Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Case for the Ten Dollar Word

Double-click a word in the online edition of the New York Times and it triggers the site’s splendid online dictionary. But did you know that, while it supplies you with a definition for the word in question, it also tallies the query you made? Every half year, the good folks at the Times look at all the tallied words and let readers know which words they’ve been looking up most. Not only that, it calculates how many words get looked up per article, and with that, which words and articles were the most problematic for readers.

For instance, in the most recent of these calculations, the word that had gotten the most look-ups in a single article was panegyric. (Which is a formal public speech. It seems important to share that with you, because if you double-click a word here at January Magazine, nothing will happen beyond wear and tear to your fingers or your mouse.) Followed by immiscible (“Not forming a homogeneous mixture when added together”) and Manichaean (“an adherent of the dualistic religious system of Manes, a combination of gnostic christianity, buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and various other elements, with a basic doctrine of a conflict between light and dark, matter being regarded as dark and evil”). To be honest, all three of those words sent me hunting for my Funk and Wagnalls but which, upon consideration, might have to do with the fact that the U.S. is heading toward a big political year. According to Philip B. Corbett, writing in the “After Deadline” column in The New York Times’ blog, these lists do seem to reflect some kind of word trend, even if they’re difficult to spot:
This year’s list includes a number of head-scratching favorites that also made the lists in 2010 and 2009: inchoate, opprobrium and hubris are apparently as troublesome as ever, even to our well-read audience. On the other hand, such past standbys as solipsistic, peripatetic and antediluvian are missing. Did Times readers finally learn them? Did we give up and stop using them? Or did the readers give up and just turn to another story?
But what about good old simplicity? Corbett makes an argument for the use of the occasional ten dollar word:
As always, we should remember that our readers are harried and generally turn to us for news, not SAT prep. They don’t carry dictionaries on the subway and don’t necessarily want to double-click online just because a writer couldn’t resist a 50-cent flourish. Be judicious, and if possible offer deft context that will help readers understand less familiar words.

That said, we don’t want to water down our prose or sound like everyone else. Our readers are smart and expect writing that’s sophisticated, even challenging. Many Times readers probably delight in the occasional crepuscular, anomie or insouciance.
Hardly as feckless as some readers might have feared. You can see the full list here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Internationally Bestselling Author Donates Personal Library

Booker Prize-winning author, Thomas Keneally, recently donated his personal library to Sydney Mechanics’ School of Art and school responded by creating The Tom Keneally Centre, to be launched by the governor of New South Wales, Marie Bashir on August 18th.

Sitting in the new center, that will be used in for readings, book launches and writing classes, Keneally -- best known as the author of the book later made into the film Schindler’s List -- spoke with The Age about his rich career and, among other things, how he views the place of e-books in the world of books that he loves:
Keneally says young writers are still keen to be published in traditional book form. ''You can't hold up a electronic book and say, 'This is my book', either with shame or vanity. ''You can't argue with technology and I use it as much as anyone.

''This sort of book has been declared dead since I had hair, since I was young, and it's funny how it's still around.''

The library contains ''semi-guilty pleasures'' including P.D. James and several books by Graham Greene and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as murder mysteries, the purchase of which he blames on his wife. It is a mixture of books collected for pleasure and more serious tomes for research, including what he describes as ''famine literature''.
You can read the piece in full here and see January Magazine’s 1999 interview with the author here.

Non-Fiction: Celebrating the 2010-2011 Season of the Vancouver Canucks by Andrew Podnieks

Considering the way it all turned out -- cars on fire and a city in shame -- some would say the Vancouver Canucks hockey club doesn’t have anything to celebrate about their most recent season. Those people would be wrong. One could argue that, though the season ended in flames, none of that really had anything to do with the hockey team who were -- at fire time -- likely still in their dressing rooms, crying -- at it were -- in their beers. Still, there was a great deal to celebrate. As we are told in the introduction to Celebrating the 2010-2011 Season of the Vancouver Canucks (Fenn/M&S):
It’s one thing to start the year as a Stanley Cup favorite, and another thing altogether to get to game seven of the Stanley Cup Final after many exhibition games, eighty-two games in the regular season, and four grueling rounds of the playoffs.
After all, it’s not their fault that some of their local fans are -- well -- hot heads. Overall, they played a lot of terrific hockey throughout a punishing season. “Not the desired ending,” as the book says, “but 2010-11 was a wild ride all the same.”

This book commemorates that, with stats, photos, team member biographies: basically everything a fan would want. This is one of the first books from Fenn/M&S, the new McClelland & Stewart imprint that seemed to be more or less created as a consolation prize for Jordan Fenn earlier this year when HB Fenn, the family publishing and distribution company he was running, slid into receivership. It was unclear at the time the story broke if the rights to hockey related titles HB Fenn had published were to be part of the deal Jordan Fenn made with M&S. Certainly, though, author Andrew Podnieks, produced a book similar to this one for the 2009-10 season but The Year of the Blackhawks: Celebrating Chicago’s 2009-10 Stanley Cup Championship Season was published by HB Fenn.

Whatever the case, it’s all good news for hockey fans who, for the most part, are unlikely to care whose name is on the spine or even the cover. Produced under license to the NHL, Celebrating the 2010-2011 Season of the Vancouver Canucks delivers the goods on what was a grueling and mostly rewarding season for Canada’s westernmost hockey team.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

New Today: What’s Yours Is Mine by Tess Stimson

The fact that North Americans have heard very little from former journalist Tess Stimson is about to change. Her smart, sophisticated and well-reviewed stories of love and life have gained her a significant following in her native United Kingdom. But these days, Stimson and her family live in Vermont, so it’s entirely appropriate that she’s picking up readers on this side of the pond like crazy.

What’s Yours is Mine, out today as a paperback original from Bantam, was published a little over a year ago in the U.K. by Pan. “Stimson’s prose is razor sharp,” Glamour UK said at the time, “and she pulls no punches when taking on the tricky subject of sibling rivalry -- depicting family love at its cruelest and kindest.” Meanwhile her next UK release, The Wife Who Ran Away, is scheduled for January 2012.

Sisters Grace and Susannah are like opposite sides of the same coin. Grace’s life is rich and full. Meanwhile beautiful Susannah has made a real mess of things. But when Grace discovers she can’t have the single thing she really want, the only thing that surprises her more is when it turns out that Susannah is the only one who can provide it. What’s Yours Is Mine is slightly trite and a bit predictable but, ultimately, it’s a satisfying read. Save this one for a beach day or a rainy afternoon: you’ll want to inhale it in one big gulp. ◊

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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Non-Fiction: The Tattooed Girl by Dan Burstein, et al.

Something happens when a book goes all mega-seller. Take, for instance, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. It just seems that, without much seeming effort and all of a sudden people want to start running in your tracks and scraping off a bit of what you’ve created.

For instance, look at the craziness that followed in the wake of The Da Vinci Code. And play this song any way you like it: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a much, much better book. In terms of being in position to spawn derivative and far inferior works, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series is the whole and complete package. A runaway international bestseller with a broad appeal and a large and growing following with an author shrouded in mystery who died before even the first book was published. Stir in a greedy family and a heartbroken life partner and you’ve got the recipe for a bestseller with coattails so long, you just know that everyone and their Uncle Sven are going to try and ride them. A lot of books like and about and evoking Larrson’s bestsellers have already been published and you get the feeling that we’ve only just begun.

Now all of that said, despite the derivative title, The Tattooed Girl is not actually one of those books. Rather author Dan Burstein has gotten a few of those in the know along with a few others with a strong voice, strong opinions or both to throw their two bits into the hat on the topic of some aspect of Larrson-ese or Dragon Tattoo lore. Burstein and writing partner Arne de Keuzer have used this approach before, including (gasp!) several books on several aspects of Da Vinci Codeishness. Truth be told, take a close look at Burstein’s backlist, and you see what looks like someone starting to make a career out of Dan Brownishness and Da Vinci Code-relatedness. And, then, here we are in a whole new ballgame, albeit one that looks as though it might have legs. But there’s the thing: The Tattooed Girl (St. Martin’s Griffin) actually stands alone, functioning as it does as a collection of writings on and about and even somewhat near Steig Larsson and his phenomenal, posthumously published series. The contributors here are either connected with the author and/or his work or have strong opinions on some aspects of, as the subtitle states, “The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time.” From the Introduction:
Other unique insights and thought-provoking sidelights await you, from commentaries about the efforts to turn The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo into a Hollywood Film (premiering in December 2011), to an interview with the U.S. ambassador to Sweden, to a talk with the real-life champion boxer, Paolo Roberto, who, after Larsson’s death, suddenly discovered himself a character in the novels.
Do you need to know any of this stuff? Probably not. But if you are one of those fans who can’t get enough and really wish there was more to look forward to, this might sate your appetite. For a moment. Let’s face it: whatever you think of his series, Larsson didn’t create it by being derivative. ◊

Linda L. Richards is editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Moist? Sexy? Pants? What Words Make You Wanna Throw Up A Little Bit In Your Mouth?

A few months ago, I participated in a meme on Facebook that asked people what words were simply too gross for them to hear. Another variation asked what word you’d like to see stricken from usage. Still another: what words make you cringe?

It turns out there’s a pretty wide swath of words that gross us out. And what makes one person boke won’t invite even the faintest reaction from another.

For instance, my big no-no word is “webinar.” Please don’t say it around me: for various reasons, it just makes me see red. (Even typing it just now made my eyes cross a little bit. “Webinar.” Stop that now!)

But “webinar” didn’t even rank in the disgusting words line-up in a recent piece on The Huffington Post. “What are the ugliest words in the English language?” They asked. “What words do people really hate hearing? ... What word do you find so repulsive it's hard to hear?”

The resulting piece is pared down to absolute basics: 16 words that disgusted their readers in a slide show with 16 representative photos. The highlights? As indicated by the title of this piece, the results are surprising. Sure “moist” I could see coming, but what’s up with “pants”? And “slurp” i get: it’s a little bit of an onomatopoeia, after all. But, excuse me: “hockey”? That’s just wrong.

What about you? In a world full of words, which ones pull an immediate reaction?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

2011 Man Booker Longlist Introduces Four Debut Novelists

The 2011 Man Booker prize longlist was announced today. A surprising list to some, one that included four debut novelists among the 13 writers named.

Of the balance of the longlist, four have been longlisted before (and one of those went on to a shortlist, still another to a win). In addition to new novelists, this year’s lists includes three publishers new to the prize: Oneworld, Sandstone Press and Seren Books. And, significantly, of the 13 books given the nod, three are by Canadian authors.

The six author shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, September 6th at a press conference at Man Group's London headquarters. The winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction will be announced on Tuesday, October 18th at a dinner at London’s Guildhall that will be broadcast on the BBC.

The winner will receive £50,000 and each of the six shortlisted authors, including the winner, will receive £2,500 and a designer bound edition of their book.

A total of 138 books were considered for the 2011 Man Booker longlist. The semi-finalists are:
  • The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape/Random House)
  • On Canaan’s Side, Sebastian Barry (Faber)
  • Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch (Canongate Books)
  • The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt (Granta/Anansi)
  • Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail/Profile)
  • A Cupboard Full of Coats, Yvvette Edwards (Oneworld)
  • The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst (Picador - Pan Macmillan)
  • Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury)
  • The Last Hundred Days, Patrick McGuinness (Seren Books)
  • Snowdrops, A.D. Miller (Atlantic)
  • Far to Go, Alison Pick (Headline Review)
  • The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Jane Rogers (Sandstone Press)
  • Derby Day, D.J. Taylor (Chatto & Windus/Random House)


Something Dark and Stormy This Way Comes

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest annually commemorates the very worst writing around. Today on The Rap Sheet, J. Kingston Pierce talks about this year’s (ahem) winners:
I’ve written at least a couple of times in the past about the notorious Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Held ever since 1982, this competition is named in honor (or should it be dishonor?) of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the English novelist-playwright who’s remembered best for the opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” The contest asks writers and aspiring humorists to submit what they think are the worst opening sentences for books that (let’s hope) will never see print.
The full piece is here.

New Today: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

I was pleasantly surprised by the new book by the author of 2010’s Alice I Have Been. Not that this earlier work wasn’t terrific: it was. But in some ways and at first glance, it seemed as though The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb (Delacorte) was going to be too contrived with a lot of potential of being a lame-duck effort to do something similar-but-different from that the Alice book, which was very successful. Delightfully, then, I’m please to report I was wrong.

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb takes up the voice Lavinia Mercy Warren Bump, for most of her life known as Mrs. Tom Thumb. Once again, Benjamin handles the 19th century material as though she’s seeing it all with her own eyes. Or, of course, more properly, Vinnie’s and it’s exciting -- and sometimes sad -- to spend time looking through the eyes of the woman who was at one time one of the most famous in America. While at the same time, she was necessarily always somewhat outside the mainstream.

It is not, of course, an autobiography. It is fiction, though admittedly of the skilled variety. Still it’s easy to lose yourself in Benjamin’s storytelling and imagine that this is the autobiography that history tells us that 32-inch tall Vinnie planned but never wrote. History as it might have been. Enchanting enough to lose yourself in. There are worse things for a book to be. Whatever can Benjamin have in mind next? ◊

Monica Stark is a contributing editor to January Magazine. She currently makes her home on a liveaboard boat somewhere in the North Pacific.

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Pierce’s Pick: Thick as Thieves by Peter Spiegelman

J. Kingston Pierce gives this week’s nod to Shamus Award-winning author Peter Spiegelman. Says Pierce:
Intrigue and paranoia marble this thriller about an ex-CIA agent, Carr, who’s planning to rob a former hedge fund manager now working as a money man for the worst -- and richest -- sorts of criminals. As the plot shifts from Texas to the Caribbean, Carr realizes he cannot trust anyone, least of all his fellow crooks.
Looking for previous Pierce’s Picks? They’re here.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Drinking the Dream: Alcohol’s Place in Written Art

Stories about the alcoholic writer are too abundant to ignore and faced with it, we come to realize some of our greatest classic literature was fueled, at least in part, by hooch.

The Daily Beast’s Jimmy So examines a couple of vintage booze-soaked peeks at modern literature through the bottom of a bottle: 1987’s Equivocal Spirits: Alcoholism and Drinking in Twentieth-Century Literature (University of North Carolina Press) by Thomas Gilmore and John Crowley’s The White Logic: Alcoholism and Gender in American Modernist Fiction (University of Massachusetts Press) from 1994. So writes:
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896, famous by 1920, forgotten by 1936, and dead by the end of 1940. In the '20s, he introduced himself to party guests as “one of the most notorious drinkers of the younger generation,” or as “F. Scott Fitzgerald, the well-known alcoholic.” His friend Ernest Hemingway experienced such stagecraft firsthand when, during a trip with “Poor Scott,” Fitzgerald was convincing himself that he was dying of “consumption of the lungs” and demanded that Hemingway find a thermometer to ascertain whether a fever boiled in his blood. “He did have a point, though, and I knew it very well,” Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast. “Most drunkards in those days died of pneumonia, a disease which has now been almost eliminated. But it was hard to accept him as a drunkard, since he was affected by such small quantities of alcohol.”
So’s Daily Beast piece is here.

Fiction: French Lessons by Ellen Sussman

I’ve been a fan of author Ellen Sussman since the publication of her debut novel, On A Night Like This. That book, though exceedingly well reviewed and seemingly deeply enjoyed by both critics and fans, never really got the attention it deserved. That’s why it’s been refreshing to watch Sussman’s second novel, French Lessons (Ballantine), be received with a fair amount of fanfare and to see it zooming up the charts. And all of this despite a paperback original publication. But like her debut, French Lessons surprises on every level. One expects a single dimensional romp. Think Bridget Jones or just about any film starring Rene Zellweger. But once there, deeply engrossed between those covers, you discover anything but. Sussman is a force to be reckoned with. If only we can get the rest of the world to understand.

Three very different Americans traipse around the City of Lights on the same day with different French tutors. But the learning of a language becomes secondary to each of them -- a movie star’s husband, a neglected wife and a pregnant French woman -- as they each begin to find answers to unasked questions as the day progresses.

You see? Stated baldly in this way, the story sounds less than what it is and, in an unexpected way, slightly more. Sussman has set herself a challenging task here, and pulls it off neatly. The story takes place on a single Parisian day so it’s not surprising that this slender book is mostly character driven.

Readers of a delicate disposition should take note: Sussman, also the author of the non-fiction works Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, should be aware that French Lessons includes some fairly steamy scenes. If you object to that sort of writing as part of story, you might want to give this one a miss. For the rest of us, though, French Lessons is a wise and witty love story and a thoughtful exploration of craft.


Young Adult: Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey

Alyxandra Harvey is best known for her popular Drake Chronicles series, about the likeable family of vampires, the Drakes, with all those truly hot sons and an ass-kicking martial arts mother. They’re among the few vampire books I enjoy, mainly because they have a sense of humour and aren’t really about vampires biting people but about fights between various vampire clans, ranging from those who think humans are cattle to those who, like the Drakes, are happy to get their blood without harming anyone.

In Haunting Violet, Harvey moves from present-day rural America to Victorian England, when séances were a regular part of middle-class entertainment and there was an entire spiritualist movement.

Violet Willoughby’s mother is a phoney medium, making her living from convincing grieving families that she can communicate with the late Horace or Amelia. Violet has been helping out in the business since childhood, unhappy but knowing there isn’t a lot she can do about it. It’s a living -- and her domineering mother is scary! While at a house party where her mother is expecting a triumphant performance, Violet is horrified to find that there really are ghosts -- and she can see them. Even worse, the most persistent ghost is the murdered twin sister of one of the other guests. If Violet doesn’t find the murderer, the killer may strike again.

It’s either solve the mystery or end up an old woman with the carpet still dripping with the water in which the body was dumped -- that’s if she isn’t murdered herself!

Despite the gloomy cover, there is plenty of the over-the-top humour that makes the Drake Chronicles books such fun to read. The image of Violet turning up at a society ball in her soggy, muddy underwear after fleeing the murderer is unforgettable. The class structure of the time as seen through Violet’s eyes is bizarre but funny. It’s wise to set this in Victorian times, when it might be possible to get away with a murder of this kind. If it had happened in the present day, the forensics team and detectives would be all over the crime scene before coming to the conclusion that it was an accident -- especially with the victim having bruises at throat and wrists.

Definitely recommended! ◊

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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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sucker Punch

Author Jeffrey Eugenides is known for many things. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize (for 2002’s Middlesex). He is the author of the splendid The Virgin Suicides (1993) and if you haven’t read the book, it’s possible you saw the wonderful 1999 film based on the book directed by Sofia Coppola. Eugenides is on the faculty of Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing. He’s also notoriously private about his personal life, which made a Page Six item in the New York Post all the more eyebrow raising.

The brief story said Eugenides “was assaulted last week on a New Jersey train by a drunken lout allegedly obsessed with his own genitalia.” The altercation resulted in the author turning up for a photo shoot as well as a party for his upcoming book, The Marriage Plot, with a black eye and stitches. Some authors will do anything for a little publicity.

The Page Six item is here. The Village Voice mixes it up more engagingly (but with no more information: Eugenides and his people aren’t talking about the incident) here.

Tips for Writers: Want to Get Some Work Done? Try Landing in Jail

In a terrific essay for the New York Times this weekend, Tony Perrottet (The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe) posits that, even before the time of Twitter and Facebook, writers were easily distracted. In fact Perrottet writes, for the comparative work some writers produced, the place for a writer to get their best work done might just be in jail. Take, for instance, the Marquis de Sade:
From a strictly literary point of view, prison was the best thing that ever happened to the marquis. It was only behind bars that Sade was able to knuckle down and compose the imaginative works upon which his enduring, if peculiar, reputation lies.

Sade’s most impressive stint began after 1784, when he was transferred to the Bastill
e, which effectively operated as a literary colony on a par with Yaddo today. From a suite decorated with his own furniture and 600-book library (and tended by his valet), the marquis entered a mind-boggling frenzy of writing, cranking out thousands of manuscript pages at breakneck speed. As Francine du Plessix Gray describes in her classic biography “At Home With the Marquis de Sade,” he completed the first draft of his pornographic novel “Justine” in a single two-week-long burst, and knocked out the final 250,000-word draft of “The 120 Days of Sodom” in 37 days, transcribing minuscule letters on five-inch-wide pages glued into a roll nearly 50 feet long. By 1788, after only 11 years behind bars, Sade had churned out 8 novels and story collections, 16 historical novellas, 2 volumes of essays, a diary and some 20 plays. Whatever you make of Sade’s oeuvre, you have to envy his productivity.
Nor was the marquis alone.
The peripatetic Marco Polo got around to recording his classic travels through China only because he was captured in 1298 during a naval battle with Genoa and held in a lavish palazzo. Five hundred years later, the playboy Giacomo Casanova found time for his renowned erotic autobiography only after he had run out of money (and libido) and retreated to Castle Dux in Bohemia, where he accepted a sinecure as a librarian. Napoleon Bonaparte dictated his multivolume memoir — one of the great best sellers of 19th-century France — thanks only to his long exile on St. Helena. Even the harsh public jails could induce results. In 1897, Oscar Wilde wrote the philosophical essay “De Profundis” while locked up in Reading Gaol on charges of “unnatural acts.” And in 1942, Jean Genet wrote his first novel, “Our Lady of the Flowers,” while in Fresnes prison, near Paris, for petty theft, scrawling on scraps of paper.
To work properly, a writer’s prison doesn’t even have to be the official kind, and no crime need be involved.
“A prison is indeed one of the best workshops,” Colette declared. She wasn’t speaking metaphorically. In the early 1900s, by her own account, her caddish first husband had stashed her in a tiny room for four hours a day, refusing to let her out until she had finished a requisite number of pages — a drastic measure, but one that resulted in a novel a year for six years. “What I chiefly learned was how to enjoy, between four walls, almost every secret flight,” she later recalled, sounding almost sentimental.


Friday, July 22, 2011

The Daggers Come Out

There was plenty of news made today at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, being held in Harrogate, England. Not only was there an announcement of the first five winners of Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Dagger Awards for 2011, but longlists are now available of nominees in three additional Dagger Award categories. You’ll find a full report in The Rap Sheet.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

One of Those Days

It’s one of those magical days: Ernest Hemingway (1899), Marshall McLuhan (1911), Michael Connelly (1956) and Sarah Waters (1966) all were born on this date. Those names together represent some pretty significant writing talent and thinking power. The fact that it is also the anniversary of the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to stroll on the moon almost seems paltry by comparison.



Fiction: Ephemera by Jeffery M. Anderson

The cover paints a picture every bit as graphic as one I might share: a tattered American flag drips blood on a landscape of rubble. This is the future. And it pretty much does not look bright.

It’s a couple of decades into the future and we meet Nester Cab, a hack magazine writer of questionable talent who, as he approaches mid-life, is not likely to leave his mark with his pen.

The future Nester occupies is painted by the title: Ephemera. A world filled with stuff not intended to be loved or cherished or held. Everything is transitory and nothing, really, seems still. But the drawing of said world is not subtle and, for me, it was held together by colors so bright they were cartoony. Not necessarily a bad thing, but big, big, big: think Fifth Element in film or Gun With Occasional Music in books. (And don’t get me wrong: being compared with Lethem is never a bad thing.) There is also a touch of the deceptive darkness of William Gibsons’s cyberpunkish visions. Clearly, Anderson has a lot to share in Ephemera and he has a lot to say and he mostly says it successfully.

Despite his less-than-sterling qualities as a journalist, Nester finds himself on the hunt for a missing soldier and, in the process, he unwraps a secret anti-government organization -- think tea party without the exciting hats. From there, it’s more or less downhill for Nester who becomes a sort of Alice in a dark and nasty future Wonderland.

And Ephemera is dark. And sometimes it seems hopeless. A brightly colored, darkly sinister future with a graphic novel’s grasp on a frighteningly garish tomorrowland. Anderson’s vision is bleak and incredibly well drawn and part of the journey here is just hanging on and seeing what he throws at us next. Synthetic pets, custom ordered penguins and ham made of chicken. Early in the book, a dowager television presenter remarks on the penguins, then continues:
An infernal procession of inconsequence continued on, weddings with forty-foot cakes, a cola company celebrating its one hundredth anniversary, synthetic parrot warns its owner, famous singer arrested, commercial orbital shuttle breaks record, horror as wife feeds husband to homeless, anomalous snow falls in Arizona, and an interview with some expert in some scientific field from some university with some impressive degree explaining that technology was imminently headed to market that will make it possible for you, the consumer, to send you car to run errands for you while you monitor and control it from the comfort of your own den.
Part of the delight of Ephemera is Anderson’s rich imagination, well-shared. Ephemera is darkly dystopic and the truth Nester must search for is illusive and always just out of his grasp, but Anderson’s clear voice makes a challenging journey worthwhile.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Non-Fiction: Just Tell Me What to Eat! by Timothy S. Harlan

You can barely turn on a television or open a newspaper anymore without reading about obesity: how its cutting a swath through the health of America. It almost seems that, as a culture, we’re out of control, and we just don’t know what to do. But doctor, former chef, professor, columnist and television personality Timothy S. Harlan offers up some answers in his new book, Just Tell Me What to Eat! (Da Capo).

Boiled down to its most essential bits, the problem is processed foods, says Harlan. The answer: foods that are real and good. This came to Harlan through interactions with his patients.
When I talk with them about eating healthier, they invariably say, “Tell me what to eat.”

Like most doctors, I reply, “Well, cut down on fats and saturated fat and eat fewer calories. Eat more fruits and veggies.” I show my patients lists of serving sizes of different foods …. We discuss the hype -- and pitfalls -- of popular fad diets. In short, I act like a doctor.

It was only after a patient said to me, for the third time, “No, no. Don’t tell me about all that! Just tell me what to eat!” that I finally understood that I need to respond like a chef.
What Harlan does is revolutionary… yet stunningly simple. Just Tell Me What to Eat! isn’t a diet plan or fad diet. It just looks at good, wholesome food and how to prepare it and what it’s made of and how it will manifest inside your body. Some of this is so common sense, it seems almost ridiculous. And yet -- obviously -- these are things that need to be said: look at labels. Think carefully about portion size. Measure your ingredients. Learn about what you put in your mouth.

I anticipate Just Tell Me What to Eat! will be more than just a how-to for many people. Great, easy to follow recipes indicate that this one should be added to many people’s cookbook shelves. If you have more questions than answers about diet and dieting, Just Tell Me What to Eat! is a terrific idea for your next stop.

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Not Just Dragons and Tattoos: What Sets Nordic Fiction Apart?

On The Rap Sheet, J. Kingston Pierce shares some snippets that didn’t make it into his Kirkus interview with British crime fiction critic Barry Forshaw. Forshaw is currently working on a book called Death in a Cold Climate: Scandinavian Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan) that will be published early in 2012.

“What is it that sets Nordic crime fiction apart from what’s being turned out by writers in Britain, America, Germany, and elsewhere?” Pierce wants to know. “Is it the storytelling approach, the atmospherics, or the protagonists that are different?”

Forshaw’s answer is arguable, but he’s clearly given the matter a great deal of thought:
Many American and British authors are content to relate their narratives in carefully organized, linear fashion without attempting to test the elasticity of the medium. The result: work which is weighted with precisely those elements required to produce a Pavlovian response in the reader, with all the customary elements (suspense, obfuscation, resolution) employed in a straightforward contract between author and reader. Scandinavian crime fiction, however, is more prepared to toy with notions of improvisation and destabilization of the generic form, producing writing which may sketch in the rough parameters of the crime novel but also attempts to expand the possibilities of the medium--those possibilities which so often remained unexplored. There is often an initial resistance to unfamiliar, convention-stretching innovation, which is why so much anodyne product is available. Even the least ambitious Nordic fiction, however, is often prepared to take some audacious steps into the unknown, producing fiction which can function both as popular product and personal statement from the author.

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A Birthday on The Road

American novelist and playwright Cormac McCarthy was born in Providence, Rhode Island, 78 years ago today. McCarthy is best known for his Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998) as well as 2006’s The Road, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. According to Writer’s Almanac:
McCarthy likes to be left alone, and he grants very few interviews. When he does, he rarely wants to talk about his work, preferring one of the hundreds of other subjects he's interested in. “Writing is way, way down at the bottom of the list.” He's said that he doesn’t understand authors who don't want to tackle “life and death” themes, and that he much prefers the company of scientists to that of writers.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pierce’s Pick: The Day Is Dark by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

This week Yrsa Sigurdardottir, noted Icelandic author of crime and children’s fiction, catches J. Kingston Pierce’s eye. The Rap Sheet editor says:
Small-time Icelandic attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir (last seen in 2009’s My Soul to Take) is hired to investigate the vanishing of two of her fellow countrymen, who had been working on the northeast coast of Greenland. Do the locals’ hostility toward Thóra’s questions derive from this case as well as a previous disappearance?
Looking for previous Pierce’s Picks? They’re here.

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Agent Suggests World News Phone Scandal Splashes Book World

Influential literary agent Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie has suggested that the phone-hacking scandal currently gutting aspects of the United Kingdom’s print media might have ties to the book world. From The Bookseller:
Agent Andrew Wylie has accused HarperCollins of acting in an “unusually shrill and punitive” way toward authors, claiming the controversy surrounding parent company News Corp. should lead to the publisher being examined more closely.

Wylie made the claims in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s “The World at One” today (Monday). In response, HC described Wylie’s claims as “extravagant” and lacking in detail. A spokesperson said: “The more mundane truth is that HarperCollins have had differences of opinion on business matters with Mr. Wylie in recent times.”


New This Month: Naked City edited by Ellen Datlow

The fact that Ellen Datlow is the editor of Naked City (St. Martin’s Press) is almost all you need to know about this compilation to go forward. After all, if you know this type of fiction, you know Datlows’s name.

Datlow has edited more than 50 anthologies over the past three decades. Her eye for fantasy, science fiction and horror fiction is legendary and her name on an anthology provides its own seal of approval. Datlow understands what makes the heart race… and stop. Even so, Naked City is a departure. As Datlow herself says in the introduction:
Urban fantasy as we have come to know it today combines the often-dark edge of city living with enticing worlds of magic. Its subgenera include noir crime and paranormal romance. But the urban landscape is what’s crucial.
And that’s what we find in Naked City, an examination of what’s new and lonely in the most urban core of what we find most familiar, ripped bare here by the pens of the authors we love best. In “Curses,” Harry Dresden examines how to remove a curse laid on the Chiacgo Cubs while a vampire is called home in Patricia Briggs’ “Fairy Gifts.” Jim Butcher, Ellen Kushner, Pat Cadigan, Kit Reed, Jeffrey Ford, Lucius Shepard and others all contribute to a significant work of short urban fantasy fiction. Not all of it is great, but it is thought-provoking. After all, as Naked City reminds us, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Birthdays: William Makepeace Thackerary

English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was born on this day in 1811. Though Thackeray’s career was long and lustrous, he is best known for his satirical novel, Vanity Fair. First published in serial form in 1847 to 1848, Wikipedia has this to say about the novel:
Even before the last part of the serial was published, critics hailed the work as a literary treasure. Although the critics were superlative in their praise, they expressed disappointment at the unremittingly dark portrayal of human nature, fearing Thackeray had taken his dismal metaphor too far. In response to his critics, Thackeray explained that he saw people for the most part "abominably foolish and selfish". The unhappy ending was intended to inspire readers to look inward at their own shortcomings.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Funniest Man in Paris

In a trenchant peek at Proust, HiLowBrow muses on the extreme -- though often underappreciated -- humor of Marcel Proust.
During France’s Belle Époque, the decades before World War One that historian/Proustian Roger Shattuck calls “The Banquet Years,” Proust haunted both litterateurs and the nobility in their salons with his caustic wit and almond-eyed stare.
Not everyone got Proust’s humor, HiLowBrow warns, but the “books are still comic, though, in a Kierkegaardian sense, and rich in slapstick.”

Even slapstick, though, can be in the eyes of the beholder.
In Le temps retrouvé, on his way to a party, the narrator Marcel stumbles on uneven paving stones; his mind is flooded with involuntary memories of Venice, then with reverie on the nature of memory, and how this discovery unlocks the mystery of art.
The piece is not long, but it is thoughtful, and it’s here.

Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust was born 140 years ago this month. He died in November 1922, at age 51. He was best known for the novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past) published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927.

Portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942) oil on canvas Musée d’Orsay.

Do Electronic Books Mark the End of Reading? Umberto Eco Doesn’t Think So

In the hopefully titled This is Not the End of the Book (Harvill Secker) two great readers and book collectors opine on what the e-reading revolution will mean to the book and reading as we know it.

In conversation with editor and biographer Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, playwright and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and novelist and critic Umberto Eco discuss the future of the book and so much more. The resulting work offers hope and reassurance to book-lovers who are reluctantly scratching at the door of technology. Eco seems especially on target and on point, as illustrated by this excerpt from early in the book:
There is actually very little to say on the subject. The internet has returned us to the alphabet. If we thought we had become a purely visual civilization, the computer returns us to Gutenberg's galaxy; from now on, everyone has to read. In order to read, you need a medium. This medium cannot simply be a computer screen. Spend two hours reading a novel on your computer and your eyes turn into tennis balls. At home, I use a pair of Polaroid glasses to protect my eyes from the ill effects of unbroken onscreen reading. And in any case, the computer depends on electricity and cannot be read in a bath, or even lying on your side in bed.

One of two things will happen: either the book will continue to be the medium for reading, or its replacement will resemble what the book has always been, even before the invention of the printing press. Alterations to the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon. When designers try to improve on something like the corkscrew, their success is very limited; most of their `improvements' don't even work. Philippe Starck attempted an innovative lemon-squeezer; his version may be very handsome, but it lets the pips through.

The book has been thoroughly tested, and it's very hard to see how it could be improved on for its current purposes. Perhaps it will evolve in terms of components; perhaps the pages will no longer be made of paper. But it will still be the same thing.


Friday, July 15, 2011

“Lost” Austen Novel Fetches a Million

An unpublished novel by beloved English writer Jane Austen has been sold at auction for close to one million pounds. From The Daily Mail:
The handwritten manuscript is the only copy of the story created -- and was owned by one of the author’s descendants.

It was sold at Sotheby’s in London yesterday for £993,250, three times the guide price, to an anonymous bidder, later revealed to be Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.
The full story is here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Non-Fiction: The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet

Half a century after the debut publication of The Curve of Time, the first person account of a young widow’s travels with her five children on a 25-foot coastal cruiser of the shores of British Columbia still captivates.

“This is neither a story nor a log,” Muriel “Capi” Blanchet began her memoir, still an enchanting favorite of many readers so many years after the initial publication in 1961, “it is just an account of many long summer months, when the children were young enough and old enough to take on camping holidays up the coast of British Columbia. Time did not exist; or if it did it did not matter, and perhaps it was not always sunny.”

Fifty years on, Blanchet’s words endure as does the spirit that sent her afloat. Blanchet weaves her family’s experiences with local history and even snippets of a kind of erstwhile philosophy. Though the book was published 50 years ago, Capi had piloted the Caprice years before: in the late 1920s and early 30s. And the curve or our time to hers, and hers to the time she writes about resonates throughout the book.

There are so many remarkable things about The Curve of Time that it’s impossible to isolate the single thing that has made this book such an enduring regional bestseller. Blanchet’s voice is charming and sure. And there is something fiercely wholesome in Capi’s prose. Something that touches and moves us forward.
Where are you coming from? Where are you going? I would wave a vague hand behind me. “Oh, from the south,” I would say evasively, or, “Oh, just up north -- nowhere in particular.”

What did it matter to anyone where we went? We ourselves usually had some idea where we intended to go. But we seldom stuck to our original intentions -- we were always being lured off to other channels.

Sometimes that wasn’t our fault.
Whitecap Books delivers a gorgeous 50th Anniversary Edition of The Curve of Time that includes a new afterword by Blanchet’s daughter-in-law, Eileen. Those who have loved this book in the past will enjoy the opportunity to get reacquainted. And if you’ve missed it altogether, now is your chance. A wonderful celebration of the open road… on the water. ◊

Linda L. Richards is editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pierce’s Pick: Misterioso by Arne Dahl

This week, crime fiction and Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce smiles at Misterioso by Swedish crime fictionist Arne Dahl. Says Pierce:
Allocated to a special national task force, Stockholm police detective Paul Hjelm hunts for a murderer who’s targeting prestigious businesspeople, shooting them in the head while listening to Thelonious Monk’s music. The case will pit Hjelm against the Russian mafia and expose the xenophobia that’s become all too prevalent in Sweden.
Looking for previous Pierce’s Picks? They’re here.

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Somebody Forgot to Use Spell Check

As the headline on this post in the blog Book Worship makes obvious, some words are bigger problems for writers than others.

(The headline has since been fixed.)

Friday, July 08, 2011

Books to Film: Too Big to Fail

When Hollywood decided to adapt The Bonfire of the Vanities, Oscar-winner William Hurt’s name was on the short list to play Sherman McCoy, the Wall Street “Master of the Universe” who finds himself having a very bad year. That role went to Tom Hanks, but twenty-plus years later, William Hurt headlines HBO’s very good adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s 2009 non-fiction look at the financial meltdown, Too Big To Fail. Hurt plays Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, a former Wall Street master who finds himself having a very bad few months in 2008. The stakes here, are much higher -- instead of a murder charge, Paulson faces the complete meltdown of the financial system world-wide.

While Paulson is the haunted center and Hurt the top-billed actor in this adaptation of the international bestseller, he is not without support. Director Curtis Hanson, of the classic L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys and the less-than-classic The River Wild, stuffs the film with... well, every character actor in the history of ever. While that's an exaggeration, calling the ensemble cast of Too Big To Fail a Murderer's Row of talent is not. This review could very easily sell you on the picture by listing off who's in it -- when you have Dan Hedeya (as powerful Congressman Barney Frank) and John Heard (as Lehmann Brothers CFO Joe Gregory) show up for a single scene a piece, you know Hanson and his casting directors mean business.

The cast is by far the strongest part of Hanson's movie. The director, working from a script by Peter Gould (Breaking Bad), uses the all-star cast as a kind of shorthand. While animated subtitles inform the audience to folks’ names and jobs, Hanson understands the baggage certain actors bring to their parts as well. So yes, it makes perfect sense that James Woods is the arrogant, self-destructive Dick Fuld, CEO of Lehmann Brothers, whose reluctance to sell his company kicks the whole thing off.

We should all listen to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, because he’s played by the darkly funny and very serious Paul Giamatti, and heed the sage advice of Warren Buffett, because he’s the grandfatherly Edward Asner. When you put JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon in a room with other executives to find a way to bail out Lehmann, you know Dimon's running the room, because the man speaking his dialogue is former President Bill Pullman. And you know, no matter what, Matthew Modine will find a way to make Merril Lynch CEO John Thain look like a doofus, because, well, Matthew Modine plays a lot of doofuses.

Those are just a few of the names in the cast of Too Big To Fail, and I’m neglecting others, like Billy Crudup’s Timothy Geitner and Topher Grace and Cynthia Nixon as Treasury aides. I’m also not emphasizing just how good Hurt is as Paulson at portraying the crushing guilt that comes with both causing the financial crisis of the film (as Paulson lobbied for deregulation while in charge at Goldman Sachs) and desperate to fix it. Hurt makes Paulson into a guy with real regrets who becomes frayed over the course of the picture. He’s good at selling the big moments -- threatening CEOS with the weight of the federal government -- and the smaller ones, like casually remarking that nobody did anything to stop deregulation because “We were making too much money.” It’s a fantastic performance, and a sign that audiences never really lost William Hurt -- he just went away for a while.

If the film has flaws that keep it from being a great addition to HBO’s ongoing efforts to dramatize all of American history, it’s that it often feels like not enough time is spent with these characters. Too Big to Fail plays like a thriller, and it’s a terribly exciting movie at times, but there are moments, especially early on, when I found myself wishing the whole thing were longer.

Stretching it out, however, may have eliminated the pace of Hanson’s direction, which is crisp, solid, and while it doesn’t reach the heights of his classic work, it’s still a solid entry from the journeyman filmmaker. Hanson breaks up the tension with some moments of real humor (mostly from the deadpans provided by Grace and Giamatti), as well as stopping the action to explain what a sub-prime mortgage is and how it caused the crisis about halfway through the film -- without missing a beat. That scene, by the way, is succinct and informative enough to be taught in schools for years to come, and it’s to Gould’s credit as a writer that he indulges in hand-holding a few times throughout the course of the picture.

Too Big To Fail is not a perfect film, but it is an engaging, entertaining movie. So if you want answers about how we got into the mess we find ourselves in, or are just looking to watch a bunch of really great performers act their butts off, this might be a film you'll enjoy. ◊

Brendan M. Leonard lives in New York City. He’s a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet. You can also follow him on Twitter..

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Young Adult: A Pocketful of Eyes by Lili Wilkinson

In A Pocketful of Eyes (Allen and Unwin), Bee is spending her summer holidays working in the taxidermy department of the Melbourne Museum of Natural History before beginning Year 12. She has enough problems on her plate, what with her best friend running off with her boyfriend and her geeky mother bringing home a new boyfriend of her own from the Dungeons and Dragons group, when her grumpy boss is found dead in the Museum’s Red Rotunda one morning. The police say it’s suicide, but Bee hasn’t been reading lots of crime fiction from Trixie Belden to PD James for nothing. Can she and the cute but exasperating Toby solve the mystery with nothing but their logic, a few clues and asking “WWPD?” (What would Poirot do?)?

You do need to suspend disbelief before you can enjoy the usual over-the-top Wilkinson humour in this one. How likely is it that the police would declare suicide before so much as moving the body from the museum? What about forensic samples? Why are there no police officers asking questions? Also, Bee and Toby seem to get away with an awful lot of nicking important clues from suspects’ offices without anyone wondering where the documents have disappeared, let alone saying, “Hang on, weren’t those pesky kids here five minutes ago?” But belief is worth suspending.

I think it’s a bit premature to be comparing this author to Agatha Christie, as the back cover quotes does, but A Pocketful of Eyes is still a very entertaining romp through the halls of crime fiction, with red herrings, winks and nods to various writers and I have to admit that, while there were a lot of clues – or, rather, Clues – leaping around yelling, “Hey! Hey! Clue! Look!” at the reader, I didn’t see the rather Poirot-ish conclusion coming.

It was worth reading for the heroine’s personal life alone. With a house full of D& D, a mother who’s on the Playstation duelling Darth Vader and a Celestial Badger, who can blame her for fleeing into the world of logic and reality? At the same time, her mother is quite lovable and there is no doubt of her affection for Bee. There are definite coming-of-age elements in the novel. ◊

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 06, 2011

Non-Fiction: Landing in the Executive Chair by Linda Henman

So you scrabble and you scramble and you poke and prod and push your way to the top. You step on all the heads necessary to take the big corner office and, once you get there, you sit back with a big scary sigh and say, “What now?”

As Fortune 500 consultant author Linda Henman says, “Prior to stepping into an executive role, the advice you might have followed may have been, ‘Show up. Keep up. Shut up.’ Though extremely good advice for a golf caddy, one-third of it is extraordinarily bad for an executive.”

All right, then: if not that, then what? Because, as Henman points out, there simply is no “universally accepted definition of leadership, much less executive leadership, [that] actually exists,” and since, as Henman remarks later, “the qualities traditionally associated with leadership, such as intelligence, toughness, determination, and vision are required for success, they don’t offer a complete picture of what leadership requires.” What, then, is a struggling new executive to do?

In Landing in the Executive Chair (Career Press), Henman strips it all down to basics. Executive 101 sounds like an oversimplification, but -- at certain points -- that’s pretty much what we’re talking about here. This is a how-to book for a demographic you never figured need one. And maybe they didn’t, until now. According to Henman, the next generation of executives will face unprecedented challenges. Lucky for them, Henman and Landing in the Executive Chair are here to hold your hand. ◊

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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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

New Today: I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black

The most surprising thing about Alethea Black’s debut collection is how small of a push it’s being given and how little attention it’s received. Black’s is a rich, accomplished and startlingly good literary presence, deserving of quite a bit more.

Black’s voice is fresh, bright and original, the 13 stories collected here are well-crafted and engaging. Black’s observations on life, love and the human condition are keen and welcome.

Another welcome innvovation: the author finishes I Knew You’d Be Lovely (Broadway) with an Author’s Notes section that removes the curtain and sheds light on her thoughts and inspirations as she crafted each story. “I wrestled with this story while writing it,” she says about “Proof of Love,” “keenly aware of the fine line between a character who has strong opinions and a story that has strong opinions, and the cosmic No-No of finding yourself on the wrong side of that line. (Samuel Goldwyn: ‘If you have a message, send a telegram.’)”

This is a short story collection for those who love short stories: rich, complete and memorable, this is a voice we’ll be waiting to hear more from. Soon. ◊

Monica Stark is a contributing editor to January Magazine. She currently makes her home on a liveaboard boat somewhere in the North Pacific.

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Pierce’s Pick: The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

J. Kingston Pierce follows Rap Sheet contributor, Megan Abbott, out of mystery and into thriller in this week’s Pierce’s Pick: The End of Everything.

“Suburban adolescents Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver lived amid innocence and the promise of glamour,” writes Pierce. “After Evie is apparently kidnapped, though, Lizzie is left to deal with -- and sometimes delight in -- the fallout. But as she manipulates the investigation, Evie starts to question whether she really knew her best friend at all.”

You can see previous Pierce’s Picks here. You can hear more from Pierce at The Rap Sheet.

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Monday, July 04, 2011

New This Week: Outlander: 20th Anniversary Edition by Diana Gabaldon

If, like so many other millions, you’ve fallen in love with Diana Gabaldon’s smart, sexy and unlikely tales of science fiction time travel romance, it may surprise you to learn that, this month marks the 20th anniversary of Outlander, the book that started it all back in 1991.

In a 1999 interview, when the success of Gabaldon’s series featuring former combat nurse Claire and hot young Scottish clansman, Jamie Fraser, was growing, but still fairly new, the author told me that one of the earliest inspirations for Outlander was the BBC television series, Doctor Who. From January Magazine’s 1999 interview with Gabaladon:
It was one of the early episodes [of Doctor Who], and he had a young Scots lad that he'd picked up in 1745. He appeared in his kilt, you know. And I thought, "Well, that's rather fetching." So I thought, "Well, it doesn't matter where I set this book, I'm going to have to look everything up anyway. The important thing is to pick a place and start in." So I said, "Scotland in the 18th century. That's where I'll start." So I started. But it was still a straight historical novel.

About the third day of writing I said, "Well, I'll have to have a female character here to play off all these men in kilts. And given that we're dealing with the Jacobite rising, perhaps I should make her an Englishwoman, that way we'll have lots of conflict built in." So I did, and I introduced her and the minute I put her in, she refused to talk like an 18th-century person. She immediately started making smartass modern remarks and she also started telling the story herself. And I said, "Well, if you're going to fight me all through this book, go ahead and be modern and I'll figure out how you got there later." So it's all her fault that there's time travel in it.
The rest, one might say, is science fiction time traveling history.

Some of this material is covered in a new foreword to the 20th anniversary edition of Outlander, out from Delacorte this week. Created as a collector’s edition, the new publication includes a readers’ guide, maps and timelines and a CD of songs from Outlander: The Musical.

January Magazine’s 1999 interview with Gabladon is here. We chatted with her again in 2002 and that interview is here. ◊

Linda L. Richards is editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.


New in Paperback: Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

It’s terrific to see the amazing Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula back in print at this most vampire-appropriate time. After all, since the book’s original publication back in 1992, we’ve come a very long way both as a culture and as consumers of all things vampiric.

Upon first publication, Anno Dracula met with critical acclaim. As the New York Times said back in 1992, “Anno Dracula is the definitive account of that post-modern species, the self-obsessed undead.” That’s a statement that sounds even more relevant in 2011 than it did nearly two decades ago.

Like much of Newman’s work, Anno Dracula takes what is history and shakes it up with an alternate view. This time out, though, he’s blended not only history, but historical literature, mashing up Victorian England with Bram Stoker’s best known tale. In Newman’s telling, Queen Victoria has remarried the dark count during Jack the Ripper’s reign. Madness ensues. How could it not?

Though in 1992 Anno Dracula was widely reviewed and publicly lauded, one must assume that -- ultimately -- the book did not do well because it ended up out of print. Titan Books has remedied that with a reprint edition that I can’t help but think will do very well. After all the vampires we’ve been exposed to over the last few years, we’re ready for Newman’s light and cunning take as well as a fond reimagining that will have you wondering well beyond the final page. Newman is a master and Anno Dracula is, arguably, his finest work. It’s good to see it back in print. It will be joined by the second and third books in the series, The Bloody Red Baron and Dracula Cha Cha Cha in 2012. A brand new fourth novel, Johnny Alucard, will be published in 2013. ◊

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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Sunday, July 03, 2011

Dog Days and Birthdays

One of the things I’ve noticed in passively watching the birthdays of famous people go by is that some days just seem more creatively blessed than others. That is, with 365 days to choose from, you’d think there’d be a pretty even number of famous births distributed throughout the days. But this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Take today, July 3rd, for instance. For the beginning of the Dog Days of summer, the Writer’s Almanac reports that today is the anniversary of the births of crazy Czechoslovakia-born author Franz Kafka (1883), food maven M.F.K. Fisher (1908), another Czech-born writer, the playwright Tom Stoppard (1937) and Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist, Dave Barry (1947). It’s also the birthday of Sleeping With the Enemy author Evelyn Anthony (1928) and Chocolat author Joanne Harris (1964). That’s a whole lot of creative firepower for just one day.

And speaking of firepower, Independence Day brings its own wave of talent for tomorrow’s fourth of July holiday. Notable births for the fourth include Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804), Walt Whitman (1855) and Neil Simon (1927).


Friday, July 01, 2011

Who Says You Can’t Go Back? Returning to the Books We’ve Loved Before

Here at January Magazine, with the best of all that is new constantly near at hand, it’s tough enough to choose between the hot new offerings without going back and revisiting trails that have already been walked. But what about old favorites? And what about the parts of us that change over the years and pull new insights from well-loved texts?

Booktopia Book Guru John Purcell today asks himself the same question. As he says, “with so little time to read in life, it makes sense to keep trying new things.” Still, Purcell points out, there is a case to be made for looking back:
But every so often, while looking for something new, I stumble across something old, something I read long ago. Holding it my hands, I realise it is at best, half remembered. Flicking it open, I discover parts of myself pressed and dried between its pages. Fragile emotions unused to light and air which disintegrate before my eyes. I acknowledge that the person I was when I read the book is lost to me forever, but the book itself is not. But do I dare read it again?
All of us who love books have special favorites whose resonances seem to alter -- and richen and deepen -- as we mature. There are a handful of books I try to revisit every few years. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is one of my lifetime favorites, though these days I tend only to attempt another run when a new translation appears. I’ve enjoyed several long visits with Taylor Caldwell’s Captains and the Kings since my first read of the book when I was an adolescent. The things I take away from Calder now are much (much!) different than they were on my earliest passes, but I love the book no less now. And it still breaks my heart. A more recent favorite has been Jonathan Lethem’s wonderful 1994 novel, Gun, with Occasional Music. This skillful blend of science fiction with hardboiled detective always wows me with its language and its light. And I always (always) love Lethem’s voice.

Though every year I’m delighted to discover ore books that I love, there are very few that seem to demand another read at a future point. How about you? Which books call you back?

Cookbooks: Fire it Up and Time to Grill

And speaking of barbecue (we were, weren’t we?) every year around this time we’re treated with a new flurry of books to grill by. The summer of 2011 is no exception.

While other years have delivered sometimes delightful, quirky little books on barbecue, for me this year’s treats were two books with a serious grilling backbone.

Fire It Up by Andrew Schloss and David Joachim promises “more than 400 recipes for grilling everything” and delivers in style. A few of my favorites from Fire it Up: Roasted Beet and Chicory Salad with Charred Lardo (beets and pig fat, what’s not to like?), Beer-Buttered Rump (the name alone is inviting, but the recipe is easy and delicious) and the author’s take on the classic Roasted Chicken with Garlic offers a crazy simple way to do something that a lot of other chefs make unreasonably complicated. This is a great grilling book!

Weber’s Time to Grill (Oxmoor House) is this year’s model: this leading manufacturer of quality barbecues has been publishing a very good barbecue cookbook every year for the past several. This year’s entry is no exception. Award-winning cookbook author and grilling enthusiast Jamie Purviance focuses on the big picture, but delivers a really good (and quite large) book of basics combined with some strong and delicious recipes.

If you can’t decide between these two terrific books, have them both. It’s possible you’ll end up grilling all year long. ◊

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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Bets Are On for Nobel Prize Winner

Even though it will be more than three months before the Nobel Prize for Literature gets handed around this year, the big betting outfits are already offering odds. And while the lists and odds look very different for all three major bookmakers, Cormac McCarthy crops up on all of them. Some kind of sign? The Literary Saloon is following the story here.