Friday, May 29, 2009

Crime Fiction: Back to the Coast by Saskia Noort

Life is rough for Maria Vos, a Dutch soul singer from Amsterdam, in Saskia Noort’s Back to the Coast (Bitter Lemon Press). Realizing that her boyfriend Geert is exactly the kind of irresponsible man she doesn’t want fathering her children, she aborts their second child together. The ensuing argument leads them to break up. A rough patch in this young woman’s life? That’s all it seems, until someone begins sending Maria threatening letters in the mail, condemning her decision to have an abortion.

Geert is the obvious suspect, at least as far as everybody but Maria is concerned. She doesn’t believe he would ever threaten her like that, not given what it would mean to their son Wolf, or to Merel, the daughter Maria already had when they became a couple. Maria thinks the person responsible might instead be Merel’s father, Steve, a vain and irresponsible man who has suddenly reappeared in their lives, apparently tired of residing abroad in America. The threats escalate, with Maria receiving a dead rat after a band gig. So Maria flees to The Netherlands’ coast and her childhood home there, now kept by her sister, Ans. Instead of finding it a safe haven, however, Maria finds herself driven literally insane the longer she stays on the coast, to the point where she no longer trusts her sister.

Back to the Coast, the second Bitter Lemon Press book by Dutch author and journalist Noort (following 2007’s The Dinner Club), is noir in the classic sense, harking back to the famous 1944 film Gaslight. But whereas that movie’s audience knows that Charles Boyer is “gaslighting” Ingrid Bergman, we have no idea who is trying to destroy Maria and take her children away from her. The stalker, who follows Maria to the seashore, is clearly filled with a rage for which the police cannot seem to find justification. If anything, the cops think Maria is slowly losing it. Why shouldn’t she? Her mother was certified psychotic and took her own life. There is no shortage of suspects here, either. Geert is everyone’s favorite, of course, though Maria dismisses his culpability out of hand. She favors Merel’s father, but once at the coast, she also learns that Ans’ husband, Martin, has disappeared. Or has he?

Noort writes her story in first-person from Maria’s point of view, allowing her to immerse the reader in her protagonist’s growing confusion and fear. It also allows Noort to tell snatches of the story through Wolf and Merel’s eyes, mostly through their reactions to Maria’s increasing blackouts. It’s a tricky line to walk for a writer. Noort carefully leaves enough semblance of a story for readers to follow, while the world around Maria makes less and less sense. It’s almost like reading James M. Cain through singer Syd Barrett’s eyes.

Back to the Coast is two parts noir, one part horror fiction, and very well done indeed.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tiny Kindle Contender: Cute But Lightweight?

After over a decade of thrashing about, Amazon’s Kindle device -- with a push from Oprah -- has established the electronic book industry in a way that feels unassailable. That is, after years and years and years of everybody talkin’ ’bout it, electronic books aren’t just coming anymore, they’re here. That being the case, electronic makers and marketers are jumping on board in a gratifying way with ever more manufacturers introducing the coolest new contender.

The winner of this week’s Kindle Killer Contest looks to go to iPod Nano-like Cool-er, from Interead. The Cool-er is small and -- as the name implies -- very cool-looking, and the machine is a lot cheaper than Amazon’s offering. USA Today compares the potentially Cool-er Kindle:
The Cool-er beats the Kindle on style, at least on the surface. It comes in eight colors: hot pink, racing green and the ruby model I tested, among them. The fact that these bring to mind colorful iPod Nanos is no accident. Cool-er creator Neil Jones says his goal was to create an "iPod moment" for e-books.

At just over 6 ounces, Cool-er is about 40% lighter than Kindle 2. Its 6-inch display is the same size as the Kindle 2. It has 1 gigabyte of memory for storing hundreds of books, half the memory of Kindle 2. But it comes with a slot for an SD memory card to bolster storage, which Kindle doesn't have.
But while USA Today’s Edward C. Baig found a lot to like, he points out several shortcomings, including such important things as navigation and title cost and availability. You can see his assessment here.


Obamas Will Preside Over National Book Festival

The First Couple will be honorary chairs of the National Book Festival, to be held in Washington, D.C., at the National Mall on Saturday, September 26th.

Sponsored by the Library of Congress, this will be the event’s ninth year celebrating “the joys of reading and lifelong literacy,” according to an event press release.

“We are delighted that the President and Mrs. Obama are committed to bringing this inspirational event to people of all ages nationwide,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “The National Book Festival has become a true American institution. It is a joyous and very popular celebration of books and reading in the Washington, D.C., area.”

About 70 authors, poets and illustrators representing all branches of literature will be housed in themed pavilions throughout the site. Visitors to the festival will be able to meet authors, get books signed and take part in a large number of reading and library promotional activities. As well, the Library of Congress Pavilion will showcase “cultural treasures” and offer information about library programs.

Held on the National Mall between 7th and 14th streets, the annual event is open to the public and free of charge. It sounds like a terrific day.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

John Sayles Looking Forward to Some Time in the Sun

Like a lot of publishing-related stories this week, the dek of a Los Angeles Times piece on John Sayles’ inability to sell his latest novel seems intended to cast gloom on an economy embittered industry.

“The writer-filmmaker is shopping a sprawling work of historical fiction,” writes John Getlin, “but no big publishers are buying. Such is the cautious state of publishing today.”

It seems to me that this is the kind of reporting that has a whole generation irritated with news gatherers. While the piece is well-written and there is input from numerous sources, it seems to have an agenda. Book Expo gets underway in New York in a few days. As a result, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a story about all the doom and gloom in publishing, though most of those stories only use the numbers that back up their claims, ignoring the ones that show that, not only are portions of the publishing industry surprisingly robust but, in certain sectors, we begin to see that reading is having something of a Renaissance.

But back to John Sayles wandering about with his magnum opus tucked under his arm:
“I’ve been done with it for six or seven months, and it’s out to five or six publishers,” he said quietly. “But we haven’t had any bites yet.”

John Sayles, Oscar-nominated creator of “Return of the Secaucus 7,” “Lone Star,” “Matewan” and other movies, is having trouble getting a book deal.

The situation is almost entirely traceable to the publishing industry's economic woes, and it’s raising eyebrows, because Sayles was an accomplished fiction writer long before he made his first film. Weighing in at a whopping 1,000 typed pages, “Some Time in the Sun” is his first novel since 1990’s “Los Gusanos.”
Later in the piece, though, we’re told that when it comes to books, Sayles’ sales have never been that great. “Sales records matter more than ever, and some publishers are reluctant to take chances on writers such as Sayles, 58, whose previous books got rave reviews but were never bestsellers.”

The book is 1000 manuscript pages -- which would put it around 250,000 words: a toe breaker by anyone’s calculations. Not to mention expensive to produce: all those page. The author is well known, but his books are esoteric. And, clearly, the reading public that gobbles up the latest Dan Brown novel doesn’t want to be bothered with a lot of stuff like thinking. And, to make matters worse, the book is historical fiction of the most meaningful kind. That means that, when published, Some Time in the Sun might be an important book, it might even be a brilliantly reviewed book, but it probably won’t be a bestseller. (Historical fiction is never a bestseller, unless it is, then everyone forgets that rule. For a while.)

Now here’s the thing: publishing is made out of Cinderella stories. Listen to the bestseller back stories and you’ll hear it: tale after tale just like this. Only concluding with a happy ending: finally a book deal followed by a film deal followed by tears at the awards ceremonies. I’m thinking that’s where this is going, ultimately. Of course someone will publish Sayles’ book. Of course it will be fantastic and so be well-reviewed. And the rest, well, we’ll have to see. The point is, I’m not as confident as Getlin and some of his sources that this book would have found a home a year or more ago and that this is a more “jittery moment” in publishing history than any of those that have gone before.

Some Time in the Sun,” writes Getlin “...blends vivid human portraits with historical events and brilliantly captures individual voices.... it spotlights African American and white soldiers fighting in the Philippines, fast-buck artists who help create the motion picture industry, and features cameos by Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, William Randolph Hearst, Damon Runyon and other historical figures.”

It sounds amazing. I’m looking forward to the news still to come on this book. The small press that buys and lovingly publishes it, the throngs that read it and rave and tell their friends. I’m looking forward to seeing Cinderella ride again.


Alice Munro Takes International Man Booker Home to Canada

Celebrated Canadian author Alice Munro has won the third Man Booker International Prize. One of the richest and most prestigious international literary awards, Munro will take home £60,000.

The award is made every two years “to a living author for a body of work that has contributed to an achievement in fiction on the world stage,” according to the Man Booker organization. It’s been awareded twice before: to Ismail Kadaré of Albania in 2005 and to Chinua Achebe of Nigeria in 2007.

The Globe and Mail reports with pride:
“I am very pleased -- and absolutely amazed and thrilled,” Ms. Munro, 77, said last night in a statement delivered by her long-time editor and publisher Douglas Gibson. “To be among such candidates for the prize was a great honour in itself. It’s especially great at my time of life to have this recognition of a lifetime's work.”

Ms. Munro, who lives in Clinton, Ont., and Comox, B.C., was chosen from a field of 14 writers, including Peter Carey, E.L. Doctorow, Mario Vargas Llosa, V.S. Naipaul and Joyce Carol Oates. The £60,000 (just over $100,000) prize, awarded biannually, is a spin-off of the Man Booker Prize, the well-known annual award given to a writer within the British Commonwealth.
The Globe’s reportage is well worth reading and summerizes Munro’s award-studded career and even offers up an abbreviated fan list:
Ms. Munro has scores of admirers among contemporary writers, including Cynthia Ozick, who called her “our Chekhov,” and Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), who wrote in the New York Times that, she “has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America.”
The Globe piece is here. The Man Booker International Prize Web site is here.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Happy Birthday to the Original Batman

Today is the anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. At The Rap Sheet, J. Kingston Pierce does a typically stylish job of remembering:
It was on this date, back in 1897, that the horror novel Dracula first saw publication. It was written, of course, by Bram Stoker, the business manager at London’s famed Lyceum Theatre and the personal assistant to actor Henry Irving, who apparently served as the model for Stoker’s nocturnal Transylvanian count. In that epistolary novel, explains The Writer’s Almanac, Stoker “added several chilling details to the age-old vampire tale: that the undead show no reflection in a mirror, that they shun garlic, and that they can be killed only by a stake through the heart.”

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Review: A Thousand Deaths Plus One by Sergio Ramirez

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Pedro Blas Gonzalez reviews A Thousand Deaths Plus One by Sergio Ramirez. Says our reviewer:
Reminiscent of Borges in its maze-like complexity of shadowy figures and surreal situations, A Thousand Deaths Plus One is as unpredictable a work as it is intricate in construction. Sergio Ramirez’s novel is essentially a work of intrigue. In 1987 the author found himself in Warsaw on a state visit. Ramirez was vice-president of Nicaragua from 1984-1990. This visit to Europe serves as the fuel that feeds the plot of the novel.

While in Poland’s capital, Ramirez, who doubles as the narrator, discovers the work of a compatriot photographer named Juan Castellon. Castellon, he is pleased to discover, had worked in Europe from 1880 to 1940. The author becomes curious as to the identity of this Nicaraguan photographer and the circumstances that brought him to Europe. The action of the novel begins with this otherwise inconspicuous revelation. The animated plot sequences and narration oscillate between Ramirez’s description of the world around him, his psychological desire to understand Castellon and Nicaraguan history, and Castellon’s own part in telling his side of the story.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Streisand’s Ex-Beau Hand Slapped Over Proposed Tell-All

“Whatever happened to Jon Peters?”


“Jon Peters?”

“The Star 80 guy?”

“Naw. Not that guy. Maybe the guy who was boffin’ Streisand in the early 80s.”

“Oh, that guy. Maybe he’s dead?”

That might have been the conversation before last Friday when a shitstorm broke lose over the possible publication of a Jon Peters (“Jon who?”) tell-all that had the knickers of a lot of era stars in a twist last Friday. From The Wrap:
The Hollywood rumor mill was ablaze on Friday over the leaked proposal; speculation mounted that News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch, the parent company of Harper Collins, decided to pull out of the deal as too troublesome.
But The Wrap also seems fairly certain that the whole thing was a bit of a ploy by the coy:
But at least one prominent insider was convinced the entire incident was an exercise in attention-grabbing by Peters. "It's arranged hype," said this insider. "I don't think there's been any lawsuit at all."

Peters is already a somewhat notorious figure in Hollywood, a former hairdresser who rose through ambition and drive to cut a swath through the industry in the 1980s. Along with his former partner Peter Guber, he led Columbia- Sony Pictures and legendarily spent a fortune there before losing his job.
I remember Peters. Sorta. A lotta pretty hair in the shadow of Streisand. And while I sorta remember -- again, sorta -- I have trouble imagining exactly who would be rushing to buy that book. And, honestly, if you’ve been thinking about it, think again. There are a lot of terrific -- and even important -- books published every year. You’d likely feel more enriched by almost any of them than you would from the kind of trumped up tripe on offer here. Check it out:
In the noted Hollywood tradition of bridge-burning, the proposal included numerous outrageous stories and anecdotes, most of them depicting Peters as a street-smart macho man bedding his way across a sea of Hollywood goddesses, while bitch-slapping the town’s most feared figures, including Barry Diller and Ray Stark.

In one such story, two girlfriends called Peter from Washington to whisper: “I just f---ed the President.”

In another, he offers up stories about his former girlfriend Barbra Streisand – “he saw her becoming even hotter under his Pygmalion skills - and how producer Ray Stark had molested her during an audition.”
OK: that’s just stupid. Anyone who knows anything knows that Streisand was way hot before Peters ever dialed her number. Let’s just do the math: Streisand, who won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1963, the same year Peters was allegedly 19.

Here’s the thing: every year thousands of books are published everywhere that are better/more intelligent/more meaningful than what we’re talking about here. This is just goofy. Please: be good and sensible people. Go and buy one of those better books.


Happy Birthday, Baby!

It was three years ago last week that we sent The Rap Sheet out onto the blogosphere on its own steam. And, wow: baby done good! As Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce noted on Friday:

It was in May 2006 that we took a chance and cut The Rap Sheet loose from its great mothership, January Magazine. We’ve been trying to fly on our own ever since, with varying degrees of success. It’s amazing to me, that not only have we racked up more than 2,800 posts on this page, but The Rap Sheet has exceeded 500,000 page views. Neither of those things seemed possible three springs ago.
The Rap Sheet started as a crime fiction-focused column here on January Magazine back in early 1999. (Which, when I think about it, actually makes this The Rap Sheet’s 10th anniversary!)

From the beginning, The Rap Sheet was fueled largely by Pierce’s knowledge and passion and while I happily lap up the occasional Rap Sheet kudo and while I do on occasion contribute to The Rap Sheet, there’s really never been any confusion about whose energy has created that amazing and tightly focused publication.

In a relatively short time, The Rap Sheet has covered a lot of ground and racked up an impressive list of accomplishments:
Over the last twelvemonth, The Rap Sheet has introduced or significantly expanded several signature features, including our series about the “25 Best TV Crime Drama Openers,” our rundown of unjustly forgotten “Books You Have to Read,” our authors’ essays on how and why they wrote their latest novels (“The Story Behind the Story”), and our seemingly never-ending exposure of copycat book covers. We’ve welcomed a number of guest bloggers into the fold, among them Gary Phillips, Patrick Lennon, Declan Burke, and Jason Starr, all of whom have since become irregular contributors. We have put together interviews with Reed Farrel Coleman, Chelsea Cain, Max Allan Collins, Craig McDonald, Martin Edwards, Giancarlo De Cataldo, Ace Atkins, Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen, Andrew Taylor, Jeremy Duns, and so many others. We’ve begun holding contests to win free copies of new crime novels, and even hosted a competition whereby readers could win three free passes to CrimeFest, held earlier this month in Bristol, England. And not long ago, I debuted a companion blog, Killer Covers, that focuses on classic book jacket art.
Obviously, if you love crime fiction and you’ve not been making The Rap Sheet a regular stop, you’re clearly missing out.

Congratulations Pierce and team on three richly entertaining years!

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Death of the Book: Again with the Falling Sky?

Maybe the people most tightly wound into the book industry are not the most objective when it comes to pronouncing on the health of the book in our culture. That is, they can tell us how they see things now, but they have sunk too far into the “business” end to separate out the “book.”

That’s what I was thinking as I read Elizabeth Sifton’s carefully thought out article in the June 2009 edition of The Nation. Sifton, senior vice-president of Farrar, Strauss, Giroux offers up a deeply considered piece on where she feels the market is now. Unfortunately -- and like so many others -- there are just so many trees in the way: it’s difficult to see the forest. At all.
Do books still have their power? Over the past twenty years, as we’ve thrown ourselves eagerly into a joy ride on the Information Superhighway, we've been learning to read, and been reading, differently; and books aren't necessarily where we start or end our education. The unprofitable chaos of the book business today indicates, among other things, that slow, almost invisible transformations as well as rapid helter-skelter ones have wrecked old reading habits (bad and good) and created new ones (ditto). In the cacophony of modern American commerce, we hear incoherent squeals of dying life-forms along with the triumphant braying and twittering of new human expression.
But, as Sifton herself points out, the industry has been predicting the death of the book for... well, almost forever. And still the book hangs on. Why? So many reasons, really. Portability, ease of use, a classic and proven design. And anyone who wonders if the generations just now heading to reading age will care about reading or will be swept away in a sea of Tweets and Facebook status updates need only utter a short mantra: Rowling, Meyer, Gaiman. Kids are reading. Of course they’re reading. Kids love their books. Treat them right, and those same kids will be reading when they themselves have kids. And why? Because books are good. Reading rocks. And you can reinvent the wheel or build a better mousetrap but nothing will ever duplicate the direct-to-unconscious hit of reading a good book.

Sifton again:
What now? Publishers are battening down, and chain stores are struggling, having staked so much on nationally merchandised dreck, having committed themselves to imitating the look of the big indies but never quite matching their tighter local focus and skill in “hand selling” genuine books to readers. Anyway, the entire world of American retail business is veering toward obsolescence. Must books now find their way in cyberspace?
Yes, yes: point taken. The way books find consumers is changing, at least in part. The way they are published and marketed is changing. Elements of the business of books will change. But the book itself? The book will survive: of course it will.

Of course it will.


International Book Fair Offers Bright Spot During Bleak Times

The 54th International Book Fair got underway today in Warsaw, with 500 exhibitors and thousands of visitors taking part in what is said to be Europe’s second largest show of its kind.

The fair takes place at Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science until May 24th. Nearly all of Poland’s publishing houses as well as representatives from over 30 countries were on hand when the fair opened today on a wave of optimism.

“The crisis did not influence our fair,” spokesperson Roman Czejarek told Polskie Radio. “It seems that it will be a big celebration with a great deal of drive, a rich offer of accompanying events, crowds of visitors and an impressive number of book premieres.”

The Polskie Radio piece is here. China View offers a brief look here.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

New in Paperback: Beginner’s Greek by James Collins

First in late 2007 when James Collins’ debut came out in hardcover and now that Beginner’s Greek (Back Bay Books) makes its way to my desk again in paper, I can’t help wondering: what’s with all the fuss?

Sure, the writing is somewhat sharp and the premise is slightly original but, for me, Collins’ contemporary comedy of manners never moves beyond the quirky. And quirky is fine -- even fun -- for a little while. But for a whole book? It just can’t help but get old. And it does.

Here’s the set up: 27-year-old Peter Russell falls in love with seatmate Holly Edwards on a flight between New York and L.A. But fate twists, and Peter loses Holly’s phone number. They get on with their lives, fall in love with other people, enjoy the usual ups and downs. Eventually they reconnect in order for us to come to a happy-ish ending.

Clearly, this is the stuff of which romantic comedies are made. Personally, I could never get past the vaguely 19th century echoes of Collins’ prose. You might not have that problem. When the book first came out, The New York Times’ James Kaplan called Beginner’s Greek “a great big sunny lemon chiffon pie of a novel.” Kaplan clearly likes lemon chiffon pie better than I do: it’s actually a very positive review.

If you, also, like lemon chiffon pie books and a plot that will remind you of one of the classic 1990s-style romantic comedies, then this one may well be for you.

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Children’s Books: Auslander by Paul Dowswell

Peter had been living in Poland with his mostly-German parents before World War II, on a farm his mother had inherited from her Polish relatives. When the parents are killed, Peter goes to an orphanage, but not for long. A few weeks later, he is taken to Berlin, where he is adopted by a well-off family, the Kaltenbachs. At first, he enjoys his new lifestyle. The Kaltenbachs are kind to him and everyone admires his blonde, blue-eyed Aryan features.

But Professor Kaltenbach is involved in so-called racial science research, benefiting from experimentation on prisoners, and the eldest daughter, Elsbeth, has a dark secret of her own.

When Peter meets Anna, daughter of parents who are not enthusiastic Nazis and secretly help Jews, he has the chance to assist his new girlfriend and her family in their acts of rebellion. But there will be a terrible price to be paid if they are caught. And meanwhile, the war goes on around them.

Auslander (Bloomsbury) is a well-written novel that has interesting characters -- some based on real people -- and shows what it might have been like to live in wartime Germany, where children denounced parents, schoolmates spied on schoolmates and a word said to the wrong person could get you executed. Even Christmas carols had been altered to include Hitler, while there were swastikas on Christmas trees and dolls’ house wallpaper. The author’s notes at the end assure the reader that even the more bizarre elements of the story are true. There is also adventure near the end, as Peter and his friends flee the Gestapo.

Auslander should appeal to young adults who are interested in Holocaust-era fiction. Recommended.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kindle Killers Coming

Amazon’s Kindle might have led the pack to a standard platform for the reading of electronic books, but it is unlikely to keep its #1 position for long. For one thing, a lot of people really dislike the company that brings the Kindle and would do just about anything to avoid supporting it. For another, successfully launching a technology always inspires other companies to get on that boat.

Today the technology magazine Slippery Brick takes a quick look at all of the potential Kindle killers, including the brand new Cybook Opus, due out in June.

According to Slippery Brick, the Cybook Opus goes beyond the Kindle’s standard of usability, in part because it’s pocket-sized and has built-in PDF support:
Software features would let users pick one of 12 font sizes for readability as well as let owners organize e-books by folders. Battery life will give you about 8,000 page flips, which is quite a few novels (Or one Robert Jordan Wheel Of Time novel). No 3G wireless feature, but you’ll get 21 days at standby.
We say: Bring it!


Monday, May 18, 2009

Endpoint by John Updike

There is something heartbreaking about Endpoint and Other Poems (Knopf), the last John Updike book that will ever be published under the guidance of the author’s own hand. It seems to me he likely understood that the book would be heartbreaking and that, perhaps, he even wanted that. Even if that is the case, that doesn’t decrease the power of this, his final gift to us.

Updike wrote the poems collected here in the last seven years of his life, then put the book together in the weeks before his death earlier this year.

The book begins with the title work, “Endpoint,” which is actually a series of connected poems he wrote on various birthdays. It concludes with the author dealing with his own end as it became apparent that the disease he struggled with would take him.
Mild winter, then a birthday burst of snow.
A faint neuralgia, flitting tooth-root to
Knee and shoulder-joint, a vacant head,
Too many friendly wishes to parry,
Too many cakes. Oh, let the years alone!
They pile up if we manage not to die,
Glass dollars in the bank, dry pages on
The shelf. The boy I was no longer smiles
Interestingly, John Updike’s first book, The Carpentered Hen, published in 1958, was a collection of poetry. How fitting, then, that a book of poetry should also be his last.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Toni Morrison Novel Banned in Michigan High School

I loathe stories like this: stories where a ridiculous controversy leads to the closing of a door. From The Muskegon Chronicle:
A high school English teacher in Shelby has been ordered to remove a book by a Pulitzer- and Nobel-award-winning author from her curriculum after members of the community objected to its profanity, sexual references and violence.

“Song of Solomon,” a book by Toni Morrison about an African-American man living in Michigan, was ordered removed from a list of books students could choose to read in Jane Glerum’s advanced placement English class.

School staff and students say that other books may also be censored after a group of community members began complaining about their content. Those books include “The Color Purple,” a book by Alice Walker about an African-American woman abused and raped by her father and husband, and “Johnny Got his Gun” an anti-war book about a severely wounded soldier by Dalton Trumbo.
There’s more to this story, and I encourage you to read it, if only to fan the smoke around your ears. What are these people thinking? Or are they thinking at all? And how is ignorance preferable to the rich conversation that can result when intelligent young people read books that make them think?

Because here at January Magazine we like to reward those who would ban books by making sure the books protested against get lots of extra attention, in case you missed Morrison’s Song of Solomon, it was published in 1977 by Alfred A. Knopf and the most current paperback edition was published by Vintage in 2004.

Wikipedia tells us that Song of Solomon “won the National Books Critics Award, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s popular book club, and was cited by the Swedish Academy in awarding Morrison the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature. Barack Obama has listed it as one of his favorite books of all time.”

This is one of the books that’s been on my personal must-read list for a long time. Thanks to the efforts of a handful of narrow-minded parents in Shelby, Michigan, I’m going to order a copy from my local bookseller right now.


Harlan Coben Isn’t Lost at All

At The Rap Sheet today, January Magazine contributing editor Ali Karim talks to rising star Harlan Coben.
For all of his fame, author Harlan Coben is remarkably low on hubris and pretentiousness. As a result, I’ve always enjoyed his company. He was particularly charming with my family during the 2007 Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, and in the process turned my son, Alexander, into a huge fan of his series featuring sports agent and troubleshooter Myron Bolitar. That series began with Deal Breaker in 1995 and this year added a ninth installment, Long Lost, which sends Bolitar and his horny sidekick, billionaire and martial artist Windsor “Win” Horne Lockwood III, into the center of a global conspiracy.

Although Coben cut his teeth on suburban crime fiction set in and around New York City and New Jersey, where he was born in 1962, in Long Lost he proves to be adept at working on a much broader canvas.
Karim and Coben’s exchange is here.

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New this Month: Worldshaker by Richard Harland

In an alternative universe, Worldshaker (Allen and Unwin) is one of a number of “juggernauts” which fly around the world with permanent residents. Due to something that happened in the mid-19th century, the timeline diverged from ours into a world in which the Victorian era never really ended. In the early 21st century, Queen Victoria the Third reigns aboard the flying ship Worldshaker, with her consort who changed his name to Albert when they married.

Class distinctions are strictly observed aboard Worldshaker. Col Porpentine and his family are aristocrats and hereditary Supreme Commanders of the ship. Below them are those who are merely rich from trade and below all of them are the “Filthies” who are kept in slavery below decks, doing the work that keeps the ship running. Some of them are hauled up like fish on a line to be turned into Menials, servants to the upper classes -- and as Menials are always obedient and utterly silent, there is the strong possibility that they have been modified.

One night, Col wakes up to find a Filthy in his room. Her name is Riff and she is not keen to be turned into a Menial. Somehow, Col finds himself involved in Riff’s troubles and as a result, having major troubles of his own. Nobody has ever told him or his fellow upper decks what is going on in their society or how it got started. Now he must decide what he is going to do about it -- and learn some nasty home truths about members of his own family.

I’ve always enjoyed steam punk -- science fiction centred around the Victorian era -- and this is a very good example of the genre. Despite the serious elements, it has plenty of the dark, often over-the-top humour typical of this author. The characters are also humorously over-the-top, and it works well.

I am told Worldshaker has already been bought for the North American market. If you live there, be patient. It will be well worth the wait.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

New Today: A Day in the Life by Robert Greenfield

Through much of A Day in the Life (Da Capo) I kept getting the same uncomfortable feeling I got while watching Requiem for A Dream (2000), but not in a good way. There was a similar feeling of inevitable sinking and incoming tragedy. A similar feeling of wanting to shake someone and make them see.

Robert Greenfield (STP, Exile on Main Street) relates the tragic story of Tommy Weber and Susan “Puss” Coriat. Beautiful, aristocratic Londoners when they wed in the early 1960s, they are sucked into the vortex that the 60s became for many people and, by story’s end, both have been basically ruined by sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Puss dies by her own hand in 1971 and Tommy in 2006 after decades of self-abuse.

In between the golden beginning and the ignominious end, the couple have two children -- one of whom would grow to become the actor Jake Weber -- fall in with various nefarious rock n’ rollers and just rip their golden life to shreds.

A Day in the Life reads, at times, like a novel, but like one of those torrid little romances you’d rather no one see you with. And after you finish reading? Well, I just wanted to have a shower.

A Day in the Life is not a bad book, but it’s a sad book. I’m not sorry I read it, but I’d certainly never read it again. Fans of music history and 1960s culture will feel differently, I’m sure. This book is just stuffed full of the kind of juicy tidbits that lot likes best.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Catcher in the Rye Sequel Probably a Hoax

Will this be what finally wrenches notoriously reclusive author J.D. Salinger from the comfy nest he’s been hiding out in for more than 50 years? Or was the book penned by Salinger in a lame disguise? Both are possible. Time will tell.

From the publisher’s description of Sixty Years Later: Coming Through the Rye:
A 76-year-old man wakes up in a nursing home in upstate New York. This seemingly normal day brings with it an unnerving compulsion to flee his present situation and embark on a curious journey through the streets of New York City. Powerless to resist these strange new urges, Holden Caulfield, like a decrepit marionette, finds himself in the midst of bizarre and occasionally depraved escapades. Is senility finally closing in or is some higher power controlling the chaos? 60 years after his debut as the great American anti-hero, Holden Caulfield is yanked back onto the page without a goddamn clue why.
The sequel will be published in September by a Swedish outfit called Nicotext. (“We make books. More specifically, we make books whose sole purpose it is to make you giggle. While thumbing our collective nose at the literati, we have found our niche amongst the useless, the trivial and the potentially offensive. The books in our catalogue may not reflect our capacity for intellectual athleticism, but they will put a smile on your face, which is our main objective.”)

It’s not by Salinger, but by (ahem) a freelance travel writer, “former gravedigger and Ironman triathlete” (what?) named John David California.

The world press and the blogosphere are abuzz. “The world needs a Catcher in the Rye sequel like it needs an asshole on its elbow,” Richard Lawson said for Gawker earlier today. The Guardian and the Quill and Quire blog offer up just-the-facts as they see them. However, considering author California’s bizarre biography and the fact that a sketchy Wikipedia entry lists his birthday as April 1st, I have a hunch we’ve not heard the last of this story. At all.

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Fiction: Etta by Gerald Kolpan

It’s astonishing to think that Katherine Ross’ searing portrayal of Etta Place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was 40 years ago this October. Part of the success of that film -- and that particular character, in fact -- had much to do with Ross’ interpretation of Etta and her relationship with Harry “Sundance Kid” Longbaugh. In reality, notLink much was known about Place, where she’d come from, who she’d been and who, ultimately, she became.

In his debut novel, Emmy Award-winning Philadelphia television reporter Gerald Kolpan tries to give Etta’s character depth and humanity ... and mostly succeeds.

Though not all of Etta (Ballantine) feels entirely believable, every moment is completely enjoyable. The flaw is not with Kolpan’s history, just some of Etta’s experiences push the envelope of believability. For example, Etta runs into several historical figures including Eleanor Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. Rather than enriching the narrative, I found these cameos somewhat jolting; pulling me back from an otherwise almost completely compelling journey.

Etta is terrific. History entwined with a talented writer’s magic. I look forward to more adventures in Kolpan’s skillful company.


Children's Books: My Extraordinary Life and Death by Doug McLeod

Although Doug McLeod is best known in Australia as a television writer -- The Comedy Company, Full Frontal and Sea Change and script-editing Kath and Kim -- when he has written books they have usually been for children or young adults. His comedy background led to his writing humorous and downright silly books. Sister Madge’s Book of Nuns, one of these, was on the Australian Children’s Book Council short list.

My Extraordinary Life and Death (Ford Street Publishing) started life as a commissioned blog. Now it’s out there as a book and very amusing it is, too. What the author has done is to “story” genuine Victorian-era illustrations with a supposed autobiography. Even the front and back cover flaps are part of the book. The front flap features “other books you may care to enjoy” -- Shakespeare the Extremely Early Years (a baby), Simple Tricks A Child Can Do (a complicated circus acrobatic performance) and Queen Victoria: Party Girl. The back flap directs you to the Web site which explains all.

The drawings are accompanied by a truly over-the-top storyline. For example, an illustration of a Victorian gentleman and a gardener with a shovel accompanies, “Father had a no-nonsense approach to education. If Denise or I were naughty he would tell the gardener to bury us for several hours.” It’s a good example of the style and humour of the book in general.

I suspect this book will be enjoyed more by adults or good readers who get the jokes than by younger, average or reluctant readers. It is still worth having, though, for its sheer, entertaining silliness.

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Dinner with Lee Child

At The Rap Sheet, January Magazine contributing editor Ali Karim shares a meal -- once again -- with international bestselling author Lee Child. As Karim tells us, this food-sharing thing with Child (who apparently is a big fan of red meat) is getting to be something of a tradition:
Another year brings another chance for me to break bread with Lee Child, the British creator of series protagonist Jack Reacher. My annual encounters with the astute Mr. Child have become an unofficial tradition of mine. As a longtime reader of his Reacher thrillers, and an admirer of what this author does for the crime-fiction genre, it’s good to meet him annually and discover what’s new in his world.
What’s newest this time is Gone Tomorrow, the 13th Jack Reacher novel, on sale early next week. According to Karim, Gone Tomorrow is Child’s “most tense and thought-provoking work of fiction yet.”
With its brief chapters, short sentences, and staccato-style narrative, Gone Tomorrow charges along as rapidly as the subway train that appears in its opening chapter. The story is violent, hip, and bang-up-to-date, a dive into the post-9/11 world of dark politics and conspiratorial forces. Action-adventure stories are rarely better concocted than this one.
You can read Karim’s exchange with Child here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New This Week: Either You’re In or You’re In the Way by Logan and Noah Miller

Filmmaking twin brothers Logan and Noah Miller have a single car, mobile phone and computer between them. It’s not that they wouldn’t each like their own but, as they tell us in the opening paragraphs of Either You’re In or You’re In the Way (Collins) “right now money is tight. So, for now, we share. And are blessed to have someone to share it with.”

That’s pretty much the sentiment that floats us through the book. It’s a charming, witty and in some ways fascinating story that’s part memoir and partly the story of how -- against all odds -- the brothers wrote, produced, acted in and directed a feature film -- starring no less than Ed Harris -- in less than a year with little between them besides 17 credit cards.

That would be sufficient story for the book, but then the resulting film, Touching Home, was nominated for 26 Academy Awards and took home 11 of them.

Either You’re In or You’re In the Way
is, in some ways, a Cinderella story in perfect Hollywood style with all the bittersweet details and plot twists such a story demand. And, all things considered, it’s no surprise that they can write, too. Those who love movies and/or a touching family story will enjoy this book. It’s a very worthwhile read on so many levels.

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National Black Book Festival Will Attract Wide Audience

Dozens of authors and thousands of readers will converge on Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center on May 16 and 17 for the National Black Book Festival.

Featured authors will include Roland S. Martin (Speak Brother! A Black Man's View of America), Mary B. Morrison (Noire, Single Husbands) and Persia Walker (Harlem Redux, Darkness and the Devil Behind Me).

The National Black Book Festival is held in conjunction with the Houston Black Expo and attracts attendees from all branches of book-related fields including authors, publishers, book clubs, libraries and individual readers.

A pavilion of authors will offer book signings and discussion sessions with featured authors; workshops and seminars, a spoken word poetry slam and book club giveaways. Check the Web site for event times and ticketing information.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Today: The Whatchmacallit by Danny Danziger and Mark McKrum

You know, you could probably go through your whole life and never know what a tittle is. Or a toorie. Or a caruncula. But with the publication of The Whatchamacallit (Hyperion), you can discover what they are. Those, and a few dozen other common objects with uncommon names you couldn't care less about.

But should you care? Or, more to the point, shouldn't you? That's why authors Danny Danziger and Mark McKrum collected the stories behind a whole mess of things you might never bother to consider. But I think readers of January Magazine’s brother-in-crime, The Rap Sheet, want to to know that a scarpetta is the hunk of bread you use to wipe gravy or sauce from your plate. And I think, as one who eats breakfast, you want to know that fines are the crumbs at the bottom of a cereal box.

And speaking of breakfast, did you know that those little stringy bits between a banana and its peel have their own name?! Yep. They’re phloem bundles. And that bit of punctuation in which a question mark is immediately followed by an exclamation point? It's called an interrobang.

In The Whatchamacallit, you’ll find dozens of treasures such as these, each described with certain degrees of gravitas, albeit with the authors’ tongues shoved deeply into their cheeks. Some of the essays are short and sweet, others venture further, becoming mini-treatises on topics that somehow connect to the word in question. It’s essential reading for anyone who loves words ... and if you're reading this, that means you.

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New this Month: Sea Changes by Gail Graham

At the beginning of this journey, you think you’re heading off on a beach read. You know what I mean: standard issue relationship novel. A dead husband, a woman’s personal crisis, a lot of angst and wringing of hands. And, honestly, as wry as that assessment might sound, there’s nothing wrong with any of that (which is no doubt why so many books that vaguely fit that description are published every year) but that’s just wouldn’t describe Sea Changes (Jade Phoenix) at all.

When Sarah Andrews tries to kill herself (All that angst, remember?) by drowning, she discovers a civilization under the water. When she wakes up on the beach, alive, Sarah quite understandably thinks It Was All A Dream. Further developments convince her this was not the case.

Sea Changes is about transformation and rediscovery. Incredibly difficult to describe, it’s also very hard to put down. Sea Changes is about loss and rebirth and, in certain ways, it’s about resilience of spirit and of fact. It’s a magical book.

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Richard and Judy Show Axed

First Oprah starts hawking chicken when you and I know she really should be out there selling books. Then Britain’s previously breathtakingly successful Richard and Judy Show has its plug pulled after one too many bad decisions, though the duo have said they will continue their book club, which has been phenomenally popular.
The celebrated Richard and Judy Book Club -- a regular segment of their television show which is reportedly responsible for generating a quarter of all book sales in Britain -- is to survive however.

“Although we won’t do another studio-based talk show after this, we will definitely do something with the Book Club,” said Madeley.

“Probably a weekly show on a terrestrial channel. It would be mad for the Book Club not to continue.”

The couple, who have been married for 22 years, are planning to do a documentary series together and both are currently working on novels.
Of course they are. The Daily Mail piece quoted is here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Excerpt: Palos Verdes Blue by John Shannon

Palos Verdes Blue is the 11th novel to feature Jack Liffey, an aerospace technician turned “finder of lost children,” whose investigations send him deep into Los Angeles’ racial and class divides.

In this new story, Liffey is hired by his ex-wife’s best friend to find her missing 17-year-old daughter, Blaine (aka “Blue”). The case puts him in the middle of a turf war on the posh Palos Verdes peninsula, one that pits affluent teenage surfers (“Bayboys”) against the Mexican day-laborers who make their crude homes in ravines between mansions where they’re employed as gardeners and servants. It’s a volatile situation, finally ignited by a stubborn young Hispanic man who’s determined to ride the waves dominated by the Bayboys. As things turn violent, drawing in irate bikers, arsonists, and racist vigilantes, the life of Liffey’s own teenage daughter, Maeve, is put at risk as she tries to help her father.

Author John Shannon grew up in the L.A. harbor town of San Pedro. After publishing four non-Liffey books, he introduced his serial sleuth in The Concrete River (1996). Over the 13 years since, the decent and compassionate Liffey has attracted critical acclaim, though he still has not become a famous figure in the genre. Novelist Dick Lochte opined in the Los Angeles Times that Liffey represents “a remarkable update on the Chandler knight-errant. Shannon matches the master in location, characterization and dialogue.” Booklist calls Liffey “a walking conscience, a bruised crusader who remains an unerring advocate of doing things the hard way on behalf of the little guy” and adds that “Fans of thinking-man’s detective fiction will find much to ponder” in these books.

Shannon’s publisher, Pegasus, has recently begun bringing out the early Liffey novels in trade paperback format, and a 12th installment in the series -- On the Nickel -- is due on shelves in 2010.

Read an excerpt of Palos Verdes Blue here.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

“Happy Mother’s Day from a Bad Mom,” says Post

That kicky Ayelet Waldman! First she developed a following with a fairly beloved series gently known as the mommytrack mysteries. Then, pretty much while things were swimming, she wrote an essay -- published by The New York Times -- that raised the ire of many of her fans. From a Washington Post piece by Bob Thompson that ran in time for Mother’s Day:
The morning after Ayelet Waldman's infamous essay was published, she got a call from a friend who warned: Don’t watch “The View.”

Waldman never watched the ABC chatfest anyway. But so what? Why shouldn’t she watch it now? “Because Star Jones is ripping you to shreds.”

Ripping, tearing, shredding: Time to fire up the computer and see what was going on. “I’ve never seen so many e-mails in an inbox,” she says.

And all because she’d admitted -- no, asserted! publicly! in The New York Times ! -- that there was someone more important in her life than her four beloved kids.

“If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother,” Waldman wrote in a March 27, 2005, Modern Love column. “I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children.”
And never mind that the husband in question is literary hottie Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), Waldman’s fans -- as well as the legions of new detractors she picked up in the wake of the essay’s publication -- wanted their pound of flesh.
A couple of years later, Waldman still hadn’t gotten over the fury she’d aroused. One day she was venting to her friend Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, when he said, “Why don’t you just shut up and write a book?”
Which, of course, she ultimately did. Bad Mother (Doubleday) was published just in time for Mother’s Day and seems unlikely to set angry tongues to rest. As Thompson says in his Post piece:
The book takes off from what Waldman calls the “Bad Mother perp walk” she let herself in for with her “I love my husband more” heresy. It explores the intense cultural anxiety on the subject of motherhood as well as Waldman’s personal history, touching on topics ranging from ridiculous homework assignments to the way motherhood first turned Waldman into a writer, then changed the nature of what she wrote.
There’s quite a bit more to The Washington Post piece, and that’s here. You can read Waldman’s original New York Times essay here.

Jerry Hall Closes Book on Pricey Jagger Memoir

Two years into the writing of an “explosive tell-all book” about her life with lead Rolling Stone Mick Jagger, The Daily Mail reports that the project “has been abandoned in mysterious circumstances.”
The book, which Miss Hall has spent two years writing, will remain forever in manuscript form after she had an unexplained change of heart and reneged on a £1 million deal with HarperCollins.

The publisher is said to have become frustrated that, despite promises that the book would be overflowing with juicy detail about the Rolling Stones singer’s dalliances, 52-year-old Miss Hall provided only a very sanitised account.
So sad! The literary world can only sigh and wonder. Meanwhile, The Mail has said that HarperCollins has asked for the return of their £500,000 advance. (The cheek!)

The Mail’s story is here. Contact Music offers their short, sweet but basically identical explanation here.


The Man of Many Faces

Who was American author Robert Terrall, really? Under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms -- most memorably “Robert Kyle” and “John Gonzales” -- he wrote somewhere around 53 novels, including some humor-suffused numbers starring Manhattan gumshoe Ben Gates (Kill Now, Pay Later). But he also penned at least 29 books about another fictional private eye, Mike Shayne, using the “house name” Brett Halliday. After Terrall died in late March of this year at 94 years age, The Rap Sheet set out to discover more about this author described by novelist Ed Gorman as one of the “really fine craftsman” of the mid-20th-century paperback revolution.

In an interview with Terrall’s son, San Francisco journalist Ben Terrall, January Magazine’s sister publication learns what became of the author after he ceased publishing in 1986, how he got into the novel-writing game in the first place, how he felt about his respective fictional series, and what sort of father he was to his four children.

At one point in the exchange, Ben Terrall is asked about how his father looked at his literary trade:
Q: In 1979, your dad was interviewed by The New York Times. He was quoted as saying that he wasn’t enamored of the crime-fiction genre, but “it was a way of starting writing.” Why did he think that was the place to begin? And did he eventually develop a stronger interest in the genre, or did he always write mysteries just for the money?

A: Dad tried to make it writing “serious” novels, starting with his World War II book The Steps of the Quarry. But that novel took four years [to write] and didn’t go anywhere. So, as he had to support a family, he started writing more commercial stuff. He had already written They Deal in Death (which I love) in 1943 and A Killer Is Loose Among Us ... (a favorite of Charles Ardai’s), so he knew he was capable of producing that kind of stuff.

After the market for short stories in magazines dried up, he was writing whatever he could make a living at. The choice then was pretty much mysteries or westerns. He viewed them as entertainment, something that he could write relatively quickly so he could make time to write other, more serious novels. That didn’t work out as well as he hoped.

I wouldn’t presume to say I know how Dad felt about the genre, but I think it’s safe to say he was a complicated guy and had mixed feelings about the trade. He read a lot of world literature in translation, and went though at least two dense books a week. Dad could be a bit of a snob about what was and what wasn’t great writing, which sometimes drove me crazy when I was an angry young man (a very brief phase, I can assure you).

He could be dismissive about other writers in the field, though he told me Charles Williams [Talk of the Town, Dead Calm, etc.] was one of his favorite mystery/crime writers, and I can see why now. Williams was a great plotter and storyteller, and no hack as a writer. With Dad very much on my mind, I’m reading Williams now and loving his stuff.
You can read the full Rap Sheet interview here.


Children’s Books: Cicada Summer by Kate Constable

Kate Constable, the Tamora Pierce of Australian YA fantasy, is back after two mainstream YA novels for Allen and Unwin’s Girlfriend Fiction imprint. The Girlfriend books were good enough, but fantasy is what this author does best, so her return to the fantastical is very welcome.

Unlike the Chanters Of Tremaris series, Cicada Summer (Allen & Unwin) is set firmly in present-day Australia, complete with drought. It has some elements of Tom’s Midnight Garden and Bid Time Return, but gives the time travel theme a twist. I won’t say more about this lest I spoil the ending.

Eloise, a gifted artist who has “gone quiet” after losing her mother in a car accident, has been taken back to her father’s home town in country Victoria, and left with her crotchety grandmother, Mo. Mo has been writing a book about sea voyages for 20 years, despite never having seen the sea, and has panic attacks on leaving the house and yard. She isn’t crazy about having her granddaughter stay, but feels Eloise is better off with her than with her father, who is throwing all his energies into building a convention center in the town.

Exploring, Eloise visits the huge house owned by her father’s family, which is falling to pieces, and finds herself travelling to a time when the house is an artist’s retreat run by a family with a daughter about her own age, Anna. To her surprise, Eloise finds herself becoming Anna’s imaginary friend, whom only Anna can see or hear. Could Anna be her mother? Eloise doesn’t know, but she does start talking again, if only with Anna. Meanwhile, can she stop her father and his latest girlfriend from tearing down the old house for a convention center?

As well as being a good story, this warm-hearted, gentle tale has plenty of meat for class discussion.

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Children’s Books: White Cave Escape by Jennifer McGrath Kent

Like its predecessor, 2007’s Chocolate River Rescue, White Cave Escape (Nimbus Publishing) is high drama for young readers: junior thrillers so gripping, even reluctant readers are swept along. Chocolate River Rescue was nominated for four children’s book awards in its publication year. White Cave Escape maintains the same level of quality storytelling with its drama. There’s no reason to think this one won’t demand all the attention that first book in this series did.

Set in the White Rocks of New Brunswick, the same five engaging youngsters readers met in the first book find themselves alone in the woods trying to outpace a forest fire. The only way they can see to survive is to wait the fire out in the legendary White Caves. What they don’t see coming: the White Caves will be an adventure all of an entirely different nature.

White Cave Escape is a slender, non-intimidating book with large print and a wallop of a story. A winning combination for readers aged eight to 12.

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Cookbooks: Sips & Apps by Kathy Casey

Author, chef and expert mixologist Kathy Casey had me at Zen Turkey Dumplings. With peanut sauce. They are, in a way, typical of the type of food she’s opted to include in Sips & Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Cocktails and Appetizers (Chronicle Books). They are easy to make -- can, in fact, be made by a group, preparing to party together. And they represent interesting flavor and texture combinations and will please a wide swath of your potential party going public.

Sips and Apps is more about the Sips than the Apps -- sips win 69 to 35 in the number of recipes included. (Though variations bring the numbers up on both sides.) But the number included might also speak to the type of recipes chosen for both sides. The apps here are solid, basic, crowd-pleasing favorites. For the most part, you won’t have seen these recipes before -- Casey’s flavor choices and presentations are interesting and original -- but they are the sort of backbone recipes frequent hosts may very well come to treasure.

The Sips, though, are a different matter. Very good bar basics sections get things going in the right direction and by the time you’re ready to make a drink, you’ll know just what everything is. (And if you’ve skipped ahead, you can go back and look for whatever it was you missed.) So if you decide to make, for instance, a Strawberry Shag or a Rouge Pulp, you’ll know how to do it. There’s even a section called Clear-Headed Cocktails: gorgeous drinks with fruit and finish, but no alcohol.

Sips and Apps is excellent. Those who enjoy entertaining at home will find this to be a useful and interesting book.


Friday, May 08, 2009

Top 10 Worst Moms

In honor of mom (ahem): Bookfinder today tells us who they figure are the worst moms ever in literature.
If there is one person who personifies selflessness, un-wavering love and caring the first to come to mind should be your mother. She cradled you for your fist nine months and held your hand though all the challenges life could throw at you.
Yes, yes, yes. We’ve got it: hearts and flowers. That’s what Mother’s Day is all about. But that’s not quite what we’re dealing with here. As Bookfinder tells us, “not all the mothers in literature come out smelling like roses. Abandonment, abuse, and adultery are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the bottom of the barrel of fictional mothers.”

All true, in fact, literature is stuffed full of really awful moms. Here is Bookfinder’s very good list. Can you think of any more?

Meanwhile, if you’re still casting about for something to get your mom on Mother’s Day, May 10th, you simply can not go wrong with a book. Mosey over to your favorite independent bookseller and tell them about your mom. They’ll help you choose something great.

Fiction: Perfecting by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer just keeps getting better. And that’s saying something, because everything she’s offered thus far has been worthy of note.

Kuitenbrouwer’s debut novel, The Nettle Spinner, was included in January Magazine’s 2005 Best of the Year. “Here is a very clever tale that bites as much as the nettle,” said January’s reviewer at the time. “Kuitenbrouwer writes with such confidence and authority that discovering this is her first novel seems almost as astonishing as the feat of those nettle spinners, separated in time by centuries but joined by shared themes.”

Four years later, Kuitenbrouwer is back with an intensely ambitious tale that moves her readers over 30 years, from New Mexico to Ontario and from roadside crime to the community and machinations of a rural cult.

Perfecting (Goose Lane) is slender, but there are hints of the epic here and though Kuitenbrouwer’s style is muscular and spare, one gets the feeling that more would have been better. Perfecting is tight, certainly and it’s not that anything has been left out, but I found myself wanting more.

Still, that’s a quibble and, indeed, a high class complaint. Kuitenbrouwer has fulfilled the promise of The Nettle Spinner. This Toronto-based author continues to be one of the hot new Canadian voices to watch.

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Napoleon as Novelist

Napoleon Bonaparte might have even more to answer for than we ever suspected. According to The Guardian, along with his many ambitions and accomplishments, the doomed French emperor has just been revealed as perhaps the very first progenitor of chick lit.
Napoleon is already credited with writing some of the most romantic -- or revolting, depending on your sensibilities -- words in his urgent message to Josephine: “Will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash.”

Now the man the world knows as emperor, war hero and bogeyman, the ruthlessly ambitious Little Corporal who rose from provincial obscurity in Corsica to become the terror or ruler of half the world, will be revealed in a surprising new guise: Napoleon the failed romantic novelist.
The Guardian
reveals how this all came about here.

The Book You Have to Read

Over the last year, our sister publication, the award-winning crime fiction-dedicated Rap Sheet, has been compiling a list of the Books You Have to Read. That weekly feature had a birthday today. Editor J. Kingston Pierce says, “As hard as this is for me to believe, it was a year ago that The Rap Sheet inaugurated its ‘Books You Have to Read’ series.” As Pierce points out, “Rap Sheet contributors and a more substantial number of published authors have produced 51 posts about must-read crime novels, many of those no longer in print.”

The list is wicked impressive, including contributions from authors Stephen Booth, Gary Phillips, Jason Starr, Simon Wood, Linwood Barclay, Cara Black, Max Allan Collins, Louise Ure and 42 others about books both well-known and obscure. You can find the complete list here.


Thursday, May 07, 2009

Giving Away the Cow: Google Book Search Settlement

Up until now, we’ve stayed out of the fray over the proposed Google Book Search Settlement. For me, this has in part been due the fact that I’ve had a gnawing sense of unease that can border on panic whenever I contemplate what they’re proposing. The sheer audacity of what Google wants to undertake with this knocked the wind out of a lot of people’s sails. Certainly, the whole time this has been going on I’ve been sort of shaking my head, not quite believing what I was seeing and hearing.

In a very simple nutshell, Google wants to scan millions -- millions mind you -- of books and store them digitally, making them available, basically at their whim. OK, that’s possibly a gross oversimplification, but you get the idea: what they’re proposing could change everything.

Why does it all come back to newspapers for me these days? But it does. And here we are again: With the futures of many papers in jeopardy, one of the things I’ve been hearing from that industry in the last month or so is that they made some bad decisions about a decade ago when newspapers decided to give away the cow and then ended up being surprised when their readers kept wanting free milk. I don’t want to be sitting here in another decade listening to publishers saying: Oh, drat. Maybe we shouldn’t have done that. But I stand here in my near panic watching while they gather the cows, preparing to set them free for 60 bucks a head. It’s enough to make your hair stand on end.

Now thunder clouds are gathering from all angles. The most recent of these comes by way of David Needle at Internet News who quotes Internet Archive Founder Brewster Kahle in a recent column:
Kahle said he’s especially driven to protect books because “books are how we think in long form. They’re generally written by one person ... and can put across a big idea.”

He lamented the rise of Amazon and Google as the primary distribution points of books and their content. Kahle said he thinks Google’s efforts to digitize vast amounts of public domain and other books to make them more widely available is laudable, but he criticized the proposed settlement (now under review) with book publishers because it gives the search giant the right to digitize and control the distribution of out of print books that aren’t necessarily out of copyright.

Another monopoly?

“It creates another monopoly,” said Kahle. “It doesn’t make sense for them to be locked up by Google, it’s very screwy.”

Going forward he warned the settlement might “determine the future of books and paid content.”
Meanwhile, Arts Technica is reporting that Google’s plan has libraries worried:
The deal Google cut with publishers to settle their copyright infringement suit would give a green light to the search giant's book-scanning services and turn it into a retailer of out-of-print books. But resistance to the deal has been growing, as a variety of parties are realizing that the settlement gives both Google and the Book Rights Registry created by the deal enormous power over the dissemination of the scanned material. The latest groups to weigh in represent research librarians, who are worried about the deal's privacy implications and the lack of guarantees of current and future access. The solution, in their view, is to structure the settlement in a way that guarantees the court the right to intervene in the future.
See, that’s the thing: it isn’t that Google is evil. And it might not be that Google’s plan is bad. But it will change things. And how? Well, we don’t exactly know. But when you look at, say, how the music industry has been altered by technology over the last decade and if you look at my favorite news-gathering example you can see that even something built slowly over many, many years -- even generations -- can be torn down very easily if you slide away the right -- or the wrong -- bricks. Like a lot of people, I’m not so sure that concentrating all the control in one place is such a great idea.

This controversy is far from over and -- certainly -- there’s a lot more to know than I’ve shared here where I’ve been talking a lot about cows and sails and nail-biting panic. If you want to build a more lucid picture, Library Journal has put together an impressive page of links on the topic. Some time spent here will fill in all the blanks.

I don’t know what the correct answer is to this one. Heck: some days I’m not even completely sure I’m understanding the question. But I do know this: there are some very important issues in play here. Some would even say precious or sacred. Caution at this point seems not only prudent, but also necessary. We have so very much at stake.


New This Month: Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V.S. Redick

Though he’s been compared to George R.R. Martin and Philip Pullman, I don’t really see it. Other than the obvious, of course: fantasy writers who sell a lot of books. But certainly in Red Wolf Conspiracy (Ballantine) I’m most put in mind of Robin Hobb and her excellent Liveship series.

Whether or not this first book in a projected trilogy is destined to become one of the “classics of epic fantasy” as promised by Redick’s publicists I really couldn’t say. Classics have a way of keeping their own council until the deed is done. But, certainly, Red Wolf Conspiracy is a meaty and enjoyable read. An ancient vessel with a precious cargo: a royal bride who will connect two uneasy monarchies. But there is a conspiracy planned for this voyage and all sorts of trouble set to brew before the 600-year-old Imperial Merchant Ship Chathrand successfully completes her journey.

This is a substantial book and, at times, it is somewhat too dense. Redick’s touch is thorough, but it is not light. Even so, those who enjoy classic fantasy will like this ride and will hope that the next book in this series is not too far behind.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

My Spine? It’s Tingling!

We’re pleased and proud to announce that The Rap Sheet, January Magazine’s sister publication, has been given a special services award by Spinetingler Magazine. Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce had this to say earlier today:
Well, my day just got a little brighter. Spinetingler Magazine editor Sandra Ruttan has posted the winners of the 2009 Spinetingler Awards, and The Rap Sheet -- along with Peter Rozovsky’s Detectives Beyond Borders -- has won in the category of Special Services to the Industry. I want to extend my appreciation to all of the Web readers who filled out award ballots this year, and especially to all those brilliant folks who cast their votes for The Rap Sheet (although every one of the nominees in this category deserves acclaim).
You can see all of the winners and nominees in each category here.


Non-Fiction: An American Trilogy by Steven M. Wise

I think it’s possible that the publication date of Steve M. Wise’s latest book was unfortunate. The best laid plans. An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery & Dominion on the Banks of the Cape Fear River (Da Capo) was published about a week before the strain of influenza most popularly known as swine flu started getting a lot of ballyhoo from CNN and other experts in the art of the sensational. That is to say that the book was published at a time when even staunch animal activists aren’t feeling especially compassionate about the fate of pigs. And, really? That’s a shame because, once again, Wise has written a trenchant and important book.

Wise is a lawyer who has taught at Harvard, Lewis and Clark and other places. He is president of the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights. And he cares very deeply about both human and animal rights, as he demonstrated in several previous books, including Though the Heavens May Fall and Rattling the Cage.

In An American Trilogy Wise trains his sharp eye on Tar Heel, North Carolina, home of the largest slaughterhouse in the world, once the site of atrocities to African American slaves and before that home to indigenous Americans.

At times, An American Trilogy is a difficult book to read. There are some things here a lot of people don’t really want to know. In the book’s prologue, Wise explains that he was deeply affected by the material that moved him to write the book and that passion shows up on every page though, as he tells us, “In this book, I do not recite the atrocities we perpetuate on pigs. Instead, I discuss why we think it’s okay to inflict them. And that discussion will bring us to the study of history.”

In that study, Wise examines why American accept the type of cruelty he shows us in Bladen County, North Carolina. More: he connects it with cruelty to native Americans as well as African American slaves. He does all of this with the style and grace that always marks his work. An American Trilogy is a remarkable book.

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The Old Woman and the Hen by P.K. Page

Fans of the poet P.K. Page -- and I imagine there to be platoons of them -- will have to get their hands on a copy of The Old Woman and the Hen, a charming chapbook that would make a lovely gift, a sweet read to a child or even a nice self-indulgence for fans of 93-year-old Page, even though publisher Porcupine’s Quill advises that the book is “a small treasure intended to be shared by grandmothers, grandfathers -- or other doting adults -- with beloved youngsters between the ages of 5 to 8.”

Canadian poet Page won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1957 and was appointed a Companion to the Order of Canada in 1999. In 2002 her collection, Planet Earth, was short listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize. She is one of Canada’s most celebrated and beloved poets.

The Old Woman and the Hen is illustrated withy original woodcut engravings by Alberta artist Jim Westergard. It’s a tiny, special, lovely little book clearly intended to be cherished.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Non-Fiction: Blue Heaven by Bill Terry

Editor’s Note: Running this review just a few days after C.J. Box’s Blue Heaven won the Edgar Award seems pleasingly ironic. And it goes to show that everyone’s idea of heaven is just a little different.

Picture this: it’s late spring 1922. A British expedition is traversing the East Rongbuk Valley in Tibet when they come across the most extraordinary thing: a beautiful and mysterious hyacinth blue poppy. In the end, though, as author Bill Terry tells us in Blue Heaven (Touchwood Editions) the poppy wasn’t a poppy at all. “It was a meconopsis, a name derived from the Greek mekon (poppy) and opsis (like). The climbers had found Meconopsis grandis, commonly known as the Tibetan Poppy or the Himalayan Blue Poppy.”

That explanation, on the very first page of Blue Heaven, is about as technical as Terry lets things get, though it is clearly understood throughout that he has his material well under control.

Part adventure travel, part gardener’s memoir and guide and all parts love letter to a flower that has captured men’s imagination since time out of mind. What comes through on every page, though, is Terry’s clear passion for his subject. The resulting book rings with both authority and echoes of that passion. It’s a wonderful little book. One need not be a gardener or amateur botanist to appreciate Bill Terry’s very special Blue Heaven.

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The Swirl of Social Networking

Born in the 20th Century, January Magazine has recently joined the 21st. The magazine now has its own special group on Facebook (though we’re still figuring out what to do with it) and a new but growing following on Twitter. If someone has also tricked you into social networking, come follow/join us.

You might remember some weeks back that January’s journey to Twitter began with the review of Joel Comm’s Twitter Power. If you missed that review, it’s here and, all this time later, we maintain it was a terrific introduction to the weirdly nuanced world of thumb-typing, microblogging and Twitter.

Follow us on Twitter (where we do everything we do here, only tiny). Join the January Magazine group on Facebook.