Saturday, July 31, 2010

Fiction: Learning to Lose by David Trueba

David Trueba is only one of a cadre of contemporary Spanish novelists delivering compelling novels of luxurious length. Screenwriter and novelist Trueba's Learning to Lose (Other Books) is the author's third work of book-length fiction, but the first to be published in English. North American fans of arthouse films are more likely to be aware of Trueba’s work in that medium, including his widely acclaimed directorial debut for La Buena Vida. In Spain, however, even three novels in, Trueba’s voice is becoming well known. And it truly is a voice worth knowing. His language is simple; straightforward, but seemingly no detail is left untended. Despite both that and the length, Learning to Lose is never ponderous or hesitant and it is clear from the first that this is an author who has something to say.
Desire works like the wind. With no apparent effort. If it finds our sails extended, it will drag us at a dizzying speed. If our doors and shutters are closed, it banbgs at them for a while, searching for cracks or slots it can slip in through. The desire attached to an object of desire binds us to it. But there is another kind of desire, abstract, disconcerting, that envelopes us like a mood.
The trajectory of sixteen year old Syliva’s life is altered forever when she breaks her leg in a car accident. The driver of the car is a 20-year-old Argentinean soccer player. While the broken duo find themselves at the center of a blooming romance, Sylvia’s father and grandfather discover their own drama; one that includes murder and intrigue.

These are the bare facts of plot, yet Learning to Lose is about so much more, including the challenges and morals of modern life; the connections of family. In fact, in many ways, Learning to Lose tackles all of the big questions of life while the pace never lessens, despite the weight of the book and the detail Trueba manages to include. It’s a very good book, one that resonates long after the last page is turned. ◊

Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.

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Friday, July 30, 2010

Birthday for a Brontë

The Writer’s Almanac reminds us that today is the anniversary of the birth of Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë:
Born in Thornton, England (1818). Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights (1847), considered one of the greatest love stories of all time, but she never had a lover.

She said, “I have dreamed in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.”
Emily was one of a trio of talented sisters -- all novelists and poets -- who initially published under masculine names: Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, with each sister choosing a name that started with the same letter as her own. All three sisters seem to have lived brief, unhappy lives while -- arguably -- altering the course of English literature.

Read more about Emily Brontë here.

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iPad Owners “Selfish Elite”

Were you an enthusastic early adopter? Are you one of the ones who stood in line for an iPad when they first came out? If so, a new survey says you are among the "Selfish Elite.” From the Mail Online:
Are you wealthy, sophisticated and smart but don’t care about anybody else?

The chances are you own an iPad.

A survey has revealed the typical person who has bought Apple’s latest gadget is unkind and has little empathy for others.
But if you tut-tutted the iPad’s introduction, don’t nod your head in self-satisfaction quite yet: you, also, are not in the clear:
Whilst those that own an iPad are uncaring and selfish go-getters, those who criticise the device are branded by the survey as ‘independent geeks’.

Attacking the device gives them an ‘identity statement’, said Mr Koelkebeck, that helps them cope with their own failings.

‘As a mainstream, closed-platform device whose major claim to fame is ease of use and sex appeal, the iPad is everything that they are not.’
Not sure exactly who is expected to benefit from this survey -- and is this information that anyone really needs? In any case, the Daily Mail piece is here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Art & Culture: True Blood and Philosophy edited by George A. Dunn and Rebecca Housel

While there is something inherently lame about the and Philosophy series edited by William Irwin, the books in this series are also ultra-compelling. And very little could be more compelling than the latest entry, True Blood and Philosophy (Wiley), paired with the über-catchy subtitle: We Wanna Think Bad Thoughts With You. So there you have a recipe for publishing success: take a vampire or two, stir in a hit television series and then throw in some philosophy and some pop culture -- even measures, please -- and what do you end up with? Well, pure truth if some are to be believed. From the introduction:
As it turns out, philosophy has a lot in common with True Blood. Like the vampires, shape-shifters, and other supernatural beings that pass through Bon Temps, philosophers are often regarded as deviant characters due to their habit of overturning expectations and tempting us to think outside conventional boundaries.
Right. My thoughts exactly. V-a-m-p-i-r-e is just another way to spell philosopher, right?

And then we have the usual series mix of erudite ivory tower-based commentary on the topic at hand. Though the subject and the presentation demand I apply some irony at this point, the writing here is good, the essays well conceived and thoughtfully presented.

At present, the and Philosophy series includes 20 titles that use contemporary pop culture to frame philosophical concepts. An interesting idea well presented. ◊

David Middleton is a graphic designer and photographer and the art and culture editor of January Magazine.

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Book Arts, Buffalo and the Big Apple

If it seems as though things have been quieter around here than usual, it’s because January Magazine art director David Middleton and I shuffled off to Buffalo and points beyond for a couple of weeks. Many thanks to The Rap Sheet’s J. Kingston Pierce for keeping things together in our absence. Without his careful tending, everything would have ground to a halt. As it turned out, I was so entranced by Buffalo and so caught up in everything I was involved in while there, I didn’t have room in my head for much else.

Let me start by saying that, for someone who has never been there before, Buffalo, New York, is a complete surprise. I don’t recall anymore exactly what I expected before I got there, but everything I had anticipated was completely off-base.

Perched as it is on the edge of the Rust Belt, Buffalo has certainly been chilled by economic downturn. Despite this, it continues to seem like a brilliantly livable city. Some of the best examples of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early Prairie Style designs grace various Buffalo enclaves, and renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (he designed Central Park and Prospect Park, among others) conceived a series of six interlinked parks for Buffalo in the late 19th century when the city was growing towards being one of the most important in the world.

Buffalo’s history is rich and resonant and, perhaps because of this, the city seems to take pride in its vibrant arts scene. We saw this most sharply drawn at the Western New York Book Arts Collaborative, a non-profit organization based in downtown Buffalo intent on preserving and promoting book and print arts. From the organization’s Web site:
In the wake of the rapid growth of digital texts and technologies, the printed word is all too often regarded as an archaic, if not superfluous archetype. It is apparent that the importance of traditional printed arts will only continue to increase as digital sources become more refined. The tactile qualities of a book and inherent permanence of good printing are timeless. For example, Johannes Gutenberg’s printed works are still in the same condition as when they were printed 500 years ago while digital data from 10 or 20 years ago is already irreparably damaged and lost forever.
The work WNYBAC is doing is incredible, as is the collection of historic type and printing presses they’re putting together. The WNY Book Arts Center is located at 468 Washington at East Mohawk. They have a very good small gift shop (I bought way too much stuff, myself!) and an interesting calendar of events. Visit their Web site for more information on the programs that are available and also to see what you can do to help their most excellent cause.

From Buffalo, David and I took the train to New York City, an almost nine-hour trip that passed surprisingly quickly: especially once the train started skirting the Hudson, offering glimpses of some of America’s Castles and passing through a surprisingly lush landscape.

In the city itself, we balanced work and fun, meeting with a small group of publishing types between trips to The Met and visits to Central Park, Bloomingdales and other Manhattan must-sees.

We enjoyed one very special evening with longtime January Magazine contributing editor Tony Buchsbaum. The three of us are shown here in Times Square, after dinner at Virgil’s, a popular barbecue place nearby. In the photo, David is on the left, Tony on the right, and I’m in the center. The photo was taken by an unsuspecting tourist who seemed neither distressed nor surprised to have David’s camera thrust at him.

All in all, a wonderful few weeks away, though we were never very far from books and the people who make them. Somehow that all seems just as it should be.

And the World Was Never the Same

Is it my imagination, or are the myriad paperback books on my shelves looking just a wee bit prouder this week?

As The Baltimore Sun’s Read Street blog observes, it was 75 years ago this week that Penguin Books “brought out the first modern paperback. The idea came from British publishing exec Allen Lane, who was seeking a respite from a Depression-era revenue slump. The cheap, convenient, color-coded format caught on with readers and within months Penguin books were selling in the millions. Today, half of the books bought each year are softcover, the [U.S.] Census Bureau says.”

READ MORE:Paperback Birthday Update,” by Bill Crider (Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Crime Fiction: Savages by Don Winslow

(Editor’s note: Today we welcome to January Magazine a new book reviewer: New York City resident Brendan M. Leonard, who, since 2004, has written about television and film for Web sites such as He was also the creator of New York Noir, a short-lived podcast anthology series.)

Jesus Christ, this book.

Pretty much my thoughts about Savages
these days.

Fans of Don Winslow, the author of Savages (Simon & Schuster), have been waiting on his breakout novel for a while. His last work, The Dawn Patrol (2008), with its effortless cool, laid-back style, and characters tailor-made for Hollywood, felt like it was going to be “the one.” Not so much -- Dawn Patrol became yet another book for those in the Winslow cult to give as presents, while waiting for the next one, the big one. The book that arrives amidst critical acclaim. The book that wakes up mainstream America to Winslow’s tsunami-sized talent. The book that allows him to take his place alongside John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard as one of America’s all-time best crime writers. The book.

In many ways, Savages is the Ultimate Don Winslow Novel. A tale of 20-something marijuana dealers in Southern California, the novel starts off like this:
Fuck you.
That’s the first sentence. The first page. And it gets better from there, following the aforementioned drug dealers -- Ben, a science genius turned Third World do-gooder; Chon, a Navy veteran who’s everything but shell-shocked; and their mutual girlfriend, O (for Ophelia), who’s not quite a party girl but not much of anything else either.

When the boys turn down an offer to work for the Baja cartel, the cartel kidnaps -- on orders from Elena, the beautiful head of the organization (as the book puts it, “Hillary would be pissed.”) -- O. Blackmailed into providing Elena’s organization with a steady stream of marijuana to pay O’s ransom, Chon decides to take the fight to the cartel. To say any more would destroy the fun, so let’s just say this:

Shenanigans ensue.

Part of the joy of reading Don Winslow is how he writes, and he continues to refine his “guy telling you a really great story at a bar” style in Savages. Here, his style is more experimental, with chapters in screenplay format and the style of Skype. The book is literal poetry at times, as when Winslow spends an entire chapter describing stores at Costa Mesa’s giant South Coast Plaza, one of the book’s highlights.

Winslow never lets his writing style overwhelm the story, though, and doesn’t forget to fill the book with anecdotes and historical asides that place this tale in a larger cultural context. I always come away from reading a Winslow book feeling like I learned something about the history of Southern California or the ongoing drug war. Both are featured here.

It’s a brilliant way of writing, although I would recommend starting with The Dawn Patrol and The Winter of Frankie Machine (2006) if you’ve never read Winslow before, just to see if you like his style.

Like other Winslow books, Savages gets its teeth in you and doesn’t let go. I tried to spread the novel out over a week or so, but once I got started, I couldn’t stop, reading the book in a couple of days. The plot is a straight Western with a modern coat of paint, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the world of Alpha Dog; and in telling this story, Winslow achieves something few authors have. While this might not be the book to push him into mainstream success, it still achieves a different kind of success. It turns out to be a different kind of book.

Savages is the book of my generation.

Savages is nothing short of revolutionary, a flash grenade into the ineffectual heart of Generation Y. A message for the kids who grew up in unparalleled economic prosperity with overeducated parents. The kids, to steal a line from another of Winslow's novels, who have a problem with impulse control. The kids who hit the brick wall of the Great Recession and wound up asking, “What do we do now?”

Ben and Chon are the answer to that question, a call to action, to wake up and to push back. They deserve to become the same kind of beloved anti-heroes as Tyler Durden and Quentin Tarantino’s protagonists.

And in using Ben and Chon and O and the whole Millennial Generation as characters, Winslow posits this generation as the end of a long era in American history, which he sums up in a beautiful passage near the end of the book:
We proclaimed the freedom of the individual, bought and drove millions of cars to prove it, built more roads for the cars to drive on so we could go the everywhere that was nowhere ...

We built temples to our fantasies -- film studios, amusement parks, crystal cathedrals, megachurches -- and flocked to them ...

We reinvented ourselves everyday, remade our culture, locked ourselves in gated communities, we ate healthy food, we gave up smoking, we lifted our faces while avoiding the sun, we had our skin peeled, our lines removed, our fat sucked away like our unwanted babies, we defied aging and death.

We made gods of wealth and health.

A religion of narcissism.

In the end, we worshipped only ourselves.

In the end, it wasn’t enough.
With the push Savages is receiving from its publisher, and director Oliver Stone’s plans to make a movie from the book, it looks as if the cult of Don Winslow is going to become a movement. That’s a very good thing for us all, because this novel solidifies Winslow’s reputation as not just one of the best crime writers working today, but one of the best writers, period.

Savages is a Great Book and it deserves to be thought of as such. But it also deserves a smaller, more resonant life. Not just a shelf life, but a pocket life. A book to be discovered in library stacks and used bookstores, faded and worn with love, a book teenagers find leaves them breathless and looking at the world with new eyes.

It should be a book older brothers pass down to younger brothers, and that senior students push into the hands of impressionable freshmen, saying, whispering:

“This book will change your life.”

Because that’s the kind of book it is, and reading Savages will make you feel like you’re that kind of kid again. I don’t care how old you are.

I want to be able to read it again. I want to read it for the first time again.

Jesus Christ, this book.

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Oh Man, the Bookers Again

A lucky 13 titles feature in the longlist of books competing for the prestigious 2010 Man Booker Prize. The announcement of nominees -- which includes works by David Mitchell, Rose Tremain, Peter Carey, and Emma Donoghue -- was made this morning. This longlist will be pared down to a shorter roster before the winner -- who will receive, in addition to prestige, $77,000 in prize money -- is declared on October 12.

Here’s the complete list of contenders:

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
Room by Emma Donoghue (coming in September)
The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore (not yet available)
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (not yet available)
The Long Song by Andrea Levy
C by Tom McCarthy (coming in September)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
February by Lisa Moore
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (coming in August)
Trespass by Rose Tremain (coming in October)
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner

Naturally, there’s already been lots of talk about this list -- about how it features two Canadian, two Australian and two Irish authors, yet is conspicuously short of celebrity writers. But we’re more interested in what January readers think of all these contenders. Do you have favorites among the nominees? Or did the Man Booker judges fail to name some other novel that is really the best of the year?

Let us know your thoughts in the Comments section of this post.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Children’s Books: Moment of Truth: Volume 5, The Laws of Magic by Michael Pryor

There’s a war on in the Edwardian alternative universe of The Laws of Magic. Aubrey Fitzwilliam, son of the Prime Minister of Albion, and his friends George and Caroline, who have spent the last four volumes trying to prevent it, have been recruited as part of the Albionish secret service. War is bad enough in itself, but if this one proceeds for long enough, it will lead to the immortality of the evil Dr. Mordecai Tremaine, former Sorcerer Royal, who has no problem with wiping out as many lives as it takes to perform the magic ritual that will extend his own.

In Michael Pryor’s Moment of Truth (Random House Australia), the trio return to Gallia, scene of their earlier adventures (Heart of Gold, 2007), this time to set up a base for a team of remote magical observers. But nothing ever goes the way it’s meant to go in Aubrey’s world. All bets are off when the three find out what is being manufactured in a Holmland factory belonging to Baron von Grolman ...

If you’re worried about this delightful steampunk series going downhill, as series novels tend to do, don’t be. The fun and the action are there, as always, and the characters remain likable as ever. Aubrey can be worrying about his team-leading skills in one moment, and then how he’s going to tell Caroline his feelings in the next. George is still Aubrey’s solid support. Caroline is elegant and deadly; she doesn’t lose control even when in the presence of Dr. Tremaine, who killed her father. And she’s still capable of reducing Aubrey to mush with a word.

George, Aubrey and Caroline have come a long way since their first outing in Blaze of Glory (2006). They have a little way further to go, with one more novel left in Pryor’s series. It will be sad to say good-bye to these characters, and I suspect I will end up going back and reading the books all over again.

There is a new-style cover on this one; the whole series has been re-packaged to appeal to the young adult audience for which it was originally intended, and to have more of a science-fiction feel. The brooding Aubrey on the front of Moment of Truth appears quite menacing for a young man who hates carrying guns and prefers to use his intellect and skills with magic, but this cover is also very striking and should gather a new set of fans for the series.

If you haven’t read The Laws of Magic yet, what are you waiting for? Go and get the lot, with the great new covers! ◊

Sue Bursztynski lives in Australia, where she works as a teacher-librarian. She has written several books for children and young adults, including Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly and, most recently, the YA novel Wolfborn. Her blog The Great Raven can be found at

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Friday, July 23, 2010

A Forgotten Author, Found

(Editor’s note: In association with The Rap Sheet’s ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books, editor J. Kingston Pierce asked English thriller writer Christopher Fowler -- best known for his Arthur Bryant and John May/Peculiar Crimes mysteries [Bryant & May Off the Rails] -- if he would like to suggest an unjustly overlooked title of his own. Fowler kindly sent back the piece below, which, because it focuses on work unrelated to crime fiction, seems more appropriately placed in January Magazine than in our sister blog.)

I write a column in Britain’s The Independent On Sunday newspaper called Forgotten Authors, wherein I track down authors who have dropped out of sight. It requires two kinds of detective work; I track down the authors, but if you’re interested you then have to locate the books.

I’ve been shocked by the number of writers who have produced more than 100 books, only to vanish from print. After seeing the pattern repeated, it starts to feel like a conspiracy. Marjorie Bowen, for example, managed at least 150 volumes but was until recently represented on Amazon by one anthology of short stories and a cigarette card. Readers don’t forget, only bookshops, and I rely on fans to notify me about their favorite absent authors. It’s gratifying to report that a few novels reappeared after my column began, using my quotes. The superbly odd Gladys Mitchell is back in beautiful editions courtesy of Vintage Press, while Virago, Persephone, Tartarus and other dedicated publishers are reviving writers who’ve been trapped by changing tastes and times.

Throughout this process, one author continued to block further investigation. I knew the supposedly Australian-born Maryann Forrest was someone to check out when I read a description of her in Time Out magazine as “a stunning writer, so superb and alive a talent.” Then Anthony Burgess picked up on her first and only major novel, describing it as “deeply disturbing” but “a keen literary pleasure.” Here (Away from It All) is an adult Lord of the Flies tale involving wealthy holidaymakers instead of schoolchildren. A Greek island has been ruined by opportunistic tourism; overrun with timeshares and package tours, its natives have been marginalized and employed as service personnel, in which roles they are treated as nothing more than servants. One day an unspecified world event occurs which ends all contact with the island, so that the ferry no longer arrives with supplies. Foreign currency is suddenly rendered worthless. Hotel guests find themselves paying their bills with watches, rings and necklaces. But when the material goods run out, they need something else to barter with. And as the rules of civility become ever more strained, the islanders start to exact their revenge, first in a gruesome football match, then by taking the holidaymakers’ houses away from them. Soon the tourists find that the only way left to pay their bills is with the lives of their children.

The protagonist, a young mother, watches in horror as the unnamed island -- the world in microcosm -- breaks down into rebellion and anarchy. The revengers have Greek names but there is no racism here, because a silver thread of humanity runs through the characters, thus refusing easy demonization, and the heroine remains upbeat even as all hope fades. The tale is post-apocalyptic and descends inexorably to a horrifying climax, but is written from a deeply personal viewpoint. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is probably the only book that comes close in its bleak subject matter. Published in 1969, Here feels alarmingly prescient, but when I tried to find out more about its author I drew a total blank. One editor suggested that she had actually escaped the world by moving to the Greek island described in her novel, but this seems unlikely as there are two other books, Us Lot (1970) and Immaculate Misconception (1972), written within three years of her first. It appears she was using a pseudonym, and although there were plenty of Maryann Forrests listed in the Australian electoral rolls, the trail ran cold after that. The books can still be found cheaply on the Internet, but there are no reprints. I published the piece on this author, and asked in print rather forlornly if anyone might be able to help me in my quest.

A few weeks after raising the question of what had happened to Maryann Forrest and her brilliant first novel, I received a letter which began, “My first husband came across your piece about Maryann Forrest, asking if anyone knows where she is. Yes, I know, for I am she. Come to lunch.”

I visited Maryann, real name Polly Hope, to discover she was a visual artist and opera librettist, living in London’s Spitalfields in the dead center of the city, where, surrounded by the towers of the financial district, she thrives in her graceful art-filled studio house, along with four dogs, a cat, chickens and friends. She told me she had adopted an alias (she had an Australian grandmother) to write the novel. Polly was living in Greece during the period of the military junta (1967-1974), and would very likely have faced deportation upon the publication of the novel. This raises an idea I hadn’t considered: perhaps other authors were also successful polymaths who simply sought to pursue varied careers. Polly covered her tracks so successfully that her three books are tough to find, but she has an unfinished novel waiting, so I’ll end optimistically and ask a publisher to rediscover her uniquely powerful voice.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Books That Sound Interesting, But That We’ll Probably Never Get Around to Actually Reading: Why Coolidge Matters

From the publisher’s news release:
We are launching the book Why Coolidge Matters: How Civility in Politics Can Bring a Nation Together on August 3rd at the Library of Congress. The book is a collection of essays from a bipartisan group of authors including Senator Leahy and Gov. Douglas (Vermont), Senator Kerry, as well as a host of historians, scholars and civic leaders.

While [Calvin] Coolidge’s presidency is not one that comes to mind immediately, it is a little known fact that he is very much revered by both sides of the aisle for the way in which he conducted business during his presidency. We were hoping you would include this book in upcoming coverage, because this effort made by both sides of the aisle is a call to action to bring civility back into today’s politics.

And, August 3rd happens to be the day when Calvin Coolidge was sworn in, the only U.S. president to date, to have been sworn in to office by a Notary Public. Following the sudden death of President Warren G. Harding [in 1923], Coolidge had to forgo the pomp and circumstances of the official swearing-in ceremony of a new president, traditionally conducted on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and instead took the oath of office in the living room of his family farm in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, by a Notary Public, who also happened to be the new president’s father, John. At 2:30 am, on August 3, 1923, John Calvin Coolidge Jr. officially became the 30th president of the United States.
There’s more information on this book here.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Second Coming of Verne

For those of us who have long appreciated the literary endeavors of prolific French novelist Jules Verne (Around the World in 80 Days, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, etc.), news that younger readers are finally “discovering” his significance can only be heartening.

From The Barnes & Noble Review:
Few people some twenty years ago, near the start of the administration of George Bush, Sr.--when cyberpunk was still a fresh notion, when there existed only three Star Wars films, all good, and when the word “steampunk” had only just been coined--would have predicted that in the early twenty-first century some of the most entertaining and deftly rendered science fiction being currently published would derive from the pen of a Frenchman dead for a century, whose legacy had long been set in cement as amounting to nothing more than ham-handed adventure novels for juveniles. And yet at that distant time, the re-discovery of this Gallic genius was actually well underway, and today his stature is almost completely restored to its former glory.

The author under discussion, as you might well guess, is none other than Jules Verne, one of the two generally acknowledged fathers of the science fiction genre, along with his co-daddy, H. G. Wells. Recent years have seen a flood of “new” Verne titles, including re-translations of familiar classics (The Mysterious Island), first-time English versions of lesser-known novels (The Kip Brothers), and even heretofore-lost manuscripts brought to light (Paris in the Twentieth Century). Taken as a whole, this mass of Verniana has permitted and encouraged a reassessment of the writer’s career and reputation among scholars and critics, as well as providing real pleasures for the average reader and fan.
You’ll find the whole piece here.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Race Is On

National Public Radio’s recent request that readers submit the names of what they believe are “the most pulse-quickening and suspenseful novels ever” apparently generated a list of more than 600 thrilling works. “A panel of experts then combined audience preference with their own judgment to narrow that list down to a manageable roster of some 200 favorites,” according to an NPR press release.

You’re now invited to choose just 10 books from that list, with the goal being to narrow its count down to a slightly more manageable 100 titles. Vote here for your favorites. This poll is supposed to remain open until Monday, July 26, with the “100 last books standing” to be revealed on Wednesday, August 4.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

New Today: Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir

With Captive Queen (Ballantine) noted historical biographer Alison Weir (The Lady in the Tower, Mistress of the Monarchy) comes full circle, completing a process she started years ago while doing research for the book that would become the biography, Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life. In an Author’s Note to Captive Queen, Weir tells us that while she worked on the Aquitaine biography, she first got the idea to write historical fiction:
Essentially, the nature of medieval biography, particularly of women, is the piecing together of fragments of information and making sense of them. It can be a frustrating task, as there are often gaps you know you can never fill. It came to me one day ... that the only way of filling those gaps would be to write a historical novel, because -- as I then thought -- a novelist does not have to work within the same constraints as a historian.
And so here we are with a novel rigorously based on fact -- since Weir wrote the book on Eleanor of Aquitaine, we know this to be true -- but with the missing bits filled in by talented and educated guesses by what must by now be one of the leading experts on the notorious French queen.

As always, Weir’s writing is captivating and vivid. She brings, of course, a mastery to her subject through, at least in part, all of that research in putting together her very good biography. But Weir is also a very good storyteller and, as a result, Captive Queen is like a gift to enthusiasts of this character and the period.

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Turn Your Blog Into a Bestselling Book

Ever wondered how to create a book that is both meaningless and lucrative? Pamela Redmond Satran takes a run at the answer on The Huffington Post. The author writes:
I created a blog called How Not To Act Old, two months later I sold it as a book to Harper Collins [sic], and it went on to be a New York Times bestseller.

How did I do it? Here, the ten most important things you need to know to turn your blog into a bestseller.
So, obviously, we’re not going to reproduce Redmon Satran’s trite advice in this space. But if you’re curious, The Huffington Post offers up the whole enchilada here.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Non-Fiction: Angel of Death Row by Andrea D. Lyon

No matter what your personal thoughts on the death penalty, Angel of Death Row (Kaplan) will give you something to think about. The book is not, after all, about the moral questions in play here. At least, not on the surface of things. It is the story of defense lawyer Andrea D. Lyon, who has successfully defended the lives of 19 inmates sentenced to death.

Fans of true-crime non-fiction will recognize the tone of Lyon’s book: Angel of Death Row features the flat, straight-forward voice most often seen in that sort of story. Yet there is more here even than that. This is not a single case, closely examined. Rather it is the professional life of a woman whose work has had a profound impact on the lives of 19 individuals who would be dead now were it not for her intervention. She shares parts of their personal tales here, as well as how her own story came to connect with theirs.

“Criminal defense,” Lyon writes at one point, “like combat, forms an intense bond between people.” That describes Angel of Death Row quite perfectly: it touches one like a combat journal. And even knowing how it all turns out does not lessen the lessons we pick up getting to the end of the story. ◊

Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Town Celebrates as Mockingbird Turns 50

Harper Lee’s only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published on this day 50 years ago. Lee herself avoids contact with the press and discussion of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that made -- and some say ended -- her career. However, the people of Monroeville, Alabama, the writer’s childhood hometown, are less camera shy.

Despite the fact that Lee maintains that the book and its setting are entirely fictional, Monroeville has been celebrating its Mockingbird connection for decades and, on this special anniversary, thousands of people are expected to visit. According to NPR, “It’s welcome attention for a small town struggling through the recession.”
Lee doesn’t give interviews anymore, but there are a lot of parallels between her childhood and the book that became one of the most influential works of American literature. She and her main character, Scout, both had fathers who were lawyers. They both had a mysterious neighbor feared by local kids.

While Monroeville isn't the town in the book, it's as close as visitors will ever get.

Much has changed since Lee grew up; her childhood home was razed, and down the road there's a Walmart and McDonald's. But there are still a lot of well-preserved brick buildings from the '20s, and the mighty courthouse in the middle of town square has been turned into a To Kill a Mockingbird museum.
The full piece, including lots of Mockingbird event details and dates, is here.


SF/F: The Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois

Fiction anthologies like The Year’s Best Science Fiction (St. Martin’s Griffin) give readers a unique opportunity. Not only do they skim the top of what is being written by the best writers in their fields, but read in a certain light, they offer a view -- or, at least, the slice of a view -- into what's going on in a certain aspect of fiction writing.

Having read and enjoyed science fiction short stories since childhood, I found this 27th annual collection of The Year’s Best Science Fiction nothing short of revelatory.

Read in isolation, in many ways, the best of what is being written today bears little resemblance to the stories I enjoyed as a child. One could say that the genre, too, has grown up. Those long-ago stories explored more nuts and bolts. Big on robots and space travel, authors then seemed to push to the far points of physical possibility.

These days, though, what's cutting the edge is more ephemeral. For example, in this collection, there is more that could be described as speculation than science and all of it written by the most important names rising through the ranks of the genre today: stories by Robert Charles Wilson, Robert Reed, Nancy Kress, Bruce Sterling, Elizabeth Bear, Vandana Singh, Nicola Griffith and others all contribute to making this one of the SF/F highlights of the year. ◊

David Middleton is a graphic designer and photographer and the art and culture editor of January Magazine.

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Fiction: Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott

Alex is in his 20s, living in a shared house and working a dead-end job after failing to get anywhere with his art. Suddenly, he runs into childhood sweetheart Madigan, daughter of a wealthy family, who had been taken back to Ireland and wandered Europe after her mother’s death, before returning to Melbourne.

Madigan is beautiful, passionate, far more talented in art than Alex could ever be. And she is very much in love with him.

But Madigan has something deeply weird about her. She moves into his share house and his life, then brings her group of -- disciples? Fans? Only Alex can’t see that there’s anything wrong, but even he throws her out when she finally goes too far even for him -- and then she commits suicide.

But is she as dead as she seems? Alex suffers blackouts. People he has never met greet him. He has, apparently, done things he can’t remember doing. And then things get worse.

Madigan Mine (Pan Macmillan Australia) could easily be a psychological thriller, but gradually, through flashbacks, the reader realizes that there is enough evidence to believe Alex when he says he’s possessed.

It’s an interesting premise, a possession story from the viewpoint of the possessed, and it’s some time before you do accept that he’s possessed and not just crazy -- Alex is not exactly a stable person even at the beginning of the novel. My own background has the dybbuk as part of its folklore, but there is a ritual way to get rid of the dybbuk, while Alex seems to find only one very grim way to get her out of his body, if he is willing to do it.

This is a debut novel from a writer who is well-known in Australia for her short horror fiction and has won several awards in this genre. Hopefully, it is just the first in a long career. ◊

Sue Bursztynski lives in Australia, where she works as a teacher-librarian. She has written several books for children and young adults, including Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly and, most recently, the YA novel Wolfborn. Her blog The Great Raven can be found at

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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

SF/F: The Bradbury Report by Steven Polansky

In what I feel certain will come to be known as the year of fictional dystopia, Steven Polansky's debut is one of several bright spots.
I’m a man who doesn't matter. The same could be said of most men. In what follows, I will make no special claim for myself, save one, for which I can take no credit. This report will not, finally, be about me. I speak carefully here, and with regret, though not, such is my understanding of the world and its disenchanting ways, with incapacitating regret.
Some critics have said that the science of The Bradbury Report (Weinstein Books) is thin. I didn’t experience that myself but, if I did, it wouldn’t matter: that’s not Polansky’s point. This is a story of terrible possibilities and outcomes -- both expected and unexpected -- due entirely from human machinations.

It is 2071 and the government has put in place a large scale cloning program that impacts directly on the population’s insurance of health. Every American citizen has a cloned copy that lives in a different part of the country. The clones are kept absolutely separate from the general populations and the people that they duplicate. Until one of them escapes.

The Bradbury Report chills with a close-yet-distant look at all of the things that make us human and all of the things that set us apart. I’m confident that this startling debut will be one of my personal picks for best of the year. ◊

Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and editor. He lives in the Chicago area where he works in the high tech industry. He is currently working on a his first novel, a science fiction thriller set in the world of telecommunications.

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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

New Today: What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

When a bizarre love tangle causes 17-year-old Wyatt Hillyer’s parents to jump off different bridges within a few hours of each other, the tone of Wyatt’s life seems set. At the same time, so is his immediate course: he must pick up sticks and go to live in a small town with his uncle and aunt and their gorgeous daughter.

Despite what could certainly sound like a farcial set up, What Is Left the Daughter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a searing look into the hearts of the characters author Howard Norman builds for us so skillfully. What Is Left the Daughter is a slender book that, nonetheless, packs a surprising punch. Norman’s novel seems oddly weighty at times. Important. As though there are thoughts and lessons being imparted that the reader should pay close attention to.

Two of Norman's novels -- 1994’s The Bird Artist and 1987’s The Northern Lights -- have been shortlisted for a National Book Award. What Is Left the Daughter is a book of that calibre. I would not be surprised to see it exceed the accolades accorded Norman’s earlier works. ◊

Aaron Blanton is a contributing editor to January Magazine. He’s currently working on a book based on his experiences as an American living abroad.

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The Book Has its Own Independence Day

We were off having too much independent fun on the fourth of July to comment on The Huffington Post’s very interesting piece covering “15 Feisty Small Presses and the Books You’re Going to Want From Them.” Clearly, however, this is something we all want to note:
To celebrate Independence Day, here are 15 small presses that exemplify the best qualities of this publishing tradition -- so characteristic of America, where the upstarts and rebels and truly ornery literary entrepreneurs flourish side by side with the bloated conglomerate publishing houses. At their best, the independent presses represent democracy, flattening of hierarchy, and dynamic feedback.
And so who makes HuffPost’s cut? Well, we’ll leave you to read their list, but there are a few surprises, as well there should be when the issue is just how much -- and how well -- you stand alone.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Dame Beryl Bainbridge Dead at 77

Beryl Bainbridge (The Bottle Factory Outing, Every Man for Himself) died last week of complications due to cancer. The former actor and award-winning author had been called one of the best novelists of her generation. From her obituary in The Guardian:
Darkness lay at the heart of her vision and her most compelling characters. One of the publishers who rejected Harriet Said, the first novel she wrote, protested: “What repulsive little creatures you have made the central characters -- repulsive almost beyond belief!” Harriet, the heroine, is a 13-year-old child with “an evil mind”, in the words of one of her victims, who draws her friend into duplicity and murder.
The Guardian remembers Bainbridge here. The Washington Post reflects here. CBC Arts comments here.


Study Says: Printed Books Win the Race

While the e-book price wars heat up, a more basic debate is afoot. Forget what kind of electronic book is actually better, which is faster? Electronic books? Or the traditionally printed variety? A recent study delivers some surprising answers. From PCWorld:
It will take you longer to read a book on an iPad or Kindle compared to the printed page, according to a recent study. Dr. Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group -- a product development consultancy that is not associated with Nielsen, the metrics company -- compared the reading times of 24 users on the Kindle 2, an iPad using the iBooks application, a PC monitor and good old fashioned paper. The study found that reading on an electronic tablet was up to 10.7 percent slower than reading a printed book. Despite the slower reading times, Nielsen found that users preferred reading books on a tablet device compared to the paper book. The PC monitor, meanwhile, was universally hated as a reading platform among all test subjects.
The full piece is here.


Friday, July 02, 2010

Crime Fiction: Potsdam Station
by David Downing

(Editor’s note: The following review was submitted by Mike Ripley, a British novelist, critic and columnist with the Webzine Shots.)

For John Russell the Second World War ends this month with the publication of Potsdam Station (Old Street Publishing UK), the fourth novel in three years from Englishman David Downing and the final part (if so it turns out) of a quartet of historical thrillers which has resulted in Downing being ushered by the critics into the same First Class compartment as John le Carré, Robert Harris and, perhaps most accurately, Alan Furst.

John Russell, for those readers who have not yet experienced Downing’s Station Quartet, is a journalist of English-American parentage who, in the early months of 1939, is a member of the foreign press corps in Berlin. As if that wasn’t stressful enough, Russell has a German ex-wife (now married to a Nazi party man), a young son raring to join the Hitler Youth and a mistress who is a rising star of the German film industry, now controlled by a certain Josef Goebbels -- all of which mean that he, unlike many of his fellow foreign correspondents, has strong personal reasons for staying in Berlin, even though war is clearly inevitable.

This is how the reader meets John Russell in Zoo Station (2007), the first installment in Downing’s quartet of thrillers named after Berlin railway depots -- and the spider web of train track, the stations where people arrive and depart, the chaos of the marshaling yards and the sinister boxcars heading eastward, all provide a central and powerful image throughout the series.

Given the place and the time, and the fact that he has press credentials, Russell, unsurprisingly perhaps, finds himself a very suitable candidate for recruitment as a spy. Although he does not actively go job-hunting, he is a known left-leaning reporter (certainly no apologist for the Nazis) and in his youth was an active communist sympathizer. Naturally, Soviet Intelligence comes recruiting with an offer he cannot afford to refuse. Then so do the British and eventually the Americans, and even the Nazis!

So, as often happened in real life, journalist turns spy and enters the very murky and dangerous world of double- and treble-cross, though no one is left in any doubt that Russell’s real loyalties lie with human beings, not countries or ideologies.

Silesian Station (2008) takes Russell’s story up to the outbreak of war in September 1939, his life one long balancing act as he struggles to protect his actress girlfriend, Effi Koenen, and his son, Paul (the former of whom has become increasingly conscious of the fate of Germany’s Jews, while the latter shows a boyish enthusiasm for Germany’s victorious armies), and also satisfy the demands of the four different intelligence agencies that think he is operating as their agent.

The biggest balancing act of all, though, is the ever-present struggle between Russell’s conscience and his instinct for survival in an increasingly unstable world. As an Anglo-American, he gains some protection from citizenship of a non-belligerent country, but as 1941 draws to a close, all of that is about to change.

Stettin Station (2009) continues the story, opening on November 17, 1941 -- the day the Imperial Japanese Navy sailed en route for Pearl Harbor and infamy, though of course none of the characters in the book have any idea of this or how it will affect their lives and the entire course of the war. With Effi taking more and more risks by defying her employers at the Propaganda Ministry and Russell’s own position both as a journalist and a spy increasingly under threat, the couple finally decide they have to leave Berlin and make a run for it. Only Russell makes it out safely, though; Effi is forced to go underground in the city, which will become a prime target for Allied bombing and eventually a prize determined to be claimed, whatever the cost, by the Russian army.

Downing’s brand-new book, Potsdam Station, takes up the saga in April 1945: Adolf Hitler’s Reich is imploding, Berlin is in ruins and the Red Army is closing in fast.

Russell has not seen or been able to contact his beloved Effi or his estranged son for more than three years, but both are alive and still in Berlin, though far from safe: the teenage Paul serving in an anti-aircraft battery, Effi living under a false identity and now actively involved in the anti-Nazi resistance.

Once he learns that the Americans and British will leave the taking of Berlin to the Russians, Russell is frantic with worry, having no illusions about the treatment awaiting German prisoners and female civilians at the hands of their vengeful conquerors. He flies to Moscow in an attempt to have himself “embedded” (as we would now say) as a journalist with the advancing Soviet war machine, knowing that his request is something of a long shot. It is, but by striding into the offices of the NKVD and demanding to see his former Soviet “handler,” Russell wins his chance.

He will be allowed to enter Berlin, not with the Red Army but actually ahead of it, and to search for Effi and Paul, but only after he has helped a Soviet team secure scientific papers from a Nazi research center -- highly secret documents which will help Russia’s atomic research. Therein lies another balancing act of conscience for Russell -- providing, that is, he survives the parachute drop into enemy territory, Allied bombing, Russian shelling and the NKVD hit man with orders to leave no loose ends.

Meanwhile, son Paul, now totally disillusioned, shuffles through the ruins of the city avoiding die-hard Nazi fanatics who pose more of a threat than the Russians, whilst Effi dodges bombs and the Gestapo with a precocious young Jewish orphan girl in tow.

All of this sets up a thrilling climax and Downing does not disappoint. But is the end of Potsdam really the end of the Station series? Without giving too much away, the John Russell/Effi Koenen (and their extended family) saga is left tantalizingly open-ended. More books are possible, I suppose, but they could not re-create the wartime Berlin setting which has made this quartet so memorable.

That David Downing knows his stuff is not in doubt. In addition to his fiction, he has also written Sealing Their Fate (2009), an excellent popular history of World War II that covers the 22 days it took the Japanese fleet to sail from its home waters to attack Pearl Harbor. His skill as a novelist is not in doubt either, after the Station Quartet. Downing’s grasp of atmospheric historical detail is amazing, quite as impressive as that of Alan Furst, and he plots his way through the convoluted byways of espionage with the confident tread of a Len Deighton or a John le Carré.

Downing can also handle a large cast of characters without resorting to two-dimensional stereotypes, and he boasts a sympathetic eye for people trying to behave decently in indecently violent situations. In Potsdam there are heart-wrenching scenes involving the orphan Jewish girl Effi Koenen -- herself on the run -- takes under her wing.

Because of the period and the Berlin setting, Downing’s quartet will inevitably be compared to Philip Kerr’s brilliant Bernie Gunther books. They are just as good, but different. Whilst Kerr opts for a private eye in the Chandler mold as the driving force of his plots (and their narrative voice), Downing is more in the classic spy-writing tradition, emphasizing the human cost of espionage, though coincidentally both series actually avoid the main years of front-line fighting, 1941-45.

The other comparison which springs to mind is Len Deighton’s Cold War trilogy Game, Set and Match and I have no difficult dropping Downing’s name in among such exalted company.

Is it necessary to read the Station books in order -- Zoo, Silesian, Stettin and Potsdam? My instinct is to say “no,” for each book is totally self-contained and I actually started with the second, immediately sought out the first and couldn’t wait for the third. (In the UK the books are published by the small and relatively new publishing imprint Old Street Publishing, and TV rights have been optioned by the producers of the movies Casino Royale and The Chronicles of Narnia).

On reflection, though, my advice would probably be to stick with the order in which they were written, to get the most out of what is a remarkable body of work. And believe me, there is much to savor and enjoy here. Britain’s News of the World newspaper used to carry a strap-line which said “All human life is here,” a description which could with some justification be applied to the fantastic fictional achievement that is Downing’s Station Quartet.

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Donkey in a Horse Race

When crime fictionist Peter Temple’s 2005 novel, The Broken Shore, was longlisted for Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, he thought someone had made a mistake. So when his current novel, Truth, actually won the Miles Franklin Award last week, he told The Guardian that he was “absolutely humbled.” From The Guardian:
Temple is the first crime novelist ever to win the Miles Franklin, setting him in a canon of former winners including Peter Carey, David Malouf and Patrick White.

“It is a very bold thing for the judges to do. They really are the custodians of Australia's oldest literary prize, they decide who should be admitted to the contemporary canon. So to admit a crime novelist, they've put their lives on the line,” said Temple. “It’s a fairly small panel [of previous winners] but the writers are all of quite extraordinary talent and quality ... I don’t know what on earth I'm doing there.”
This surprise victory has people on both sides of the pond talking. And not all of what they’re saying is good. One former Man Booker Prize chairman told The Guardian that he isn't expecting a work of crime fiction to win the Man Booker in the foreseeable future.
Back on this side of the world, no crime novel has ever won the Man Booker prize, and the former chairman of the Booker judges John Sutherland isn’t expecting it to happen any time soon.

“The twice I’ve been on the Booker panel they weren’t submitted,” he said. “There’s a feeling that it’s like putting a donkey into the Grand National.”

According to Sutherland, the perception in the UK is that there are enough specialist awards for crime fiction. The barriers to genre writers are also higher. “They just don’t have quite the same class system in Australia, and perhaps they don’t have the same class distinctions in Australian letters,” he said.
Sutherland also worries that awarding a mainstream literary prize to a work of genre fiction, particularly one which is part of a series, would devalue its reputation. “There is a dilution effect,” he said. “Series have tended to inhabit the lower reaches of literature.”
Scottish novelist Ian Rankin, however, says change may well be afoot:
“The old canards are that crime fiction is plot-driven, thin on character, populist: a lesser calling. But that no longer holds true. Kate Atkinson’s last three novels have been crime. Ian McEwan’s Saturday is a crime story. William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller. Slowly, the barricades are tumbling. You can now study crime fiction in some universities and high schools. At least three Ph.D.s on my own work are currently under way. A St. Andrews lecturer has written a book about one of my novels. Thirty years back, ‘modern literature’ at St. Andrews meant Milton.”
Meanwhile, one of the Miles Franklin judges tries to define the distinction between Great Literature and the predominance of crime fiction:
“Most crime novels that I have read (and I read one a week, often more) will never win the Miles Franklin or any other ‘literary’ prize because they do not work language hard enough, and they do not think originally and with sufficient depth and imagination,” she said. “They may gratify but they do not surprise the way great literature does.

“In the case of Peter Temple’s
Truth, the divide was so comprehensively crossed that we did not think much about the conventions of crime fiction except to note that Temple was able to observe them rather as a poet observes the 14-line convention of the sonnet or a musician the sonata form: as a useful disciplinary structure from which to expand, bend or depart.”
The author of Christine Falls and The Silver Swan concurs:
John Banville, who won the Booker for his novel The Sea, and who writes crime fiction as Benjamin Black, was absolutely in agreement, saying that “there is only one distinction, and that is between good writing and writing which is ... not good”.
The Guardian piece is lengthy and it’s here.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Children’s Books: Shapeshifter by Holly Bennett

There’s so much magic in Shapeshifter (Orca Books) it’s difficult to know where to begin. Set in iron age Ireland, we meet Sive a gifted singer who becomes trapped in the body of a deer.
The story itself is beautiful and adventure-filled and Bennett’s magic transports us.
She could, if she wished, sing a king and his servants to sleep and rob him of his treasures, take revenge on a rival by plunging her into despairing grief, or, yes, compel a man to love her. But that was not the sort of love Sive wanted.
This sort of power is fraught with danger, for obvious reasons, and before very long Sive runs afoul of the dark sorcerer who manages to trap Sive in her deer form. Enter a champion: in this case Finn Mac Cumhail, or Irish legend.

Author Bennett is the editor-in-chief of Today’s Parent Special Editions and was once a researcher for Aboriginal organizations. As well, she’s an award-winning author and her Bonemender series has brought her acclaim from many avenues. To those of us following her career, Shapeshifter seems like a natural progression. Bennett’s voice here is confident, her direction clear, she never misses a beat of this rich and gorgeous tale.

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