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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

WWW Wednesdays

It's WWW Wednesday as hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading. And it's easy to take part: Just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading?

• What did you recently finish reading?

• What do you think you’ll read next?

Current reads include Kate Morton's The Distant Hours, a huge throwback of a novel to the days of du Maurier and gothic family secrets, and Paul Murray's brilliant, funny and sad Skippy Dies, about the denizens of a Dublin secondary boys school.

Latest finished read is Jennifer Brown's Hate List. This YA novel about the aftermath of a Columbine-style shooting is tailormade for book discussions. Brown's debut novel gives readers space to think about how they feel about what various characters are doing. Me, I'm incensed at the main character's parents.

Up next? The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Three sisters named for Shakespeare characters by their scholarly father come back home to a small Midwest town when their mother is stricken with cancer. I have the feeling lighter notes will be struck as well as the more serious ones about sibling relationships.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Review: 'The Radleys'

THE RADLEYS
By Matt Haig
Fiction
December 2010
Free Press
ISBN: 978-1439194010

Suburban ennui and angst fill the days and nights of the Radley family in a middle class Yorkshire village. Peter remembers when he and his so proper wife, Helen, had good times. Helen frets about appearances. Really, really frets. Teen son Rowan is the favorite whipping boy of the school bullies. And disaffected daughter Clara is trying to be a vegan.

As a portrait of an aimless modern family, The Radleys is spot on. Everyone slogs through their days and wonders every night what became of their dreams.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Review: 'Must You Go?'

MUST YOU GO? My Life With Harold Pinter
By Antonia Fraser
Memoir
November 2010
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0385532501

Lady Antonia Fraser, from outward appearances, seemed to have a lovely life. An 18-year-marriage to a Conservative MP, six children, author of highly respected historical biographies and a wide circle of friends. While saying goodbyes at her sister's dinner party, playwright Harold Pinter asked her, "Must you go?" And both of their lives changed.

That was in January 1975. By February, they were desperately in love, both acknowledging their marriages were not fulfilling. By the spring, both of their spouses knew, and many of their friends. By summer, they were living together. And stayed together they did until Pinter's death on Christmas Eve 2008.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

In Progress: 'Best American Short Stories'

Charles Baxter contributes a tangled tale of "The Cousins" to Best American Short Stories 2010. It opens with narrator Bunny relating a boozy lunch he has with his much younger cousin, Brantford. Although the years separate them, Bunny feels they are connected, that they share a lot.

With the name of the famous victim in Donna Tartt's classic The Secret History, and cousin Brantford telling him that he feels like he killed someone but isn't sure, waiting for the other shoe to drop can derail the reading process.

And Baxter takes the narrative off course right away. While Brantford is asking Bunny for sympathy about this odd feeling, Bunny notes that "I haven't always behaved well when people open their hearts to me." Oooooh, more Tartt territory. Especially when Bunny dumps telling about lunch to talk about a woman he was seeing, Giulietta, whose eyes she keeps covered with dark glasses. En route to a super irony ultra New York 1970s party, Bunny asks her to please be clever. An isolated poet at the party calls Bunny scum when he puts his foot in his mouth trying to be clever and he runs away. Nothing more about Giulietta that night. The evening ends with Bunny enthralled about a pissy encounter with a drunk in a subway station he may or may not have had, much like Brantford's feeling about killing someone.

After a visit with Brantford's mother, in which she mentions a woman important to him that he never mentioned to Bunny, the years go by and Bunny meets that woman. After he's left New York, become a lawyer, found Giulietta, married her and had two children, all offstage. That woman, Camille, tells Bunny he can send her big checks every month to "exercise his pity". But this is the man who told the reader he has a history of not doing good by those who open their hearts to him. Then again, it's quite unlikely that Camille opened her heart to him.

In the cab ride home, Bunny listens to the Ethiopian driver tell him about the nine hearts each Somali has, hidden one inside the other. Then the story ends with Bunny on the outside of his home looking in.

"The Cousins" has as many layers as Somalis have hearts. But is there a real heart inside the other eight? Did Brantford kill someone? Did Bunny sock a drunk? Is he going to send money to Camille and why should he? Brantford spent his life taking care of strays. Bunny and Brantford have loosely parallel lives. Is Camille now Bunny's stray? What about home? Is it still his safe haven?

Baxter has written one of those stories that raises question after question. And it's just possible that none of them need to be answered. That the point is looking back down the road and realizing what has happened, rather than trying to make sense of it as it happens.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thankfully Reading wrap

Taking part for the first time in this year's Thankfully Reading marathon, my goal was to finish some of the books in progress.

First up was Liza Campbell's debut novel, The Dissemblers (The Permanent Press, 2010). Ivy Wilkes is the child of parents comfortable in Cheever territory. She heads out west to find her way as a painter, admiring the work of Georgia O'Keefe. Befriended by a confident woman who suggests they could make a lot of money if she could forge paintings in the O'Keefe style, Ivy's path has been determined. Her new friend Maya is a musician, as is her boyfriend Jake, a security guard at the O'Keefe museum where Ivy gets a job in the gift shop. Jake's cousin, Omar, chef and sketcher of birds, soon becomes her lover.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thankfully Reading

Thannksgiving weekend again this year is when book lovers can try to set aside time to spend with those most important objects in their lives -- their TBR mountains. The details and updates of other readers are here at Jenn's Bookshelves, while BethFishReads has a fun mini-challenge in place on Saturday: What do your shelves or TBR stacks look like?

Here's a view of my living room where the non-fiction section resides. Down the hallway are European and Asian, Canadian and American fiction. In the distance are the beginning of the crime fiction section. The UK fiction section is actually behind where I stood to take the photo.


What's in your reading plans this weekend? I'll post more on that later...

Friday, November 26, 2010

In Progress: 'Best American Short Stories'

The second story in the latest edition of Best American Short Stories is centered in Flannery country. Marlin Barton, an author new to me who I will now seek out, is the creator of Into Silence.

It's the story of Janey, a deaf woman past her girlhood who lives with her aging mother. Gradually, it's apparent that Mama is the control freak and that she wants her daughter to take care of her. "Come home" and stay there is how she rules.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reading Challenge: What's in a Name 4

Reading challenges can be great fun, and What's in a Name 4 looks like one of the best. Here's the information from host BethFishReads herself:

Between January 1 and December 31, 2011, read one book in each of the following categories:


A book with a number in the title: First to Die, Seven Up, Thirteen Reasons Why

A book with jewelry or a gem in the title: Diamond Ruby, Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Opal Deception

A book with a size in the title: Wide Sargasso Sea, Small Wars, Little Bee

A book with travel or movement in the title: Dead Witch Walking, Crawling with Zombies, Time Traveler's Wife

A book with evil in the title: Bad Marie, Fallen, Wicked Lovely

A book with a life stage in the title: No Country for Old Men, Brideshead Revisited, Bog Child

The book titles are just suggestions, you can read whatever book you want to fit the category.

Other Things to Know

Books may be any form (audio, print, e-book).

Books may overlap other challenges.

Books may not overlap categories; you need a different book for each category.

Creativity for matching the categories is not only allowed but encouraged.

You do not have to make a list of books before hand.

You do not have to read through the categories in any particular order.

Looking forward to a year of great book talk.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: 'Bamboo People'

BAMBOO PEOPLE
By Mitali Perkins
YA fiction
July 2010
Charlesbridge
ISBN: 978-1-58089-328-2

One of the strengths in YA fiction is that it can introduce readers of all ages to any number of places, situations and issues. Mitali Perkins provides examples of what it is like to live in the country where, earlier this month, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released form house arrest after Burma's junta of generals had kept her hidden for 15 of the past 21 years.

The pro-democracy leader is Burmese in a country where the rulers prefer the name "Myanmar", a name that the United States and few other countries refuse to recognize in protest of the brutal regime that rules the country.

In Perkins's novel, Chiko, a young city boy, lives on little food but lots of love as he and his mother cope with his physician father being arrested by the dictators. He is hopeful, naive, loves learning and has a crush on the neighbor girl. When he finds a newspaper ad seeking applicants for teaching positions, he hopes he can start earning money to help his mother. The wise neighbor woman knows better; he is going to be conscripted into the army.

As an involuntary army recruit, Chiko is beaten and subjected to indignities great and small. He is befriended by a streetwise boy who worries about his sister left behind in the city. Chiko is maneuvered into taking part in a patrol, but it's as demeaning as his training. He's the lead boy sent out to look for landmines in the jungle.

The first-person, present tense narrative changes during Chiko's mission to that of Tu Reh, a teenager who is the government's enemy. He is on his first mission from the refugee camp with his father. When they discover the wounded Chiko, Tu Reh's father tells his angry son that he has choices, that there is more to life than kill or be killed. Ecclesiastes "a time for war, a time for peace" is read to him. Tu Reh helps save Chiko and gets him to the refugee camp.

Once there, not everyone is glad to see them. Chiko's fate, as decided by the camp, forces Tu Reh to manage his feelings about conflicting loyalties, old alliances and doing the right thing.

The novel is a simple story that can easily be extrapolated to discussions about loyalty, gangs and bullying, in addition to a heavily researched portrait of current conditions in Burma. The narrative style and pace are well-suited to the youngest secondary readers, while the story may appeal to reluctant readers who are willing to try fiction set in a different country. The author includes information about current conditions in Burma in an afterword.

© 2010 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In Progress: 'Best American Short Stories'

Staying awake long enough on a Friday night to get any reading done gets to be more of a challenge as the school year proceeds, but I managed to start this weekend with Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched, the first entry in this year's edition of Best American Short Stories.

Steve Almond wrote an intense, tightly plotted story about a loser shrink who just doesn't get it and an angry patient who knows when to hold 'em. The title refers to poker players that are easily picked apart by pro players, and, of course it applies to what the two main characters think they are doing to each other.

Friday, November 19, 2010

#fridayreads

One of the most surprising things I've learned about Twitter is what a wonderful community builder it actually is -- in just months I've become a member of several communities with fun, fascinating people accomplished in the areas of society and culture I'm interested in.

Among the best is the amazing book community. It is erudite, welcome, goofy and diverse. It's easy to be involved too. Start with #fridayreads -- the "what are you reading?" tweets about books, audiobooks, magazines, cereal boxes, you name it. If you're reading it, tweet it and include the hashtag #fridayreads to be part of the wonderful @bookmaven weekend starter.

If you're not on Twitter, there's another way to share the news. Post a comment on the #fridayreads book blog partner, at www.thebookladysblog.com/2010/11/19/celebrate-reading-with-fridayreads/ (and check out Bookladysblog often -- she's a great friend of readers, writers and books in general who is not afraid to note her opinion.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: 'Songs of Love & Death'

SONGS OF LOVE & DEATH
Edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
Themed anthology
November 2010
Gallery Books
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5014-6

This new cross-genre anthology purports to be an "all original" collection of tales of star-crossed lovers written by fantasy, romance, horror and crime authors. The all-original tag doesn't hold up with the first story, Jim Butcher's "Love Hurts", in which Dresden and a friend fall victim to a spell. It's the same setup seen in hundreds of TV shows in which characters flirt with, or are tricked into thinking, they are in love and go back to their old ways by story's end.

The introduction is odd as well. It's a lifeless, Wikipedia-type essay on what star-crossed means. With no signature, one can only hope it is the work of a publishing company intern and was not created by either Martin or Dozois. If it was Martin's contribution, it's the only thing he wrote for the anthology. But then things get better, even if the actual definition of "star-crossed" doesn't always apply to the stories.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review: 'Moonlight Mile'

MOONLIGHT MILE
By Dennis Lehane
Crime Fiction
October 2010
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0-06-183692-3

Patrick and Angie are back. Still driven, still trying to do the right thing, but with new commitments. And when the past comes calling, the future is in jeopardy.

Patrick is trying hard to toe the line. If he can keep his disdain for the unprincipled rich at bay, he just might get a permanent job with the type of investigative agency that destroys whistleblowers and protects criminals, if their parents are rather wealthy. He hates it, but his wife and baby girl deserve the basics -- a home, relying on a steady paycheck, health insurance. (The undercurrent of having to betray moral principles to get these basics is so well drawn by Lehane that he doesn't have to draw attention to Patrick's dilemma; it's there as an aspect of how the middle class and below try to survive these days.)

One dreary evening, Patrick is confronted by the aunt of Amanda McCready, the little girl who vanished in Lehane's brilliant Gone, Baby, Gone. The price of doing the right thing after they found Amanda and returned her was devastating years ago and preys on them still. Whether they did the right thing remains a point of sorrow and argument between them.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review: 'Mr. Toppit"

MR. TOPPIT
By Charles Elton
Fiction
November 2010
Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590513903

Imagine sharing your name with the main character in a series of children's books written by your father. Now imagine being his sister, who isn't in the books. These dilemmas are the crux of Charles Elton's darkly comic, heartachingly marvelous Mr. Toppit.

Mr. Toppit is the character in the Hayseed Chronicles who is never seen, but who often compels young Luke Hayseed to undertake all sorts of adventures and tests of courage. At the end of the last book, Mr. Toppit emerges from the woods behind Luke's home. But that is all anyone knows of him, for Luke's father, Arthur Haymon, doesn't write any more books. They were never big sellers.

But then Arthur dies, struck in the road after visiting his publisher. As he lays dying, American tourist Laurie Clow tries to comfort him. Frustrated child of a mother with Alzheimer's and performing a dead-end hospital radio job, Laurie latches onto Arthur as if he was her lifesaver. Whch is just what he becomes.

Monday, October 25, 2010

In Progress: 'My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me'

Kate Bernheimer's new anthology, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, is a remarkable showcase of the very old and the very new, and how the very new awakens very old memories.

The Penguin anthology of original fairy tales brings together a talented roster of authors, from Aimee Bender and Joyce Carol Oates to Neil Gaiman, Michael Cunningham and Chris Adrian.

One of the stories that showcases this ability for the new to awaken the old is Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's The Erlking. A young child, at a folky faire held by a private school, sees an enticing, scary and entirely fascinating stranger. Her mother doesn't see this man. This mysterious figure both repels and attracts the child, who is on the cusp of discovery.

Bynum's descriptions of what both the mother and child are thinking and feeling are the very stuff of fairy tale anticipation balanced against the mundane activities of modern domesticity. And that quiet, central character? He brings to mind not only the characters created by Angela Carter and Schubert that Bynum references, but also brought back the feelings from reading the classic Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones and a certain character in my beloved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

And that is a great measure of the value of fairy tales. They may be a story you've never heard before, but there is something about them that you recognize deep within yourself. They connect you to things you've always known but may have never recognized before.

Congratulations to Ms. Bernheimer for bringing this anthology into being and for her work in having the value of fairy tales recognized, which she writes about in the anthology's introduction.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review: 'The Brutal Telling'

In honor of Louise Penny's Anthony win at Bouchercon this week for her brilliant novel, here is my review of it from last year:

THE BRUTAL TELLING
By Louise Penny
Crime fiction
October 2009
Minotaur Books
ISBN: 978-0-312-37703-8

Three Pines, setting of Louise Penny's enjoyable, thoroughly Canadian series, has been a bit like Brigadoon. Not many people seem to find it or recognize its original beauty once there.

But those who do discover Three Pines have gloried in their personal journeys, secure that they are living in a place where they are valued for being their eccentric, quirky selves. Although there have been murders on a scale to rival Cabot Cove, the cast of continuing characters has been safe.

Until now.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Review: 'The Vaults'

THE VAULTS
By Toby Ball
Historical crime fiction
September 2010
St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 978-0-312-58073-5

Arthur Puskis has devoted his life to the Vaults, the repository of all the official records of The City at the height of its rough-and-tumble, pre-war days. The orderliness, the routine, the proven veracity of his work provides all his existence requires. Until the day he discovers a file has been duplicated.

Ethan Poole is a tough guy trying to redeem himself after a crooked career in the ring. Now a PI, he blackmails corrupt city leaders and loves a fiery union organizer.
Top newspaper reporter Francis Frings, paramour of nightclub singer extraordinaire Nora Aspen, hears from a top city leader who has had enough and is ready to sing.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Review: 'Revolution'

REVOLUTION
By Jennifer Donnelly
YA Novel
October 2010
Delacorte Press
ISBN: 978-0-385-73763-0

Andi Alpers is one of a group of very smart, very talented, very privileged teens at a private school in Brooklyn. They begin their days self-medicating to dull the pain of being very smart, very talented and very privileged.

However, Andi, a promising musician, has real pain. She watched her little brother die in the street and she knows it was her fault.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Review: 'Best American Noir of the Century'

THE BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY Edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler
Crime fiction anthology
October 2010
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547330778

It's dark, it's going to end badly and there is probably a dangerous woman involved. Must be noir.

Otto Penzler, working with James Ellroy, has brought together stories to define this narrow niche of bleak crime literature with a new anthology. The Best American Noir of the Century has some of the usual suspects and some surprises (especially in its reliance on recent fiction, a successful reliance). Some of the endings are more O. Henry than James M. Cain, but nearly every story has something to recommend it being discovered by a new audience or rediscovered by a reader more steeped in noir. This is more than a collection of stories to dip into; this is a reference work for anyone interested in crime fiction to delve into often.


The collection begins with a classic that leaves no hope for sunshine. Tod Robbins's story Spur was the inspiration for the film Freaks, directed by Tod Browning of Dracula fame. The story of a little man with a big heart who loves the wrong woman is as creepy and eerie as any old European fairy tale, and is very different from the film. A truly inspired choice from 1923 for the opener.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Review: 'Rogue Males'

In honor of Stephen J. Cannell's passing, here's my review of Craig McDonald's absorbing Rogue Males. His conversation with Cannell is a wonderful thing to read; I got a great sense of what a great fella Cannell had to have been.

ROGUE MALES: Conversations & Confrontations About the Writing Life
By Craig McDonald
Nonfiction (interviews of mystery writers)
May 2009
Bleak House Books
ISBN: 978-1-932557-45-9


Often, those who are not writers can be bored stiff at the idea of reading what writers think about their craft. Thanks to the writers chosen by Craig McDonald to talk about their work, Rogue Males is instead a treasure of what makes fiction -- especially crime fiction -- matter.

Whether it's James Ellroy talking about his tortured past and plans of future greatness (just before he decided not to give interviews any more), Max Allan Collins and Stephen J. Cannell being honest about scriptwriting, the late James Crumley discussing writers he admires or Tom Russell telling why music matters, Rogue Males is filled with riveting people giving honest views on what matters to them when it comes to writing and, through those revelations, what matters in life.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: 'Bury Your Dead'

BURY YOUR DEAD
By Louise Penny
Crime fiction
September 2010
Minotaur Books
ISBN: 978-0-312-37704-5

Louise Penny began her Three Pines/Inspector Gamache series in the charming, Brigadoon-like Quebec village of Three Pines, where artists and creativity thrive and evil lurks, as traditional mysteries. The cast of suspects was limited in Miss Marple fashion. Quirkiness, such as celebrated poet and unrelenting crank Ruth Zardo, were highly regarded.

But as the series has continued, its creator has made each novel subtly more complex. Although food, art and quirkiness are still esteemed in Louise Penny's novels, there is far more going on in them than eccentricity and fair-play whodunits. The focus of the novels has become the human journey of forgiveness, despite knowing all too well the frailties of the other person involved.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Calendar: Faulkner birthday

There are upcoming posts in various stages of drafting, but meantime, it is William Faulkner's birthday. And here's this cool bookmark design that features one of his pithy ideas about reading, writing and thinking:

http://state.lib.de.us/learning_journeys/bookmark_1book.pdf

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: 'My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me'

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:


•Grab your current read

•Open to a random page

•Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

•BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

•Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
 
My choice this week is from the upcoming Penguin original, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, an anthology of 40 original fairy tales. Kate Bernheimer has gathered together an incredible array of authors with stories not soon forgotten, including the one I've excerpted. This is from Ardour by Jonathan Keats:
 
The wintertime clamor became almost intolerable, each man playing whatever instrument he knew, dancing, tendering bread, mead, gold. Ardour ... entirely forgot what she'd wished once to find amongst men. (p. 10)
A special thanks to Laurie London, at whose blog I discovered Teaser Tuesday.
 

Review: 'The Elephant's Journey'

THE ELEPHANT'S JOURNEY
By Jose Saramago
Fiction
September 2010
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547352589
Men have been many things over the years -- ignorant, greedy, forgetful, inconstant, loyal, intelligent, hard-working and inspired. To the fortunate, their companions have been animals. When that happens, animal companions represent the best of these qualities that mankind wishes or believes it displays.

Such is the case with the quiet, stolid Indian elephant Solomon in Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's last novel, The Elephant's Journey. Saramago, who died this summer, took the true tale of an elephant that was regifted from King João III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian as a wedding present in 1551, and turned it into a rambling fable of small acts and, when least expected, large emotions.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Review: 'Tears of the Mountain'

TEARS OF THE MOUNTAIN
By John Addiego
Fiction
September 2010
Unbridled Books
ISBN: 9781609530068

The histories of both Jeremiah McKinley and old California are displayed during the course of the Fourth of July in 1876 in John Addiego's novel. Jeremiah is one of those characters who just want to live a quiet life, to live and let live. But the most interesting things happen to him, and it all catches up with him during the course of this day.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Good Words: 'The Elephant's Journey'

The late Nobel Prize-winning Jose Saramago left us one more tale before his death this summer. The Elephant's Journey is a fable and mediation based on the real trip of an elephant from Lisbon to Vienna, a gift from King João III of Portugal to the Archduke Maximilian in 1551.

The huge contrast between the elephant's moving gestures and the oneupmanship practiced by many of the humans in this novel are portrayed with humor and knowing, wry compassion. Saramago, even in a scant 224 pages, also divulges in long asides whenever he feels like it, and often comes up with gems. To wit:

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review: 'I'd Know You Anywhere'

I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE
By Laura Lippman
Crime Fiction
August 2010
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0-06-202429-9

What happens to the girl who lives through her kidnapping and the murder of other girls? What made her different? How does she put her life back together? How does her family cope? And what happens if she buries it all but the past comes back to try to reclaim her?

These are some of the questions Laura Lippman addresses in her new standalone novel, I'd Know You Anywhere. That these questions are addressed through the action of the story and by what the characters do shows what a strong book this is, even stronger and more subtle than her brilliant last standalone, Life Sentences.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Upcoming reviews

After finished Laura Lippman's new brilliant novel, I'd Know You Anywhere, it became clear this late summer and fall publications are going to offer some fascinating reading.

A review of Lippman's latest standalone is next up here, while September reviews will include debut novelist John Addiego's Tears of the Mountain from Unbridled Books. October's offerings will include another debut novel, Mr. Toppit, by Charles Elton from Other Press, and the mammoth Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

In Progress: 'Best American Noir'

Not only should short stories not be read one after another after another, without pause for the effect of each one, but noir short stories definitely should be allowed to breathe on their own.

Take Dennis Lehane's entry in the upcoming Best American Noir of the Century (October 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Although Lehane is best known for his contemporary and historical novels of Boston, his 1999 story "Running Out of Dog" is set in the south. It's a post-Vietnam tale of three friends, Elgin, Blue and Jewel Lut, and how adulthood has not treated them well.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Good Words: 'Tinkers'

On occasion, posting an excerpt from an ongoing read is done only to highlight the lovely language. For example, there is this from the early part of Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tinkers:

When he imagined the inside of that clock (an 1801 walnut-cased grandfather's clock), dark and dry and hollow, and the still pendulum hanging down its length, he felt the inside of his own chest and had a sudden panic that it, too, had wound down.

When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart. (pp. 33-34)
I love this passage for its haunting portrait in miniature of a man who is dying. This is what it must feel like for someone who knows what is happening to him, and who has lived with love.

Musings: 'Mockingjay'

Mockingjay, the third book in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy, has little choice except to be brilliant, considering the first two books. The third novel, which comes out next week, is bound to be action-filled, since book #2, Catching Fire, ended in a cliffhanger revelation.


What I'm interested in seeing is how much control Katniss has over what happens to her. In both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, she had to react much of the time. She becomes a tribute for the games because her little sister's name was drawn. She agrees to the schemes of her sponsor Haymitch in order to stay alive. She responds to her fellow tribute, Peeta, based on what she thinks he is doing. She agrees to form alliances in the second book in order to achieve her goal of keeping Peeta alive.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review: 'Past Midnight'

PAST MIDNIGHT
By Mara Purnhagen
YA paranormal
Harlequin Teen
September 2010
ISBN-13: 978-0-373-21020-6

I know a lot about ghosts. More than the average person and way, way more than any other seventeen-year-old. Except for Jared and Avery, but most of what they know they learned from me this year, when things got crazy. I know a lot about things going crazy, too, thanks to my parents. They're paranormal researchers, and let's just say they like to bring their work home with them. And sometimess, their work follows them home.

For good.
And so begins the tale of Charlotte, a girl who has been moved around by her parents her entire life while they making documentaries debunking ghost stories. Charlotte, about to begin her senior year, is the quiet one of the family. Her more beautiful older sister, Annalise, is the one who has on-camera experience being a trigger for energy that her parents do believe in, even if they don't believe in ghosts.

But when the family checks out a restaurant in Charleston, S.C., it's Charlotte who the energy seeks. That energy will change what everyone in her family has assumed about their life's work.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Soapbox: Pigeonholing

Pigeonholing and putting down those who don't share your reading taste is right up there on my hot button list. Doesn't matter if it's literary people putting down genre folk or, genre folk bad-mouthing literary people. So when I see those who refuse to let their own reading or influences be limited to these arbitrary pigeonholes, attention must be paid.

Case in point today is a wide-ranging interview of fabulous crime writer Don Winslow at the new Mulholand Books site ( http://www.mulhollandbooks.com/ ) -- a site to bookmark and an imprint to support. Winslow writes brutal, fascinating novels about corruption and drugs. They are not breezy reads but they are complex, serious, riveting and very rewarding. He's got a new one coming out, Savages, that I plan to obtain as soon as possible.

Among his influences? Victorian novelist George Eliot's masterpiece, Middlemarch. This is the ultimate British novel during the height of its influence. I think even more highly of it than anything by the other Victorians I revere most. Here's a link to the whole interview:
http://www.mulhollandbooks.com/2010/08/10/don-winslow-interviewed-by-shane-salerno/#more-51

Good writing is good writing. Good storytelling is good storytelling. And the best authors, no matter where their own works are shelved, know this.

I thought highly of Winslow before but he's definitely riding even higher now.

And check out the Mulholland Books site every day for a new author interview.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Review: 'Lay Down My Sword and Shield'

LAY DOWN MY SWORD AND SHIELD By James Lee Burke
Fiction
February 2010
Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster) (reprint edition)
ISBN: 978-1-4391-6545-4

Hackberry Holland came on the literary landscape in 1971, talking about the bullet holes in his porch left by John Wesley Hardin when the outlaw confronted Hack's grandfather before relating how, as an up-and-coming politician, he ended up far from the corridors of power.

In 2009, Hack was seen again in Burke's brilliant Rain Gods. Now, Hack's introduction, Lay Down My Sword and Shield, has been reprinted.

Son of a congressman, Hack is on the verge of becoming one himself. All he has to do is live through endless cocktail parties, meetings with donors and pretending to be happily married to his ice queen wife. Anyone who survived being a Korean prisoner of war should be able to put up with a few wealthy Texas housewives and a senator, right? Instead, Hack is drinking himself into oblivion.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Review: 'Brodeck'

BRODECK
By Philippe Claudel
Fiction
June 2009
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0-385-52724-8

A small Alpine community appears to have recovered from a great war in which young men from the village died. Most did not return. But one did. Brodeck survived a prison camp by degrading himself, crawling on all fours while wearing a dog collar to amuse the guards. He writes reports now, chronicling the changing of the seasons and noting the passage of time.

Time passes very slowly for the village, as well as for Brodeck, his wife, daughter and the woman who raised him as her own child. It's not quite a time of healing. It is a time when the townsfolk give the impression they are not ready to live again.

They don't have much of a choice, though, when a stranger arrives. A larger-than-life figure with a donkey and a horse, who follows people around. Then comes "the thing that happened", when the stranger is killed. The leaders of the village charge Brodeck with writing a report to explain what happened, to justify any actions taken. Brodeck also resolves to write his own version, keeping it secret.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Review: 'On Folly Beach'

ON FOLLY BEACH
By Karen White
Women's Fiction
May 2010
NAL Accent
ISBN: 978-0-451-22921-2

You know how you have a favorite author who just seems to get better and better? And so you know it's going to be a wonderful reading experience when that author's latest book comes out?

Well, what if the expectation isn't matched by the actual experience? This is hard to say, because this author, formerly a delightful correspondent on CompuServe's old Litforum, appears to be trying too hard. On Folly Beach has some wonderful ideas and retains Karen White's wonderful outlook on life, family and loving, but it was far too convoluted for what should have been a memorable story.

In Progress: 'Mr. Toppit'

Contrasts in fiction can be a powerful technique to convey ideas. Although I've read only about a third of  Mr. Toppit, a debut novel by Charles Elton coming out next month (Other Press, September 2010), contrasts abound. And they're making the reading experience richer.

Luke Hayman's father, Arthur, turned him into Luke Hayseed, the young protagonist of his beloved children's novels. Luke Hayseed isn't Luke Hayman, although of course people don't quite believe him. It's even worse for his sister. She has the Hayseed legacy but is not in the books, and this contrast is a heavy burden for her.
There also is the contrast between the Hayman family and Laurie Clow, an American who happens to be on the scene when Arthur is struck in the street and lays there dying. The contrast between the main narrative, from Luke's perspective, and a section about Laurie's drab life, is so apparent that I'm going to be looking for comparisons as well.
Elton's writing style has a flexibility to it that enhances these contrasts, throwing them into sharper focus. He also does a lovely job of the portions of Arthur's books, which are gleaming examples of British children's literature.
One of the highlights of the novel so far is that Elton does not use this technique with a heavy hand. It's not until the family returns to its Dorset cottage that I had the "aha!" moment. In Arthur's books, the forest is dark; it's where the mysterious Mr. Toppit lives. In real life, it's the woods where Luke and his sister, Rachel, find sunshine and love to play. Their house is dark, set against a hill and not a refuge.
I'm definitely looking forward to reading more tonight.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Review: 'The Man from Beijing'

THE MAN FROM BEIJING
By Henning Mankell
Fiction
February 2010
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0-307-27186-0



Although Henning Mankell is known primarily for his crime fiction featuring Wallender and his family in Sweden, The Man from Beijing is truly an international work of fiction. And although it begins with the discovery of a savage massacre in a remote Swedish village, this is not really crime fiction.


Instead, The Man from Beijing is a story of empire-building corruption, family ties and revenge that spans China, old Europe, new America and Africa.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Excerpt: Cornell Woolrich

Short stories should not be skimmed or read in a hurry or in succession. That's why I'm still reading Best American Noir of the Century (good thing there are still a couple months before the October release). But tonight I hit a story with some eerie musing that can only be Cornell Woolrich, and is:

Every life is a mystery. And every story of every life is a mystery. But it is not what happens that is the mystery. It is whether it has to happen no matter what, whether it is ordered and ordained, fixed and fated, or whether it can be missed, avoided, circumvented, passed by; that is the mystery.
From his last published story in 1968, For the Rest of Her Life. In these days of prologue-happy crime fiction, can't think of one that does a better job than the start of this story.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Awards: Man Booker longlist 2010

I adore Booker longlists. They represent a manageable stack of contemporary fiction that may or may not be representative of the best of what's out there now. There are predictable big names, the occasional surprise, clunkers and novels that have stayed with me for years.

Here's a concise description of this year's list and some initial reaction by British bloggers:


http://www.bookrabbit.com/blog/a-man-booker-dozen-round-up/#more-4045

Excerpt: 'Tomato Red' by Daniel Woodrell

Busted Flush Press excerpts Tomato Red by the brilliant Daniel Woodrell in advance of welcome reprint:

http://bustedflushpress.blogspot.com/2010/07/tomato-red-excerpt.html

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review: 'The Nobodies Album'

THE NOBODIES ALBUM
By Carolyn Parkhurst
Fiction
June 2010
Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0-385-52769-9


When we first meet Octavia Frost, Dear Reader, she could come across as a smug, knowledgeable woman more proud of her novels than her estranged rock star son. But, as with other things going on in The Nobodies Album, don't come to a hasty conclusion. There's a reason why Octavia and Milo haven't spoken in years.


Octavia is in Times Square, going to her publishers to drop off her latest project. It's called The Nobodies Album, a name that came from her son, and is new endings of her earlier works. But Octavia is not introduced as a woman who wants a second chance. Instead, her genesis for the reader is a meditation on how she affects the life of every reader of her works, how she puts ideas in their heads that were not there before. When she sees on the Times Square newscrawl that her rock star son has been arrested in San Francisco for the murder of his lover, she's on the next plane. Oh yes. She wants a second chance, the opportunity to rewrite her own life.

Review: 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind'

THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND
By William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Memoir
October 2009
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0-06-188498-6


Growing up in Malawi, William Kamkwamba listened to his grandfather's tales of men with magic who cursed people and leopards who ate them. He listened well, because he knows how to weave a tale himself in relating his own journey from farming to creating his own technology.


The early part of young Kamkwamba's story portrays a carefree existence with friends. School wasn't taken seriously, even if he wanted to do well, and family are good people who clearly love and like each other. Famine slowly but inevitably strangles their dreams and claims its victims. There is a particularly difficult passage regarding an animal who adopts Kamkwamba that is very hard to read. But he does not spare himself in relating it.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review: 'The Passage'

THE PASSAGE
By Justin Cronin
Horror Fiction
June 2010
Ballantine Books
ISBN: 978-0-345-50496-8


By now most have heard about The Passage, how it's this huge book about vampires, a post-apocalyptic thriller with non-stop action and a little girl immune to the virus that's making monsters, the first in a trilogy that's caught fire.


That's all true. But The Passage also is a work of literary mastery that is a strong story of love. Parental love, sibling love, love that lasts across the years -- that's what The Passage is about as much as it is about viral vampires and a small band of humans surviving the biggest experiment-gone-wrong ever.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

'The sky ... bled richly'

Bleakness is celebrated in The Best American Noir of the Century, to be appropriately released in October. The Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publication, edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, is a treasure trove of what noir is, from authors well known and perhaps not so much.


One of the mid-century offerings is The Hunger by Charles Beaumont, who wrote both stories and scripts, especially for the Twilight Zone and the film versions of The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao and Masque of the Red Death.


The Hunger has what may be one of the earliest instances of dual narratives -- a device that is over-used today. But in this story, the killer's voice is unexpected and veers toward being poignant. That makes the story work all the more powerfully, because the protagonist radiates as a poignant character. Julia is a young woman living with two widowed sisters. The talk of the household is of a mad stranger killing women. The sisters look forward to another murder as eagerly as Dracula's brides looked forward to his next victim.


The opening sets the tone:
Now, with the sun almost gone, the sky looked wounded -- as if a gigantic razer had been drawn across it, slicing deep. It bled richly. And the wind, which came down from High Mountain, cool as rain, sounded a little like children crying: a soft, unhappy kind of sound, rising and falling.
Definitely material worthy of the month of Halloween.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Another Look: 'Stone's Fall'

An excellent analysis of Iain Pears's Stone's Fall by The Little Professor:

http://littleprofessor.typepad.com/the_little_professor/2010/07/stones-fall.html

Review: 'A Week in December'

A WEEK IN DECEMBER

By Sebastian Faulks
Fiction
March 2010
Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0-385-53291-4
Seven days, seven characters, seven lives that nearly intersect but don't quite -- this is the way Sebastian Faulks tells his latest story. The main focus is on a cold character who manages a hedge fund, one of those shadowy capitalists who live only to make money. As with many characters of this ilk, he has a wonderful family that he neglects and no clue about what has real value in his life.
John Veals already has more money than he and 20 clones could spend, but amassing more fortune isn't what drives him. It's beating the system. And since he's been so good at it, the stakes keep getting higher. He gets more sanguine about what his amoral plotting may do to innocent people and the world economy (his deputy feels the same way). Meantime, his teenage son displays his heritage only by becoming more jaded about how much pot he smokes and how much time he spends watching a reality show featuring genuinely mentally ill people. The boy's only other pastime is spent in on online world.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review: 'Think of a Number'

THINK OF A NUMBER
By John Verdon
Thriller
July 2010
Crown
ISBN: 978-0-307-58892-0

Gurney is one of those ultimate tough-guy cops who, when retired, tries to lead a quiet life. He has moved to the quiet countryside from the big city to please his wife. He took an art class with her and is developing a growing reputation recreating mug shots of serial killers that reflect what he sees in their faces. It's a little too close to the life he once led, his wife notes.

Madeline has a point. The minute a college classmate contacts him after decades of silence with a poisoned pen puzzle, Gurney's intrigued. Too bad his easily picqued interest may cost either or both he and his wife their lives before the end of John Verdon's debut thriller.

From the letter writer knowing what number the intended victim, a successful spiritual lifestyle guru, will choose to the Gurneys figuring out the signatory refers to the hard place in the original spot of being between a rock and a hard place, Verdon shows just how easy it is for his protagonist to slip back into his analytical way of looking at life. Solving the puzzle is what makes this cop tick. And this villian knows how to be clever and tricky.

'Like Butter in Cookie Dough'

The idea of how much a writer cannot help but include of herself in her writing is one of the ideas in Carolyn Parkhurst's new novel, The Nobodies Album. (More coming on the entire book later.)

The narrator is Octavia Frost, a moderately successful, middle-aged novelist. She has an arch, wry yet perhaps not completely reliable voice that brings to mind a combination of the protagonist of John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure and Stevens in the masterpiece, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day.

Even while her estranged rock star son is accused of killing his girlfriend, Octavia cannot help but think of herself and her writing.

Is she in her books? The woman whose husband and daughter died years ago, and whose son she thinks she ignored? Are you kidding?

Review: 'Men Who Would Be King'

THE MEN WHO WOULD BE KING
By Nicole LaPorte
Nonfiction
May 2010
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0-547-13470-3

Once upon a time, three boy-men thought they were pretty good at what they did and pretty important. So did the rest of the world. Then they joined forces, formed DreamWorks SKG and it all fell apart.

Putting the story of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen together in an easily understood format, despite a huge cast, special effects and multiple storylines, is former Variety reporter Nicole LaPorte. Her book is as detailed as the great entertainment biz reporting of the 80's and 90's by Connie Bruck, Bryan Burrough and Ken Auletta in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

All the background noise fades, though, in making clear that the broken promise of this would-be indepedent Hollywood live film, animation, TV, music and game behemoth came down to the personal stories of its founders.

Review: Neil Gaiman's 'Stories'

STORIES
Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
Anthology
June 2010
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0-06-123092-9

Speaking with clarity and heart about the worlds that open up with the telling of tales, Neil Gaiman lays down the genre wars gauntlet with "Just Four Words", his brilliant introduction to the brilliant anthology, Stories.

And what tales these are in the collection edited by Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, from authors known for their work in literary and genre, all addressing those four important words in the introduction. "...and when what happened?" is what draws readers into a story and keeps them going, and Gaiman is one of the masters today in knowing this. People are missing out on stories they may love because of genre boundaries, which Gaiman calls frustrating. Instead of serving their initial purpose "to guide people around bookshops", Gaiman notes genre boundaries "now seemed to be dictating the kind of stories that were being written".

So readers who think they only like certain kinds of stories are the ones who could get the most from browsing Stories. There is definitely something for everyone. But more importantly, these stories are highly successful at answering the question posed by those four words. Even the ones that are not stellar winners are still interesting, which is rare for any anthology.

'Only Connect'

In these ultra-plugged-in days, having a niche, being known for one thing, seems to be a key to being known.

Oh well.

I just can't do it. I can't read and write only about one kind of novel or even fiction. I read literary fiction, short stories, crime fiction and YA. I read history, biography, current events and lots of memoirs. I read science for non-scientists and books about the movies and cookbooks. My magazine and literary journal subscriptions are gifts that expand the world every time they arrive in the mail.

As for reviews, I've been writing them since the late 1970s while working for a small daily newspaper in southwest Washington, and for CompuServe for roughly 10 years. The latter started as romance reviews. I appreciated them for teaching me about the flow of story, how to balance interior and exterior conflict and how to see what works and what doesn't within the regularly defined confines of a genre.

But just as I don't eat fish or chicken or salad every night, so I don't read only one thing. And so this blog won't be about only one kind of reading.

While I understand that genre exists to provide a bit of guidance about what kind of story to expect, I cannot put down any to build up another. They all serve a reading purpose. And at different times in my life and reading experience, they have given me different treasures. They have made me more aware of other people's ideas and feelings, of their experiences, and of how we are truly connected.

As E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End: "Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer."