Monday, May 31, 2010

Vampire Novels Taking a Bite Out of Everyone’s Lists

You can blame the economic downturn for sending readers scurrying for the unreal. Or you could look at Stephanie Meyers or further back and point fingers at Bram Stoker or Anne Rice but, whatever the case, vampires are everywhere this season.

I can’t imagine that there is market enough for all of the books being published with vampiric themes. After all, once bitten, do you really need to go back? But, despite what the sheer volume of titles would indicate, several of these books are actually quite good and a few even add something to the vampire mythos.

Interestingly, in several cases, this latest batch of books introduces vampires with a purpose. Unlike the vampires of yore who supported themselves with very little effort and spent their free time languishing about looking waxen, this latest crop are mostly concerned with vampires making a living, one weird way or another.

Take Christopher Farnsworth’s Blood Oath (Putnam). In Farnsworth’s debut novel he introduces an entirely unexpected protaganist: Nathaniel Cade, a secret agent vampire sworn to protect the President of the United States. (I know, right? There could be useful applications to such a set-up.)

“A presidential vampire, huh?” Someone asks early in Blood Oath. “Is he a Democrat or a Republican?”

“That’s a bit like asking a shark is he want red or white with its meal,” comes the note entirely unpredictable reply.

Farnsworth has said that the germ of thought that began his presidential vampire journey was uncovering an item of history: President Andrew Johnson pardoned an accused vampire in 1867. Farnsworth’s imagination went into overdrive and Nathaniel Cade wasn’t far behind.

Shakespeare Undead (St. Martin’s Griffin) is something of a mash-up -- vampires, zombies and history in one uneven soup. Actually, reimagining William Shakespeare as a vampire is not too big a leap for fiction. After all, the Bard has been accused of all sorts of magical shenanigans in producing his remarkable body of work. In that context, the undead part begins to make sense. The problem is, author Lori Handeland plays it all a bit too much for laughs. We end up with a hilarious romp rather than a thoughtful re-imagining, which somehow manages to make the book feel somewhat pointless.

If gay vampire erotica sounds more like your thing, Michael Schiefelbein’s Vampire Maker (St. Martin’s Press) may well appeal. This is the fourth novel in Schiefelbein’s series featuring the 2000 year old vampire and vampire-maker, former Roman Legionnaire Victor Decimus.

Two of Schiefelbein’s vampire novels -- Vampire Vow and Vampire Thrall -- have been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award. Schiefelbein’s story is present, but I found the writing somewhat florid for my taste (“The priest’s expression became fierce and his eyes showed a consciousness of a surging power within him. He suddenly came at Victor, clutching him by the throat”) but I could certainly understand that working within this sub-genre. And it’s obvious Schiefelbein knows the world he’s created here -- and the rules that must be played by -- very well.

Fans of this series won’t be disappointed by this entry, those new to Schiefelbein’s work might want to step cautiously. There’s more here than meets the eye: and not all readers will be comfortable with that.

Though I’m reluctant to lump it in with the vampire novels -- it really is so much more -- since everyone else is doing so, I’ll mention the about-to-be-blockbuster The Passage (Ballantine) here.

Written by award-winning literary novelist Justin Cronin, whose previous book, The Summer Guest, sold 12,000 copies, word is Ballantine has ordered 250,000 copies of The Passage. Since we tend to judge media push by the number of copies that find their way into the January offices, we know The Passage is getting a big push: the book won’t be out for a week yet and we’ve already seen four copies.

Aside from the hype, though, The Passage is fantastic. A big, commanding epic novel, rights have been sold to 26 countries and film rights were sold in enthusiastic auction to Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions.

The vampire connection here is slight and technologically based. I won’t say too much prior to the the book’s official publication date, other than to tell you that early readers have compared The Passage to works by Stephen King, Michael Crichton and Margaret Atwood. While that’s a little silly -- obviously -- a case can be made in all three instances: King for his understanding of what frightens the human heart; Crichton for his mastery of all things technical and Atwood who is unrivaled at creating post-Apocalyptic worlds that seem distant and yet inhabitable. And, like King and Atwood, Cronin writes so very, very well. The Passage is remarkable.


Biography: Larry King: My Remarkable Journey by Larry King

On the off-chance you’re not sick to death of hearing about Larry King, his 2009 biography is now available in paperback. Considering all the King-related news lately, some of the most recent personal material in the book is given a new spin. Even so, much of what made Larry King: My Remarkable Journey (Weinstein Books) highly readable a year ago is no less interesting now. King is, after all, covering many years worth of material. And he does so in a surprisingly engaging voice:
The problem is, the longer you live, the more there is to remember. Therefore, it makes sense that you have a better memory at thirty than you have a seventy-five. I have more than seventy-five years of memories embedded in me. Another day was added to that yesterday. Another will be added today.
King talks about all of his lives: personal and private. His memories of JFK and MLK, the Clintons, the King of Jordan, Mikhail Gorbachev and a whole bunch of Bushes.

He talks about all those wives as well as his children, including Larry Jr. the son that, for a very long time, he didn’t know he had. And he talks about growing up Larry Zeiger in Depression-era Brooklyn and how the fast-talking some time stand-up comic reinvented himself again and yet again to become one of the best known voices in show businesses.

It is a remarkable journey, indeed.


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Children’s Books: Nieve by Terry Griggs

With eight very strong books to her credit, Terry Griggs is coming to be recognized as one of Canada’s foremost children’s storytellers (even though it was her short fiction collection, Quickening, that was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award.)

Griggs is perhaps best known for the books that make up the Cat’s Eye Corner trilogy: Cat’s Eye Corner, The Silver Door and Invisible Ink. Young readers who enjoyed those books will want to take a run at Griggs’ latest offering, Nieve (Biblioasis) being marketed to young adult and adult SF/F audiences of the sort who might also have expected to enjoy Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Coraline.

As Nieve opens, the title character is weighing the change she feels in the world: things that let her know that even the natural world is responding to what is to come. When the strangers arrive trailing night behind them, Nieve’s friends begin to disappear. Nieve puts together an ill-sorted band of reluctant heros who follow the strangers to the Black City, where people are transformed into things.

I liked Nieve even more than I expected and it does not seem the least ironic for me to say that this is a more mature work than Griggs’ previous offerings for children. While we still find some of Griggs’ trademark humor, Nieve is more somber, more introspective and certainly more thoughtful than earlier works by this very talented author.

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Art & Culture: The Trials of Roderick Spode by David Mamet

There is only one thing really compelling about The Trials of Roderick Spode (Sourcebooks) and that’s the name of the spine. That is, it would be the name on the spine if the book were thick enough to have one. But the name, in our culture, is legendary and certainly spine-worthy: David Mamet. Yes that David Mamet -- after all, there can only be one -- Speed-the-Plow, Glengarry Glenross, Wag the Dog and so much else: Mamet is playwright, screenwriter, essayist, film director. And now the Pulitzer prize winner and recipient of the New York Drama Critic’ Circle Award is a graphic novel author, or something very like it.

The Trials of Roderick Spode “The Human Ant” is silly and not as sparkly as might be expected, considering who is involved. One’s first impression is of a children’s book -- the format begs that idea -- but this is certainly not one for the kids.

Considering the fact that Mamet is one of our leading storytellers, The Trials of Roderick Spode seems even more of a disappointment: the story isn’t strong. An ordinary man gets technologically mixed up and ends up spending half his time as The Human Ant who spars with his nemisis, European Sourdough Rye. The medium demands that it be a visual story, yet when Mamet is at his acerbic best, no pictures are required: every Mamet syllable seems drenched with meaning.

If you were hoping for something slightly meatier than The Trials of Roderick Spode from Mamet, don’t despair: the Mamet manifesto, Theatre, was published by Faber & Faber about a month ago. Some of the author's conclusions about the state of American theatre will set the teeth of some readers on edge. But isn’t that, after all, what we expect from David Mamet?

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Book Expo 2010: From the Floor (Day 2)

The second day of Book Expo was brighter than the first. There was something about the energy of the room. People seemed a little looser; I certainly was. I got Jeff Kinney to record a short video for my 9-year-old son’s class. I scored a nice pile of galleys. I accidentally met a publicist I’ve known only through e-mail and telephone calls (he looked nothing like I thought he would). I grabbed more than a few bags. And I stood next to a massive typewriter. (No, that’s not me in the picture.)

Mostly, though, while the first day felt dull, the second was all about books -- which is as it should be with Book Expo. Here are eight I'll be reading ... and possibly reviewing here at January in the coming months:

The Passage (Ballantine, June), an epic tale of a government experiment gone horribly awry, with nasty consequences for the human race. It’s the first of a three-volume tale, and in his blurb Stephen King falls all over himself to rave about it. I'm only on page 36 (it’s 700-plus pages), and I had to force myself to stop reading it to write this article.

Still Missing (St. Martin’s Press, July), a brutal story about a woman who’s abducted, the year she spends in captivity, and her escape.

Hector and the Search for Happiness (Penguin, September), an international sensation about a guy who travels the world and keeps a list of observations about the people he meets. It’s been compared to The Little Prince.

Room (Little Brown, September), about a mother and her 5-year-old son, held captive in a room -- and her efforts to make it bearable for them both. Buzz is great for this.

A Secret Kept (St. Martin’s Press, September), by the author of Sarah’s Key. It’s about a French couple whose lives are irrevocably changed when the wife reveals a secret.

Cleopatra (Little Brown, November), a biography of the Egyptian queen. Looks terrific.

An Object of Beauty (Grand Central, November), Steve Martin’s new novel about a woman who rises fast in the New York art world.

And finally, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve, February), about a chimpanzee named Bruno who falls in love with his caretaker, Lydia. Oh, and Bruno talks. Oh, and the book is “written” by him. Weird, I grant you, but strangely compelling.

The one truly remarkable thing about this year’s Book Expo was at the HarperCollins booth. Usually, publishers have stacks and stacks of galleys everyone rushes to grab. At HarperCollins, they put out cards instead. On one side of the card, the book’s cover. On the other, the book’s publishing info, a brief synopsis, and a link and code to use for downloading an e-copy. The future of publishing? Maybe. The future of Book Expo? I hope not. Or pretty soon, they might have to change the name of the trade show to E-Book Expo.


Friday, May 28, 2010

New Yesterday: Shirley Jackson: Novel & Stories

The literary world of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) was an ephemeral place, and not in a pretty way. To look through Jackson-tinted glasses is to never be quite sure what you’re looking at. A calm day in a normal life can erupt into a madness -- and perhaps back -- in the blink of an eye.

Shirley Jackson: Novel & Stories (Library of America) is edited by another esteemed writer of whose work has a gothic bent, Joyce Carol Oates (The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Blonde). The collection includes the suite of stories that make up The Lottery, including the title story which, when published in The New Yorker, drew more reader mail than any story, before or since. Also included are The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and other stories.

While “The Lottery” is Jackson’s best known work, The Haunting of Hill House is the most esteemed. Since the publication of the novel in 1959, many critics have described the book as one of the most important gothic novels to be written in English.

Though I read “The Lottery” in high school, I’d been wanting to read more deeply of this author for a long time. Shirley Jackson: Novel & Stories is the perfect reply to that desire, collecting what is among the very best work of this terrific author. It’s a great addition to an already super series from The Library of America.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Deaver Takes on Next Bond Book

Well, this is a surprise. From The New York Times:
The next James Bond book will be written by Jeffery Deaver, the best-selling thriller writer, Simon & Schuster announced on Thursday. The novel, with the working title “Project X,” is expected to be set in the present day and take Bond to at least three “exotic locations around the globe.” It is scheduled for publication in May 2011. Mr. Deaver, the author of “The Bone Collector” and “Garden of Beasts,” said in a statement that he was thrilled to be asked by representatives of the Ian Fleming estate to write the book. “The novel will maintain the persona of James Bond as Fleming created him and the unique tone the author brought to his books, while incorporating my own literary trademarks: detailed research, fast pacing and surprise twists.” The book will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in Britain and Simon & Schuster in the United States.
(Hat tip to The HMSS Weblog.)

READ MORE:Bond, James Bond, Comes Back for More in New Novel,” by Jennifer Quinn (Associated Press).


BookExpo 2010: From the Floor

BookExpo America -- Mecca for the North American book business -- is happening now in New York City. Usually a massive, three-day weekend affair of parties, galleys and schmoozing, this year’s show is toned down a bit to two days during the week. Instead of occupying two full floors at Jacob Javits Center, the whole show takes place in one very big room and several meeting rooms. It’s still a significant amount of space, however, commanding between 175,000 to 200,000 square feet.

Nor are there empty spaces where you’d expect authors to be. In fact, there has been no apparent reduction in the number of authors on-hand for book signings. It’s anticipated that around 1000 authors and 1500 exhibitors will be on hand to be seen by the 20,000 to 30,000 attendees the BEA expects will attend the event.

The star power hasn’t diminished either. On the first day I spotted James Patterson, Scott Turow and Rock Riordan, and Tuesday night’s keynote was a live interview with Barbra Streisand, who has a book -- her first -- coming from Viking in the fall. Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney is among those due on Thursday.

It’s too soon to be able to point to any one book that everyone was buzzing about. At least, if there was any buzzing of this sort, I didn’t hear it.

The exhibit floor seemed, for the most part, less crowded than usual -- the exception being those who were giving away a lot of galleys -- but the exhibitors I spoke with said the traffic was good and that they were having a successful show.

The big question: What does the future of book publishing look like? Will books be printed on paper and bound into hard covers, or will they be printed in pixels and downloaded onto e-readers? Probably a lot of both, from the look of things.

More tomorrow.

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New This Week: The Machinery of Light by David J. Williams

I did not warm instantly to David J. Williams’ Autumn Rain trilogy. Looking back, there’s really only one reason for this: the future he paints -- with panache and skill -- is a little too real and some of what he writes is a little too close for comfort. Like a lot of people, most of the time I’m happiest taking my SF/F with some rose-colored glasses, in a way. I want it to feel real, but it turns out that there’s such a thing as too real. For a while, David J. Williams was it.

For me, it all came together with the third and final book in the series, Machinery of Light (Spectra). It’s not that this is a gentler or more accessible work -- neither thing is true. It’s taken me this long, however, to really begin to understand the brute force of the genius at work here and to understand that, though this is fiction, it feels possible that we’re also looking at forecasting. The thought is not a pleasant one.

It is impossible to reduce the elements at play here to a few pithy lines. Suffice it to say that, after global chaos has shaken the world population beyond imagination -- in the third and final installment -- the fate of the world may well be at stake.

There are people who say Williams is describing the future of warfare in Autumn Rain books. If they’re right, dig a hole and hide: Williams’ future doesn’t look like the kind of party most of us would want to attend. It certainly makes for compelling reading, though.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Art & Culture: Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw by Tom Nolan

When Artie Shaw died in 2004 at the age of 94, I was among those surprised that he was still alive: he had quit performing half a century before. “I did all you can do with a clarinet,” Shaw said about his early retirement. “Any more would have been less.”

Tom Nolan’s account of Shaw’s life in Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake (W.W. Norton) is both respectful and in-depth. Author and journalist Nolan interviewed Shaw many times while he was alive and since then, “spoke with a hundred other individuals willing to share memories and insights regarding one of the greatest popular artists of the twentieth century.”

Nolan takes us through Shaw’s life in chronological fashion, including a string of ill-fated marriages. There were eight wives in all, including actresses Lana Turner, Doris Dowling, Ava Gardner and his widow, Evelyn Keyes and Kathleen Winsor, author of Forever Amber.

It is not the many failed marriages, however, that Nolan uses most to transport us. That place is reserved by art in various forms and the way it manifested in Shaw’s life. Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake is a portrait of the King of Swing, sure. More than that, though, it is a jazz biography and a celebration of “America’s indigenous artform.”

While it’s clear Nolan held Shaw in considerable regard, his tone in Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake never loses its journalistic clarity and distance. “I have written this biography with care, respect, and affection,” Nolan writes in his Preface. “Artie Shaw was a man who thrilled millions, but whose own most consistent pleasure seemed to be come from sitting alone with a book.”

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Crime Fiction: The Nearest Exit
by Olen Steinhauer

Love and revenge is a sweet and sour mix that permeates the lives of the secret agents in Olen Steinhauer’s The Nearest Exit (Minotaur). In this new novel’s prologue, Henry Gray, a young hack journalist, is tossed off his balcony. He is in the possession of an enigmatic letter from the now dead director of The Company, Tom Grainger. The Company was introduced in Steinhauer’s previous thriller, The Tourist (2009). It is a fictional secret arm of the CIA whose operatives are called Tourists. The analysts who run the Tourists from desks in a central office on New York City’s Avenue of the Americas are called Travel Agents.

In any event, Gray miraculously survives the fall, but winds up in a coma for several months. He gradually awakens and with the help of his girlfriend, reconstructs Grainger’s letter. Sensing that he is still in grave danger, Gray vanishes from the hospital -- and Steinhauer’s story -- only days before Milo Weaver comes looking for him.

Reader -- if you haven’t read The Tourist yet, let me encourage you right now to do so. Soon after I began The Nearest Exit, I became cranky. I found the first 100 pages confusing. Then, while on vacation, I discovered The Tourist in my condo library. It is a well-crafted novel that Janet Maslin of The New York Times likened to the best of John le Carré. I discovered that while many thrillers feature the same protagonist in standalone stories, enjoying The Nearest Exit really depends on your having previously read The Tourist. Only then can you fully grasp the impact of what is happening.

This new yarn gets underway with an impulsive, perhaps even dangerous, phone call home while three men wait in a van. They are on their way to rob an art museum. While the caller is not identified, if you have read The Tourist you know it is Milo Weaver. We learn that “the first rule of Tourism is to not let it ruin you ... The rootless existence, keeping simultaneous jobs straight in your head, showing no empathy when the job requires none, and especially the unstoppable forward movement.” We see, however, that Weaver is conflicted about what he is doing. He longs for his family and to return home, to go back to his life with his wife and their daughter.

Weaver, having spent some time in prison for alleged financial fraud, is now back in Europe. But as a result of the events related in The Tourist he has been demoted to doing field work for The Company. The assignments seem simplistic and arbitrary, but Weaver figures the Company directors simply don’t trust him after the bloodbath that resulted in the death of his good friend Tom Grainger. He assumes they are vetting his corporate loyalty. Recession-driven budget cuts coupled with his previous extensive field experience mean that Milo goes where The Company needs him, when it needs him. He’s got to have a job, and his credentials don’t qualify him for any other kind of work. Furthermore, Weaver assumes The Company suspects his loyalties are conflicted between love for his family and duty to the organization. In normal times, the existence of a family would preclude his employment with The Company.

After putting Weaver through three months of relatively mindless assignments, The Company’s new director, Alan Drummond, assigns him an impossible loyalty task: He is to kill Adriana, a 15-year-old Moldovan girl living in Germany, and then make her body disappear. “Don’t ask” is another Tourism rule. But Weaver does ask. He can’t bring himself to kill the teenager. His conflicts between blind fidelity to an organization and the emotions surrounding parental love become a theme that runs as an undercurrent throughout Steinhauer’s story. Weaver makes secret arrangements to kidnap the girl and hide her for a period of time, thereby thwarting his directive from The Company.

Shortly thereafter, director Drummond summons Weaver to Antwerp and gives him another assignment: interrogate a Ukrainian defector named Marko, who claims to know about a “mole” within The Company. There are hints of a secret Chinese spy organization, and then more instructions are given to Weaver. He is like the player of a board game, drawing arbitrary cards to discover his next move. Surprisingly, at the end of this novel’s first part, Weaver himself is kidnapped.

Part two begins in the world of German intelligence several days before Weaver’s abduction. We are introduced to Erika Schwartz, a figurative soul sister to Connie Sachs, one of intelligence officer George Smiley’s people from the Le Carré series. A grossly obese woman, Schwartz is addicted to her nightly bottle of Rheinland Riesling and accompanying Snickers bar. She has become obsessed with the kidnapping and subsequent death (or so she assumes) of Adriana. Schwartz has “learned to gather her intelligence from the cracks between the questionable facts that reached her desk.” It’s she and her staff who secretly capture Milo, after they identify him as Adriana’s kidnapper and, presumably, murderer. Weaver eventually convinces Schwartz of his innocence in Adriana’s fate, but the notion of a mole in The Company resurfaces.

Part three of The Nearest Exit relates the search for that clandestine infiltrator. Weaver is recruited by Drummond to learn what truth -- if any -- there is behind the Ukrainian defector’s reports of a mole. The evidence seems to indicate that such a spy (perhaps working for the Chinese) does exist. On the other hand, though, that evidence may be misleading and the mole imaginary. Then again, on the third hand, maybe that undercover agent is at work after all. Such confusing and mysterious goings-on are common in the world of international espionage. Only as Steinhauer’s tale races on do we realize that a diabolical plot is in place to cripple The Company.

I won’t give more away, except to say that Milo Weaver has clearly been set up to serve, in this great series’ next clever and complicated installment, as an agent of The Company’s revenge.

Reader, remember: read The Tourist first and then proceed to The Nearest Exit.

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New Today: Baby Body Signs by Joan Liebmann-Smith and Jacqueline Nardi Egan

While I found Baby Body Signs (Bantam) to be a tremendously interesting book, I’m not convinced it’s a good idea. While it’s interesting to know when a snoring baby is okay and when the snoring might be a sign of sleep apnea and it’s probably not a bad thing to know what sort of freckles might signal a rare genetic disorder, is this really information that new parents should be loaded up with? Let’s face it, they have enough to deal with just getting through the night without having to be concerned that a baby with swollen breasts might have a hormonal problem. After all, there’s plenty of time for hormonal problems later on: say when the kid hits her teens. Isn’t it best, sometimes, to just let babies be babies?

That said, if you do want a book about the health of babies, this is a good author duo to look to. Liebmann-Smith is a medical sociologist and is on the advisory board of Healthy Children Healthy Futures. Nardi Egan is a medical journalist and editor: these two are able to write lucidly and knowledgeably about babies and health.
Our purpose is not to pressure parents into “playing doctor.” Nor is it to make them more anxious than ever about their babies’ health. Rather we want to educate parents ... so that they can detect and correctly interpret their babies’ body signs.
Still, I’m not sure loading first time parents up with a lot of extra information is wise. They have enough to worry about without now having to check for pigeon toes, blue skin and orange, yellow or green poo. It’s a deeply interesting book though -- and capable of providing many hours of fascinating reading.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

New in Paperback: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Barcelona-born Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s debut novel, The Shadow of the Wind, was an international bestseller and something of a publishing phenomena. His follow-up, The Angel’s Game, was -- arguably -- one of the most important books published last year: out last week in a stunning paperback edition from Anchor Books.

Ruiz Zafón’s lush and gothic brand of magic realism keeps readers wondering at the breaks between fantasy and reality. What is meant to be rock solid in a Ruiz Zafón novel? What is meant to be mythology? Or magic? Or something else, too ephemeral to touch? For book-lovers, though, this is especially heady territory. “A love letter to all things literary,” The Onion said when the book first came out. And I love this one from The Washington Post: “A dream from which it would be imprudent to wake.” Hoo yeah.

In 1920s Barcelona, young hack novelist David Martin receives a compelling offer: the opportunity to write a book above and beyond anything that has come before. He is promised a fortune but that doesn’t even touch the possibilities: it is a book for which “people will live and die.” Though he initially refuses, he is ultimately worn down and sets to work on the book of a lifetime. More: the book of all lifetimes. The Angel’s Game is, in a way, more than the sum of its parts and even Barcelona is a mysterious and magical character.

Zafón is the second most read Spanish author of all time (Cervantes gets the title) and it’s not difficult to see why. The Angel’s Game is intricate and intelligent, complicated yet human, magical yet somewhat grounded in reality. Those who loved The Shadow of the Wind should be warned, though: despite bits of connective tissue, The Angel’s Game is a much darker book. The writing is just as stunning, but the shadows you encounter have a substantial feel.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Happy Birthday to The Rap Sheet!

Our sister publication, The Rap Sheet, was born on this day four years ago. In honor of the event, Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce looks back on the incredible highlights of the last 52 weeks of crime fiction coverage here.


Cookbook: Stonewall Kitchen Appetizers by Jonathan King, Jim Stott & Kathy Gunst

One can get blasé. Yet another cookbook, chockfull of brilliantly illustrated recipes. If you love cookbooks -- as I really do -- it’s difficult to not get jaded after a time. But flipping through Stonewall Kitchen Appetizers (Chronicle Books), completely prepared to yawn while turning pages, one recipe after another caught my eye and fired my imagination. The flavors, the textures, the daring blends of unusual materials. And underlying all of these important factors, a sense of ease. Imagine: preparing for a party with a feeling of relaxing: that’s what Stonewall Kitchen Appetizers conveys.

And just imagine this party: Crab Tostadas with Avocado and Lime-Cilantro Cream. Roasted Beet Towers with Toasted Walnuts and Orange-Herb Crème Fraiche. Cheese Balls Redux. Indian-Spice Cauliflower Soup with Spiced Cashews. Chestnuts Wrapped in Bacon. So, so many more.

Jonathan King and Jim Stott are the founders of Stonewall Kitchens, known for their speciality food products. Co-author Kathy Gunst is a food journalist and cookbook author. And the trio are going hard: Stonewall Kitchen Appetizers debuted in January of this year. It follows up Stonewall Kitchen Breakfast, published last autumn, and Stonewall Kitchen Grilling, which came out in March. In my experience, the Stonewall Kitchen books are very good: interesting recipes clearly described and perfectly illustrated. If anything, Stonewall Kitchen Appetizers exceeded expectations. I suspect I'll be cooking from this one for a very long time.

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Short Attention Span? There’s A Book for That

While we love the energy that’s been expended to create Orca Book’s new Rapid Reads series, it seems to us to be one of those ideas that look good on paper before you realize that the mousetrap has been reimagined... and it’s still just a mousetrap.

Rapid Reads launched this spring with four titles: Love You to Death by Gail Bowen, The Middle Ground by Zoe Whittall, The Spider Bites by Medora Sale and The Barrio Kings by William Kowalski. Clearly, the problem isn’t with the authors chosen to launch the new series: these are some of the top in their respective fields. The trouble, for us anyway, is with the actuality of the thing. Rapid Reads look like books. They have covers and ISBNs... but at between 12,000 and 20,000 words apiece they are not even novella length: long short stories, at best.

In a press release, though, Orca tells us that their Rapid Reads are aimed at busy people without a lot of extra time. “In our increasingly fast-paced world,” they write, “we believe there is a market for well-written, well-told novels that can be read in one sitting.” They point out that readers who are struggling with English or have other “literacy challenges” may likewise find the books appealing. And while that sounds terribly altruistic, we’re back to the initial new mousetrap complaint: in our “increasingly fast-paced world” we already have a solution for all of these readers: it’s called the short story. In fact, you can fit many -- or at least several -- into a single volume, you can tuck them into newspapers and magazines, even print them for free online. And while we support the creation and distribution and especially the promotion of the short story as art-form, we don’t see the need to reinvent the wheel. Especially when that short story wheel is time tested and good and true.

If you’re craving truly superlative short fiction that doesn’t masquerade as anything but, there are many anthologies available. Some of them even geared to certain types of reader or genre or even sub-genre. Two of the very best in North America are annuals, anthologized from various time-tested sources. Two of our favorites are The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories (Anchor Books) and the wonderful Journey Prize Anthology (McLelland & Stewart). Many stories, many hands and single carefully curated book. Wonderful!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Art & Culture: Natural Houses: The Residential Architecture of Andersson-Wise

At first glance, Natural Houses (Princeton Architectural Press) seems very specific. And it is, I suppose. It’s a very tight and beautifully published portfolio of the work of a single design firm: that of Andersson-Wise in Austin, Texas. But those passionate -- or even interested -- in a new design vernacular will do well to have a close look at the living visions of Chris Wise and Arthur Andersson. This really is design for the 21st century. And it’s not that they are the only designers bringing a new and more conscious vision to the homes they are creating. But -- oh! -- they do it so very well. The authors explain:
Our particular architecture is shaped not so much by us but by its place. By this we mean climate, site geology, and site biology: sun, wind, temperature, terrain, structure, orientation -- the things that grow and that can grow here. These elements beckon our engagement and ask for interpretation.
Or, as Rick Sundberg says in a foreword, the firm’s design “addresses the tension between nature and the built environment -- calling into question what we consider natural.”

The book that results from these thoughts -- this aesthetic -- is a series of soaring visits to Andersson-Wise designed homes. It’s an interesting journey, too. Opening our minds to the possibilities not only what can be but what, in some cases, already is.

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Fiction: Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

Mary Sharratt’s richly imagined new novel hinges on a set of historically documented witch trials that took place in 17th century England.

Sharratt (The Real Minerva, Vanishing Point) brings her magic to Daughters of the Witching Hill (Houghton Mifflin), delivering a complex set of characters and establishing just the right note of doubt: were they innocent women? Or was there something to the accusations leveled against them?

The narrating voice of matriarch Bess Southerns is so vivid it is often eerie: whispering in your ear like a voice from the long-forgotten past. Here she speaks to a Puritan who has been slow in paying for her services:
I speak in a low, warning tone, not unlike the growl of a dog before it bites. Man like him should know better than to cross the likes of me. Throughout Pendle Forest I'm known as a cunning woman, and she who has the power to bless may also curse.
Daughters of the Witching Hill is very different for Sharratt, yet just as rich and compelling as this author’s previous works. Bess and her clan live and breath on the pages of Sharratt’s book -- at least for a while -- and we come away from the experience with a fresh view of what might really have happened in Lancashire in 1612.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Demi Moore Book May Not Be Memoir (Unless It Is)

The buzz that actress Demi Moore is shopping a book is all over the wires, as confirmed here by that (ahem) rock-solid news source, People magazine:
Moore, 47, has met with publishers in New York, her agent, Luke Janklow, tells the Associated Press. No prospective title or other details have been reported.
That seems to be the extent of the information. Still, pretty much everyone is buzzing. Read more here and here and here.


Hitler’s Book of Looted Art Recovered in Ohio

At the time of his suicide in 1945, Adolf Hitler was planning a super museum consisting of thousands of stolen works of art. And how do we know this? In part because a souvenir-hunting GI took a photo album that has proven to be the plans for the “Fuhrermuseum” Hitler had been imagining for his hometown of Linz, Austria:
US GI John Pistone never knew the significance of the heavy, green leather-bound volume titled “Picture Gallery Linz XIII”, but took it as a memento from Hitler’s mountain home in Berchtesgaden in 1945.

But a washing machine contractor, an amateur history buff, spotted the book on a shelf at Mr Pistone’s home near Cleveland, Ohio, and made his own checks on the internet.
The Telegraph has the full story here.

Writing Down Under

The Sydney Writers’ Festival runs until May 23rd in the beautiful harbor city of Sydney, Australia.

Artistic director Chip Rolley, this year chairing the event for the first time, brings a passionate eye for both the literary and topical components of the Festival:
The literary endeavour is at the heart our festival and this year we welcome Colm Tóibín, Peter Carey, Lionel Shriver, Yiyun Li, Les Murray, Alex Miller and a host of newer novelists, as well as the swag of poets who complete our literary roundup. We have always provided space for poets and international writers to read their work but this year there will also be a series of Reading Musters, giving you the chance to hear a great number of local fiction writers read.
Even so, Rolley reminds potential attendees that this year’s festival falls “at a critical moment in history -— with a world still reeling from the near collapse of the global financial system and threatened by the prospect of catastrophic climate change.” To that end, the Festival has incorporated authors who are looking at change and renewal in many ways, including John Ralston Saul, David Wessel, Raj Patel, Bill McKibben and many others.

Festival highlights include sessions with Stephanie Dowrick, Robert Forster, Thomas Keneally, Christopher Hitchens and others. Those looking for more information on the Festival will find it here.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Party Pals: The Sheet and Spillane

Really? Can it have been that long? Sure enough, this coming Saturday, May 22, will mark four years since The Rap Sheet spun off from January Magazine to become one of the Web’s most popular crime-fiction news and feature blogs.

As part of its celebration, The Rap Sheet is holding a week-long contest to give away four free copies of the new Mike Hammer detective novel, The Big Bang, written by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins, plus four free copies of the latest original Hammer radio novel on CD, “The Little Death.”

Entry to this competition is earned by submitting a list of your four favorite private-eye novels. Full details can be found here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Art & Culture: The Small Stakes: Music Posters by Jason Munn

Though Jason Munn’s name is not particularly well known, if you’re a fan of contemporary music, you’ve most likely seen his work. Munn has designed posters for Broken Social Scene, Beck, The Decemberists, Cat Power, Wilco, Built to Spill, Ben Harper, The Flaming Lips, the Pixies and many others.

Munn’s work is powerful. Understated. Beautifully contained. As Jay Ryan says in an introduction to an interview with the artist that opens the book, “Jason touches on traditions of good design and shows a sense of economy and restraint that is lacking in much of today’s visual world.”

In The Small Stakes: Music Posters (Chronicle Books) over 150 of Munn’s silkscreened posters are beautifully reproduced in their full, iconic glory. Fans of design and music will want to take note: this is a celebration of the work of a significant artist who has channeled his passion to a field that obviously means a great deal to him.

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Fiction: The Language of Sand by Ellen Block

After the tragic deaths of her husband and son, lexicographer Abigail Harker takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on the Carolina coast. On Chapel Isle she immerses herself in her grief, uncovers secrets and tries to come to terms with her life.

Bantam is marketing The Language of Sand as a choice for book clubs. I can see why. Not only is it a beautifully crafted book, despite some of the haunting themes, the message is upbeat and the story is ultimately a hopeful one. And the puzzles the lexicographer encounters at every step are oddly satisfying. Here are the first three sentences of The Language of Sand:
Never was a word she didn’t care for. Not because of the infiniteness it implied or because it sounded so stubbornly unforgiving, but because it was, by definition, improbable. Improbability bothered her.
It’s a bit early in the year to be thinking about beach reads, but The Language of Sand would seem to be a perfect one, especially considering the ultimately languorous nature of this novel and the seaside themes.

Friday, May 14, 2010

From the Field: iPad Up Close and Personal

By the end of the first month the iPad was available, Apple had sold a million of them. Mine was one -- but only just. I waited for the 3G version, thinking if the machine was all about access on-the-go, then a WiFi connection alone wouldn’t be enough.

I’ve now had mine for two weeks, and although I can certainly remember what life was like without it, I can no longer imagine life without it.

The machine is awesome. You’ve read about its ability to showcase photos, websites, music and movies. You know it can access something like 200,000 apps at the App Store. It lets you read your e-mail. Just like iPhones and iPod Touches.

But there, the similarities end. iPad goes much further, becoming a device for creation as well as exhibition. On it, I can create presentations. I can build spreadsheets. I can even write, in Pages (which outputs to Word, if you’re worried or wondering). I’m planning to write a novel on the thing, if I can carve out some time. (For now, I’m writing this post on the iPad, which I suppose makes this my first metapost for January Magazine. Oooooh!)

But since you’re here, I bet you’re more interested in the iPad’s function as an e-book reader -- and the iBookstore.

Now, before I go on, full disclosure: I’m not an e-book kinda guy. I like books. I like having that inch of paper in my hand. I like a book’s heft. A book’s tactile wonder, the feel of paper. But hey, if the iPad lets me read a book, why not at least put a toe in the water?

Turns out reading on an iPad is a trip. The backlit screen is bright as a clear summer day -- and just as stunning. Pages turn easily, with a tap or a swipe. When you swipe, the pages curl! The book included with every iPad, Winnie the Pooh, contains illustrations -- and those pop just as powerfully as the text. Beautiful.

Because the iPad works in any orientation, you can position it in landscape mode and read a spread at a time, or in portrait mode for a single page. Type not to your liking? You can change the font to any of five options. Words not big enough? You can change the size. Want to search for a word or a name? No problem. Want to lie on your side and read in bed? There’s a rotation lock, so you can freeze the screen’s position. Want to jump to a certain chapter? Go to the table of contents, tap the chap you want -- and you’re there. Want to bookmark a page? Easy. Just stop reading, and iBooks remembers where you are.

My favorite thing? Faced with a word I don’t know, I tap it -- and up pops a dictionary window that offers every possible definition. Another tap vanishes it.

A person could grow to love this.

At the iBookstore, the books are piling up, although not as fast as the apps themselves do in their own store. Still, the NYT bestsellers are here, along with thousands of other books. The store has a featured-titles banner, offers bestseller lists and free books, and more. Of course, you can search by category, author, whatever. As on the App Store, just click a book you’re interested in, and it downloads to your iPad right away, to a specially made bookshelf in the reader. The bookshelf will hold everything you buy, no matter how many: no more piling beloved books in boxes in the attic!

And then there are samples. I downloaded a sample of When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I'm Dead (Twelve) the new Jerry Weintraub memoir, and it was 39 pages long. Plenty enough to get a sense of the book. The sample of Atlas Shrugged? 262 pages. One could almost survive on the samples alone (much more easily than one could survive on those 30-second snips at iTunes).

All in all, the iPad appears to be a superb e-reader. I still love physical books, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. But the next time I take an extended trip, I may leave the paper editions at home and grab some e-ditions on the fly. Or watch a movie... or read e-mail... or surf the Web... or, well, I may just let my iPad decide for me. There must be an app for that.

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Happy Birthday, Mr. Fowl!

Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer was born on this day in 1965. From The Writer’s Almanac:
Colfer once described the series as “Die Hard with fairies.” Its protagonist is a brilliant teenage criminal named Artemis Fowl II who masterminds various complicated scams around the world -- the stories are set in Siberia, in Vietnam, in Morocco, in Paris, Chicago, parts of Ireland -- all with the goal of getting filthy rich. The books are filled with fairies and fairy institutions; there's even a fairy government and a fairy police force.
Most recently, of course, Colfer wrote the sixth book in the late Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series. And Another Thing... (Hyperion) was released last year, exactly three decades after the publication of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Almanac informs us it’s also the birthday of the exquisite David Byrne, “musician, filmmaker installation artist, recording executive and writer” who was born in Scotland in 1952 and “who’s been called the ‘thinking man’s rock star’ by The New York Times and ‘Rock’s Renaissance Man’ by Time magazine.”

Same as it ever was.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Now in Paperback: Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden

Though Molly Fox’s Birthday (Picador) was huge when released in the UK in 2008 -- including being named a Guardian Book of the Year and a finalist for the prestigious Orange Prize -- as far as I know, the Picador paperback released last month is the first US publication of the book. This makes Molly Fox’s Birthday an immense find for North American readers. It’s a massively good book: subtle, effortless, lyrical.

The book takes place over a single day. The title’s Molly Fox -- an actress who loathes the idea of yet another birthday -- has lent her home in Dublin to a playwright while Molly herself is working in London and New York.

The nameless narrator playwright is meant to be starting a new work but, instead, she muses on her friend, the absent Molly, and the transformations the two of them and the friends they share have made in their lives since they met.

Wonderfully realized, often poetically stated, Molly Fox’s Birthday places Madden an easy reach from the very best of her contemporaries. It’s a beautiful, memorable book.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Art & Culture: Modern North: Architecture on the Frozen Edge by Julie Decker

As the topic for a book about architecture, the North seems so esoteric it’s almost ridiculous. How could that possibly be a theme of sufficient glue to connect a book? Especially a book worthy of note? And yet Modern North (Princeton Architectural Press) delivers in every way imaginable. More, really, because there is a vitality and a creativity born of need in play that would have been a difficult thing to factor in. Author Julie Decker (Quonset Hut) points out there is a tradition of deeply created architecture that emerges from the very culture of the north:
An important part of survival was being able to build structures that would offer protection from the elements. These were utilitarian but ingenious structures built from natural materials that provided shelter from rain, wind, snow, and predatory animals.
In the 36 stunning homes and public buildings in Northern Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia, Decker has chosen to include in Modern North, we have moved quite far beyond simple survival. A research center in Norway seems almost to be part of the hills that surround it. A simple hotel in Finland rises box-like and austere from its seaside lot. A cultural center in Dawson City, Yukon, bends old and new design for a striking rethinking of both. And a grouping of schools in Alaska seem more about survival than design until you take a closer look.

Decker and a hand-picked team of essayists who comment on the demands and challenges of designing for the North, do a splendid job of sharing that which many of us have not even previously considered:
These projects tell stories that combine isolation with city life, lightness with darkness, tradition with innovation, urbanity with the ultimate grandeur of nature.
All of this splendidly illustrated by excellent photographs in a beautiful book that forces us to reconsider just about every aspect of what designing for humans can mean.

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Fiction: Drowning Tucson by Aaron Michael Morales

Dude ranches. Golf courses. Spa culture. Wildlife. Shopping, shopping, shopping. Though Tucson, Arizona might be known for all of these things -- and more -- none of them is what Aaron Michael Morales’ powerful debut novel is about. Not even remotely.

The carefully connected stories we find in Drowning Tucson (Coffee House Press) explore Tucson’s seldom seen tough streets, focusing on the disintegration and desolation of the doomed Nuñez family. This is Tucson as most of us could not begin to think it: the painted desert like distant and beautiful imagination and with a heart of violence pounding at its core.

In a recent interview with La Bloga, Morales responds tellingly to a question about what quickly emerges as one of the major themes of Drowning Tucson:
Certainly violence plays an important role in my writing, but it’s not violence for the sake of violence, or the ever-dreaded “glorification of violence” that gives violent art such a stigma in the eyes of people who don’t dig deeper than their visceral reaction to people hurting one another. Instead, what I seek to address are cycles of violence, as well as what is at the root of violence and humanity’s disturbing violent tendencies.
Morales’ vision is disturbing, haunting though sometimes even strangely hopeful. If there also occasionally appears to be an unevenness in the telling, I’m not convinced this is not part of Morales’ art which, like his talent, is considerable.

Two things seem certain: you won’t ever look at Tucson in quite the same way again. And you won’t rest easily until the last page is turned.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Biography: Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky

David Lipsky’s most recent book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (Broadway) is not a biography of the late David Foster Wallace. Rather it is a heartbreaking and surprisingly intimate visit with a giant talent that has since been too cheaply spent.

Like just about everyone else, I guess, almost two years after his death, I still feel the loss of this writer acutely. And that word that so many people have used in connection with Foster Wallace -- loss -- is entirely inaccurate. Because, of course, Foster Wallace killed himself. And he left us behind to make of all that’s left what we will. I can’t quite bring myself to forgive him for that. The books he won’t write. The stories he won’t tell. “Suicide is such a powerful end," Lipsky writes in an afterword that runs near the beginning of the book. Appropriate somehow, “it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has an event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction.”

In 1996, Rolling Stone assigned Lipsky to travel with Foster Wallace near the end of the tour for Infinite Jest, the work that would make him famous. Lipsky sets it up:
I’m thirty years old, he’s thirty-four. We both have long hair .... this book runs from the minute I turn on the recorder, through five days of diners, arguments, on-ramps, friends, a reading, a faraway mall, his dogs, up to the last word David said to me. It's a word that meant a great, complicated amount to him. After he died, I read through this week again. I was surprised and moved -- it seemed very much like him -- to see that he used it in the context of dance.
Lipsky is a skilled interviewer and a terrific writer and so what we end up with is far, far beyond what might be expected. One of the great literary minds of his generation speaking frankly and at length with an award-winning journalist who, himself, has a great deal to say.

I imagine that, as the years pass, we will see biographies about the troubled and talented Foster Wallace. I doubt, however, we’ll see another portrait that cuts quite this close to the bone. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is a remarkable book. You hear Foster Wallace’s amazing voice on every page. And your heart breaks all over again.


Fiction: Play Dead by Ryan Brown

Another entrant in the highly competitive zombie wars, former actor (The Young and the Restless) Ryan Brown’s debut effort, Play Dead (Gallery Books) is competent, sometimes compelling, fairly innovative and sometimes quite funny. In the end, however, it just isn’t as good as it could have been.

Part of the problem is with the premise itself. In Play Dead, you know up front that we’re going to be mashing two big American tropes -- high school football and zombies. But once you know that, as well as the fairly simple set up, you're pretty much there. Let’s face it (and this is, perhaps, another problem) how much heart and soul is a frankly funny novel about football zombies going to have?

At the same time, this criticism can also serve as praise. After all, we’re not always looking for a lift for our brow. Sometimes we just want to enjoy an engaging story. Sometimes, for want of a better word, we just want to escape. Play Dead certainly accomplishes that. There’s something almost eerily compelling about the book: the pay-off might not be huge, but Play Dead delivers a highly enjoyable journey, if you can suspend your belief and leave it at the door.

“Friday Night Lights meets Dawn of the Dead,” says Brad Thor in one of two blurbs from that author. And that pretty much sums it up perfectly. What you need to decide is: do you care?

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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Cover Version

Over at The Rap Sheet, we often see posts about copycat book covers, and the issues of judging a book by its jacket. The Sunday Observer takes a look at the importance of book covers and how they translate internationally:
What you are trying to get across on a cover is the essence of a book, quite an ambiguous thing," says Nathan Burton, a British designer who created the striking cover for Ali Smith's The Accidental, based on an image of a dead woman. "Designers in different countries read and interpret the fiction in different ways." It doesn't quite explain how Germany arrived at silhouetted dancers for House of Meetings, but "the germ of an idea can come from anywhere," says Burton. He points to the Swedish cover of The Accidental, on the surface a starkly different treatment – "but there's a photograph of a girl, bold sans serif type... You could argue that they are born out of a similar thought process."

There are colder business reasons for creating jackets that differ by territory, says Julian Humphries, head cover designer at Fourth Estate: "Different sales channels have different sensibilities." It can be hard to pinpoint what exactly these sensibilities are – "It's a cultural thing," he says, "as taste-driven as different countries eating different things for breakfast" – but broadly speaking, literary fiction is an easier sell in mainland Europe than in the UK or the US, so publishers there can be less overt in their attempts to grab the attention of customers. "In Europe you often see book covers with simple images and plain type, and that sells books for them," says Burton, whose colourful design for A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz stands in stark contrast to the black-and-white German edition. "The UK book market is more competitive, all the covers in shops shouting: 'Buy me!' We have to put on a bit of extra spin."

The US, meanwhile, tends to signpost its literary fiction more than the UK, says Humphries. "With their version of Wolf Hall, for instance, they picked out the history bent of the novel much more. Theirs was a great cover, and won prizes everywhere."

Why don't publishers, then, replicate covers that have been a success abroad? "It does happen but it's quite rare," says Humphries. Megan Wilson, an art director at Knopf Doubleday in New York, says that American designers are sometimes asked to look at British jackets, "as an example of something that works or doesn't, but we are rarely asked to use them directly". Burton tries to avoid looking at alternative covers if he's working on a book that's already been published. "It can take you off on odd tangents. It's always best to work from fresh."
There’s more to The Observer’s story and it’s here.

Incidentally, The Sunday Times reports that the three biggest-selling paperbacks in the UK in April were Volumes I, II and III of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium Trilogy, which last week held the No. 1, 2 and 4 positions. (The Korean, U.S. and UK covers of the first book in that series are shown above right.)

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Non-Fiction: How to Achieve Heaven on Earth edited by John E. Wade II

It’s not at every time in our lives that we feel the need for chicken soup moments. If, however, you feel the desire to be uplifted, you could do worse than How to Achieve Heaven on Earth (Pelican). Subtitled “101 insightful essays from the world’s greatest thinkers, leaders, and writers” the book collects speeches, essays and articles from a truly remarkable -- though mostly male -- cross-section of notable contributors, among them Barack Obama, Stella Resnick, Poppy Tooker, George Bush, Ted Turner, Tony Blair, Paul Prudhomme, Sat Kaur Khalsa and many others.

Author, investor philanthropist John E. Wade II, states his vision succinctly -- if a little self importantly -- in the preface:
“I will try to love and help create a heaven on earth” -- the most important sentence that I have written or may ever write.

Many people already try to live by these simple, yet powerful, words without articulating this explicit promise. I believe that if we -- one by one, million by million, billion by billion -- would all accept this challenge, the world would progress immensely.
It’s a good wish and a worthwhile goal. Something to think about while reading this very upbeat collection.

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Art & Culture: Read, Remember, Recommend by Rachelle Rogers Knight

I’m not exactly sure when reading moved from personal entertainment to group activity (though I’m half convinced it had something to do with Oprah and the 1990s) but, at some point, it did. Of course, reading is still something that, ultimately, must be done alone. But lots of activities can be organized around the simple, previously solitary act of reading.

It’s possible that no one knows all of this better than Rachelle Rogers Knight, a self-proclaimed “passionate reader” whose very passion led her to self-publish a fledgling version of Read, Remember, Recommend back in 2007. Three years and several improvements later, Sourcebooks introduces a more polished and complete version of that book. Serious bibliophiles will not look back.

In her introduction, Rogers Knight tells readers what she hopes they will accomplish with the book:
  • Discover new writers while expanding your reading list
  • Keep details about what you've read and journal your thoughts, feelings, and emotions about each book
  • Keep track of your to-read list
  • List your recommendations to share with other readers, friends, and book club members
  • Note and keep track of books you've loaned and borrowed
  • Peruse an extensive list of literary blogs and book award lists
  • Expand your knowledge of literary terms
A combination of carefully thought-out log pages as well as lists of awards, notable picks and suggestions as well as a resource section make for a hefty package. Read, Remember, Recommend is a substantial book, which is a good thing as, in many ways, it’s meant to be a book you bring with you for your lifetime.

List makers, book club members and other bookish types who enjoy cataloging their books, sharing them or both are likely to enjoy Read, Remember, Recommend. A young adult version of the book is now available, as well.

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Children’s Books: In Lonnie’s Shadow by Chrissie Michaels

In the 1990s, there was an archaeological dig in some historic lanes in Melbourne’s central business district. Thousands of bits and pieces from the 19th century, when people lived there, turned up. It has only been in recent years that people have started moving back into the CBD and those are mostly the ones who can afford the horrendous prices of city property, but a century ago there was a large migrant and working-class population living there.

In the Melbourne of the 1890s recession live four young friends: Lonnie, Daisy, Carlo and Pearl. Lonnie is working as a stable hand and about to ride in an illegal midnight race through the streets -- a race he has just discovered is fixed. Daisy is a Salvation Army lass and seamstress with no parents and a dark memory that only surfaces in her sleep. Carlo drives a fruit cart and has ambitions to open an ice cream factory. Pearl has been sold into prostitution and is trying to escape from a particularly nasty madam. In Lonnie’s Shadow (Ford Street) features these intertwining stories and each chapter is headed by a description of an item found in the archaeological dig. Each object is mentioned, if only in passing, in the course of the chapter.

The use of the objects found in the dig is a nice touch. There’s also a mention of the Parliamentary mace that went missing around this time -- and who is to say it didn’t happen in this way?

In Lonnie’s Shadow works very well as an historical novel, if you can find some teens who like straight historical fiction, as opposed to historical fantasy. There is a strong flavor of the period in which it happened -- and if you happen to live in Melbourne, as I do, it’s fascinating to imagine what your city might have been like in those days -- long after the gold rushes, about 20 years before the First World War. The chapters are short and easy to read.

But you really need to persuade kids to read historical fiction these days. There are always some, but the genre has been out of fashion for a long time, which is a shame. Talk the teenager in your lfe into reading this. It’s worth it.

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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Erotica to the Rescue

It might be hard to swallow that books with titles like Thong on Fire (Atria) (“by the author of G-Spot and Candy Licker”) might be the answer the publishing industry has been searching for. However that's just what Gawker tells us in a piece called “Erotica Might Save Publishing”:
Ever read any black urban erotic chick lit? How about wordy-porn featuring shape-shifting werewolves? No? Surely you must have picked up the S&M re-imagining of Robin Hood? Because it's masterworks like these that may revitalize publishing.
Nor are the readers exactly who you might expect:
The average customer is a "middle class woman under 40," although increasing numbers of men are also locking the door before picking up their nightly reading, says author Brian Alexander. Kensington Books, with an unfortunate choice of phrase, say the market has "exploded," while San Francisco's Cleis Press has seen a sales increase of 56 per cent.
The Gawker piece is here.


Subscribing to A New Marketing Theory

Rap Sheet contributor and award-winning novelist Mark Coggins (The Big Wake-Up) today adds his voice to The Huffington Post with a thoughtful piece about the changing way books are marketed:
What do the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and Young Junius, a forthcoming crime novel by Seth Harwood, have in common? At first blush, not a whole heck of a lot. But if you do a little research, you'll find they share at least one characteristic: the way they were first brought to market.


Coggins, who knows his way around both the publishing and high tech industries, has some salient things to add to this conversation:

In this age of eBooks and print on demand (POD) technologies, the benefits of the approach may not be obvious [but] releasing fewer books of higher quality for a select audience can have advantages over the mass-market-oriented, swing-for-the-fences mentality that now grips mainstream publishing.

The Huffington Post piece is here. Subscription sign-up for Harwood’s new novel begins today.

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Tuesday, May 04, 2010

New Today: Innocent by Scott Turow

I can still remember reading Presumed Innocent, almost like it was just last week. I remember being enthralled. I remember -- even more vividly -- being breathless when Rusty Sabich, the book’s protagonist, revealed that the bloody whatchamacallit had been used to kill Carolyn Polhemus. At that moment, I suddenly thought, horrified, has Turow duped me? Did Rusty do it, after all? It was a major moment, and it’s never left me.

Now, 25 years later, Turow has delivered the sequel to Presumed Innocent, titled simply Innocent (Grand Central). Both titles, in addition to being classic courtroom dramas and absolutely unforgettable reads, are shrewed commentaries on the legal system and our own personal system of meting out justice. Rusty was never much presumed innocent, and he’s far from innocent now.

Reading Innocent, I kept harkening back to Presumed Innocent, losing myself, as before, in Turow’s brilliant, provocative sentences and tightly knotted plot. The new book finds many of the characters from the first one: Rusty, the onetime lawyer who’s now a judge in Kindle County; his wife Barbara, whose death opens the book; their son Nat, now all grown up; and Tommy Molto, Rusty’s nemesis from all those years ago (and they’re still going at it). The new players include Tommy’s right hand, Brand, who’s out to get Rusty even more than Molto is, and Anna, Rusty’s assistant and, before the book’s over, his son’s girlfriend.

Of course, none of this is really as simple as it seems. Though I feel compelled to say more, Innocent is so good, so well written and so fun to read, that I fear spoiling even one page would do you a terrible injustice.

Like it’s older sibling, this new novel is filled with political intrigue and the highly detailed machinations of a stay-up-all-night-reading courtroom trial. Once again, Rusty is in the defendant’s chair, once again represented by Sandy Stern, diseased but no less diminished in his power.

Rusty himself, though certainly the book’s hero, is also its most flawed character. He was plenty soiled in the earlier book, too, and while he’s apparently tried to remain on the straight and narrow since then, life has offered some distractions that felt just too tasty to pass up. Turow goes to great lengths to explain Rusty, though doesn’t for a moment ask us to like the guy. In a way, I think, Turow knows Rusty’s faults make him more human -- and thus, more like us. Despite what you feel for him as a person and as a man, you root for him as a character. It’s a fascinating spot to put readers in. Thanks, Mr. Turow.

But Rusty isn’t the only indelible character between these covers. The author composes all his characters with unnerving expertise. Turns of phrase, telling details, surprising sympathies, and newly revealed relationships -- not to mention a riveting plot -- each new page brings more reasons to love this novel. The most impressive thing Turow does is not to spoil the first book. He doesn’t say who killed Carolyn Polhemus -- just in case someone might read Innocent first.

Whether or not you’ve read Presumed Innocent, you will find an amazing novel here. But if you have, you’ll find that Scott Turow has built in extra layers of fun for you; yes, knowing certain things brings more meaning to everything that happens here -- but not knowing them diminishes absolutely nothing. That’s the mark of a masterwork.

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iPad Popularity Exceeds Expectations

While there never seemed to be any doubt that Apple’s long-awaited iPad would be a success, even the veteran computer manufacturer seems to have been take off-guard by the demand.

Apple has announced that, as of last Friday, one million iPads had been sold as well as 12 million apps. From The Independent:
“One million iPads in 28 days -- that’s less than half of the 74 days it took to achieve this milestone with iPhone,” said Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO. “Demand continues to exceed supply and we’re working hard to get this magical product into the hands of even more customers.”


New in Paperback: Idiot America: How Stupidity Became A Virtue in the Land of the Free by Charles P. Pierce

I never understood the term “heartbreakingly funny” until I read Idiot America (Anchor) a book that is at once searing and loathsome and splendid. Pierce looks at many of the things that are true about America and forces us to look at them in a way we might not have before.

The books is spun around what he calls the “three great premises of Idiot America”:
• Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units
• Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough
• Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it
Not all readers will be delighted by Pierce’s devilish humor. The author leans unapologetically to the left and it’s clear in no time at all that Idiot America is not his attempt to win anyone over. Rather, one gets the idea that Pierce is standing to one side, arms akimbo, shaking his head at the madness he sees all around himself. All around us. And laughing to keep the tears away.

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Monday, May 03, 2010

Art & Culture: Designer's Notebook by Andrew Schapiro and Brad Mead

This review will be short. To do anything but a short review of Designer’s Notebook (Chronicle Books) would be ironic. Maybe ridiculous. When I decided to review the book, I didn’t know this. I was anticipating a book about design. It isn’t. Not really. It is just what the title suggests: A notebook. Created with designers in mind.

Considering my expectations, though, imagine my surprise when I opened the book and discovered that, for the most part, it was blank, or mostly so. However, you will have been prepared: you will have escaped the surprise.

Surprised irony aside, Designer’s Notebook is actually quite cool. As anyone with even the slightest interest in cool notebooks will realize, Designer’s Notebook seems patterned after the classic Moleskine: spare, tidy, infinitely useful. There are some differences, though. The book isn’t entirely blank. For instance, the “user-generated table of contents” is not nearly as silly as it sounds. There is also a more or less Moleskine-style storage folder, a detachable ruler, tracing paper and color stickers. “These can have a variety of uses, including as tabs on page edges for organization.” Okay. Fun.

We are told that the “pages are a structured yet flexible place for the designer to consider each element of a project before and throughout its creation.” And though that sounds a little highfalutin’, I can see using these pages in just that way.

Designer’s Notebook is a good execution and it’s a good idea, I’m looking forward to see if it lives up to my expectations.

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Saturday, May 01, 2010

Crime Fiction: Thunder Beach by Michael Lister

Michael Lister continues his dark explorations of northern Florida’s underbelly in Thunder Beach (Tyrus Books), the standalone tale of a former stepfather who still feels a sense of duty toward his late wife’s children.

Journalist Merrick McKnight is spiraling downward. Fast. He’s having an unconsummated affair with a married stripper named Regan. He has lost his job at a daily newspaper in Panama City, Florida. And much of this slide in his life has taken place since his wife and their young son, Ty, died in a car accident. His marriage was an unhappy one, kept alive only because his wife’s two children, Casey and Kevin, loved McKnight. But now all of that has changed.

McKnight hasn’t seen his stepdaughter, Casey, for years. But while in Panama City, he happens to spot her in a photo on the cover of Miss Thunder Beach magazine, a publication affiliated with the town’s annual spring biker rally. So he starts looking for her, only to encounter some very bad men who threaten him and then smash up his shiny new Dodge Challenger.

With McKnight’s concern for Casey rapidly rising, the girl suddenly turns up, tells him that she’s fine, and asks that he leave her alone. She’ll call him if she needs him. Honestly. It isn’t long, though, before Casey does need his help--and more. A local sheriff, John Milton, informs McKnight that someone has filed a missing-person report on Casey (or Amber, as she’s now calling herself).

What follows is a convoluted trip through the world of strip clubs, prostitution, and white slavery in Panama City. Most of the story involves McKnight, the police, and even stripper girlfriend Regan trying to figure out what role, if any, an abusive man named Victor Dyson has played in Casey’s disappearance.

Lister doesn’t let anyone off easy here. Even when the police believe they’ve found Casey’s body, things only get more complicated.

The author’s prose is spare, with the dialogue introduced by dashes instead of quotation marks, à la Charlie Huston. And his narrative is laced with a peculiar sadness that permeates McKnight’s life.
I’ve come in search of a woman.

It seems I’ve spent my entire life searching for something--something elusive, evanescent--something usually involving a woman. Ironically, the woman I’m here to see is not the woman I’ll spend the next few days frantically trying to find.
There are a couple of patches where Lister interrupts his own first-person narrative and gets preachy. In one section, it’s clear that McKnight--and by extension, Lister--is pretty passionate about the decline of the newspaper industry in recent years. However, the passage he devotes to that subject reads more like a dissertation extract or a blog rant than Lister’s usual Spartan poetry. Fortunately, you can count those sections in a peace sign. Lister spends the greater part of his time putting us into a sultry Florida frame of mind with the rumble of motorcycles in the background.

Probably the most skillful bit of scene-building in Thunder Beach has to do with the bikers swarming Panama City. They are ever-present, loud, rumbling, a benign interruption in the normal life of the city. Sometimes they even create obstacles for McKnight and his police allies without deliberately getting in the way. But only near the end of this tale do any bikers play a major part.

Instead, there is Victor Dyson, an oily malevolence whose true nature is unknown. He’s clearly at the center of something that threatens Casey, but it takes McKnight the entire novel to learn what sort of monster Dyson truly is. In a story about the shades of gray that make up noir, Dyson is a glaring reminder that some people are outright and deliberately evil.

Counterbalance that against Merrick McKnight. In our modern world, where too many parents abandon their offspring and too many step-parents look at their spouse’s children as burdens to endure, McKnight steps up to the plate and does more than Casey and Kevin’s real father ever did before their mother died. For that alone, he’s a hero. But his devotion to Casey and her younger brother goes still further: McKnight will risk his own life and freedom to save them.

Novelist and screenwriter Michael Lister, already known for his series about Florida prison chaplain John Jordan, has written in Thunder Beach a poignant and lyrical noir story that’s as much about redemption as it is about shattered lives.

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