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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:

Excerpt: 'Tomato Red' by Daniel Woodrell

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

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review: 'The Nobodies Album'

By Carolyn Parkhurst
June 2010
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'

By William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
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'

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:

Review: 'A Week in December'


By Sebastian Faulks
March 2010
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'

By John Verdon
July 2010
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'

By Nicole LaPorte
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'

Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
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."