Monday, February 25, 2008

Book Recs

I don't read as much as I used to. Some of it is that I spend a lot more of my free time on the "Intranets." (I know much more about Britney Spears than I care to admit.) But some of it is that, um, books just aren't as well written anymore. Earlier in this blog I mentioned the emergence of bovies or mooks, books that were clearly written with a screenplay in mind. Unfortunately, in addition to all media being treated as one entity, there is another casualty that is the result of what I call the "suiting-up" of the publishing industry; a possibly more insidious result of the need to sell more widgets that look like and sound like books.

This is the press for authors to write as much as is humanly possible, or in other words, churn out another book on that assembly line of words. This results in books with good (or even great) premises, but the authors were not given the time to actually write it. Writing takes time; it takes thinking about. If you're pressed to write a book a year, well, that's not much time to hammer out an idea to its logical fruition. Anyway, I'm not going to trash my fellow mystery authors, but one book that I think that suffered from that in a big way is the last Harry Potter book. I work as a professional editor, whoo boy!, did that book need editing. It was a first draft. Bloated, unwieldy, confusing, repetitive, and abysmal pacing are just a few of the problems with that book. But you know, I bet Ms. Rowling was under enormous pressure (not to mention contractual agreements) to pop out that book to coincide with the movie release last summer. It had the bones of a great book, which were never realized.

Anyway, the point of this is that I have recently read five books that I very much adored, and since they stand out in a sea of mediocre books, I'd like to mention them so that you can enjoy them too.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: This man can write no wrong. In Saturday, he took one day and made a novel out of it. Here, he takes a lifetime and does so, in what I'm guessing, is 50,000 words max. A beautiful book, I can't recommend it more highly.

Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith. Another Arkady Renko novel. I love this series with a passion. It is spare, down-to-the-bones sort of writing. He is one of the few writers I know who continues to write a series that has not become stale. There are, what, six Renko novels, and every one of them is great; and not repetitive and not tired. I write a series so I appreciate how difficult that is. I admire him enormously.

And now two love stores:

Feast of Love by Charles Baxter. Changes in POV are hard to pull off. You've engaged your audience, the reader, and all of a sudden you yank them from one head and plonk them down in another. This book tells a story from multiple POVs, and man, it works. Only an author who really knows what he's doing can pull this off. Truly, it's a structural masterpiece. I loved this book. It has a character death, the disintegration of several relationships, and yet it's hopeful.

This is perhaps my favorite book of all. About Alice by Calvin Trillin. It's about how much he loved his wife, who recently died. That's it. Why he loved her. How much he loved her. By the end of the book you are in love with Alice too. You think, you lucky son of a gun.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An OMG! Moment

I'm in ecstasy. I got a starred review from Publishers Weekly (PW). I'm going to post the review below because it's as succinct a synopsis of my book as you'll ever come across. Plus it says really nice things about me!

All positive reviews are savored, naturally, but this book was hell to write. My characters stopped speaking to me, and I got sick (like WAY sick). Life was incredibly difficult. In fact, I would say that the three years after the publication of Beat Until Stiff were the worst three years of my life. I got halfway through writing this book and just stopped. I knew where the book was going to go, the ending (I always know the ending), but writing is more than just putting down words. It's giving your imagination a room to play in, and mine had checked out. I think this is especially difficult if you write in first-person POV. When your own "I" is taking a beating, your written "I" takes a back seat. Anyway, the point is that this star is so much more than just a star to me. It's like someone saying, "It's okay, kiddo. It's okay. You haven't lost it. You just mislaid it. And then found it. So let's celebrate. Piece of chocolate cake?" It's like that.

So, the PW review for Roux Morgue. Publication date? April 2008

"The growing rift between the “dinosaurs” and the “young brats” on the teaching staff at San Francisco’s École d’Epicure fuels the highly amusing action in Johnson’s superior second cozy to feature funky pastry chef Mary Ryan (after 2002’s Beat Until Stiff). Mary is unpleasantly surprised when Inspector O’Connor of SFPD homicide shows up as a student claiming he’s on stress leave. Although the cop is her ex-husband’s married best friend, Ryan and the sexy O’Connor have obvious chemistry. Tension among École’s chefs escalates with public insults, a petition to fire one of the classically trained dinosaurs and a water fight in the school’s prestigious restaurant. When one chef dies after an allergic shellfish reaction with no shellfish on the menu, and another is strangled at home, Ryan suspects something more sinister than differences of culinary theory. In one of many farcical scenes, Ryan enlists the aid of a hostile friend-of-a-friend to hack into École’s computer system to dig for answers. This enjoyable romp should gain Johnson new fans."

Friday, February 8, 2008

My Readers Are Dying

I'm going to assume that if you're reading this blog (anyone reading this blog?) that you're into crime fiction and that you know about DorothyL, the mystery Listserv. Anyway, they had a recent poll about the best crime fiction books in 2007. That's not what I'm interested in. What shocked me (sort of) was that the median age of the poll participant was 58 years old.

This should worry all of us. When I go to a mystery function, other than the kids of the person talking, the audience is OLD. I'm 51, and I'd say I'm probably on par with a lot of people. Forty is young in these venues. This demographic nightmare might account for why book sales are dropping across the board. The publishing industry isn't attracting new readers with the same commitment to the written page.

Having two teenagers, I will tell you how they spend their time. They go to a ton of movies. They text their friends endlessly. They listen to their ipods. More movies. My daughter I would classify as a reader, but she doesn't read like *I* read at her age. But then I didn't have movies specifically geared to ME, clamoring for my dollars and time. Nor did I have clothing stores specifically geared to ME, clamoring for my dollars. I went to Capwells and bought my clothes in the young teen section, which was right next to the "women's" section where my mother bought her clothes. Then the Summer of Love hit, and I'd take the bus to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley to buy my clothes. I didn't have Gap, Forever 21, H&M, Nordstrom, etc. , waging ad campaigns to the tune of millions of dollars to get my money. Just that bearded hippie who drove a VW van down to Mexico to buy $1.00 shirts and who then sold them for $25.00. Capitalism at work.

My son: ipod and gaming. He spends an enormous amount of time in front of a computer screen playing basketball and football, and when he isn't doing it with a mouse, he's doing it outside. He enjoys reading if we threaten to cut his legs off if he doesn't read a book within the next couple of days, but it's not a natural yen. And we have NEVER had an X-box OR a Gameboy in the house. He complains he's deprived, but given how much time he spends as it is on generic computer games, I can't feel too sorry for him.

In short, my kids are probably a normal demographic (except for depriving son of a Gameboy), and their time (and money) is eaten up with all these possibilities, and reading is NOT at the top of their list.

As my reading population ages and then dies (let's be realistic), who is going to buy my books?

Thursday, February 7, 2008


I'm not very good on the selling end of this process, but I do have some gigs lined up as of now that I'd like to tell you about.

I'm appearing at "M Is for Mystery" in San Mateo on 3rd Street on May 3rd at 2:00 pm. Ed Kaufman's store is a wonderful place in and of itself. You got favorite crime fiction authors? He's got 'em stocked, in addition to having a fine collection of signed first editions for you collectors out there. Anyway, I'll be there reading from new book, Roux Morgue, and (here's the important part), if I have time, I plan to rustle up some baked goods. A tart here, a chocolate cake there. Mosey on down.

I'll be at Malice this year. I was a Malice Grant Winner and also was nominated for an Agatha for Best First for Beat Until Stiff, so Malice has a special place in my heart. That's the weekend of April 25. I'll let you know if I have a panel; I've requested one. Here's hoping.

I'm also going to be at Bouchercon this year: October 9-12 in Baltimore. Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald, the publishers of Poisoned Pen Press (my publisher), are being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. I'll be there cheering with the rest of the PPP possee, and, also, I hope, to have a panel there.

That's it for now, am going to keep working the speaking angle, should have update soon.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

State of the Genre

I often peruse Publisher's Weekly announcements of big deals, and I always find it a fascinating read, and have you noticed that it also includes film info. But, you say, this is, ahem, Publisher's Weekly, and shouldn't it be all about books? But, I say, we are now in the world of bovies or mooks, which has profoundly affected the way books are being written.

In the genre that I write and heavily invest in, the potential for movie and television deals is always a good shot because, hey, the who-done-it is pretty much is a sale. I know several people who have had their books nabbed for at least "treatments" because the media are desperate for material and what's $10,000 to them? I wish they'd send a little of that desperation my way, but hey.

Which means that since books sales are not great in general, across the board, people are writing for the movies. I can see it in nearly ALL the big name crime fiction authors. There's definitely been a shift. Lot less internal monologue and description. LOTS OF ACTION. In fact, the last book I read by one of the biggest names in the crime fiction world read like a screenplay. All that was missing were the character tags. It was so sparse that I expect he will have to do nothing to it for a screen treatment other than hand over the book with a, "Here."

I'm not saying action isn't good. Action is great. Descriptions of physical action move the story along both physically and mentally. A well-written action scene is worth its weight in gold. However, a screenplay is NOT a novel and a novel is not a screenplay. There is not (or shouldn't be) a seamless transition between one and the other. When an author writes a pseudo-book, what gets cut out is the characterization.

Plot becomes ALL. The motivation and the characterization are more or less sacrificed. In fact, I suspect that the author feels it might get in the way of a sale if you have too much characterization. What you are presenting is almost a blank page so that the director and screenwriter can fill in THEIR characterization. Which is nothing more than what hot hunk or bimbo of the week can we slide in here. If it's too defined, then the generic male/female actor won't work. Or it will be harder to make it work.

The last five books I've read are clearly written with movie or television deals in mind. I've been following certain authors for years and a comparison between their earlier crime fiction novels and ones written in the last two years? It's all about the movies.

If I wanted to read a screenplay, I'd buy one. You know?