Friday, February 29, 2008

Most Wanted

What are the crime, mystery, and thriller novels that every fan of the genre should be sure to read? Britain’s Telegraph newspaper had its say recently, in an article titled “Fifty Crime Writers to Read Before You Die.” Now, The Rap Sheet is taking a shot at improving on that list. And it’s asking for reader suggestions.

What do you think are the crime, mystery, and thriller novels that every fan ought to read before he or she dies? We’d especially like to hear from the many published crime novelists who read The Rap Sheet. But we are also curious to know what books other readers suggest.

All you need to do to participate in this list-making adventure is e-mail the title and author of the book you’re nominating, plus two or three sentences explaining why you think it deserves a place on our list, to And in the subject line, please type “Book List.”

The deadline for submissions to this list is Friday, March 21.

This latest Rap Sheet endeavor comes less than a year after its very popular “One Book Project,” which asked more than 100 crime novelists, book critics, and bloggers from all over the English-speaking world to choose the one crime/mystery/thriller novel that they thought had been “most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years.”

To learn more about The Rap Sheet’s plans to develop a rundown of must-read crime fiction, click here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Buckley Dead at 82

In this instance, the New York Times says it best:
William F. Buckley Jr., who marshaled polysyllabic exuberance, famously arched eyebrows and a refined, perspicacious mind to elevate conservatism to the center of American political discourse, died Wednesday at his home in Stamford, Conn.
The New York Times
obituary is here. The Rap Sheet takes a look from a more personal perspective here.


Chicago 10 Opens Friday

Two decades after the University of Chicago Press published Chicago ’68, the press’ blog brings news of the opening of Chicago 10, “the innovative documentary that revisits the tumult of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the Chicago 8/7 conspiracy trial of key antiwar activists a year later.”
Twenty years ago we published the most complete account of the events surrounding the 1968 DNC, David Farber’s Chicago ‘68. That book is innovative itself, creating multiple perspectives reflecting both police and demonstrators. Farber shows the developing plans of the antiwar movement for protesting the war in Vietnam during the convention, as the shocks of 1968 shift the ground -- the Tet offensive, President Lyndon Johnson's withdrawal from the re-election race, the assassination of Martin Luther King and subsequent riots in cities across the country, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

The documentary, which opens tomorrow, was directed by Brett Morgen (The Limbo Room, The Kid Stays in the Picture). At the same time, the Press announces the release of a paperback edition of Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention by Frank Kusch.
Battleground Chicago is essential for understanding what is completely absent in Chicago 10 -- any insight into the motivations, thoughts, and feelings of the individual policemen who were enforcing order on the streets of Chicago. (Or, as Mayor Richard J. Daley famously misstated it: "the policeman is there to preserve disorder.") Kusch interviewed eighty former Chicago police officers who were on the scene and uncovered the other side of the story of ‘68.
And the last line of the posting pretty much becomes our quote of the week:
If you want to get a taste of 1968, go see Chicago 10. But if you want to understand 1968, read a book.
You can’t beat the sentiment anyway, especially not during Oscars Week. So, you know... go read a book.

Author Snapshot: Kevin Bazzana

Music historian and biographer Kevin Bazzana holds a Ph.D. in music history from UC Berkeley, a degree he puts to careful use in creating beautiful and lucid biographies of musical characters you just don’t think about every day. Not for this author either Madonna or Chopin: the objects of his interest tend to the more esoteric, the less known.

Bazzana’s first two books focused on various aspects of the life and work of Glenn Gould. Glen Gould: The Performer in the Work (Oxford University Press) was published in 1998 to international acclaim. As Library Journal pointed out, the book was much more than a biography, “this is instead a detailed critical study of Gould the musical interpreter, complete with a CD of pertinent recordings.”

Bazzana followed that up with Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (McLelland & Stewart) in 2003, arguably creating the author as the world’s leading expert on the brilliant and eccentric Canadian pianist.

Last year the publication of the biography of another eccentric and brilliant pianist brought Bazzana further acclaim. Lost Genius tells the story of the Hungarian-born Ervin Nyiregyházi, who spent his life struggling with his talent. New this month in paperback, Lost Genius is nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

While it’s difficult not to be curious about what will come next for this writer, we must resist the urge. As will be seen, it’s not his favorite question.

A Snapshot of Kevin Bazzana...

Born: Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada
Resides: Near Victoria, Britsh Columbia (Brentwood Bay, actually.)
Birthday: July 27, 1963
Web site: I lack sufficient computer skills and self-esteem to create a personal Web site, and alas have no thoughts profound enough to justify one.

January Magazine: Please tell us about your most recent book.

Kevin Bazzana: Lost Genius is a biography of the Hungarian-American pianist and composer Ervin Nyiregyházi (1903-1987). He was a brilliant, highly original musician and eccentric character who led a bizarre life, though his story is almost unknown today. He was one of those gifted artists who was cursed psychologically in ways that sabotaged his career; his story is a tragedy about a great talent that cannot find its place in the world, and he left to posterity only tantalizing glimpses of his art in its prime.

He was one of the most remarkable prodigies in music history -- a psychologist wrote a book about his gifts when he was 13 -- and he had a sensational career in his childhood and youth. But in his early 20, though recognized as one of the greatest pianists of his day, he lost the momentum of his career, for complicated professional, artistic and personal reasons.

For the next half-century, he lived a restless and dissolute life, mostly anonymously in seedy neighborhoods of Los Angeles -- he lived in poverty, drank heavily, was sexually voracious (he married 10 times!). He occasionally performed in private or public, and even long after he was supposedly washed up he could amaze knowledgeable listeners with his playing, though efforts to revive his career always failed. (He spent most of his time composing -- more than 1000 works in a strange, old-fashioned, very personal style.) In the 1970s, he was rediscovered in old age, and enjoyed a brief, noisy, controversial renaissance -- he gave some concerts, made some recordings -- before slipping back into obscurity again.

In my opinion, Nyiregyházi’s is one of the most fascinating stories in music history, made all the more significant and interesting -- and ultimately tragic -- by his unquestionably great gifts.

What’s on your nightstand?

A few years ago, I realized that I was remarkably ignorant of all manner of literature, and since then have set about, more or less systematically, to remedy that defect -- reading Moby-Dick and Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina and Ulysses and all the other books I should have read in college but didn’t.

Recently, I’ve been having a bit of a Philip Roth fit. I just finished American Pastoral and am now cracking open I Married a Communist. But I should add that I divide my free time almost equally between books and movies -- I am a passionate film buff -- and so my nightstand is often piled with DVDs rather than books. My most recent weekful of rented DVDs ranged from Ichikawa, Bergman and Godard, to Laurel and Hardy and The Pajama Game.

What inspires you?

I usually feel presumptuous using the word “inspiration” about my work, since writing non-fiction consists so much of the prosaic donkey work of research. In my experience, writing non-fiction resembles Edison’s famous definition of genius: “one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.” (This is why I sometimes think that the phrase “literary non-fiction” is an oxymoron -- so much of the process involves routine detective work that hardly counts as literary.) But I suppose something like inspiration does give me the motivation to do the labor required to write a biography. In the case of Lost Genius, I can definitely say that I was inspired by genuine interest in and devotion to the subject, and by a desire to share his story and make a case for his significance with the public. I felt particularly passionate about the subject because he was so obviously brilliant and original and yet almost completely unknown; a kind of missionary zeal propelled me in this case.

My previous biography was about Glenn Gould, and though I was genuinely passionate about him, too, he was already famous enough when I came along that he didn’t really need my championship. But Nyiregyházi, it seemed, was going to remain a “lost genius” unless I roused myself and did something about it. That, I suppose, could be called inspiration.

What are you working on now?

For whatever reasons -- weariness? indecision? dread? -- my brain has been in stand-by mode in the year since Lost Genius was first published. I have kept up with the various freelance writing, editing and lecturing jobs that feed and clothe me, but I am not yet at work on a new book. I have been poking my nose into various subjects that interest me, and have been seriously considering moving away from my chosen field (classical music), but have not yet found a new topic. I suspect I may have to wait until a new topic finds me. Part of the problem may be that I am uncertain whether I want (or have the stamina) to write another biography. Writing a biography is a huge, engrossing, exhausting task, and at the end of the day it’s difficult to feel truly confident that you have successfully captured something as elusive as a human life and personality. Anyway, at the moment, when it comes to my “next book,” I can only say, “Stay tuned.”

Tell us about your process.

With a biography, I begin rather amorphously, simply musing about the subject, reading about his life, going through his work and so on, without (at first) any firm goal in mind. Once I have committed to undertaking a full biography, I begin to accumulate data and materials more systematically. Actual writing comes fairly late in the process. (My ten years of work on Lost Genius included less than two of actual writing and editing; the rest was sleuthing.)

When it finally becomes clear that I have enough material for a book, I start with a pen and a piece of paper. I first lay out the overall structure of the book, initially on just one or two pieces of paper, so I can see the whole book at a glance. I then expand on this skeleton, creating ever more detailed outlines, until I feel confident that I know the main divisions of the book -- how the story will unfold, how I will balance chronological narrative with essay-like passages, and so on. (I let the subject dictate the form: every life story suggests its own structure, balance of factors, style and tone.)

Detailed outline at hand, I go systematically through my groaning files and put each bit of information into its appropriate slot. Eventually, I come up with a somewhat orderly pile of information that I can begin sculpting into something that looks like prose. Of course, there are always surprises along the way -- last-minute discoveries and ideas that need to be incorporated, sometimes even major structural changes late in the day. But I find that if I begin with a detailed outline I can avoid getting lost in the mountains of data, and can handle whatever is thrown at me at the last minute.

Finally, when every word and comma is self-evidently perfect, I send the text to my editor, who points out all the self-evident imperfections -- and then a whole new round of fun begins...

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?

A small bedroom converted into an office. My computer sits on a desk that looks out over a half-acre of lawns, trees and gardens -- a view sometimes inspiring, sometimes distracting. Our cat, Sophie, occasionally perches on the desk to look out the window or sun herself while I work. Around me are filing cabinets, bookshelves, and CD cabinets -- all of them reaching satiation -- as well as stereo equipment, photos, diplomas, prizes and tchotchkes. On one of the few bits wall space, a poster of Samuel Beckett (one of my heroes) bearing a quotation that is, if not exactly inspirational, at least ... reassuring: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I read voraciously as a kid and always had a lot of books around me. Early on, I dreamed that one day I might do the unimaginable and actually create one of these magic “book” things myself. But as an adult there was never an “Aha!” moment when I decided to be a writer. I studied first theatre and then music in university, and eventually got a Ph.D. in music, assuming that I would pursue an academic career. But my academic career effectively ended with my doctorate, as I realized that I preferred writing and lecturing about music to non-professional audiences, which I have done in a variety of forums.

The opportunity to write a trade biography of Glenn Gould came about, in 2000, in a rather roundabout way (old-boy network, friend-of-a-friend -- that sort of thing), and at that point it suddenly appeared that I was a real writer. Actually, I published my first article when I was 16, and have been writing for publication and profit off and on ever since; in fact, I can’t really do anything else. But for whatever reasons, I never thought of myself as a professional writer until quite recently. So I never decided to become a writer so much as realized, late in the day, that that is what I actually was.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?

I sometimes fantasize about pursuing one of my non-literary artistic interests -- music, theatre, film -- in a professional way. If a genie gave me one wish for a career and the chops to pull it off, I might choose film director, though the thought of being a pianist or conductor would also be tempting. (In real life, I can barely play a C-major scale on the piano without falling off the bench.) As it stands, I don’t have any apparent marketable skills besides writing, so I can’t imagine what I would be doing if I couldn’t write. Probably living, like one of Beckett’s characters, on “small charitable sums.”

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?

Certain specimens of recognition I have received have been particularly meaningful. High-profile reviews and prizes and such. Perhaps this is not surprising, given how long and difficult and lonely the process of writing a book can be, it’s nice to see signs that your work was not entirely in vain. I’m a long-standing New Yorker fan, and I experienced particularly rewarding feelings of having “arrived” when my books were reviewed (well, technically “Briefly Noted”) in The New Yorker. All of my reviews get filed, but those in The New Yorker are the only ones that I actually laminate.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?

The hours, the working conditions and the wardrobe requirements. Admittedly, my wife has a good, secure government job and is very supportive of my work, so I’m quite aware that the circumstances in which I work are pleasant entirely because of her. If I lived alone, I would be working in much drearier conditions -- if at all.

What’s the most difficult?

Knowing that it is impossible to make a decent living writing books in Canada -- at least, books on the kinds of subjects that interest me. When I weigh the amount of work involved in writing a comprehensive biography against the likely audience for a serious book about a classical musician, I know that I will be working for something far south of minimum wage. That realization can make getting up in the morning to start writing a little difficult.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often? What’s the question you’d like to be asked? What question would like never to be asked again?

These questions are difficult to answer, since I have had relatively little public experience as a writer -- relatively few readings and interviews and such -- so I can’t claim a wearisome overexposure to questions. I have never had to deal with, say, the particular woes of a high-profile author on his tenth book tour, and so have never felt the urge to run amok after hearing Question X for the umpteenth time. Still, I sometimes feel that any question about one of my books is one too many. This may seem a little odd, but think about it: publication represents the beginning of the public’s interest in the book, but often the end of the writer’s. Even when you’re genuinely devoted to a subject, it can be a race to the finish-line to see whether you will complete the book before growing sick of it! I think that’s inevitable with a biography, when you spend so much time cooped up at close quarters with the same person. Once the book’s done, you think you want nothing more than to ignore the subject for a decade or so. But it’s precisely then that people start reading the book and wanting to talk to you about it. Of course, given that I’m currently uncertain about what project to take up next, I guess I could say that there is one question I would like never to be asked again: “So, what’s next for Kevin Bazzana?”

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.

I memorized the Greek alphabet in Grade 7, to impress a girl who had one of those endless, unpronounceable Greek surnames -- 13 letters long, beginning with a silent “M.” Ever since then, whenever I want to write secret notes to myself I write them phonetically using Greek letters; this way, I can, for instance, write down things my wife wants for Christmas and keep the lists out in plain sight. (Thus, “Van Morrison’s new CD” becomes “ΥανΜωρρισονςνευΚΔ.”) I once read that Bertrand Russell hit upon this same encryption system as a teenager -- a case of great nerds thinking alike.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Review: The First Total War by David A. Bell

Today, in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, contributing editor Aaron Blanton reviews The First Total War by David A. Bell. Says Blanton:
In The First Total War, Bell suggests that though in the self-involved current age, we tend to think about the century just past as the one that caused all the trouble, it was the Napoleonic era that laid the groundwork for war as we would all come to know it. Or, as Bell himself says in the introduction:

Here, then, is the essential argument of The First Total War. The intellectual transformations of the Enlightenment, followed by the political fermentation of 1789-92, produced new understandings of war that made possible cataclysmic intensification of the fighting over the next twenty-three years. Ever since, the same developments have shaped the way Western societies have seen and engaged in military conflict.

And though that sounds as though it may a dry book make -- and if we consider the fact that the author is, after all, a scholar -- please keep in mind that the introduction intends to set things up only. The book itself… well, it often sings.

The full review is here.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Sitting Pretty

Caroline Adderson’s Sitting Practice was released to wide acclaim in Canada back in 2003. The book won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the 2004 VanCity Book Prize. Though Adderson has seen three books published in Canada since -- 2006’s Pleased to Meet You (Thomas Allen) and two books for children in 2007 -- Very Serious Children (Scholastic) and I, Bruno (Orca) -- Shambhala’s US publication of Sitting Practice in early March should bring Adderson’s work to a wider audience.

When it was first published in 2003, novelist Margaret Gunning reviewed Sitting Practice for January Magazine:

Caroline Adderson's first novel, A History of Forgetting, was a stunner, combining such unlikely elements as the loneliness of a gay hairdresser watching his partner's mind rot from dementia and the bizarre desire of a young woman to make a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. It shouldn't have worked, but grabbed viscerally due to sheer writerly skill, not to mention the kind of nerve that pushes an author to take emotional risks.

Adderson's sophomore effort, Sitting Practice, is a fine freestanding novel, even if it suffers a bit in comparison to the raw impact of the first one. It's a solidly good book, well worth reading for the consistently fine writing and the quirky humanness of its main characters.
You can find that review in its entirety here.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Doctor’s Appointment

What is it with the medical profession that has made many a fine novelist? I got into a conversation with Dr. C.J. Lyons when we met up at the first International Thriller Writers Conference back in 2006. We both discussed our own writing endeavors, made the more interesting due to both sharing a scientific discipline. When I heard that her first novel, Lifelines, would be released by Berkley on March 4th I was delighted for her and asked her to tell me more about her debut. As she has been a thriller reader for many years, she provided me with her take on villains.

However, I was curious about Lifelines’ journey to publication. Lyons kindly provided me this insightful piece which might give hope to those of you who are scribbling away, juggling life, family and day jobs with a passion for the written word.

In Lyons’ own words then:
You see, first I was a pediatric ER doc, then a rural community pediatrician, then I quit my day job with two publishing contracts in hand.

And then I found myself unemployed, my debut dream dashed when the publisher pulled the book because of cover art problems, and wondering how the heck a nice pediatrician like me got into this mess.

I shouldn’t have been too surprised -- I’ve never been known for playing by the rules.

So there I was, fall 2006, mere months into a relationship with my new agent, only weeks after buying back the rights for the book-that-never-was and parting company with my old publisher, and it’s days away from the winter holidays when “nothing ever happens in publishing.”

And my agent calls and says: You’re not going to believe this.

Then she says: Strangest thing -- this has never happened, not in all my years in the business, not to an unknown like you.

I’m thinking that these are not very encouraging words coming from someone at an A-list NYC agency, but I say nothing as I wonder if I’m somehow jinxed.

She continues: Berkley just called. They want you to create a new series for them. Actually it’s more like creating a new genre. Something that hasn’t been done before, a mix of women’s fiction/medical thriller/romance with an on-going cast of characters. Kind of Grey’s Anatomy-meets-ER.

Long pause as I process this. I know Berkley -- they publish some of the best women’s fiction, medical thriller, and romance writers out there.

“Are you sure they want me?” I ask. How stupid was that? Giving them time to think and change their minds?

“They’ve read your stuff, love your voice. What do you think?”

What did I think? The chance to make my own rules, to create something fresh, new that hadn’t been tried before? It was a huge, huge gamble... for both Berkley and me.

I thought it was great!

I dove into the project. My editor at Berkley was fantastic as we began a give and take, exploring this strange new cross-genre world we were creating. We sent a draft of the manuscript to wonderfully generous authors including David Morrell, Tess Gerritsen,
Heather Graham and Lisa Gardner to see what they thought.

They liked it! Several said Lifelines kept them up at night as they had to read it in one sitting!

Praise like that from writers of that caliber -- well, you can only imagine how it made a novice like me feel.

And then Berkley provided a fantastic cover, complete with real live models in a real live photo-shoot (to go with the real-life doctor-author, my editor said). Unheard of in these days of stock art!

This debut looks to be just the right tonic for raising the heart rate and a solution for insomnia sufferers.


Children’s Book Art Finds Way to Collector’s Hearts

Anyone who has ever looked closely at illustrated children’s books will likely not be surprised to hear that the world at large is finally catching on and the market for the stuff is growing. AP reports:

Once seen as fun but forgettable, the genre is now being featured in mainstream museums and dissected in college art courses.

And as respect for children’s book art grows, the money follows: Buyers are purchasing the illustrations as investments and philanthropists are stepping up.

And though the genre is gaining respect, it’s not yet on an even footing with other types of art, and perhaps never will be.
“I can’t say we’re viewing it quite the way we’re viewing Monets, but I do think there’s been more attention and focus on this,” said Jean Sousa, the Art Institute of Chicago’s director of interpretive exhibits and family programs.

“It’s a distinct entity. It doesn't have to compete with the Monets of the world because it has its own special value as art,” she said.
Would-be collector’s might want to take note: growing interest in children’s book illustrations as well as the establishment of museums like Amherst’s Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and Ohio’s Mazza Museum of International Art from Picture Books at the University of Findlay are contributing to the artform’s market and collectibility. It’s a trend that began a couple of decades ago.
Renewed respect for children’s book illustrations started appearing in the early 1980s, led by Japanese museums that displayed the pieces on par with raku pottery, traditional calligraphy and other undisputedly important art forms.

The past decade has seen a burst of U.S. museum displays and the growth of facilities to preserve and show it, including the Carle’s establishment in Amherst.

Many say the art will have long-term appeal because it crosses generations, introducing children to art and museums while sparking warm memories for adults.
The full AP piece is here.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Author Snapshot: Sandra Gulland

Sandra Gulland’s many fans have had a long wait. It has been nearly eight years since the publication of The Last Great Dance on Earth, the final installment in Gulland’s acclaimed Josephine Bonaparte trilogy.

But the wait is over now or -- for some readers -- nearly so. Gulland’s most recent book, Mistress of the Sun was published this month in Canada by HarperCollins and will be published in the US in June by Touchstone Fireside. Other international markets will follow. Gulland’s readership is not only enthusiastic, it’s very far-flung.

Mistress of the Sun introduces us to Louise de la Vallière, the unlikely mistress of Louis XIV, who in 17th century France, was known as The Sun King, the book she was only beginning to research when we spoke with Gulland last in 2001.
“It is easy to escape into [Sandra Gulland’s] world and not want to return,” says Margaret George (Helen of Troy), another January Magazine interview alumna.

We agree.

A Snapshot of Sandra Gulland…
Born: Miami, Florida
resides: Sandra Gulland and her husband live half the year near Killaloe, Ontario, Canada, and half in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Birthday: November 3, 1944
Web site:

January Magazine: Please tell us about your most recent book.

Sandra Gulland
: Mistress of the Sun: sigh. I can’t believe it’s out. A year ago, I didn’t think the novel would ever be finished. But it is, and I'm pleased.

It’s the story of Louise de la Vallière, the Sun King’s mistress -- a woman of silent power, is how my French translator so beautifully described her. It’s set in mid-17th century France. (Versailles, Paris, Fontainebleau . . . ) It’s a passionate and tragic story, yet victorious. It has something of a fable-like quality, I think.

Louise intrigued me. She was devout, yet the King’s official mistress. She was unsophisticated, a rather timid young woman by Court society standards, yet she was an aggressive horsewoman and hunter. She was unambitious, entirely disinterested in power or wealth, yet she was partner to one of the most powerful (and charismatic) (and handsome!) kings in history.

Entwined with their love affair is the story of magical Versailles -- and entwined with the story of Louise is the story of a magical horse. Mistress of the Sun is very much a story of what people are willing to do, the pacts they are willing to make -- with evil, with the Devil -- in order to save a life ... or take a life.

What’s on your nightstand?

Three Junes, by Julia Glass. Friends have raved about this novel. It’s in the line-up.

Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama. This was a gift from a friend, an Obama fan. I’ve only read the introduction so far: what a fine writer he is. I’m a fan now, too.

From Where you Dream, by Robert Olen Butler. I read this book two years ago, and noted that Chapter 5, “A Writer Prepares,” would be a good chapter to revisit when I was ready to begin a new novel. And it is.

What inspires you?

A great novel. Historical research. Books on writing.

What are you working on now?

I’m not sure yet. Well, that’s not exactly right. I’m mulling, and a story -- characters, scenes -- are beginning to form. I feel somewhat uneasy about it because it is not the subject I had planned to write about next, and it would not be an easy story to tell. It’s possible that the protagonist will be male: that alone would be a challenge.

The one thing I do know for sure is that my next novel (and the next, and the next) will be set in the court of the Sun King, the world of Mistress of the Sun. Seventeenth-century France is a period rich in story.

Tell us about your process.

Many writers hate “pen or pencil” questions, but I love them. I love being asked, and I love listening to what other writers have to say.

I begin writing early in the morning, usually before dawn. When I’m deep into a draft, I will organize my work space the night before: set up the coffee pot, clear the desk, make notes about the scene to come.

I used to plunge right in, but now I find that I simply can’t resist the lure of the Internet, so as I’m drinking my mug of coffee, I’ll check my email,, Facebook and now -- groan -- even MySpace before I begin. I’m not sure this is a good thing, but it’s the way it is.

I can't imagine writing without a computer. I bought the first Mac -- that sweet, ugly little box (only 128K) -- with writing in mind. Now I work on a Mac laptop, usually stretched out on a bed or couch, the computer on my lap and my notes spread all around me.

I must not be distracted by household noises, so often I have headphones on. The music must be instrumental and somewhat hypnotic. For Mistress of the Sun I listened to Gregorian chants, and, for the sheer joy and energy of their music, [legendary Puerto Vallartan musical duo] Willy & Lobo.

In terms of plotting, I try to have something of a story thought through before I begin, but my plan inevitably derails as I begin to write. I often return to plot analysis between drafts, when I’m trying to figure out why the story isn’t working. I like the dream-storming technique that Butler talks about in From Where We Dream: it’s something between outlining and just jumping in.

My first draft is usually long and thin. It lacks reality, detail, shape. I thicken and cut. (I love Ariel Gore’s description of the drafting stages in How to be a Famous Author Before You’re Dead: lather, rinse, lather, rinse.) I print out, edit, revise; print out, edit, revise: many, many times over.

When I’ve taken the novel as far as I can, I turn to editors and readers, an army of them.
When, finally, it’s nearing completion -- just before production, in fact -- I arrange to have a book club or two read and discuss it. This can lead to rather drastic last-minute changes -- an opening chapter rewritten, a chapter cut.

Then, when I’m too exhausted to even think of changing another word, off it goes, and the promotion cycle begins ... and mulling about the next book.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?

I’m stretched out on a daybed with my laptop on my lap. By my side is a wireless mouse, set on Will Self’s Psycho Geography for a mouse pad. I’m facing an antique bookshelf filled with books, small photos and artwork in frames set here and there (my children, an Escher eye, a painting of a wounded angel, a primitive etching). Some books are stacked on their sides, yet to be shelved -- new purchases, books loaned out and returned, advance reader copies of Mistress of the Sun.

To my left, alongside the daybed, is a long wooden coffee table also stacked with books -- research texts, various novels, a big picturebook on Charles II, and, pride of place, the Canadian hardcover edition of Mistress of the Sun.

Across the room is my L-shaped desk with papers piled up: papers to file, notes on essays (blogs now) I’m thinking of writing, papers to sort.

Above the computer stand is a bulletin board: family photos, phone number reminders on Post-It notes, and various images that were important to me while writing Mistress of the Sun: a gloomy circus scene, an etching of a theatrical event in the gardens of Versailles, an image of a white horse. Now that the book is out, it’s time for me to take these images down, I realize, leave an empty space in which to pin new images. (I’m curious: what will they be?)

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Wanting to be a writer has been a fairly constant longing for me, but I can’t recall when it began. In my teens I wanted to be a painter. When I moved to Canada in my 20s, my first year was spent teaching in an Inuit community in northern Labrador. That year I read all of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series. I also read the diaries of Anais Nin and, most importantly, Virginia Wolf's A Room of One’s Own. I think it was at this time that I seriously began to want to be a writer.

After that year I moved to Toronto and became a book editor, which was as close to writing as I could get and get paid. Life was busy (as life is): I told myself that I would write my own books -- “some day.” When I turned 40, I realized that I wasn’t going to live forever and that “some day” might well be “never” if I didn’t actually sit down and write. And so I did.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?

I have a strong need to create, but I’m not sure that it has to be expressed in story form. Perhaps I’d return to painting.

I’ve often thought that in another life I’d be an architect ... or a clown.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?

Writers often say that there is nothing quite like the feeling of holding their first published book in their hands. I’ll never forget that moment myself. I drove into town (population 600: you get the picture) to pick up a parcel at the post office. Once back in my car, I nervously opened it: a hardcover book -- The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. -- with my name on it.

It was almost too much to bear. Quickly, I slipped the book under the newspapers and magazines stacked in the passenger seat. As I went about my chores -- the bank, the market, the hardware store, the pharmacy -- I would now and again peek under the newspapers and magazines. It was still there.

As soon as I got home, I put the book -- my book! -- on a shelf, just to see how it looked side-by-side with the novels I loved so much. I’d always thought that all I wanted was to have a book published, but the moment I saw that book on the shelf, spine out, I upped the ante. At that moment I longed to see a shelf full of books with my name on them.

I don’t know if I will live long enough to achieve this goal: it took eight years of hard, constant writing to finish Mistress of the Sun. When the Canadian edition arrived by courier, it was, yet again: A Moment. I took the parcel into the kitchen. My husband hovered as I nervously cut open the wrapping. And there it was, in my hands: one of the most beautiful books I’d ever seen. I ran my hands over the gold embossed letters in wonder.

Even now I keep looking over at it, set upon the coffee table along with other beautiful books: It’s still there.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?

The isolation: I like solitude. A writer must.

What’s the most difficult?

Organizing my research, taking notes. I also find that a certain stage of the writing process can be boring: after I’ve written a draft on computer, I print it out and edit the hard copy. Then comes the task of typing those changes onto the computer file. When the changes are mechanical, it’s tedious.

But these are easy compared to what I consider to be the most difficult thing about being a writer, which is the constant frustration of trying to carve out periods of isolation and silence in the midst of a busy, noisy and tempting life.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?

With historical fiction -- and biographical historical fiction in particular -- readers often want to know what parts of the novel are fact, and what fiction.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?

“What were the challenges in writing this novel?”

What question would you like never to be asked again?

I dread being asked: In what year did...? When was ... born? How old was ... when he/she died? (Fill in the blanks.)

In short: factual historical questions, especially about a subject I researched over a decade ago. I do not have a good memory for dates, numerical facts. I’m a writer: I write things down! But that doesn’t mean they stay in my head.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.

When I’m nearing the completion of a novel, I become paranoid about my health. Invariably I become convinced I have some serious and life-threatening disease that will prevent me from finishing. I’ve come to see it as a somewhat amusing sign that the book is almost done.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New This Week: My Liar by Rachel Cline

Rachel Cline brings a journeyman’s eye and a poet’s heart to My Liar (Random House), her second novel after 2004’s highly acclaimed What to Keep.

The Los Angeles film community provides the backdrop for My Liar, and though this community is well rendered (it’s a world this author once inhabited) it really is just the setting. The real meat here comes through the relationships between women: the complex connections, the competitions and self-definitions. Cline serves it all up with pathos and heart and great dollops of dark humor.

A side note here: the science geeks in our readership may well be aware of the work of this author’s maternal parent. Barbara Lovett Cline is the author of The Questioners: Physicists and the Quantum Theory (1965), more recently retitled to Men Who Made a New Physics: Physicists and the Quantum Theory. Rachel Cline writes beautifully about her mother and their relationship on her Web site here.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Written a Poem, Mate?

Australian kids will want to start sharpening their pencils in time to submit their work to The Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards, “the oldest and largest poetry competition for school students in Australia.” According to the Web site:
The poetry awards aim to capture the imagination of students, inspiring them to express their thoughts creatively through poetry; while celebrating the legendary work of Dorothea Mackellar, author of the famous poem “My Country.” It is a unique national event, giving Australia’s young people a voice and an opportunity to strive for excellence in literature.
Barbara Guest, the awards program’s project manager, adds that the competition is “Australia’s biggest poetry writing event for school students, attracting more than 15,000 entries.”

The event is supported by the Australian government and is held in conjunction with National Literacy and Numeracy Week, September 1st to 7th.

The Web site for the Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards is very good and is stuffed with all the information you could possibly need to move forward with an entry, including resource notes for teachers and poetry writing tips for students.


And Speaking of Australian Lit Stars...

The Sydney Morning Herald meets with Steve Toltz, the downunder author who is creating a huge international stir. The Herald calls Toltz’ first book, A Fraction of the Whole (Spiegel & Grau), a “comical, philosophical, picaresque, hugely enjoyable” debut:
As a schoolboy, when he didn't know the answers to questions in biology tests, Steve Toltz would write down some silly invention for his own amusement. The moral challenge came when he did know the correct answer and still wanted to make something up. “I struggled with that,” he says, “but the impulse against seriousness eventually won out.”
Toltz is the Australian author currently getting the big, international buzz. The LA Times recently called him “a superb, disturbing phrasemaker” (Seriously: does praise get any higher than that?) while The Wall Street Journal called A Fraction Of The Whole “a riotously funny first novel … that is harder to ignore than a crate of puppies, twice as playful and just about as messy” (OK: eww) then went on to say the book is “a sort of Voltaire-meets-Vonnegut tale” (OK: wow).

So, clearly, no matter who you’re reading these days, and what country you hail from, Toltz is one to watch.

We’re watching.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Author Snapshot: Cornelia Read

It does not at this point seem possible that Cornelia Read’s debut novel was published just two years ago. Field of Darkness from 2006 was enthusiastically reviewed, widely praised and would come to be nominated for just about everything for which it was eligible, including the Edgar Award, the RT Book Club Critics Choice, the Gumshoe, the Audie, the Macavity and the Barry awards for best debut novel.

Read’s latest book, The Crazy School (Grand Central) was published in January. It returns us to the late 1980s world of Madeline Dare who this time out has signed on as a teacher at a boarding school for disturbed teenagers. Reviews have been just as wonderful as they were for Read’s debut. “Madeline’s deadpan voice, acid wit and psychological depth are the perfect counterpoint to the novel’s positively Gothic plot,” raved Kirkus. “In her shadowed complexity and stubborn -- but fragile -- integrity, Madeline resembles many of the genre’s most enduring protagonists. She’s a great character, and her creator is a great storyteller. Caustic, gripping and distinctive -- intelligent entertainment.”

The ex-debutante-turned-author has the quadruple-barreled name of Cornelia Ludlam Fabyan Read. “Seriously,” jokes the author when asked. She was born in New York City but now makes her home in Berkeley, California where she lives with her husband and twin daughters and I think it’s entirely possible that she did not shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

A snapshot of Cornelia Read...

Born: New York, NY
Resides: Berkeley, California
Birthday: March 8th, 1963
Web site:

January Magazine: Please tell us about The Crazy School.

Cornelia Read: It’s a dark and twisty tale about a teacher at a boarding school for disturbed kids, based on a real school at which I was a teacher in the fall of 1989. In a recent San Francisco Chronicle review, Eddie Muller called it “Up the Down Staircase as Grand Guignol.” Best summary ever, in my opinion.

What’s on your nightstand?

Jess Walter’s The Zero; The Hell of a Woman short story anthology edited by Megan Abbott; Martin Limon’s The Wandering Ghost; Brent Ghelfi’s Volk’s Game; Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone; Marvin Lachman’s The Heirs of Anthony Boucher: A History of Mystery Fandom; Lee Child’s Without Fail; Jane Austen’s Emma; William Manchester’s The Last Lion: William Spencer Churchill (volume I, 1874-1932); Carolyn Keene’s Mystery of the Glowing Eye (Nancy Drew); Jack Finney’s Time and Again; Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man; William Gibson’s Spook Country; David Simon’s Homicide, and a Library of America collection of American noir novels of the 1930s and ‘40s in one volume (The Postman Always Rings Twice, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They; Thieves Like Us; The Big Clock; Nightmare Alley; I Married a Dead Man). Also an advance copy of Robert Fate’s genius third novel -- Baby Shark’s High Plains Redemption -- which knocked my socks off.

This isn’t exactly a [to be read] pile -- I read all of them over the last month (some for the second or even third time), I’m just really lazy about clearing off my nightstand. Especially when I love the books so much. I like to just eye the piles and gloat about having such literary bounty close at hand.

What inspires you?


What are you working on now?

My third Madeline Dare novel, working title: Invisible Boy. It’s set in Manhattan and Jamaica, Queens, in the fall of 1990. Based on a true story told to me by my cousin Cate Ludlam years ago -- she got involved in preservation work on the first cemetery in Jamaica, and was leading a group of high-school-kid volunteers clearing brush one day in the late 1980s and discovered the skeleton of a three-year-old boy.

Tell us about your process. (Pen or computer? Morning or nighttime? Every plot point detailed or entirely free-form? Or, really, whatever comes up for you when you think about “process.”)

Computer, definitely. I bought a laptop just before Christmas this year, and get most of my writing done now when I leave the house to write with friends. I purposefully didn’t set up Internet access on the thing, so I can’t cruise blogs and stuff.

I wish I could outline, but I just jump into the story wherever it seems good to start and then I flail around for a year or so in the vain hope that a plot will occur to me somewhere along the way. Most days this feels like I’m stuck performing a Saturday Night Live parody of some hideous Maoist Chinese ballet/opera about tractors.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?

A tiny living room with lots of cotton batting strewn everywhere, as my daughter Lila has been hacking an old wing chair into bits all week (last week she broke the back legs off). Also, a fireplace with a television in it, a decrepit brown leather sofa we bought off craigslist, a rickety dining room table piled with clean laundry I have yet to fold, a large framed print of my uncle Hunt Smith’s watercolor of the first America’s Cup race (“A Close Thing,”) plus a pair of early 19th-century French mirrors, four botanical prints circa same, a painted Bavarian linen press, and an old beat-up cherry kitchen table -- all inherited from “WAREF,” my paternal grandparents’ house in Purchase, New York. Up in the rafters is the sled my sister found in a dump in Medford, Massachusetts, painted “Rosebud” on, and gave me for my 20th birthday.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Actually, I wanted to go into advertising.

I even told that to my junior-year English teacher in boarding school, Mr. Corcoran. He said, “Nicky (as I was called then), you should be a writer.” I said, “Dude, no way. I’m sick to the teeth of being this broke all the time. I want to make some damn money.”

Oh well. On the bright side, I’ve had a tremendous amount of practice at being poor.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?

Mushrooms in Bali.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?

Having Lee Child look across a table at me in a dusty back storage room during my manuscript consultation with him at the Book Passage Mystery Conference and say, “You had me from the second sentence.”

For you, what is the easiest thing about being a writer?

Public speaking. I am honored and chuffed that I get to stand up in front of people just to natter on about whatever comes to mind and try to make them laugh. That’s the most wonderful feeling in the world, to me. I’m blessed that I get to indulge in it.

What’s the most difficult?

Getting my ass in the chair to actually write.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?

From fellow writers: “Can I borrow your family?”

What’s the question you’d most like to be asked?

“May I buy you a great deal of sushi?”

What question would you like never to be asked again?

“Don’t you think all this swearing in your books is proof you have a poor vocabulary?”

(Answer I’d like to give: “Fuck no, you egregiously pusillanimous butthead.”)

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.

I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Highs and Lows of Publishing

It’s interesting for an author to see the extreme ends of the publishing business. On one hand you have tales of million dollar advances, on the other you have an author who might only sell a handful of copies. But remember always, it is a business, and the publishing business is governed by numbers as well as words.

Firstly in the UK Times, Sathnam Sanghera investigates the business of publishing. In so doing he grounds most author’s aspirations of riches:
Most author advances are small. Newspapers like running stories about mammoth book deals, but the numbers are often exaggerations, designed to make agents look like superheroes and debut authors newsworthy and, besides, such authors are in the minority. The brutal reality is that most first-time novelists rarely get more than £12,000 for a two-book deal. Accounts vary, but it is said that JK Rowling got an advance in the region of £2,000 to £10,000 for her first Harry Potter title. Moreover, according to the Society of Authors, the average author earns less than £7,000 a year.

Even large advances don’t go far. Say you hit the jackpot and get a £100,000 deal, it’s still unlikely you’ll be putting in an order for an Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Typically, the sum is spread over a two-book deal, and given in stages -- a chunk when you sign, another portion as you hand in a manuscript, another when a book is published and so on. This could mean you get the money over several years and £25,000 a year isn’t really
comparable to winning the lottery. Especially when 15 per cent will typically go to your agent -- and you’ll be paying tax as well. This is one of the reasons why even very successful authors have other jobs: Philip Larkin was a librarian; Mohsin Hamid, whose brilliant novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is head of consulting at Wolff Olins; and many others are journalists.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to earn out an advance. It’s called “an advance” because it’s a pre-payment of royalties you will earn when the book is sold. But such is the extent of discounting now -- supermarkets can demand up to 6
5 per cent off the cover price -- that it’s getting harder to earn anything above that sum. If a £20 hardback sells for £8, the author’s royalties will also reduce substantially.
Sanghera goes on to depress us further with some startling numbers proving how tough it is to make a primary living from being an author alone:
Most books disappear without a trace. Last month The Times published statistics from Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks book sales nationwide, showing that, of 200,000 books on sale last year, 190,000 titles sold fewer than 3,500 copies. More devastating still, of 85,933 new books, as many as 58,325 sold an average of just 18 copies. And things aren't much better over the pond: I read recently that, of the 1.2million titles sold in the United States in 2004, only 2 per cent sold more than 5,000 copies.
You can read Sanghera’s Times Online piece here.

However, before you hit the delete button on the masterwork sitting on your hard drive, let’s look at the opposite extreme.

I have been writing recently about the work super bestseller James Patterson, following the announcement that Patterson is now the most borrowed author in the British Library system. Because of this accolade, the British Press have been focusing heavily on the work of Patterson, and The Guardian has produced a lengthy and informative article by Oliver Burkeman called “Inside the Fiction Factory.” This lengthy piece is the prefect antidote to Sanghera’s business section piece on the bottom end of the market. It seems that Patterson’s success is due in part to sheer hard work and determination:
He works on them from around 5:30 am, seven days a week, in longhand. Something about him seems at odds with his surroundings: he is a compulsive worker in a playground of the wealthy, gazing at the sparkling Atlantic Ocean as he concocts sordid storylines about dismembered bodies wrapped in bin-liners. On the wall, there is a photo of Bill Clinton disembarking from Air Force One with a copy of When The Wind Blows, a Patterson novel, tucked under his arm.

Patterson’s books are designed to be addictive in an almost physiological way, cycling rapidly between tension and resolution. Sentences are short. Chapters are rarely more than three pages long, and usually end on cliffhangers. His titles are completely unimaginative, but they dangle the promise that the next fix is imminent. His most famous series, featuring the African-American pathologist Alex Cross, are called Jack and Jill, Cat and Mouse, Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, etc; the Women’s Murder Club series, starring the hard-bitten detective Lindsay Boxer, are called 1st To Die, 2nd Chance, 3rd Degree, and so on. (Patterson deals with the challenges of writing in the first person as a black man and a woman mainly by ignoring the matter.) His latest, 7th Heaven, is loaded with crime-fiction cliches: “I stared at the fire-ravaged body of Patty Malone .... Who had committed these brutal murders -- and why?” (But you read all the way to the end, despite yourself.)

Patterson has no pretensions to highbrow literature. “Look, I’m good at parts of this,” he says, in his strong New York accent. “I’m certainly not a world-class stylist. But the storytelling is pretty cool, and the narrative power of the stuff is usually pretty strong.” He writes ceaselessly, he explains, because it doesn’t exhaust him. “These books are entertainments,” he says. “It’s a very different process than if you’re trying to write Moby-Dick, or The Corrections. That’s painful. That’s different from very simple, plot-oriented storytelling. If I was writing serious fiction, I’d want more rest time.”

Patterson is open about using collaborators, though he insists his plot outlines are much more than a rough sketch of an idea. “As one of my agents said: ‘If you gave me this outline, I could write the book.’”
Apart from the sheer hard graft of his craft -- Patterson has an eye on the marketing of his work and holds little pretensions about his writing which has now allowed him to devote his full energies to his authorship:

Patterson finally gave up the day job a decade ago, but the adman’s sensibility remains fundamental to the thriller production system over which he presides. His focus is on building the “James Patterson” brand, and so it makes perfect commercial sense to find a reliable subcontractor for the manufacturing part of the operation -- the writing -- while he concentrates on product design -- the plot outlines -- and on promotion. When his first Alex Cross novel, Along Came A Spider, was published in 1992, Patterson’s publisher declined to fund TV advertisements, so the author produced one himself. (It was one of two Alex Cross books later made into films starring Morgan Freeman.)

Unlike many authors, he relishes the business of marketing. In the UK, Random House has just wooed him away from its rival publisher Headline, and what seems to have impressed Patterson most was that Gail Rebuck, the head of Random House UK, had conducted research showing that only 50 per cent of British thriller readers had heard of him so far: she spoke the language of audience share, in which he is fluent.

You can read The Guardian interview with Patterson here.

Photo credit: James Patterson is given The Thrillermaster Award by Clive Cussler at Thrillerfest 2007 in New York. Photo (c) Ali Karim.


Poetry Idol

Over at The Guardian books blog, novelist, poet and journalist Ben Myers sparks a slightly weird debate with himself about who the “bestselling poet” of all time might be:
Here’s a question for you: who is the world's most widely read poet? Wordsworth? Shakespeare, perhaps? What about some of the old Chinese masters, whose work has been consistently read for nearly two millennia - people like Li Po? Or maybe he or she is the anonymous writer of a simple greeting card verse or limerick that has made its way around the world?

It’s hard to say and near-impossible to quantify. Judging who is the most successful (if, for the sake of argument, success is measured in number of books sold) living poet is slightly easier. If certain sources are to be believed it's not poet laureate Andrew Motion, nor Maya Angelou, Seamus Heaney, Edwin Morgan, Billy Collins or Derek Walcott.

And then he and comes up with a convincing and pretty enthusiastic answer:
It’s someone whom I’d wager the majority of people reading this haven’t heard of, a man who sold millions of books and helped revitalize poetry in the 1960s and 1970s. A man called Rod McKuen.
If I’m showing my rings by sharing my shock that anyone who considers themselves literate and has read widely in the western world does not know the name -- if not the work -- of Rod McKuen, so be it. (Do you think Myers has also not heard of Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg?) However, despite the slight weirdness of Myers’ positing here and the naiveté of some of his conclusions, he ends up creating an affectionate look back at a writer whose contributions to his artform are beyond calculation.

Myers’ Guardian piece is here. Wikipedia offers up a bibliography and discography here. And, best of all, you can visit McKuen himself on the Web, where he takes the opportunity to welcome guests in a way that only he could:
There should be some silence in this place so thought can harvest things it’s lately caught. I hope that you will take this as a resting space. A bench provided just before the clearing up ahead.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Review: Starcross by Philip Reeve

Today, in January Magazine’s children’s book section, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski reviews Starcross by Philip Reeve. Says Bursztynski :

In the novel Larklight, we met Art and Myrtle Mumby, who lived with their parents in the house of the title, orbiting the Earth of a Victorian era in a universe in which Isaac Newton is known, not for the laws of gravity but for his achievements in alchemy….

This sequel is more or less standalone, though it’s better to have read the first book to familiarize yourself with the universe. Some time after the events of Larklight, the Mumby children and their mother are invited to spend some time at Starcross, a seaside resort in the asteroid belt. There is something very strange about Starcross, beginning with the question of how you can have a seaside on an asteroid with no oceans, and a married couple of secret agents have already vanished while checking it out.

The full review is here.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Voting at the Bookstore

Never mind for the moment the battle to be president. The battle to have written the top book by a politician continues. According to The Independent’s John Rentoul, US presidential hopeful Barack Obama is winning:
Both of Obama’s books are surprisingly good. They are not standard-issue American pap of the kind traditionally turned out by politicians seeking high office -- or, more accurately, by their staffs. I’ve read (enough of) John Kerry’s and Hillary’s efforts to be familiar with the genre. To be fair, Al Gore’s contribution from 1992, Earth in the Balance, was a more substantial piece of work -- what was most notable about it was the extent to which it was forgotten by Gore as Vice President.
Rentoul’s engaging Open House piece is here. We previously reported on this matter here.


Guinness World Records Moves to Vancouver

Flamboyant Canadian businessman Jimmy Pattison announced today that he has purchased Guinness World Records from the UK’s HIT Entertainment for “an undisclosed price” according to a story in Report on Business.
Mr. Pattison’s business empire already had a link with Guinness World Records, which first published its annual book of weird and wonderful -- as well as more prosaic achievements in 1955 and has turned it into what it claims is the best-selling copyrighted book ever.
Pattison’s privately held company, The Jim Pattison Group, is the third largest in Canada with sales of over 6.3 billion dollars (CDN) and close to 30,000 employees. In 2006 Pattison himself was listed at # 194 on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people.

The Report on Business story is here. Forbes chimes in here.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Warming Frost

To my way of thinking Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge (Del Rey) is the kind of book that can start genre arguments, and on so many levels!

In the first place, the writing here is beautiful. Beyond beautiful. It’s sublime. And when critics think of fantasy novels, the first thing that jumps into mind is not prose that uplifts. And yet:
The first time Ledora spoke to a god, she had climbed to the top of the bridge tower and she was masked….

The towers – there were three supporting Vijnagar – were like great flat-topped and frieze-covered behemoths looming above the buildings and creatures on the surface that threaded the distance between them.

Frost writes, as I’ve said, beautifully. Lyrically, even. He writes as though he’s going to a place there is no coming back from. It seems to me to be the only place from which fantasy should be approached.

On his Web site, Frost describes the fictional place we encounter in Shadowbridge as “a world of linked spiraling spans of bridges on which all impossibilities can happen. Ghosts parade, inscrutable gods cast riddles, and dangerous magic is unleashed.” And… “Monstrous creatures drain the lives of children and for a price, you can sample their fleeting quintessence -- provided the creatures don’t sample you instead.” And, truly, aside from the whole fleeting quintessence thing, that works for me, as well.

Frost, who is also the author of the virtuous and awarded collection Attack of the Jazz Giants, has been a finalist for pretty much every award offered in his field of interest. In Shadowbridge, he proves himself to be a powerful writer here at the top of his game. If you love the sort of vibrant fantasy that relies as much on the skill of its creator as the complexity of his imagination, you will love Shadowbridge.

If you read and like Frost’s latest, there’s good news: while Shadowbridge: Book One was published just last month, you don’t have long to wait for the second book in the “duology.” It will be in stores this coming June.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Diary of a Politically Observant Girl

Over on The Guardian’s Comment is Free, bestselling novelist and occasional January contributor Tracy Quan (Diary of A Manhattan Call Girl) shares her observations on the issues that came up when MSNBC’s David Shuster “had the cheek to suggest on air that Chelsea Clinton was being ‘pimped out’”:
... he was probably trying to sound au courant. “Pimp” is so overused and de-sexed (by everyone from Virgin Atlantic to Entertainment Weekly) that people may forget what it once meant. Hillary Clinton, apparently, has not. Her outrage was predictable, given that prostitutes and pimps are viewed (even by blue state liberals) as stereotypes -- not as people, but as pariahs.

But Hillary’s reaction strikes me as precious. When will Chelsea be old enough to deal with the ironies and insults associated with her mother’s career?
As usual, Quan manages to touch on issues of politics and human rights with great élan, making us look forward even more to the publication of her new novel, Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, coming from HarperCollins UK in June.

Quan’s Guardian posting is here.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Review: At the City’s Edge by Marcus Sakey

Today, in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor David Thayer reviews At the City’s Edge by Marcus Sakey. Says Thayer:
Chicago is the City of the Big Shoulders, the City That Works, America’s Second City, and home to the Cubs, the Chisox and a raft of crime writers who grew up reading Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, and listening to broadcaster Harry Caray sing during the seventh-inning stretch. Chicago is a state of mind.

At the City’s Edge is Marcus Sakey’s second novel, after last year’s The Blade Itself. In it, he set out to re-create the magic of his debut work, but with mixed results.
The full review is here.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Zadie Smith Bites the Hand

The Telegraph reports that author Zadie Smith has been going around saying a lot of nasty things about literary prizes.
Zadie Smith, the award-winning author, has launched a blistering attack on literary prizes.

The writer, who has received awards for her novels White Teeth and On Beauty, said that most literary prizes were “only nominally” about literature.

“They are really about brand consolidation for beer companies, phone companies, coffee companies and even frozen food companies,” she said on the website of the Willesden Herald, a forum of the arts.
Oh, ouch. The full piece is here.

Second Edition of Popular Parenting Book Announced

Back in 2000, we reviewed and liked How to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children by Dr. Gerald Newmark.

How to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children feels like the culmination of a lifetime’s work and learning,” we said at the time. “A slender volume that nonetheless manages to get straight to the heart of the matter.”

A quarter of a million copies and nine years later, Newmark announces a second edition of his bestselling book “with an expanded vision of how parents can satisfy children’s emotional needs, and educators can create ... environments that significantly impact a child’s academic and social development.”

Newmark seems just as passionate about his mission as he was when the first edition was published. A parent, educator, researcher and consultant who works with parents, schools and youth, Newmark says he “wrote this book to raise public consciousness about the neglect of our children’s emotional needs, what I call the nation’s ‘missing agenda’.” According to Newmark, these things are usually addressed only in crisis, while he feels they should be addressed daily in all interactions with children.


The Bat Comes Back. Again.

Ed Champion and Bat Segundo have released another quartet of interviews in podcast form on the Bat Segundo show. Here’s the 411:
These shows include a conversation with Charles Burns, the man behind Black Hole, a discussion with writer-director Eran Kolirin about his film The Band’s Visit in which Kolirin discusses the importance of static shots, a talk about topographical narrative with Ellington Boulevard author Adam Langer. We also learn why Charles Bock took eleven years to write his novel, Beautiful Children.
And since Champion seems forever to be pointing out that ownership -- or even stewardship -- of an iPod is not required to enjoy the interviews, it seems worth mentioning it here, as well. “If you go to the main Segundo site,” says Champion, “you can save the MP3 to your lovely machine by clicking on the bat picture or, if you’re the kind of person who prefers swinging a bat over clicking on one, we do have a user-friendly interface with many listening and streaming options below the capsules.”

So there you go. The Bat Segundo Show can be found here and you can click, swing or bat, as required or desired.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Phyllis A. Whitney Dead at 104

Phyllis Ayame Whitney, who The New York Times once called the Queen of the American Gothics, died yesterday, “peacefully, after a brief illness.” She was 104.

Born to American parents in Yokohama, Japan, on September 9, 1903, she spent her youth in the Orient.

Whitney’s first book, a young adult novel called A Place for Ann, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1941. Once she’d achieved novel-length publication, there was no stopping Whitney and, by 1960, she was the author of 25 books. In fact, between 1941 and 1994, Whitney wrote and published a book each year, often doubling that pace in the early years. Her most recent novel, Amethyst Dreams, was published in 1997 when Whitney was 94.

In 1961, Whitney’s 26th novel, a young adult book called Mystery of the Haunted Pool, won the Edgar Award for best children’s mystery. Three years later, another young adult book, Mystery of the Hidden Hand, also won an Edgar. In 1988, the Mystery Writers of America accorded Whitney their highest honor: the Grand Master Award, which celebrates a lifetime of achievement.

The author was published in over 30 countries and more than 50 million copies of her books are currently in print.

The New York Times obituary is quite lovely, and it’s here.


Review: Pool by Justin D’Ath

Today, in January Magazine’s children’s book section, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski reviews Pool by Justin D’Ath. Bursztynski sets Pool up in this way:
New Lourdes in Victoria, Australia, has been a site for pilgrimage for the last several years since a healing miracle happened at the local swimming pool -- which has also, miraculously, started sloping and become known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. In fact, things have gone well enough to change the town’s name to New Lourdes, from its original name of Loddon Springs. The tourist industry is going very nicely, thank you, and the pool is selling a range of religious goods to the pilgrims.
The full review is here.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Rumors of My Death…

Buckle up for the 100th anniversary of the death of Mark Twain... in 2010.

Even though it’s still a few years away, the National Book Foundation and the Mark Twain House and Foundation are gearing up for a whole year of celebration and contemplation of the author’s work and life in the year that commemorates “the centennial of his death and the 175th anniversary of his birth.”
Often considered the father of modern American literature, Twain was the first to make extensive use of the vernacular. He explored a wide variety of themes intrinsic to American life, including racism, social pretension, literary pretension, independence, humor, and societal and religious subversion. Each of these themes runs through Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the novel which marks the highpoint of his literary career. To quote Ernest Hemingway on the book: “All American literature comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

As Mark Twain’s body of work, unmatched in its breadth, originality, and comprehension, continues to be widely read throughout the country, it retains its place among the shared experiences that define what it means to be American.
You can read more about the anniversary here.

Meanwhile, if you’re itching to celebrate before then, author David Baldacci (Absolute Power, The Whole Truth) will be the guest speaker at the Mark Twain House and Museum’s winter fundraiser on Monday, March 3. The lecture will be held at 6 p.m. The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. “A book signing and cocktail reception with Mr. Baldacci will follow in the great hall of the museum center.” Event tickets are $100 and $150 and “proceeds from the winter fundraiser help to fund the Mark Twain House education initiatives.”

Birthday for The Entertainer

Author John Grisham, who turns 53 today, would likely be the first to say he isn’t writing for legacy. And it’s quite possible the literary criticism heaped on his mega-selling work doesn’t bother him that much, nor make a dent in his paychecks (reportedly $9 million last year alone). In a recent interview with AP, he says he’s more concerned with the entertainment value of his work than with his own place in history:
“I’m not sure where that line goes between literature and popular fiction,” the mega-selling author says. “I can assure you I don’t take myself serious enough to think I'm writing literary fiction and stuff that’s going to be remembered in 50 years. I’m not going to be here in 50 years; I don’t care if I’m remembered or not. It’s pure entertainment.”
In the same piece, Grisham admits to being an avid -- though erratic -- reader as well as a collector of books and he loves “to buy books. Love to stack ‘em up in the house. We’ve got a million books in the house.”

And though he doesn’t have to work as hard at it now, he loves to make books, too. Grisham says that, early in his second career as a writer, while still lawyering full time, he was very disciplined with regard to his fiction.
When he first started writing, Grisham says, he had “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important.”

“The alarm clock would go off at 5, and I’d jump in the shower. My office was 5 minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, at my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5:30, five days a week.”

His goal: to write a page every day. Sometimes that would take 10 minutes, sometimes an hour; ofttimes he would write for two hours before he had to turn to his job as a lawyer, which he never especially enjoyed. In the Mississippi Legislature, there were “enormous amounts of wasted time” that would give him the opportunity to write.

“So I was very disciplined about it,” he says, then quickly concedes he doesn’t have such discipline now: “I don’t have to.”

Even so, the books keep coming. The Appeal (Doubleday), Grisham’s 22nd book and 21st novel, went on sale at the end of January.

The AP piece runs in the International Herald Tribune today and it’s here.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Review: Expletive Deleted edited by Jen Jordan

Today, in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Jim Winter reviews Expletive Deleted edited by Jen Jordan. Says Winter:
I won’t say that other word. You know the one. The queen mother of all swear words. The most versatile, yet most feared, word in the entire English language. Of all the seven words on George Carlin’s list, all but two have been said on television without reproach. Of that remaining pair, one is a variant of this one word, a word only once said on television without repercussions.

Oh, people try to get around it. The say “freaking” or “friggin’” or “fudge.”
Battlestar Galactica flaunts the taboo, however, using the aforementioned “frack” as forcefully as this forbidden word, and with just as many variations. It’s as though that series’ writers are telling the Federal Communications Commission and the prudes of society to…


Well, to frack off, to put it not so mildly.
The full review is here.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Cuban Book Festival Set to Rock Havana

According to Havana’s Granma International:
“To know how to read is to know how to walk. To know how to write is to know how to climb,” a maxim of the Cuban national hero, José Martí.
This is especially salient as the 17th Grand Book Festival gets set to run February 13th to 24th in Havana.
According to Mirtha González Gutiérrez, president of the Cuban Book Congress, the Havana book fair “offers a space for participation by and interchange between all the entities linked to the world of publishing -- authors, publishers, distributors, booksellers, printers, literary agents, multimedia producers, journalists and other professionals -- making it the best place to meet Cuban readers.”

The annual literary event has become one of the most important cultural draws on the island country’s calendar:
The 2007 fair was visited by more than 5,288,000 people who purchased approximately 5,193,000 copies of books across the island.

Given the preeminence of books and the broad participation, the fair has become the country’s premier cultural event. This year, the Cuban Book Institute has announced that more than 8.5 million copies and more than a thousand new titles will be distributed.
The whole piece is interesting, and it’s here.


Speaking of Cuba…

Talking about Havana puts us in mind of a book that really takes a special moment to warrant its discussion. After all, it’s not everyone who’s going to care about Fidel Castro Reader (Ocean Press, edited by David Deutschmann and Deborah Shnookal), but if you’re one of those, you’ll care very much. It truly is an essential resource for those who like to fancy they know a lot about Cuba’s charismatic dictator and the world he created, or would like to.

On the very first page of Fidel Castro Reader, a Che Guevara quote from 1965 sums up the place in history where this book fits:
Fidel has his own special way of fusing himself with the people, [which] can be appreciated only by seeing him in action.
Action in this context includes over five decades of Castro’s speeches, beginning with “History Will Absolve Me” given in Santiago de Cuba in 1953 and concluding with “In Answer to the Empire: Letters to President George W. Bush” from 2004.

A photographic section adds texture and some context but, make no mistake: Fidel Castro’s own words take center stage here.

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Review: Good Food Tastes Good by Carol Hart

Today, in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews Good Food Tastes Good by Carol Hart. Says Leach:
Where the self-help market was once awash in love books -- how to fall in, how to fall out, how to survive or thrive, we are now deluged with treatises dwelling on another unavoidable human pastime: eating. The average reader cannot walk into a bookshop, open a paper, or log online without falling over the latest gastronomic advice. Eat organic. Eat local. Eat low-fat. No butter! Margarine is poisonous! Eat carbs. Avoid carbs. No sugar! No red meat! Eat more leafy greens, except the bagged ones contaminated by e.coli. Eat more fish, but memorize your Monterey Bay Aquarium do’s and don’ts card, lest you buy fish nearing extinction, high in mercury, or otherwise toxic.

No question about it: food is a fraught issue.

Science writer Carol Hart enters the fray with Good Food Tastes Good. She contends that Americans are conditioned to ignore fresh, tasty foods in favor of boxed, canned, ultraprocessed products manufactured by a handful of megacorporations. The evil media has drilled into us that fresh foods like spinach or peas are just plain yucky, that the fresh ham from your local farmer is bad for you (ham fat!), that life is better if you never cook at all. Off you go to Food Mart, where, ever gullible, you buy wilted, sprayed produce shipped from Chile or February’s pallid greenhouse tomatoes.
The full review is here.

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