Sons) seem to me to sum the central force of the book as neatly as anything ever could. If we are to see the philosophy behind Lewis Carroll’s classic, that’s a terrific place to start.

Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy is the latest in a series edited by King’s College philosophy professor Irwin that uses contemporary pop culture to frame philosophical concepts. He’s done it through the looking glass of Seinfeld, The Simpsons, The Matrix and others. Upcoming titles will do the same with 30 Rock and Mad Men to name just two.

While I love the idea of popularizing philosophy for the masses, as it were, I’m not completely convinced that there really is any deeper underlying meaning in all things Alice to probe or that the answers to life’s ultimate questions lie buried in the unseen meaning behind a hookah-smoking blue caterpillars.

What saves the book from pure exploitive stupidity, however, is an engaging and ingenious approach. The book is essentially an anthology with some of the biggest thinkers in modern philosophy contributing their big thoughts. All sorts of professors and lecturers musing on Alice as feminist icon or Alice’s lack of social contract. It may sometimes be silly, but it’s never boring and it makes you consider. It makes you think. Which, when you ponder it, is what philosophy is meant to do.

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Fiction: Unforgivable by Philippe Djian

Described by the publisher as a literary thriller, French author Philippe Djian’s Unforgivable (Simon and Schuster) is definitely more the former than the latter, especially if pace and level of introspection is anything to go by.

Skillfully translated from the French by Euan Cameron, Unforgivable brings us into the life of Francis, a 60-year-old writer dealing with the disappearance of his daughter and the possible infidelity of his wife and muses, in a sense, on the very nature of forgiveness... and where it might be lacking.

Unforgivable was first published in France in 2009, where it was awarded the Le Prix Jean Freustié. The director André Téchiné (The Girl on the Train, Les Témoins) will begin work on a film version of Djian’s novel later this year.

Unforgivable is spare and lovely, a beautifully rendered portrait of a man in despair.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Higgins Clark Takes Stock

Though 80-year-old Mary Higgins Clark is best known for novels of suspense, this week its the author’s actions and not her plotlines that are generating the biggest mystery.

The Seattle Times reports that Higgins-Clark has purchased a seat on the Chicago Board Options Exchange at a cost of close to three million dollars. But even though Higgins Clark isn’t talking about her purchase, it looks more like investment than luxury shopping though, if it were the latter, she could certainly afford it. Clark is married to John Conheeny who is a former CEO of Merrill Lynch Futures. These days, though, it’s Higgins-Clark who is pulling down the big paydays:
The author, who said she was paid $64 million in 2000 to write four novels for publisher Simon & Schuster, may be expecting investors will clamor for a chance to own a piece of the largest market for equity options. Clark's seat will convert to shares when CBOE sheds its member ownership. The New York Mercantile Exchange's stock rose 125 percent on its first trading day in 2006.

“She’s a brilliant writer and a great investor,” said Richard Schaeffer, who was chairman of Nymex when it went public and is an acquaintance of Conheeney, who served on the exchange's board. "Keep doing what you're doing," Schaeffer said when asked if he has advice for Clark. "My further advice would be to stay married to John forever."
The Seattle Times piece is here. Meanwhile, Higgins Clark’s newest book, The Shadow of Your Smile (Simon & Schuster), will debut April 13th. Normally grumpy Kirkus sends a smile:
So many conspirators that the unmasking of the biggest villain is a distinct anticlimax. Until then, however, it’s a pleasure watching the slow grinding of well-oiled gears as the unsurprising outcome looms.
Over 80 million copies of Higgins Clark’s 42 novels have been sold in the United States alone.

The Real McGraw

The New York Times reports that Harold W. McGraw, long-time head of McGraw-Hill Publishing, had died at home in Connecticut on Wednesday. He was 92-year-old. From the NYT obituary:
Self-effacing, formal in bearing and courteous in an old-fashioned way, Mr. McGraw seemed an unlikely candidate to climb to the top of the corporate ladder. He was the eldest son of the only second-generation member of the family who had never run the company. The man he worked for in the book division, Edward E. Booher, thought little of his abilities. “It just never occurred to me that Harold would one day be my boss,” Mr. Booher told Fortune magazine.
McGraw’s son, Harold W. McGraw III, is now the chief executive of McGraw-Hill. The Times obituary tells the dramatic story of a life richly lived behind the scenes in publishing, and it’s here. Meanwhile, the McGraw-Hill Web site offers a lengthy obit of their late leader. It includes this passage that seems to speak directly to some of the current confusion over electronic books:
Mr. McGraw always believed that the quality and content of the message, rather than the mode of delivery, were most important. “Although the medium might change,” he said, “content always must be determined by the same standards -- it has to be accurate, objective, authoritative, comprehensive, current, and reliable.”


Happy Tolkien Reading Day!

Because every day must have purpose and intent, I suppose. We like anything with the word “reading” in it though, so we’ll pass this one along. From CNN’s SciTech blog:
Every year since 2003, fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic tales have gathered on March 25 for meetups at local libraries, schools, universities and elsewhere to celebrate the works of one of the original geek icons....

Each year, there is a different theme for the day (this year it’s “Tolkien's Seafarers”). Fans -- encouraged to attend in costume, of course -- read aloud some of their favorite sections for about ten minutes or less, and participate in “musical interludes.” Some people even bring recordings of Tolkien himself giving a reading.
The full piece is here.

Which E-Book Reader is Right for You?

While new e-book readers continue to enter the market, it’s pretty early to say who is going to win the battle currently being fought over dominance in the growing e-book market. In fact, it seems likely that the reader that will win the war probably doesn’t even exist yet. Meanwhile, though, if you want to read electronically right now, there are some very viable options available. WebWorkerDaily takes a closer look at the top of the field:
E-books have never been more popular, but despite all of the attention they have gotten recently, there isn’t a universal e-book format, and we must contend with the many different types of e-books and e-readers that are available. Here’s a rundown of the popular e-book formats that are available today and how to use them all.
The full article is here.

Meanwhile, 31 Japanese publishers got together yesterday and formed an e-book association. From Mainchi Daily News:
Yoshinobu Noma, vice president of Kodansha, was named head of the new association. At a news conference, he presented three principles for the association: securing rights and profits for authors; providing convenience for readers; and the coexistence of print and digitalized works.
More on the new organization here.


Art & Culture: The Shores We Call Home: the Art of Carol Evans

Those who enjoy the watercolorist’s art or who admire the rugged coastline of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest will enjoy The Shores We Call Home (Harbour Publishing). Carol Evans is a master watercolorist based on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia’s Gulf Island chain. Beautifully reproduced in The Shores We Call Home, Evans’ work is luminous, surprising: this is the work of an artist is clear control of her materials and confident about the subjects she chooses.

Since shores are the thing that connect the 80 or so watercolors included in the book, we see a lot of light dancing off water under many circumstances and in a lot of different places. Evans knows what that looks like and, more important in this case, she knows exactly how to convey it in both paint and words:
Water hangs in great silken sheets of fog across mountains and inlets. It ripples and reflects along the shore. The wet, delicate, and raw subtleties of watercolour washes are ideal for conveying the gradation of light within clouds or a summer haze, perfect for suggesting shapes and forms barely visible in shrouded mist or streaking rain.... It has a wild quality and although the water can be somewhat controlled, it cannot quite be tamed.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New Today: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith

A full year into the phenomena some would say ripped the heart out of Jane Austen forever, a part of all of us would just like to see it disappear. And with a flotilla of also-rans and wannabes floating out into the wake of 2009’s surprise mega-hit Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, there’s an awful lot of crap competing with a standard that, despite its glaring schlock qualities, nonetheless set the bar pretty high.

And then along comes Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls (Quirk Books), a prequel both hideous and hilarious, to explain what was missed in the original Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: just where the heck did all those zombies come from and how did Elizabeth Bennet gain her zombie-slaying skills? Dawn of the Dreadfuls takes a stab at explaining both, while wrapping it all up in an engaging (though certainly not believable!) plot.

If the book is successful -- and I think that it is -- it’s due to author Steve Hockensmith’s quirky and humorous eye. We already loved his Holmes on the Range mystery series. It really can’t have been such a leap to add zombies and an Elizabethan beat.

A part of me wonders where all of this might be leading us. But another -- and very real -- part does not care. Dawn of the Dreadfuls is not high art, nor does it pretend to be, but it’s silly, well conceived and brilliantly executed fun. Sometimes, that’s enough.

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Open the Cage: January’s Contributors Are On the Loose and Making Books

It’s no secret and it should be no surprise that most of January Magazine’s reviewing staff are either authors or working towards getting to that condition. After all, you spend this much time talking about books and this much passion evangelizing about them and, inevitably, after a while, you want to make some of your own.

Though long-time January contributor and Australia-based children’s librarian, Sue Bursztynski, is already an author many times over, I’ve never seen her quite as excited as she is about the book that will be published in December by Woolshed, an imprint of Random House Australia.

Bursztynski says that her new novel is “a young adult fantasy inspired by Marie De France’s Breton Lai, Bisclavret.” Bursztynski’s tale is set in a world of her creation and is seen from the viewpoint of a teenager, Etienne, whose lord is a born werewolf. “Etienne’s wife,” explains Bursztynski, “terrified of being married to a part-wolf, has stolen his clothes with the help of a lover, to prevent him returning to human form. That business of the clothes was the premise of the original story, so I had to keep it, but I explain why the clothes are important and why Etienne, the loyal page, can’t just get any old set of clothes for him, and make an entire culture.”

As hundreds of reviews in January over the years can show, no one knows this sort of children’s fiction quite like Bursztynski. It’s a fair bet that YA fantasy will never be quite the same! We’ll keep you posted.

These days, I have a very hard time keeping up with January Magazine senior editor and Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce, as his books have been coming out fast and furious. Long recognized as a man with a pen who can make regional history live and breathe, his two most recent books are Seattle: Yesterday and Today and San Francisco: Yesterday and Today. However Pierce, who writes as knowledgeably about crime fiction as anyone I know, has lately added his voice to some projects where his passion has been put to good use. Look for his contribution in the upcoming Maxim Jakubowski-edited anthology, Following the Detectives (New Holland Publishers). Pierce says that the book is a travel/reference work in which each contributor looks at one of “20 cities or places around the world through the eyes of the detective novelists most closely associated with them.” Sounds fantastic, actually. There was more about it on The Rap Sheet a few days ago. That piece is here.

Speaking of anthologies, I contributed to Thrillers: 100 Must Reads (Oceanview Publishing), which will be out in early July, just in time to debut at ThrillerFest in New York City. I had the honor of writing the chapter that deals with Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, a fantastic thriller that hasn’t suffered at all in the shadow of the wildly successful films that have followed.

On a completely different note, January Magazine art director and art & culture editor, David Middleton, and I have recently signed on to edit The 100 Greatest Books of British Columbia. That book will be published by TouchWood Editions in the fall of 2011. We’ve recently announced the book, and people’s thoughts on the greatest books ever written by British Columbians or set in or about B.C. are already pouring in. We’re looking forward to a fantastic year of conversations about the books of Canada’s westernmost province, where David and I both live and work. The Web site for the project is here. Meanwhile, my personal Web site, where I mostly discuss my long fiction, is here.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fiction: Horns by Joe Hill

Funny thing about the kids of the übertalented. When they inherit the talent, there’s the potential for epic satisfaction. This was my thought as I finished the new novel Horns (William Morrow) by Joe Hill, the very talented son of Stephen King.

What would you do if you woke up one morning with a set of horns poking out of your head? What would you do if those horns held the power to force people to tell you the truth? Or if they gave you the power of suggestion -- really convincing suggestion? And what if you found out things you never wanted to know, things that changed the road your life was chugging along on? And what if that road was unavoidably paved with murder, ruination, and revenge?

These questions form the first several dozen pages of Horns, and the answers unfold over the next 400.

Throughout this book, I was never sure if I was reading a crime thriller or a horror novel. But hell, I’m not sure it matters. Joe Hill’s style is quick, fluid, and smart -- a lot like his dad’s back in the day.

Iggy Perrish’s life is pretty normal, really. A good guy, a nice guy who wants to do the right thing at every turn. But there are complications: His dad is a famous musician. His older brother, Terry, is a television personality. His old friend, Lee, seems to have no real life at all, just bouncing from one sorry event to the next. And his girlfriend, Merrin, was brutally murdered a year ago -- and everyone thinks Ig did it. Those are the kinds of complications that can screw a guy up.

In a way, Horns is about how Ig’s past and future converge and diverge. His future was with Merrin; that fate seemed sealed when they were teenagers in love. But life had other plans, as it often does. And though he’s in the thick of it all, Ig doesn’t really have a clue.

Til he sprouts those horns. Then he has all the clues he needs.

The horns are the bane of his existence, a curse that reveals the slimy underside of the lives of the people who surround him. Like the devil, Ig can see the worst of people, even the ones (especially the ones!) who are obsessed with showing only their best. What really happened to Merrin? That’s the driving question of Horns. The horns are the gimmick Hill uses to enlighten us. Every time Ig touches someone, a piece of the backstory unfolds. We see the past -- along with Ig -- in flashes that happen to contain just the information we need. It’s a conceit that would come across as hokey as it is convenient -- if it didn’t work so well. Sometimes enthralled, sometimes ashamed, I bought every moment of it. Turns out the devil really is in the details.

You take the horns, the peeks into Ig’s past, the sticky teenage fumblings in the dark, the dirty-secret fantasies of some of these people, and the pitch-black shades of their well-hidden realities, and you feel like you’re reading a book written by Hill’s dad. It was almost distracting, that nagging thought, and I had to force myself to stop thinking it. After all, it’s not quite fair. But fair or not, like it or not, this apple’s fallen at the knotty-rooted foot of his family tree. Though there are places in Horns when I wish Joe Hill had done a bit more writer’s work, he’s clearly inherited his father's talent for crisp writing, finely etched characters, telling details, just-short-of-too-far plotting, and clever turns of phrase -- and created a story that’s almost (what’s with the fairy tale ending, dude?) epically satisfying.

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Holiday at Kipling’s Place

As literary travelers know, along with homes belonging to Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and James Thurber, among others, Rudyard Kipling’s home in Vermont has always attracted fans of the great British traveler and writer.

Located in Vermont, just a few miles outside Brattleboro, the house, known as Naulakha, is open to overnight guests. Anne Lawrence Guyon, writing for New York Times, recently filed her report of what is like to stay where The Jungle Book and Captains Courageous, among other works, were written:

With his study in the prow, kitchen in the stern, windows along the port side and staircases hugging its starboard wall, Naulakha (pronounced now-LAH-kuh) has been fully restored and contains nearly all original furnishings, including traces of Kipling’s Bombay birthplace and British parentage.

Unlike many former residences of cultural heroes, this is not a museum with audio tours or roped-off doorways. Naulakha is a vacation rental, and every aged book, period chair and elegant bed is available for guests to use, with a tacit expectation of consideration for the home’s historical significance.

As Guyon happily reports, Naulakha is not a stuffy museum where guests are prohibited from touching Kipling’s books or furnishings; a sense of conservation is all that’s required of guests. Naulakha is also unique in that most of the home and furnishings are original. David Tansey, president of Landmark Trust USA that owns the home, reports that he is only aware of one non-original window pane.

Naulakha is available for stays of three days to two months. Prices begin at $275 per night.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Children’s Books: Ortega by Maureen Fergus

Though I don’t generally like books for children that spend a lot of time trying to teach a thing or two, I liked Maureen Fergus’ Ortega (KidsCan Press) quite a bit. This despite the fact that lessons are thick on the ground in this book.

The subtexts come fast and furious in Ortega. Judge people by who they are, not who they appear to be. Don't hate people because they're different. ASk questions about what you see in the world: things may not always be as they appear. Even if you feel as if you do not belong, finding a place for yourself might be easier than you think.

The title’s Ortega is a lowland gorilla, abandoned shortly after birth. He’s raised in a laboratory and seems practically human to the scientists who care for him. But the children only see his differences, not the things that make him be like them.

Ortega is a thoughtful, considered book from the author of Exploits of a Reluctant (but Extremely Goodlooking) Hero. Children aged nine to 12 will find much to engage them: good-spirited humor combined with intelligent consideration of some topics important to the generation who will read it: issues of ethics, the environment and how we, as humans, fit into and interact with our world. Heavy issues, but handled with spirt and humanity. Ortega is a very good book.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

New This Week: Momover: The New Mom’s Guide to Getting it Back Together by Dana Wood

Now, clearly, Momover: The New Mom’s Guide to Getting it Back Together (Adams) is not a book for everyone. In fact, if it’s not for you, you already know and have moved on to the next item. Fair enough.

But new moms are a small and predictable demographic. Especially today’s sensibly chic older moms -- Momover’s target audience -- who, once they’ve delivered their bundle of joy, leave the hospital feeling like Ripley after each and every one of those Alien movies.

is part personal memoir, part motivational seminar and part common sense handbook for all of those scattered questions a new mom might have. Momover could be a lame book -- in fact, I was expecting that it would be -- but in addition to being a mom, author Wood is a talented, experienced journalist with a bright voice and a clear eye. “I’m not a doctor, a personal trainer, a makeup artist, or a life coach,” Wood writes. “Instead, I’m an insanely curious journalist who just happened to have a baby late in life and was thrown for a mental, physical, and spiritual loop. Mix those two elements together ... and you get Momover, the go-to tool I wish I’d had tucked away in the hospital bag when I delivered.”

Wood approaches both the physical and emotional aspects of new momness and leaves readers with a strong postpartum guide through a time many women report to be the most confusing and rewarding of their lives.


Cookbooks: Atlanta Kitchens by Krista Reese

Nothing speaks as clearly about a place as the food created there. That’s one of the things both wonderful and disappointing about food writer Krista Reese’s Atlanta Kitchens: Recipes from Atlanta’s Best Restaurants (Gibbs Smith). Wonderful because the book seems to perfectly reflect the duality of contemporary Atlanta’s nature. It’s a Southern city, of course, with Southern roots and mores. But it is also a city that has become very concerned with its place in the modern world, in all ways. And so, appropriately enough, Atlanta Kitchens reflects all of that.

Reese is the perfect tour guide for this particular trip. She is an Atlanta-based cookbook author and restaurant critic who has been writing about the food and restaurants of the city for two decades. She begins with a history of restaurants in Atlanta then, in the cookbook portion of the tour, brings a really good cross-section of recipes from some of Atlanta’s top restaurants.

While much of the food in the book could come out of a good restaurant kitchen anywhere in the country, there are some things that just seem so perfectly Atlanta, their presence alone seems to make the book complete. Wahoo! Chef Scott Warren’s Grill Pork Chops with Mustard Compote and Roasted Sweet Potatoes, for instance. Or Gravity Pub’s Vandross Burger. The big secrets here? Cheese, applewood smoked bacon and a Krispy Kreme doughnut “bun.” (Here’s cookbook direction you’re not likely to see again: “Slice each doughnut and toast the halves. Place the burgers between the toasted doughnuts, with the sugar-glazed side facing the meat. Serve immediately.”) I love the beauty and simplicity of Mary Mac’s Tearoom’s Turnip Greens and Cornbread Muffins, here given a delightfully upscale presentation. And, unsurprisingly, there is a whole chapter that deals with mostly fried, but sometimes smothered chicken.

Though this is a well executed cookbook on every level, it will appeal especially to residents of Atlanta, or those homesick for the place, as well as aficionados of contemporary Southern cooking.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Biography: Stephanie Meyer: The Unauthorized Biography of the Creator of the Twilight Saga by Marc Shapiro

In 2006, the Twilight phenomenon began. A previously minor sub-genre of the vampire novel, the vampire romance, suddenly became big among teenage girls. The Harry Potter saga was coming to an end -- the final volume was published in 2007, only a few months later -- and there was room for something new.

The author, a Mormon housewife and mother of three, was suddenly being compared to J.K. Rowling. Well, they’re both women who wrote something that appealed to millions of young people and their parents, although I doubt if Twilight will ever be winning any prizes for children’s literature as Harry Potter did, and if there were separate covers for adult and teen editions, I haven’t seen them yet. I suppose they have that in common.

But many folk have Meyer to thank for the fact that they are now able to sell books in the YA fantasy genre, as long as there are vampires or werewolves in them. As a matter of fact, I'm one of them.

I confess that when this book first arrived for me to review, I hadn’t read any of the Twilight novels, mainly because they’re always out. However, I felt that I shouldn’t be reviewing a book to which I had no background, and as a teacher-librarian, I really ought to be reading what the kids were loving so much. I went to Reader’s Feast in Melbourne, where I found the books in the YA section, right next to Foz Meadows’ new novel Solace And Grief which was facing out. Lucky Foz Meadows!

I read the first book and started on the second. It was easy reading as I had expected, because one of our ESL students read it in a weekend and her reading level at the time was about Grade 3. Other readers of the same level made their way through the entire saga without much trouble.

I found the novel pretty slow-moving, with nothing much happening till about three-quarters of the way through the book, but it certainly told me something about kids’ reading habits that I had never known after all these years of observing their reading: they will be patient if they are hooked early on. (Or maybe what I found slow, they found romantic?) I wasn’t hooked, alas, but I have no problem with anything that gets my students not only reading, but being excited about reading. And they are excited -- the girls, anyway. I have seen them sitting curled up on steps and under trees in the schoolyard, noses deep in the adventures of Bella and Edward, and lending personal copies to friends.

Besides, I think I may be able to “sell” Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights to students who have finished and enjoyed this series. The hero of Jane Eyre is even called Edward! (Edward Rochester, that is.) He has a Deep Dark Secret, a tragic past and a good woman who wants to help him.

Author Marc Shapiro has been thorough in his research. Possibly there’s nothing here that a fan doesn’t already know from the Internet, where he seems to have done a large chunk of his research, but I was certainly enlightened. I found out that the Twilight author was named by a father who wanted a Stephen and got a Stephanie, except he added “ie” to “Stephen” instead. I learned that she got the idea from a dream and that she picked the name of the town off the Internet by looking for the wettest place in the US (and isn’t it wonderful that now writers just need to go on-line to check out these things in a few minutes instead of spending hours in the library?). There was a list of music she played while she was writing and the information that Wuthering Heights became suddenly popular again after she recommended it to her fans. There was a good deal of information about the making of the films so far. And fans will be pleased to know that Stephenie Meyer has lots of ideas for more novels.

I actually ended up finishing the biography before I read the novels and quite enjoyed it; it saved me a massive trawl through the Internet. I do wonder where this story can go now. It is already more or less out of date, because the information went right up till the end of 2009, but things had already changed from some of what was said in the book. Perhaps it might have been better to wait a year or two to see how the phenomenon pans out and find out what the author is writing next and how her own life is turning out. A woman in her 30s is really too young to be the subject of a biography. Unlike J.K. Rowling, she hasn’t had a particularly interesting life. She grew up, went to university, got married and had children. Eventually, she had an idea for a novel that did brilliantly. End of story. Apart from discussion of the phenomenon and what happened when the film was being made, there wasn’t much to say.

It reminds me of when Alice Pung was speaking at a Centre for Youth Literature evening in Melbourne. She had written a book, Unpolished Gem, about her upbringing in Melbourne’s west, and it had been doing very well. Someone asked her, “Will the next book be a novel?”

“It will have to be,” she said. “I’m only twenty-five!”

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Book Fair Visitors Get Pie in the Face

This is a great story that comes to us via The National Post. All we’re going to share here is the paper’s headline. Sometimes, that’s enough:
Militant vegans in pie-throwing fiasco at San Francisco book fair
Really, what more needs to be said?

The National Post story is here.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Peer Pressure Forces Facebook Change

So our collective tongues are only half in our cheeks when we tell you that we’ve given in to peer pressure and are abandoning our sweet and much-loved Facebook group page for a newer and cooler and slicker fan page on the social media site.

So all right, we kind of go kicking and screaming, but we do go. We’ve been convinced that, despite the dorky name (“fan” page?) it’s a better social media medium for creating a more direct connection with our Facebook friends... er... fans.

In any case, if you’re on Facebook, do join us. We’re told it’s going to be dead cool.

Right now, it’s just baby steps, but it’s right here so please do... um... fan us. And while we’re on the topic of social media, we’ve had a strong presence on Twitter for about a year and tweet not only all of our stories, but a lot of other fun book-related stuff we see in our travels. You can follow us on Twitter here. But the Facebook thing? That’s key. And it’s here.


Where Do Bookstores Fit in an Electronic World?

Lately, it seems that barely a day can go by without some sort of electronic book news making headlines. Part of me is happy about this: where there’s discussions about books, you generally don’t have to look very far to find people reading, and that’s always a good thing. But in the sea of decision-making that accompanies the sudden rush to go electronic, certain aspects of the process are being overlooked. The most recent chunk of e-book news touches on this gently.

Yesterday’s e-book headline was that legal thriller meister John Grisham had announced that he’s had a change of heart about his original anti-e-book stance. Knopf Doubleday said Tuesday that they would be releasing Grisham’s backlist in e-book form. From The New York Times:
According to Random House, his books have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide. Mr. Grisham had previously hesitated to release his books in e-book form because of concerns about piracy, pricing and the effect of digital editions on physical bookstores.
I can’t help but think that, in his initial assessment, Grisham had it right. What does happen to physical bookstores in an electronic world? Because, let’s face it, all this e-book stuff? We’re going to get it right eventually. The electronic readers will be seamless and easy to operate, everything anyone wants to read will be available in that form and all the concerns some people currently have about privacy and piracy will either be overcome or swallowed down. What I’m saying: with electronic books, it’s no longer a question of “if.” Only a matter of “when” and “how.”

But what about bookstores? Where do they fit? And what are publishers and authors doing to make sure that the lifeblood of the publishing industry doesn’t get cut off?

And it’s do-able: sure it is. It’s not an easy piece, but it’s a possible one. It’s a huge step: re-imagining some of the very foundations that contemporary publishing are built on. International rights deals, for instance. Already on shaky ground in an electronic world, if publishers do make it possible for independent bookstores to sell electronic books, who gets to sell what and to whom?

While right now there are obstacles preventing most small booksellers from getting into the e-book market, one of the things I’ve heard whispered about are value-added deals that would allow physical bookstores to sell an electronic version of a book with a hardcover. That would make a lot of sense: if, for instance, the only place you could get an e-book version with a hardcover was your local indie, suddenly maybe it’s worth the trip. The problem is, it just isn’t as simple as it sounds especially since, at present, publishers are so concerned about how electronic books are going to impact their own bottom lines, they don't seem to be offering even lip service to their old partners, the indie booksellers.

Here’s the thing, though: somebody has to do something for the indies, and fast. If we don’t look after them now, we’ll be crying at their memory. Nobody wants that.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

When Good Books Go Bad

The most recent issue of The American Book Review ran a lengthy piece called “The Top 40 Bad Books.” It’s got us thinking about the nature of books and how good books can go back and, of course, how the very concept of “good” and “bad” in this context is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

Our best of the year features tend to be among the most popular pieces we run. A few years ago, we discussed putting together a worst of, as well. In the end we discarded the idea. It was the spirit of the thing, we agreed. Everyone knows that reviewing books is a subjective art. One reviewer’s find of the decade will be thrown against another’s wall. We’ve seen that again and again. And it’s one thing to approach the world with arms akimbo (we like to think we do that pretty much all the time) but it seemed to us that pronouncing on the badness of certain books was a little too easy and self-indulgent. As it turns out, we weren’t the only ones who thought so. Here The Guardian comments on The American Book Review’s piece:
The Great Gatsby is, apparently, "incredibly smug about its relationship to the traditional realistic novel". Women in Love reads "like someone put a gun to Nietzsche's head and made him write a Harlequin romance". Revolutionary Road fares little better: "I am as illuminated as I am by a college essay decrying drunk driving," says its selector, while All the Pretty Horses gets Cormac McCarthy compared to Jackie Collins. He "wraps his characters in half-truths and idealized anecdotes, much like Jackie Collins does, only his are about the Lone Star state, the border, and its cowboy myths," says Christine Granados from Texas A&M University, adding that "McCarthy uses clichés and derivative characters to sell millions of copies".
All of this begs some questions. Not the least of which Carolyn Kellogg poses at Jacket Copy, the L.A. Times book blog:
The American Book Review has taken stock of literature and come up with its Top 40 Bad Books. The list targets some big, popular favorites -- F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic "The Great Gatsby," Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road," the James Bond novel "Casino Royale" by Ian Fleming and Cormac McCarthy's National Book Award-winning "All the Pretty Horses." Really? If they're the worst, what's the best?
The Guardian’s assessment is a terrific piece of writing and it’s here. Kellogg’s Los Angeles Times Jacket Copy piece is likewise terrific, and it’s here. The American Book Review’s piece is sprawling and, as we said, often self-indulgent but even so, you can find it here.

Children’s Books: The Whale’s Tale by Edwina Harvey

I first read The Whale’s Tale (Peggy Bright Books) as a manuscript. Actually, I first read it as a short story, entered for the Mary Grant Bruce Award for Children’s Literature, which I was judging some years ago. The practice was to read all the manuscripts with the names of the authors removed, prepare a shortlist and hand this to children to choose the winner.

That year, the story the kids chose as a winner was later published as a short -- very short -- book. I can’t remember what it was called and I suspect it’s long out of print. It wouldn’t be the first time, nor will it be the last, that a story that won a prize has been forgotten while one that didn’t win has become a classic. Take the book which won the Australian Children’s Book Council award for picture book of the year -- what was it called? Something about bears? I haven’t seen it around for a while, but Animalia, which didn’t win, is still going strong.

But I felt that this story, “Restitution,” had merit and deserved a Commended at least, which was in my power to give.

Edwina Harvey worked the manuscript into a novel, which got as far as the George Turner Award short list for a new piece of SF writing.

Once again, I was asked to read the manuscript, then pass it on to a teenager to read. I felt it needed work, for reasons I told the author at the time, but the teenager loved it. What can I say? Samantha now has her copy of the finished product and no doubt loves it even more in print. The issues I had with the manuscript have been well and truly addressed.

Edwina Harvey is the kind of children’s writer who can write the most over-the-top things and take them for granted. “What -- you mean people DON'T run into unicorns every day, or travel the galaxy with a sentient whale and a dolphin?” And that’s what makes her so right for this type of writing.

We all, as writers, have the story of our heart. This is Edwina Harvey’s. And that shows in the writing, as well as a whole lot of humor and wisecracking from a sassy teenage girl.

Japanese teenager Uki, a lonely but brilliant hacker who has been using her skills to make friends, is caught stealing a file from the computer of whale singer Targe. This is some time after whales and dolphins have communicated with humans and started touring the galaxy as performers and diplomats. As a punishment, she is ordered by the court to travel with Targe and his dolphin offsider Charlie on a tour. Targe is angry about being stuck with her. Uki is not pleased either. But as the tour proceeds, it turns out she has gifts neither of them knew existed.

It’s not the first time anyone has written about spacefaring cetaceans. David Brin did it years ago. But you really had to concentrate to get the most out of the wonderful Startide Rising, which was the hardest of hard science fiction as well as an adventure. This one is a lot easier to handle and has environmental messages that don’t hit you over the head.

The cover, by rising SF artist Eleanor Clarke, is exquisite. And who wouldn’t love to travel the galaxy in the good ship Antarctic Dancer? I sure would!

I am told that this novel has been nominated for a Hugo Award and an Aurealis.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Is Technology Morphing English? MayB That’s Gr8

I’ve long been in favor of the fluidity of modern English. I love how it lives and breathes and have often told people that, if they don’t like it, they ought to go study Latin. After all, if it’s dead language you want, they are out there. English, however, is not one of those.

Though some would see this as a sort of rude and spiritual liberalism, even I roll my eyes when the teenagers in my life can’t seem to get even the softest handle on contractions and even the scholastically brilliant high schoolers I know – the honor roll students with the kick-ass grades – can’t spell much of anything right on Facebook.

Even so, absolutely none of this prepared me for the assertions made my David Crystal, an honorary professor of linguistics at the Bangor University, most recently author of A Little Book of Language, and interviewed last weekend by The Independent.

Among other things, Crystal urges kids to party down with language:
“The ethos of 50 years ago was that there was one kind of English that was right and everything else was wrong; one kind of access that was right and everything else was inferior,” he says. “Then nobody touched language for two generations. When it gradually came back in, we didn’t want to go back to what we did in the 1950s. There’s a new kind of ethos now.”

What has replaced it is something far more fluid – descriptive rather than prescriptive, as the terminology goes. In schools, appropriateness has replaced the principle of correctness. “Now, one looks at all varieties of language and asks why they are used,” says Crystal. “We are rearing a generation of kids who are more equitable and more understanding about the existence of language variety and why it is there.”
This may be the post-modern position on language, but it obviously isn’t going to work for everyone:
This doesn’t sit easy with the traditionalists, of whom there are still many – as Lynne Truss’s bestselling Eats, Shoots and Leaves proved. That book was a dog-whistle call to all those who missed the old certainties of grammar textbooks. “It is interesting,” notes Crystal, his usually cool delivery tinged suddenly with a hint of exasperation. “What did Lynne do after Eats, Shoots and Leaves? She wrote Talk to the Hand [a book about rudeness and courtesy]. Anyone interested in language ends up writing about the sociological issues around it.”

Crystal calls this a “moral panic” over “mythologies” – his clearest example being the belief that text messaging is destroying children’s ability to spell. “It's all nonsense, but people believe it.”

Art & Culture: How to Defeat Your Own Clone by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D. Johnson

One of the things I like best about being January Magazine’s art and culture editor is keeping my ear to the ground for emerging trends. For example, in the late 1990s, we were seeing a lot of books that sounded as though the authors had written them with their hands on their hips (if such a feat were physically possible). A decade on and we are seeing a new but somewhat similar trend: books that sound as though the authors had written them with their tongues firmly wedged in their cheeks.

While the difference between those things might seem subtle, it’s actually not really. Hands on hips books were laughing at themselves and the world at large while the tongue in cheek ones are a flight of fancy told in a way that makes them sound plausible, or even likely. Except that they’re not.

A good example of that is How to Defeat Your Own Clone (Bantam) by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D. Johnson, a book based on the premise that you will require special skills to survive the biotech revolution. Except it’s funny. Only it’s kind of not.

Written by a couple of actual and for-real bioengineers, How to Defeat Your Own Clone is fascinating reading. Even when they play it for laughs, a message is being brought home. Here is what your future may look like, they seem to be saying at times and though the tone is often playful, they manage to pack a wallop of a message into this very slender paperback volume. As Kurpinski has said, “While many books have already been published on cloning and genetic manipulation, half seem to be textbooks and the other half are science fiction novels. The problem is that the former are generally unwieldy or boring for the average reader, while the latter have little or no scientific value or basis.”

How to Defeat Your Own Clone fills that gap handily, adding just enough silly to make us stop and think.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Children’s Books: The Midnight Curse by L.M. Falcone

New this month, The Midnight Curse (Kids Can Press) by L.M. Falcone is a brisk and compelling read aimed at the nine to 12 set. And though the writing is solid and the book is a lot of fun, The Midnight Curse truly is more likely to capture the imagination of those in the younger part of the age bracket the book is intended for.

When their great uncle dies, twins Lacey and Charlie anticipate an unexpected windfall, only to discover they should have been careful what they wished for. Though, in fairness, who would even think to wish for some ghosts and a deadly family curse?

Parents and librarians who have not encountered L.M. Falcone’s work before will find it interesting to discover the journey this author made to writing for children. Falcone started out as a teacher, wrote for television for a while, then ended up writing books for children. The resulting books (including the popular Walking With the Dead and The Devil, the Banshee and Me) combine a teacher’s understanding of the minds of children with a TV writer’s passion for punch and motion. Falcone’s books are good and certainly worthy of more attention.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Who Messed with Texas?

Let me state this just as plainly as I can: There’s a faction of American conservatives who are just plain nuts, disconnected from anything having to do with sanity or reality. That includes members of the Texas State Board of Education who “succeeded Friday in injecting conservative ideals into social studies, history, and economics lessons that will be taught to millions of students for the next decade.” According to The Huffington Post:
Teachers in Texas will be required to cover the Judeo-Christian influences of the nation’s Founding Fathers, but not highlight the philosophical rationale for the separation of church and state. Curriculum standards also will describe the U.S. government as a “constitutional republic,” rather than “democratic,” and students will be required to study the decline in value of the U.S. dollar, including the abandonment of the gold standard.
Since when did it become acceptable for political divisions on an out-of-the-mainstream education board to influence the content of school history textbooks nationwide? When did propaganda become a reasonable teaching tool in the United States? Education is about facts, not about the right- or left-wing opinions of people determined to indoctrinate still-forming minds with their viewpoints. If a bunch of intellectual pismires in Texas or elsewhere want their children to be taught B.S.--that evolution is debatable, for instance, and that Senator Joseph McCarthy was a democratic (oops, constitutional republic) savior rather than a lying, self-interested power-grabber of the worst order--then let them “educate” their children themselves. They have no right to spread their misinformation further. Unfortunately, as The Washington Monthly made clear in an excellent recent article, Texas textbook standards affect what children are taught in other, more-enlightened parts of the country:
The reasons for this are economic: Texas is the nation’s second-largest textbook market and one of the few biggies where the state picks what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to the whims of local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. As a result, the Lone Star State has outsized influence over the reading material used in classrooms nationwide, since publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the specs of the biggest buyers. As one senior industry executive told me, “Publishers will do whatever it takes to get on the Texas list.”
Teaching from a deliberately biased point of view--whether about politics, religion, science, or economics--isn’t teaching facts. Can that be said any more clearly?

UPDATE: Think Progress provides a taste of the ridiculous changes the Texas State Board of Education wants to make to the textbooks our children will receive in the future. Among them: “The Board removed Thomas Jefferson from the Texas curriculum, replacing him with religious right icon John Calvin.’” Meanwhile, the Texas Freedom Network live-blogged this week’s Board of Education meeting at which public testimony was heard on the proposed social studies curriculum standards. You’ll find that coverage in several parts: I, II, III, IV, V, and VI. And click here to read Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller’s statement regarding the “politics and personal agendas” that have dominated the Board’s efforts.

READ MORE:Texas’ Standards ‘a Debacle for Education,’” by Steve Benen (The Washington Monthly).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Non-Fiction: Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History by Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell

In 2003, a group of highly skilled Italian thieves broke into an airtight and crack proof vault in Antwerp, Belgium. It’s estimated that they got away with close to half a billion dollars in diamonds, gold and other precious and valuable loot. Estimated, that is, because none of the haul was ever recovered.

From one end to the other, Flawless (Union Square) is a remarkable story. First of all it was Antwerp, where of all the cities in the world, they take their diamonds -- and diamond protection -- pretty darn seriously. And second (though there is so much more) it’s told by a fantastically qualified duo: Harvard law school graduate and diamond expert Scott Andrew Selby and author and journalist Greg Campbell. Campbell not so coincidentally wrote the fantastic Blood Diamonds, later made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The resulting book is breathtaking. Most fiction is nowhere near this exciting. This is a book I predict you’ll be hearing a lot about in the months to come.

A neat bonus: you won’t get the full impact here online, but Flawless sports a fantastic -- even flawless -- cover. Even if you don’t buy this book, trundle off to your favorite booksellers just to have an up close and personal look. It’s really gorgeous: and does justice to a book you won’t soon forget.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New this Week: Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

I’m never sure where to place Carol Goodman’s work. And I’m not the only one. Though she tends to weave elements of suspense into her novels -- books that have included the luminous The Ghost Orchid and the lovely The Seduction of Water -- it’s a mistake to say she writes novels of suspense or that she only writes novels of suspense. Goodman’s voice is mature and strong, her work is masterful, her confidence complete and her work tends to be about much more than we see at first glance.

We witness this again in Arcadia Falls (Ballantine Books), the novel Booklist called “A wonderfully atmospheric literary mystery.” And while that’s no kind of insult, it comes nowhere near to describing this atmospheric and magical book.

Folklore expert Meg Rosenthal, teaching at a new school after the death of her husband, is drawn into the roots of a local fairytale that is in all ways more startling than it at first appears.

The upstate New York boarding school where Meg has accepted a position; the creaky and neglected old cottage she and her daughter are invited to move in to; and then the death of a student practically on the teacher’s first night in town all set us up for the sort of windswept weekend of horror we’ve all seen so many times before. But then Goodman takes us deeper, and we’re at a place where myth touches mystery and women’s choices intersect with art. It’s all too good and too beautifully bound for me to want to share much more, but this is a journey worth taking and Goodman? She’s an author I’ll continue to watch.

Arcadia Falls
is a lovely book that I’m certain will be among my favorites for 2010.


Mark Twain Anniversary Approaches

With the 100 year anniversary of the death of Mark Twain coming up on April 10, look for armloads of books to be published or republished with a Twainish theme between now and then. A couple of good ones recently became available from The Library of America.

The Mark Twain Anthology collects the work of great writers on the topic of Twain. “Several of Mark Twain’s books are bound to survive,” George Orwell opined, “because they contain invaluable social history.”

“Mark Twain put his voice on paper,” Ursula K. Le Guin said with typical elegance, “with a fidelity and vitality that makes electronic recordings seem crude and quaint.”

The book collects the words of many skilled and famed wordsmiths: Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, Helen Keller, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, Erica Jong, Gore Vidal, Toni Morrison, Barack Obama and many others all under one cover and collected on this single topic by acclaimed Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin.

Also out this month from The Library of America, Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travel. The book collects some of Twain’s best loved travel writing, including A Tramp Abroad from 1880, an account of 16-months of travels in Europe with his family and includes the author’s own sketches. The work also restores passages originally deemed too provocative for contemporary audiences by Twain’s publisher and his wife. Edited by Roy Blount. Jr., the book collects some of the master travel writer’s very best work.

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Art & Culture: How to Speak Zombie by Steve Mockus

If you’ve been wondering when -- or even if -- you’d hear the final word on zombies, you’ll be relieved to get a load of How to Speak Zombie (Chronicle Books), the book that calls itself “A Guide for the Living.” Here’s some of what the book says about itself:
In a world overtaken by zombies, the only hope for survival lies in learning the language of the undead. How to Speak Zombie demonstrates how to blend in and avoid being eaten while carrying on with everyday activities like ordering a latte from a zombarista and shopping at a zombie-infested mall.
Although, in a way, this doesn’t even come close to describing this strange little book. Just 12 pages long -- think about a child’s boardbook -- each of the chunky pages is cut around the shape of the electronic sound module that sticks up through the book, ready to demonstrate “proper zombie pronunciation.”

You’ll find instruction for what to say at the mall, at the gym, at sporting events and other places where zombies might congregate in the post-zombie apocalypse imagined in the book.

While the book is somewhat clever and the graphic novel-style illustrations -- by Travis Millard -- are great, it’s difficult to imagine just who this book is intended for. Beyond the book’s potential as a gift for the zombie-lover in your life, I can’t imagine anyone having a burning need to run out and grab a copy. But then, what the hell do I know? I’m still trying to figure why The Da Vinci Code blew so many minds and, anyway, I suppose it is possible zombies will take over the world at some point. Better to be safe than sorry.

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Children’s Books: Solace & Grief by Foz Meadows

Out now in Australia, Foz Meadows’ Solace & Grief won’t be available in other parts of the world until later this year.

The newest entry from Paul Collins’ Ford Street Publishing is a debut. Hearing the author speak at her launch and seeing her sign books, I think she’s going to do nicely as a professional. She’s also lucky enough to have a surname that puts her novel on the bookshop shelves right next to Stephenie Meyer’s books -- and it has a snazzy black cover that will draw the eye of any teenager browsing for Twilight stuff.

The storyline is likely to appeal to young vampire fans, too. Solace Morgan was a born vampire. Her parents gave up their lives to produce her to act as a sort of saviour in a war with a nasty female vampire who has been “making” followers by addicting the new vampires to human blood. Most of the children of the night in this universe don’t like drinking human blood because it acts as a sort of heroin -- once you drink it, you always need another fix. Solace has been living in a group foster home, uncomfortable out in the sun and limited in what she can eat. She is extremely strong and has other gifts that appear over time.

After some terrifying dreams, she runs away from home, into the streets of Sydney, where she meets a group of other gifted teens. Will her troubles cost the lives of her new friends? And what is her own role? Who is the faceless man? The small grey cat? Why are so many people after her?

This novel has come along at just the right time in the teen vampire fiction revolution. But it’s not quite a vampire novel, despite all the vampire politics. And so far, it’s not a romance, though there could be some in the next two novels planned for this series, depending on whether or not a certain character returns to the group. However, the vampire isn’t the brooding Byronic male, but the girl. To my mind, the fact that this isn’t quite a vampire novel or a romance is a positive feature. When kids get tired of more of the same, they will have something different to read.

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Wizarding World of Harry Potter Will Bring Books to Life

The millions of fans who were saddened when J.K. Rowling came to the end of of her fabulous seven-book saga in 2007 can take heart: the books might be over, but the magic is far from gone. If proof of this was needed before, it isn’t anymore. Universal Studios in Orlando is currently at work on a “theme park in a theme park” called The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Scheduled to *open in May, Hogwarts Castle is reportedly already rising to dominate the site. From The New York Daily News:
The venue will pack 20 acres of attractions, shops and eateries within Universal’s Islands of Adventure park.

Wizarding World’s creators worked closely with Rowling and film artists to keep the venue true to the story.

Towering over everything else, Hogwarts castle can already be seen beyond Universal’s gates. Fans know it as the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry and his friends learn to perfect their magic.

The castle will host an attraction called Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey, which creators promise “will use brand-new technology to bring the magic stories and characters of the film to life in ways you’ve never experienced before.”
Universal offers a sneak peek here.

* Correction 2:15 pm, PST: We were overly optimistic when we wrote that the park-within-a-park would be open in May. As it turns out, Universal continues to be cagey with dates. However travel packages including the attraction indicate an availability date of May 28th. (Maybe they’re being optimistic, too?)


Monday, March 08, 2010

New Book Club Intended to “Build Community”

GalleyCat, the self-styled “First Word On the Book Publishing Industry,” have announced that their new book club will launch in New York Tuesday night. In a posting earlier today, GalleyCat’s Jason Boog explains:
You can read all the publishing blogs in the world, but nothing beats a conversation with a published author -- real-world interaction and publishing experience will always trump the glowing computer monitor.

In an ongoing effort to build community among readers, writers, and publishing types in real life, we are hosting the inaugural mediabistro.com Book Club tomorrow night. The night will feature two nonfiction books and two novels, handpicked to include a wide range of subjects, genres, and publishing experience -- giving book club participants a night of practical and entertaining conversation.
GalleyCat’s book club will launch at the Copper Door Tavern in NYC at 6:30 PM. Under discussion will be Getting In by Karen Stabiner; Museum Legs: Fatigue and Hope in the Face of Art by Amy Whitaker; An Irreverent Curiosity by David Farley and Cemetery Road by Gar Haywood.

If this sounds like the kind of fun you don’t want to miss, the full piece is here.

Crime Fiction: The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbø

(Editor’s note: With the publication of this review, January Magazine welcomes a new contributor. She’s Gretchen Echols, a Seattle writer, artist and bookstore employee with a longstanding fondness for crime and mystery fiction, especially the works of Ross Macdonald, Reginald Hill and Tana French.)

It is a July hell in Oslo, the Norwegian city gripped in a blistering heat wave. A young woman is found dead with a bizarre mutilation to her body and an odd calling card from the murderer. Meanwhile, Harry Hole, one of the best detectives on the local police force, is in his own private hell -- a month-long alcoholic binge. When he receives a call from his superior, Bjarne Møller, Hole is passed out on his living room floor, clutched in the throes of a recurring nightmare involving his sister and elevators.

Møller is desperate. The detective unit is understaffed because of holiday vacations. He has protected Hole by stalling on sending adverse reports of his erratic behavior to higher authorities, but now Hole is on the verge of dismissal. However, the only detectives left in the sweltering city with the ability and experience necessary to handle the mutilation case are Hole and his nemesis on the crime squad, Tom Waaler. Hole’s last chance to escape the implosion of his career, it seems, is to work this investigation with Waaler.

Jo Nesbø, one of today’s hottest Scandinavian crime-fiction writers, gives us in The Devil’s Star (Harper) a carefully paced thriller built on the classic struggle between a detestable murderer and a detective dedicated to saving lives and discovering truths. Hole, though, puts a personal face on evil. He is convinced that Waaler, a predator and bully, is the person behind the beating death of Hole’s former partner, Ellen Gjelten. He has spent months tracking down an eyewitness to the event, only to then have that witness disappear. Unfortunately, Hole’s boss has dismissed his allegations against Waaler as the result of an obsessive quest entirely without merit. Hole’s obsession has also ruptured his relationship with his girlfriend, Rakel Faulke, and her son, Oleg. Under the same circumstances, you might go on a binge too.

Five days after the discovery of the first body in Oslo, another woman steps around the corner for a short errand -- and doesn’t return. Is she just a missing person, or the second murder victim?

As Hole, Waaler and the rest of the team struggle to understand the meaning of the clues left by the killer, and more corpses appear, the tension heightens. A pattern in the crimes begins to emerge and there is concern that a serial killer may be on the loose. Along the way we are given insights into the source of Harry Hole’s fears of heights and elevators, the bases for many of his nightmares. Nesbø even includes a biblical confrontation -- straight from the New Testament -- between Hole and Waaler, and we begin to wonder if our hero has really gone over to the dark side.

Among the strengths and pleasures of reading Nesbø’s well-crafted mystery (his third, following The Redbreast [2007] and Nemesis [2009]) are the short descriptions revealing the complexities of his secondary characters.

Consider, for instance, Otto Tangen. He’s the owner of Harry Sounds, a mobile professional surveillance company called in on the case by Waaler. The crime team has predicted where the killer will probably strike next, and members hope to intercept him. Tangen has obviously seen Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 movie, The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman as a bugging expert, dozens of times and would have said about himself, “without batting and eyelid, that emotionally speaking he was closer to his microphones” than to his son, the result of a one-night stand. “At least he had managed to persuade [the mother] to christen the boy Gene,” writes Nesbø. Although Tangen’s friends have never heard of the Hackman movie, this reader enjoyed a smug moment of recognition, having viewed that film only recently.

Tangen has amassed a large collection of microphones, cameras and other tools of his trade. Waaler, well aware of the man’s darker secrets, applies pressure to expedite Tangen’s cooperation.

Another character worth watching: young Beate Lønn from the forensics lab. Early in her career on the force, she had her own run-in with Waaler. Now she is the recipient of his unwanted sexually charged harassment. But late in the novel Lønn has an opportunity to thwart him in a tense scene.

Nesbø shows great talent in keeping his tale moving. He shifts between multiple points of view that include several soliloquies from a character we suspect is the killer. He weaves his story lines seamlessly, ratcheting up the tension as he builds to the long finale.

But -- reader beware. There is definitely a high “ick” factor in the twisted scenes at this story’s end. When I had 50 pages or so to go, I was stopped in my tracks by the nasty, loathsome details of a murder. I was repulsed and I had to quit reading. I was committed to writing this review, however, so I had to get past my disgust. After a break of several weeks, I started over in a careful rereading of the story. This time I recognized the skill and artistry of Nesbø’s writing: the red herrings, the clues with their possible interpretations, the shrewd pacing of the plot and the variations on his principle theme of revenge. Nesbø is an excellent craftsman, so I felt I owed him the courtesy of reading through to the end. As the story spools out to its concluding battle between good and evil, the resulting violence becomes merely gruesome and strangely satisfying.

Harry Hole engages our sympathy in The Devil’s Star, despite his obsessions and fears and his reckless, alcoholic ways, because he is a tenacious protagonist intent on uncovering the truth. Don’t look for any garden parties or bodies left conveniently at the end of library benches in a murder mystery involving Hole. Expect, instead, a gritty, realistic triumph over human wickedness.

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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Biography: Tupac Shakur: The Life of an American Icon by Tayannah Lee McQuillar and Fred Johnson

While the death of Tupac Shakur may not have a universal “Where were you when you heard the news?” sort of reverberation, for some people it was as intense a moment as the death of Elvis, JFK or Michael Jackson might have been for others. That is to say that a great many people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing on September 13, 1996 when they heard the news that Tupac Amaru Shakur had been killed by an unknown assailant in Las Vegas.

Fourteen years on, there are those who argue that Shakur was bigger dead than he would have been alive. Five posthumous albums and eight top ten Billboard singles -- not to mention some faintly weird tribute albums -- after his death cemented his position as one of the most important voices in contemporary urban music. To me, sometimes it still seems impossible to think that that voice has been stilled forever.

Though authors Tayannah Lee McQuillar and Fred Johnson have the right creds and background for this to be an astonishingly good book about Shakur’s life, somehow Tupac Shakur: The Life of An American Icon (Da Capo) falls short. McQuillar is the author of When Rap Music Had a Conscience and Fred L. Johnson is Associate Professor of History at Michigan’s Hope College. In some regards, this seems like a dream team for a book not only about Tupac Shakur, but on the impact his life -- and death -- have had on the type of music the artist made and on his various communities. But that isn’t this book. Instead we have what is a, for the most part, stiff and ponderous retelling of the life and death of Tupac Shakur. His significance is commented upon, but most often this is seeded within passages of McQuillar and Johnson’s irritatingly careful prose. The result is a book that, while informative and well enough researched, never lifts us beyond the place we have been lifted. While Tupac Shakur: The Life of An American Icon is certainly far beyond your standard unauthorized celebrity bio, it’s impossible not to feel that it could have been so much more.

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Saturday, March 06, 2010

Penguin’s Big Thoughts About Electronic Books

Commenting on Penguin’s head-long plunge into iPad waters, CNET points out that this is a publishing house that was founded on the idea of innovation:
Penguin Books came into existence because of a realization on a train platform. Penguin’s founder, Allen Lane, was returning from a weekend with the famous mystery writer Agatha Christie, and looked in the train station’s book stall for something to read on his journey back to London. Finding only popular magazines and poor-quality, luridly written novels, he wondered why there was not anything for the reader who wanted some good-quality fiction at a low price.
It’s clear that Penguin has done some pretty serious thinking about the electronic book revolution so many people see coming. Here’s a taste of what the company thinks at least one aspect of the future of the book might look like.


Eaten Any Good Books Lately?

It’s that time of year again and organizations around the world are getting ready to participate in The International Edible Book Festival.

“Everyone is invited,” says the Festival’s Web site, “individually and collectively, to this world banquet where delicious, surprising bookish foods will be consumed.” From the site:
April 1st is the birthday of French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), famous for his book Physiologie du goût, a witty meditation on food. April fools' day is also the perfect day to eat your words and play with them as the “books” are consumed on the day of the event. This ephemeral global banquet, in which anyone can participate, is shared by all on the internet and allows everyone to preserve and discover unique bookish nourishments. This festival is a celebration of the ingestion of culture and a way to concretely share a book; it is also a deeper reflexion on our attachment to food and our cultural differences.
Organizations and individual participants register to be part of this global festival and festivities are planned at many locations around the world. While most are real-time events, some are virtual, with people submitting their entries electronically. Check here to see if an event is happening in your area.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Crime Fiction: The Cold Room by J.T. Ellison

J.T. Ellison’s latest Nashville-based novel, The Cold Room (Mira), finds her series homicide detective, Taylor Jackson, chasing an unusual serial killer. He starves his victims to death, violates their bodies and then poses them in elaborate re-creations of famous paintings. What bothers Jackson and her FBI profiler boyfriend, John Baldwin, is the scope of these slayings. It appears he has struck also in London and in Florence, Italy.

Ellison doesn’t hide this murderer from her readers, nor does she obscure the existence of a second serial killer, this one in Italy, called Il Macellaio (“The Butcher”). Our Nashville slayer is a graphic artist named Gavin. Nice guy. Drives a Prius. Admires the hell out of Il Macellaio. Also admires a famous photographer known simply as Tomasso. Gavin imitates the latter in his art work, and the former in his style of killing. So similar is his technique to that of his Italian counterpart, that Gavin’s crimes attract a British profiler to Nashville, one James “Memphis” Highsmythe. Memphis would be welcome on the investigation, if he didn’t have the almost pathological hots for Detective Jackson.

The Cold Room combines The Silence of the Lambs with The Wire. Jackson is a strong, capable investigator who, as we see in several subplots, is having to cope with institutional dysfunction. She’s been demoted from head of the Murder Squad and placed under Lieutenant Elm, a former New Orleans cop obsessed with administrative detail and with a hair-trigger temper. In the meantime, she and her former teammates are dealing with the aftermath of events in Ellison’s last novel, Judas Kiss (2009). She’s been reduced in rank from lieutenant and saddled with a new detective, Renn McKenzie, whom she suspects isn’t worthy of her trust.

Jackson is hard-nosed and a workaholic. Walking into a room, she is immediately in charge, her fellow officers snapping to, not really accepting her lowered status. I like her new partner, too. At first, McKenzie seems to be a stereotypically green upstart, but Ellison fleshes him out as he is exposed to two bizarre murders and a third attempt in less than five days. McKenzie evolves nicely as a result, and will probably make a welcome addition to this series.

The Cold Room character I found grating, however, was Memphis Highsmythe. He could have been an amazingly complex figure, someone dealing with his own grief. Instead, the New Scotland Yard detective came off as a self-centered jerk, unfortunately gifted with investigative talents rivaling those of Jackson and Baldwin. He was supposed to provide a complication for that couple, but in almost every scene, I wondered when Jackson was going to whip out the mace, the taser or the Louisville Slugger. Highsmythe is the kind of guy women find it easy to strike out at in return for their advances.

But if Highsmythe is the low point, then this novel’s mystery, and Taylor Jackson herself, represent its high points. The case of Gavin and his online friend, “Morte,” grows increasingly complex as this tale moves along. Jackson handles the investigation smoothly, sweating more over her relationship with Baldwin than her woes in Homicide. If anything, pursuing her quarry revitalizes the detective.

Author Ellison has done a fine job chasing serial killers. Now, if she’d just learn to throw a drink or two at annoying British detectives...

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