Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Just the Thing for Beach Reading

Now, here’s a style trend that wears well: bathing suits that match book covers. I’m especially fond of the bikinis suggesting the fronts from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Quite attractive, too, is the swimsuit in design tune with the jacket on Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine, though I imagine singer-musician Bob Dylan -- whom Lehrer misquoted so egregiously in his book -- will not be buying one of those for any of his granddaughters this summer.

Click here to see more book/bathing attire combinations.

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Gumshoes at the Games

Although U.S. coverage of last week’s opening of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in England was badly muddled by Republican president-wannabe Mitt Romney’s embarrassing blunders and gaffes during a visit to London (one newspaper actually labeled him “Mitt the Twit”), things seem to have settled down since. Which means that between now and the conclusion of the Games on August 12, you might find some time to sample a few Olympics-related crime novels.

Editor-blogger Janet Rudolph has posted a list of mystery novels with Olympics connections. Those books include everything from Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s An Olympic Death and Off Side to Jeffery Deaver’s Garden of Beasts, Rebecca Cantrell’s A Game of Lies, and Philip Kerr’s March Violets (also worth mentioning is Kerr’s 2009 work, If the Dead Rise Not).

There are plenty of other reading options here.

READ MORE:Olympic Fiction, Fact, and Crime,” by Peter Rozovsky (Detectives Beyond Borders).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

No-Drama Mama to Pen Book Full of “Stuff”

Forgive me: you don’t need to know this. It has nothing to do with literature and only the scantest connection to books. The only reason I even mention it is because it’s been so very long since we had an item labeled Books-You-Just-Don’t-Want-to-Know-About. And when I saw this one, I knew it was it.

Here’s the skinny according to ONTD: Oh No They Didn’t (whose catchphrase is: “The celebrities are disposable. The gossip is priceless” so take everything quoted here with a grain of salt and maybe a shrug if you can manage one), Big Ang Raiola, the No-Drama Mama from VH1’s Mob Wives, is writing a book.
Big Ang said Friday that her first book will be released on Sept. 11 through Simon & Schuster. It's called "Bigger Is Better: Real Life Wisdom from the No-Drama Mama." She said it will include “all kinds of stuff.”
’Nuff said.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

SF/F: The Sword & Scorcery Anthology edited by David G. Hartwell and Jacob Weisman

In his foreword to The Sword & Scorcery Anthology (Tachyon), David Drake writes, “Good sword and scorcery has character and all the other elements of good fiction generally; but the thing S&S must have is story.” And then, as though to prove his point, the balance of the book goes on to illustrate the story of sword and sorcery from the very beginning, from Robert E. Howard’s 1933 short story, “Tower of the Elephant,” right through to “The Three Monarchs” by Michael Swanwick, which makes its very first appearance in this anthology.

With so much time and breadth to be represented in a single powerful genre, there is a great possibility for misstep, but seasoned editors David G. Hartwell and Jacob Weisman manage to stay on track, choosing stories that evoke the best of the evolution of the genre, while creating an anthology that’s really worth reading and that it seems likely will illuminate newcomers to sword and sorcery for many years to come.

The 20 stories here do a great job of representing sword and scorcery over the years. Michael and Linda Moorcock’s “The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams” from 1962 is an S&S classic, containing all the tropes and twists that would later come to hallmark what was then a fledgling part of the subgenre. Joanna Russ, Ramsey Campbell, Jane Yolen, George R.R. Martin and other authors who make up the very cornerstones of sword and sorcery are represented here. “This is storytelling as the Cro-Magnons practiced it,” Drake writes. “And this is the essence of sword and sorcery fiction.”

Hear! Hear! ◊

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

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fiction: Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

Heading Out to Wonderful (Algonquin) is exactly that. Wonderful. That is, it’s filled with wonder. Robert Goolrick, author of A Reliable Wife, has once again dug beneath the surface of lives, unearthing mystery and motive that, when combined, drive this impressive, hypnotic tale relentlessly forward.

The year is 1948, in a gorgeous Virginia valley. Charlie Beale comes to town with two suitcases, one filled with cash, the other with knives. Slowly, with patience and an understanding of how small towns work, Charlie weaves his way into the lives of the town folk. He leads a quiet life, causing few if any ripples, but still touching lives every day, most notably Sam, the young son of his employer, and Sylvan, a young bride who’s determined to live more a Hollywood life than that of a small town. These three characters, each an opposite of the others, come together in an explosive tale that seems part fairy, part cautionary. But no matter how you read it, it’s gorgeous.

Goolrick teases out the details of Charlie Beale using these two others: Sylvan helps us see Charlie as a man of desire, generosity, and ultimately helplessness. Sam teases out Charlie’s protective side, his childlike side, his spirituality. In a sense, Sam is what Charlie’s life is, and Sylvan is what Charlie wants his life to be.

Apart from Charlie, Sylvan, and Sam, Goolrick has populated Heading Out to Wonderful with a full cast of characters and their full range of fears and hopes and dreams. By setting the tale when he does, before television, certainly before the Internet, as well as off the beaten path, Goolrick has isolated these people. They don’t just live in town -- they are the town. So much so that even the smallest change in who they are, in how they act and interact, changes the town itself. The climax, which seems inevitable, still comes as a shock, hitting a whole fistful of nerves at once. I found myself wondering how one can head out for wonderful with such wide eyes, such a depth of innocence, and still manage to strike head-on the darkness that life seems to hand out in such abundance. ◊

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fascination With “Mommy Porn” Waning?

I was somewhat relieved to read that, for the first time since publication, sales of Fifty Shades of Grey are in decline. This comes from the BBC:
Sales of E L James’ Fifty Shades trilogy of erotic novels have fallen for the first time in two months.

After increasing for eight consecutive weeks, last week sales slipped by 16% to 1.21m (£5.4m), according to industry publication The Bookseller.

However the British novelist still topped bestseller lists by a huge margin, with the first book Fifty Shades of Grey shifting 534,088 copies.
Even in decline, though, the numbers are staggering:
Print sales of book one alone now stand at 2,833,988, putting it in 11th place in a list of the bestselling books since records began in 1998.

It is currently behind Dan Brown’s
Angels and Demons, but has now overtaken huge bestsellers such as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
We’ve previously written about the book here and here.

READ MORE:British Charity Calls for Fifty Shades of Grey Book Burning,” by Carolyn Kellogg (Los Angeles Times).

Monday, July 16, 2012

Crime Fiction: Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken Harbor is crime writer Tana French’s compelling tale about the horrific multiple-murder of a family in rural Ireland. But if gore is not your thing, don’t be put off: the crime has already occurred by the story’s opening, and Broken Harbor -- released earlier this month in Canada, and due out in the States on July 24 -- is very much a police procedural married to a classic whodunnit. Its talented author will keep you guessing until the closing pages.

The protagonist here is a 10-year veteran of the Dublin Murder Squad, Detective Sergeant Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, who’s been paired with a rookie partner, Richie Curran. Richie isn’t just wet behind the ears; he’s so damp he’s threatening to inundate the squad room by his mere presence. Kennedy has to lead him through the fine points not covered in the policing course: how to dress while on the job, why he should choose a specific type of car from the motor pool, how to carry himself on the ground with other officers, and how to handle witnesses in order to get the most information from them. But the case at hand isn’t only an opportunity to train Richie; it’s also a chance to see whether he’s up to the mark, capable of handling the trauma and complexities of serious policing.

Kennedy doesn’t need these distractions; he’s got enough on his plate as it is. A wanker in the squad is jealous of Kennedy and out to make him look bad, and his boss, Superintendent O’Kelly, believes in giving the people on his team enough rope to hang themselves. Kennedy has been handed this family-murder case because he has one of the highest solve-rates in the unit. His success is based on his belief that good police work doesn’t only stem from training, but is primal. “When I wonder whether there was any point to my day,” he says, “I think about this: the first thing we ever did, when we started turning into humans, was draw a line across the cave door and say Wild stays out. What I do is what the first men did.”

He’s about to get his chance. In a coastal housing estate of half-vacant, jerry-built homes an hour’s drive north from Dublin, a grisly crime has been unearthed: Patrick Spain and his two young children have been brutally stabbed to death. Spain’s wife, the sole surviving member of their immediate family, has been left in critical condition, stabbed multiple times and now barely clinging to life. The bodies of the children show no signs of a struggle; they seem to have been murdered in their beds while they slept.

Pat Spain had been unemployed for months, a victim of the recession that has swept across Ireland. Although he was forced to give up his family’s expensive car, he somehow found the money to stage an elaborate birthday party for his daughter. Everything in this murder investigation points to a family member being responsible, and since he was on the verge of poverty and trying desperately to maintain an image of middle-class respectability, the father is the odds-on favorite for the crimes.

But there are anomalies at the crime scene. It looks as though someone has been through the house, searching for something; and files on the family computer shows signs of having been hacked by an intruder, someone who was not a member of the family. Coupled with evidence that someone had previously been watching the Spains, this case is proving to be far from simple.

And there’s an elephant in the room. Years earlier, Kennedy’s own family had taken their holidays near the scene of the crime, and his younger sister, Dina, witnessed their mother’s suicide in the coastal waters close by. Now bipolar and off her meds, Dina’s vivid memories of that day and her out-of-control behavior threaten to jeopardize the case and even end Kennedy’s career.

In what must be a literary record, most of the first 200 pages of Broken Harbor focus on the Murder Squad’s initial visit to the crime scene -- constituting a tour de force of police procedures. But it’s not only a wealth of well-researched detail that’s on offer here; grabbing attention with a first-person point of view and a driving narrative voice, author French strips her readers of their detachment, drawing them into the vortex of this dark, but all-too-believable, tale.

Perfectly paced, with nuanced characters set against a backdrop of heart-rending conflict and dialogue that reads as though you’re a fly on the wall, Broken Harbor shows once again that Tana French is not only one of the most assured crime writers of our times, but one of the best emerging writers in any genre. A winner of the Edgar, Anthony, Barry and Macavity awards for her first novel, 2007’s In the Woods, in her fourth outing French continues to exhibit the freshness, quality writing and masterful plotting that her readers have come to expect. ◊

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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We Distort, You Decide

Well, it seems the people have spoken: David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (2012) has been voted “the least credible [American] history book in print.”

As we’ve been reporting over the last couple of weeks, the History News Network Web site surveyed readers on this question. Five nominees were finally announced, but in the end, Barton’s book “edged out Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States by nine votes ... -- 650 votes versus 641. Commenters criticized the book for its gross factual errors and political agenda -- in an e-mail to HNN, Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, professors at Grove City College and authors of Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President, wrote that ‘Barton misrepresents and distorts a host of Jefferson’s ideas and actions, particularly his views and practices regarding religion, slavery and church-state relations.’ A commenter on HNN’s boards noted that the book ‘looks like an intentional attempt to mislead and deceive in the guise of history.’”

You can read more about HHN’s poll here.

FOLLOW-UP:Just the Facts, Man.”

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Words on Wheels

My earliest experience with bookmobiles dates back to the late 1960s, when Oregon’s Multnomah County public library system arranged to send one of its large, reading-matter-packed vans into my neighborhood. My family lived in the forested hills west of downtown Portland, and my mother didn’t drive a car, so the walking trip to the Central Library and back took a good few hours and strong legs. It was a welcome treat when the bookmobile would bring new volumes to us, instead.

I recall that we watched for the bookmobile to wheel down our road (maybe twice a month? I’m not really sure now of its frequency), and as soon as it parked, my brother and I were there waiting at its door, hoping to find something fresh and interesting among its stacks. I spent numerous hours inside that cramped conveyance, reveling in the experiences and knowledge its printed contents offered.

I hadn’t known, until I looked up BookRiot editor Jeff O’Neal’s “Brief History of American Bookmobiles ... in Pictures,” that these wonderful vehicles have been around since the start of the 20th century. “The first American bookmobile was actually a wagon,” O’Neal explains. “Mary Titcomb, a Maryland librarian, recognized that having books was only one part of the library’s job: the other part was making the books accessible. The Washington County Library Wagon took books around the county, making scheduled stops in addition to impromptu dispersals.” The number of bookmobiles grew during the Great Depression, as more public funding became available to serve the needs of a citizenry starved for entertainment and education. Some such vehicles remain in operation, though they’ve been “transformed into movable Internet hubs.”

I wish O’Neal had provided still more photos of these lovely creations, but you can enjoy those he has gathered here.

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Crime Fiction: The Gilded Shroud and The Deadly Portent by Elizabeth Bailey

Elizabeth Bailey’s The Gilded Shroud (Berkley), published last fall, was billed as the first book in a new series. But it isn’t the sort of book I usually look for. From the blurb on the back cover, it sounded like romantic suspense -- a genre not at the top of my “must-read” list.

Still, I like English historicals, and this one is set during the Regency Period (1811-1820).

I picked the novel up in the middle of a long, hard week, when all I could think about was how badly I needed a vacation.

Shroud turned out to be the equivalent of a well-run hotel -- a place you’ve been to before, perhaps, but where the rooms are clean and comfortable, the food properly cooked and the management is ever-present but discreet. Maybe it’s not an exciting new destination, but it’s a welcome respite all the same.

Bailey’s story opens with the gruesome death of Emily, the wife of the Marquis of Polbrook. Regrettably, the marquis himself is nowhere to be found, leaving his brother Francis (aka “Fan”) to pick up the pieces. A family heirloom is also missing.

Their formidable mother is on the scene with her temporary companion, Otilla “Tillie” Draycott. A young widow who lost her husband fighting in the former American colonies, Tillie is the focus here. She’s smart, observant, outspoken and not involved in Polbrook family dynamics -- in short, the perfect investigator.

There’s an immediate attraction between Tillie and Fan, so we all know where that’s going.

Nevertheless, the book is well-plotted and quite engaging, filled with, but not overwhelmed by, interesting period details.

The characters are well-drawn and distinct, including the many servants. I was particularly fond of the crusty dowager marchioness; I’ve a soft spot for these tough old birds who don’t cave under pressure. My one tiny complaint is that it is possible to get a wee bit tired of Tillie’s charming “gurgle,” even if it is also a “giggle.”

I probably should have left well enough alone, but I had no sooner finished reading Shroud than its 2012 sequel, The Deathly Portent (Berkley), turned up.

In this second story, Fan and Tillie have a coach accident that interrupts their journey. They find a room -- and a mystery -- at a nearby village, Witherley. The village is all agog over the death of its blacksmith and terrified with the belief that young Cassie Dale, who is apparently gifted with “second sight,” is really a witch who caused the death.

Witherley’s new preacher, Aidan Kinnerton, comes to Cassie’s defense. And so does Tillie. Plus, true to form, there’s Lady Ferrensby, the outspoken old woman who serves as the village patron.

Regrettably, the villagers speak in a peculiar dialect that gets old after a few chapters. A little less verisimilitude would have been welcome.

And there’s only so much of this sort of writing I can take: “Francis was struck anew with the fervent admiration that had been his early reaction to the extraordinary woman of whom he now had possession.”

Still, this is a pretty good mystery. It is well written, the characters are lively and the details unfold at a manageable pace.

Yet I wasn’t very happy. I found myself thinking not of Witherley, but of Pemberley, and another bright and outspoken young woman who attracts a titled husband. And Elizabeth Bennett doesn’t “gurgle.”

Maybe this is a hotel I want to visit only once a year. ◊

Roberta Alexander is an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Notes from a Bestseller: Robert J. Sawyer Offers Advice to New Authors

After a couple of flattering but unfulfilling rejections, a fledgling author recently asked award-winning novelist and all around generous guy, Robert J. Sawyer, if he should give up. Sawyer answered him at length, then added some riffs on the publishing industry in general through the lens of SF/F in particular. The results are eye-opening and January Magazine is pleased that Sawyer granted us permission to run his letter here.

“I should tell you that ‘the market is tough’ line is nothing new from publishers,” Sawyer remarks at one point. “They’ve been saying it to first-time authors for at least a full decade now. And it is indeed tough, and has been for all that time.”

The full piece is here.

Fifty Shades of Grey Author Movin’ on Up

It is unlikely to surprise anyone that E.L. James, the author of the internationally bestselling novel of erotica, Fifty Shades of Grey, is ditching her roots and moving uptown. 

According to The Telegraph, James -- whose real name is Erika Mitchell -- “is reportedly swapping her semi-detached home for a seven-bedroom mansion.”

The book, which is said to have earned its author over six million pounds in the months since publication and which accounted for as much as 20 per cent of all print sales sold in the United States this spring, has over 8000 reviews on Amazon. It is the story of a billionaire named Christian Grey who is into sadomasochism and bondage and a young woman without sexual experience who Christian asks to be his sex slave. According to CBC news, though, some sexperts are calling “foul” when it comes to some of the technical aspect of James’ work:
While the series has obviously titillated readers, sex experts and members of the alternative sexual community say the books draw a problematic and unfounded link between sadomasochism and mental illness.
Whether or not the books are sexually accurate, sales of the steamy series show no signs of slowing down.

The Best of the Worst?

On July 4, we reported that the History News Network Web site was polling readers on the subject of “the least credible [American] history book in print.” HNN says the response to that survey was “enormous,” with “dozens and dozens” of nominations being made. Here are the five books that were most often suggested:

The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, by David Barton
The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, by Thomas J. DiLorenzo
1421: The Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies
Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn

Now it’s your turn to choose your favorite (least favorite?) among this bunch. Simply click here to fill out the poll. Balloting will continue through this coming Sunday, July 15, with the top vote-getter to be announced on Monday, July 16.

So far, Zinn’s book leads the count, with Barton’s holding second place. But anything can happen over the next four days. Vote now!

Friday, July 06, 2012

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Will Write No More

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterwork, One Hundred Years of Solitude, a family deals with the growing senility of its patriarch. More than 40 years after the publication of the book, its author deals with a similar challenge.

According to the BBC, the author’s brother, Jaime Garcia Marquez, recently told students at a lecture in Cartagena that the 85-year-old author has been “suffering from dementia for a long time.” Even so, Jaime said, “He still has the humour, joy and enthusiasm that he has always had,” adding that the author’s condition “is a disease that runs in the family.”

The younger brother said that Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who has made few public appearances in recent years, is no longer writing.

You can see the full piece here.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Spotlighting America’s Phony Past

This isn’t the usual way Americans spend their Fourth of July holiday, which makes it rather refreshing. As The New York Times reports, the History News Network is asking readers “to reflect not just on what is best but also what is most bogus in our nation’s history -- or at least in our nation’s history writing.
Until Friday the network’s Web site -- also home to upbeat fare like “Marist Poll Reveals Ignorance of July 4th History” and “Top Five Myths About the Fourth of July” -- is accepting nominations at editor@hnn.us for “history books that nobody should take seriously.”

On July 9 the top five nominees will be posted on the site, which is hosted by George Mason University. Readers then be asked to vote for “the least credible history book in print.” The winner -- or loser? -- will be announced on July 16, along with commentary on the finalists from various academic historians, who make up the bulk of the site’s contributors.

David Walsh, the site’s editor, said that Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Lincoln” and David Barton’s “The Jefferson Lies” (which argues, among other things, that the man who first spoke of the need for a “wall of separation” between church and state was an evangelical Christian) were currently running strong. Other nominees so far include Michael Bellesiles’s “Arming America” (which was stripped of the prestigious Bancroft Prize after Mr. Bellesiles was accused of falsifying data about early American gun ownership), Gavin Menzies’s “1421: The Year China Discovered America,” and Richard Williams’s 2006 book “Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend,” along with various works from the now-discredited Dunning school, which held sway in the early 20th-century with its argument that Reconstruction failed because African-Americans were not capable of self-government.
Again, you have only until this coming Monday, July 9, to submit your nominations. Get to it, already!

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

You’ll Remember Ellin

My first experience with the work of American novelist Stanley Ellin came a few years back, when I penned a “forgotten books” piece for The Rap Sheet about his outstanding 1958 private-eye novel, The Eighth Circle. I’ve since collected and enjoyed more of Ellin’s fiction, both short stories and books, some of his tales perhaps best categorized as crime fiction, others as macabre suspense.

But after reading blogger Sergio Angelini’s fine recent backgrounder on Ellin’s authorial career, posted in Tipping My Fedora, I realize I still have a long way to go before I can claim a thorough understanding of Ellin’s work. “Ellin died on 31 July 1986,” Angelini recalls, “leaving a legacy of some fifteen novels and three-dozen short stories.”

Fortunately, Angelini promises to “post reviews of many of his books over the next few months.” If the blogger sticks to his previous pattern, he will likely provide links to those from this intro piece, so check back there periodically.

In the meantime, keep your eyes out for Ellin’s books. And if you find any, snap them up immediately. I guarantee, you won’t be disappointed.