Sunday, December 12, 2010


One of the results of never truly leaving the nest (both sets of parents still live in the Bay Area) is that their traditions become your own. If we had left the Bay Area (at one point we were seriously looking to relocate), then I think we might have established our own traditions, instead of the easy route of purloining those of our parents.

Example, being a December baby, we always got our Christmas tree on my birthday. It's a tradition we continue with today, even though it tends to be inconvenient when my birthday falls during the week. And my husband's parents always made pizzelles during the holidays. My husband and I just finished making our pizzelles this morning. We are up to three batches of seven cups of flour and six eggs each, and no matter what, it always takes about forty cookies before the irons are anywhere near hot enough and seasoned enough. We tend to eat the "duds" and now I have pizzelle cookie bloat, but all for a good cause.

I think of this because this year kid one isn't going to be home to help pick out the tree. Odious classes are keeping her at University until after my birthday, so the tree will be decorated without her. We will put aside her favorite ornaments so that she can put them on the tree herself, but its still sad. And I guess this is what aging is all about. The adopting of traditions, the shedding of traditions as our situations change. My parents now have a fake tree. It's too much for them to pay for and haul a real tree up their front steps. But I don't think this tree is any less beloved despite its distinct lack of any scent. Because despite the plastic and lights, it still signals the return of children, grandchildren, love, hope, and all that good stuff that has always made Christmas my favorite holiday.

Now, if only I could get out my cards and, oi, buy some presents!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Lots Happening in Book World

Wow, lots happened in the book world this week. Google fired a first volley over the bow of amazon (its only possible competition at this point in the game), and Ackerman, who has a large stake in Borders, just make a bid for Barnes and Noble.

If you want the skinny on Google, Laura Miller over at has an ARTICLE about Google's foray into amazon's playground. IMO, they jumped too late and were too clumsy about it. They should have forged an alliance with Sony five years ago and gone mano-e-mano with amazon and Kindle from the get go. Hindsight blahblabblah. Also, I think Google is making a HUGE mistake trying to palm off OCR renditions of books as actual books. Any brief perusal of reviews of e-readers always focuses first on the quality of the read. THAT is what an e-reader is competing against. Even a decent scan is a crappy read, so no. If I were Google, I'd have these in a separate market all together and not even lump them in with the e-book market. They already have deals with a number of publishers (who I suspect are leaping at a chance to bring amazon down a peg or two). Maximize those deals and stop trying to palm off lousy scans as e-books.

My two cents is that  both amazon and Google will be bested by technology itself. THAT is actually going to be the biggest competitor for these e-book marketers. Because like the music industry, the bookselling market is now driven by technology. If Google can scan a book and pretend it's selling a book, then what's to stop me from buying a high-end scanner, doing the exact same thing, and charging a dollar for the download? NOTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And honey, I got a lot of books. It would probably take me a couple of years to scan everything that I have. Being a bookwhore, most of my stock is in hardcover. Ironically, Google's vision of evading paying copyright and scanning everything written under the sun and trying to portray it as the universal library is here. Except it's not in their hands, as they wanted.

I said here months ago that either B&N or Borders was going to go, that the market can't sustain two huge booksellers, and low and behold, Ackerman, who has a large stake in Borders, has just made a bid for B&N, the article is HERE.

This is closely related (if not a casualty of) the e-reader and e-book phenomena, although it doesn't seem so at first glance. The subject of e-readers always elicits cries of frustration from the book owners in this crowd. I don't own an e-reader, but that is largely due to cash flow issues, but I will buy one at some point soon. Because it's the wave of the future. I have acres of books in my house. I have so many books that I have them double shelved and stacked. When I make posts like this I always get posts back on how much people love their books, but that's no longer the issue. Because books are becoming far too expensive to produce and their market share in the entertainment field continues to drop. Mass market is dyingdyingdying, and within the next ten years I figure that a significant portion of book commerce will be electronic. Readers don't have a choice. The market is changing without their participation. They can buy as many books as they want now, but that's not going to save the paper book. I think that there will always be a few books published. The best sellers. The textbooks. Non-fiction. But the rest I think is going electronic because book buying and book selling is a dying business. And when you have a book reader that costs less than a frigging phone, well, then. What that does for the author is a whole other post.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Dining Problem

My husband and I have entered a period in our lives where we are transitioning into true adulthood. By that I mean it's obvious that we should no longer benefit from the bounty of our parents, but we should swap out and have them benefit from our bounty. That's slowly happening as the reality of the parental units providing big holiday dinners for lots of people is no longer an option. Pot lucks are becoming the order of the day, which is fine, except I suspect that even hosting these pot lucks is starting to be something of a burden.

I certainly have no objection to hosting large dinners, ahem, former chef you know, but I can't and it's purely down to just not having the space. I live in what I lovingly refer to as "The Box." We did remodel "The Box" a few years ago but that didn't result in any more square footage. It's now a nicer box, but still a box. I don't have a real dining room; it's merely the extension of the living room or a large hall into the kitchen.  The longer I live out here, the more I realize that these homes were built in an era where food wasn't important. Where you didn't eat. I'm guessing there was this assumption that you barbecued for twelve months of the year. A tract home built in the 1950s, these houses were put up fast and cheap. And they look it.  Or at least ours did. Now we added some nice touches but I still have no real dining room. That's the thing about these cheap tract houses.

And I'm sick of it. I desperately want a dining room. I want to throw dinners where I can add all the leaves of my dining table and not have the table hit my couch. I want the space to dine with many. I want a dedicated room solely dedicated to eating!

There's hope. My husband and I are seriously considering moving from our tract when the last kid is done with school. There are several reasons for this. First of all, we are not suburban people. More than fifteen years have past since we moved here and neither of us feels like we've planted any roots. Second, tiny house, see above. When I mention that we're thinking of moving people assume we're down-sizing. "Oh, moving into something smaller now that the kids are gone." Are they crazy? No bigger, we want much, much bigger.

Aside from my magnificent yard and the margaritas at El Charro, I don't think I will miss anything. Oh, the trees turning. That I will miss. We get fall colors out here and that I will mourn. I love the fall out here, but it doesn't make up for the spring and winter and the truly hated hothothot summer.

In anticipation of moving I've been looking at houses online. Of course, none of the houses I want we can afford, but the one thing I will not budge on is a dining room. I am sick of this wide hallway with a table and chairs in the middle of it. I want a place to put a dining table, where I can extend the leaves, where I can host Thanksgiving and Christmas if need be.

I'm ready to receive that passed baton, but no place to put it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Salute to a Vet

This is my yearly salute to my step-father. He turned 89 this summer. My own father was sort of made of fail, and this guy stepped up to the plate and basically did every thing right that my father did wrong. He's made my mother exceptionally happy for the last forty years and he deserves kudos for so many things, but today we focus on him being a vet.

Although a pacifist, he found himself joining the RAF in Britain in 1939 as a radio operator. He's still building radios to this day. He was captured in Java in 1940 and managed to survive five years in a Japanese prison camp. He was 75 pounds when the war ended. If you've read King Rat by James Clavell, you know my step-father's story. Although he never met Clavell, they were in Changee prison about the same time. His stories of those years are bone-chilling.

Anyway, Ken, hat's off.

State of Whatever

So, I think that it's time to face some facts. Book publishing is dying. Publishers are hanging on by their nails, and what dollars they do have are being invested mightily in those authors with a proven track record of sales. No one is taking chances in this market. No one is buying in this market. Authors continue to get dropped by their publishers. Plus, we are in a gray zone as we transition from paper books to e-books. FYI: according to amazon, sales of e-books has now surpassed sales of ALL paper books, including hard covers and soft covers combined. The future is here. How this shakes out is still a mystery to all involved. What I do know is that the big authors will continue to see their books published in paper, and authors like me will find themselves as e-authors.

I might actually do better as an e-author because the investment in an e-book is minimal. You might take a chance on me if you only have to pay $4.99 for the privilege. That's the cost of a large coffee with a double shot of espresso. But that's still an "if." If the big publishers demand that the sale price of e-books remain somewhat on par with the sale price of paper books that will kill authors like me. I doubt that my publisher will take that sort of hardstand because a great deal of their sales are to libraries and library patrons tend to like books. But even that's changing as even libraries are now looking at e-books. If your goal is to get people to read, then having e-books for "rent" could mean endless inventory, albeit in bytes and not shelf space.

What's the new author to do? That author who is trying to break into the biz? I don't know. I've thought about this a lot. I think that author collectives are going to be the name of the game. I did a review here recently on Stephen Elliott's The Adderall Diaries, and he's basically done just that: banded a bunch of authors together that's part literary e-salon and part social salon. He's doing a nice job, and I commend him for it. He seems to always think a little outside the box. I recommend getting his daily letter. It's always got some interesting insight into life in the city or publishing. Anyway, the site it called "The Daily Rumpus" and it's URL is here: In the top right-hand corner you'll see a link in how to subscribe to the google group for his daily (mostly) email.

Even as I see this as the wave of the future, what is scary is that Elliott already has a fair amount of cred. He's not some newbie author banding together with other newbie authors trying to get people other than their friends and relatives to buy their books. That they basically have to self-publish because no publisher will pick them up. I don't know how you make a presence if you don't already have some presence. The only way I can see doing it is to pick a niche and then cater to that niche (interestingly, Elliott's niche is the SandM scene in S.F., which he uses mercilessly in his writing). But it could be something as simple as writing mysteries that feature dogs. So you go to vets and ask if you can display your book for sale. You contact other authors who write about dogs and as a collective unit you buy space at dog shows and try to sell your books. You work it.

This system involves investment and time (I work pretty much full time and I don't have any money--kid in college), so it probably wouldn't work for me, but that's where I see it going. You have to band together and work your six-degrees-of-separation like crazy. You Facebook. You Twitter. You take cute pictures of dogs and post them. You become a marketing machine with other writers.

Essentially, I think that we will all have to become our own publishers and publicists.

Maybe I'm wrong. I hope so. The e-book revolution will mean that I can be published forever, but it doesn't mean that I will have any readers. And that's the rub.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Election Results

You may argue about various policies and whether we should cut spending or increasing spending or whatever. What I would like to say about the current election results is that this is not my America. Granted, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is a melting pot. The U.S. Senate is now largely composed of wealthy white people. My America isn't white and it isn't wealthy. Election result after election result was followed by the amount of dollars funneled into these campaigns by the GOP. THIS HAS TO STOP. The only bright spot in this entire election is that fact that it appears that Meg Whitman did not buy the state of California. Sadly, we can't say that about the rest of America. Your vote is for sale. Apparently.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


My panel at Bouchercon panel was composed of Poisoned Pen writers, moderated by our editor, Barbara Peters. Fortunately she changed the topic of the Bouchercon panel from the generic "where do you get your ideas" to the topic of voice in writing. Seriously, when someone asks me that question I feel like saying I rough up homeless people and make them spit out mystery plots. Because that old adage that there are no new plots is actually true. It's been thought up before and will be thought up again and what distinguishes your rehash from someone else's rehash is your voice.

Voice is the most critical aspect of a writer's bag of tricks and the most elusive to develop. It's what makes your books written by you. As Barbara said in the panel,  you can always fix a train wreck of a plot, but you can't fix a boring voice. Someone can present the most fascinating, relatively novel sets of ideas and it will still never get published if there is the absence of voice or the voice is dull and plodding.

So what is voice? To me there are two critical components to voice. First of all, it's how you, as the author, puts together words. Which sounds simple, except, this is where you put together words so that their style, pitch, rhythm, and jazz has a whole to it in your head. Sadly, this takes a whole lot of time to nail down. Like, um, years. Voice is your unique relationship (as an author) with words. The word "unique" is key here. You shouldn't sound like someone else. I find that when I write in first person my voice tends to be conversational (which is why I like first person narratives), but in third person it's a lot less snarky and more contemplative. Which, I suppose, reflects the salient differences in how different points of view work, but it's more than that. It's my brain working with two separate tools and how MY brain relates to the strengths and weaknesses inherent in those tools. Basically, it's where I finally get to the point where the disconnect between my brain and the page has been minimized to a decent degree.

Now the hard part., You've been writing for a bit, your sense of who you are as a writer is beginning to gel in your head and seemingly on the page, and then you reach the true wild card here: the readers. I liken it to us with our passports in hand. The reading train is in the station, you've bought your ticket, but you're just not sure you want to go on this journey. The first paragraphs are about wooing you to get on the train. This is my world, sit back, relax, we're going on a journey. Voice is when my writing and your internal editor are rattling along on the same train, and oh my, did you see that lion? Wow. That waterfall was something. Ha ha ha ha! Did you see those clowns? We are both seeing the same thing, laughing at the same thing, and in the case of mystery getting curious and terrified at the same thing. And there are no unscheduled stops. That is when my voice works. When we are BOTH on the same journey--orchestrated by yours truly. And that is also key. I'm the conductor, the person shoveling the coal into the engine, the flag person, and the person driving the train. Me.

What happens when my voice as an author fails? You think you're going to Africa and you find this train is bound for Hoboken. You don't finish the book. You're disappointed in the story. The characterization falls apart. The plot is mickey mouse. And yes, these are all structural things, but they do play a major part in voice, because someone with a kick-ass voice will make structural failures somewhat immaterial. Obviously, there is a point where you can only pull the wool over the readers eyes for so long, and then it becomes a case of Oz standing behind that curtain, yelling at you to ignore that man behind the green curtain, but really? Voice is the magic of a book.

Unfortunately, not everyone is going to like your voice. That's a hard thing to accept. The trick is to get most people on board that reading train. There are a few who have seen their fair share of lions, hate clowns, and are allergic to waterfalls, or (and yes, there is this), hate first-person point of view. There are a lot of readers who despise it and it's a book killer for them. I don't get that, but I have to deal with that every time I sit down and type "I."

In essence, voice is what makes the author a Pied Piper, but instead of a haunting melody on a flute, our lure is words. And the cool part about this is that every writer's song is different.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Post on Bouchercon

I'm stuck at home with a horrible cold, so what better time to post about Bouchercon. These are my personal impressions.

The Positive:

This was a very well run con, with only a few glitches. The absence of a map was quickly remedied, and elevating the Hospitality Suite from some place merely to rest your weary dogs into a vibrant meeting place to network was a stroke of genius. There should be a place other than the bar to congregate, and the Hospitality Suite this go around was fab.

The best panel for my money was the survey commissioned by Sisters in Crime regarding reading and buying habits of mystery readers. There weren't any surprises as far as I was concerned, but it confirmed my own sense of the market. There is a pretty strong divide between the 50+ readers and the 40- readers. Those between 40-50 straddle the market. If you're 50 and older you tend not to buy too much online, you like your whodunit, and you are very loyal to your authors. If you're 40 and under, you like dark, you like suspense, and you're not particularly brand loyal. You are buying more and more off the Internet and you're buying e-books, and you want them cheap.

Location? Well, you can't beat the S.F. Bay Area. It was nice having it at the Hyatt Regency because we could mosey on over to the Ferry Building for snacks or just some fresh air. The hotel rooms were pricey, but that wasn't a problem for me as I BARTed in.

The interviews with the stars of this con--Laurie King and Lee Child--were interesting, but I've seen them interviewed several times before (at previous B'cons, organizers take note that you need some new blood here). These interviews were not so much of a wow as that pleasure you get in listening to intelligent people talk. I'd never seen David Balducci interviewed and, man, is this guy worth listening to. What an excellent interviewee: funny, insightful, and a little brash, I could have listened to him for another hour. He writes CIA thriller stuff, which is not my cup of tea, but after hearing him I'm toying with the idea of reading one of his books. That's what these cons are suppose to do. Expose you to authors you've never read and put a bug in your ear.

The Negative

First and foremost, people need to understand that these conventions are largely fan-based. Which is both a godsend and a problem. Because you need the fans (and people arrive with suitcases of books to be signed by their favorite authors) to generate a majority of the con population. So, in keeping with this dynamic, the panels tend to be geared toward the fans. Which I understand, however, this tends to make the programming for these cons happyhappy, which is a little disconcerting, because publishing is currently undergoing some massive changes that should be addressed and weren't. Bouchercon is THE biggest of the mystery conventions and if we don't talk about these issues here, as the writing community, where are we going to talk about them? So this was irritating to me.

I've been to something like six of these cons and this was my last. Because they don't make financial sense to the small to mid-list author. Although e-books and e-readers have dominated the news for the last year (the smack down between amazon and Macmillan was fascinating), there were no panels devoted to that segment of the market. Because, well, people come to these things to sign books, and I imagine that the booksellers would be fairly peeved had there been a track on e-publishing.

Sadly that IS the big news in the market these days with e-books sales outselling hardcovers and paperbacks combined (per the latest numbers from amazon). Frankly, with authors getting dropped by their publishers (I spoke to two people whose series had been dropped), the e-book is going to be the only thing that keeps them published and available. As more and more authors are getting dropped, more and more authors are now resorting to putting their books up on Kindle or Smashwords. These authors have readers, they just don't have readers in the tens of thousands. And the current publishing model is to throw all your eggs into a few baskets and let the other authors sink or swim. Most of us end up sinking because mid-list is virtually a death sentence. Currently if you can't somehow elevate yourself to being beyond a mid-list author, you are toast.

As if to hammer home this problem, several of us from my publisher (Poisoned Pen Press) had no books to sign. And, yeah, I get that the booksellers don't want to buy books that they can't sell, but this becomes a cycle of disappointment for everyone. As an author I'm encouraged to attend so that I can generate some interest in my series, and yet there are no books for me to sell should I get people interested in my series. And, sure, they can order off of amazon, but isn't that diametrically opposed to what these cons are trying to do. Keep the independents alive?

For someone like me, being small to mid-list it doesn't make sense to attend. Yeah, it was nice to see people I haven't seen in a while, but unless the programming adds a track that informs me about market trends, and unless the book dealers start stocking my books, there's no point in me attending. I can't possibly justify the cost of registration if I don't even sell one book. Several people I talked to felt the same way.

Basically, I had fun, but at this point in my writing career it isn't about having fun. I wish it were.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Computer Woes and Why Apple Is Taking Over the World

For the last three weeks I have been working off my crappy laptop as the graphics problems on new and shiny laptop still persisted despite replacing both the motherboard and the LCD. I could have taken yet another day off from work to have a tech come to my house, and strangely that didn't appeal! Dell has informed me through a telephone bot that my laptop has been fixed and shipped.

This is the last Dell I will own. I know that Dell was proudly patting themselves on the back when they decided on this business model where they conduct all their business via telephone, email, and/or mail, however, now you have apple and their stores RAKING it in with their various products, and who is laughing now? Stores are designed to seduce people into buying products. Get it? No amount of pretty graphics are going to get me to buy a product. However, I walk into a store and I see it and it's pretty and it works and there is somewhere I can bring it when it doesn't work...

I know there is a group of people who despise Jobs and his arrogance and the whole Mac aura (I'm married to one), however, what is indisputable is that they know how to run a business and they have a product that works. I like my overlords to be competent. It's *incompetent* megalomaniacs that drive me crazy. Oh, FB, that means you. Latest privacy fail? Who is surprised?

To whit, the telephone bot read off my tracking number for FedEx and my fix-it ticket number so quickly that I had to listen to that phone message five times to get all the numbers down correctly. Dell, you've lost me as a future customer. Every single exchange in this process has been cumbersome and irritating and no amount of polite emails from your no doubt beleaguered staff will make a difference.

Still No Bouchercon Post!

As mentioned earlier, we have a new dog. The previous dog was something of a trial, even before her multiple (and hellishly expensive) illnesses, but she was beloved. Even though my childhood was most peripatetic, we always had dogs. My father even gave me a dog (an act that served to mitigate a host of his sins over the years), but Winnie was and will be, I know, the dog that I will remember best. I wonder if it has less to do with the animal and more to do with the period of your life with that animal. Winnie grew up with my kids, and when I think of her I think of my daughter at eight, an impossibly articulate and sweet child, and my son at four, an impossibly impish and sweet child.

Bear's putting up a good fight though. He's much easier to train, he's smarter, he's more destructive in some ways--incalculable hours and money spent in the garden + 1 puppy = major fail--but he's not Winnie. He tries, but, no it's not the same. But it's good enough.

One aspect of owning a new pup is that "I've been in a crate all night I want out factor." It's a little like baking again, being up way before the sun, but we've compromised at 6:30 am and he's pretty good about that. Those mommy genes, oh how I hate thee. He starts banging at the metal gate to his crate and I can't help but get up. My husband never hears him. I'm not complaining (too much).

This morning I'm up at 6:30 per the usual. The house is quiet except for the snores of my son. The first real rain is soaking the garden. I stare sadly at the flower beds that have been Bearorized and that I haven't had time to clean up. I see myself out there later today trying to create order out of the mud. The bonus of losing that maple last year is now evident, as the ash is beginning to shed its leaves. The maple was a goddamn leaf producing machine that entailed devoting hours and hours to raking, yet I still mourn that tree. What a beautiful tree.

The dining room is cluttered with material from Bouchercon so in addition to the garden I need to recycle what's not important and file what is. I bought four books by an author that had been recommended to me and now I discover I don't like her style. I'm not happy.

I've finished the last of the edits on new book. Although ridiculously pleased with it, I know that marketing it will be a total bitch and that I might end up putting it up on my blog just for the hell of it. I'm stymied what to do next. Young adult are the only thing selling these days, and I have an idea for that... Bouchercon usually hypes me up, but this con was so depressing in so many ways that I'm left a little battered and wondering about my future as an author.

Oh, the rain has stopped. Bear has dragged in a bunch of pine cones. And a gigantic root that used to have flowers attached to it. Sigh.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Get Your Purple On

I need to write a Bouchercon wrap-up post, but this is more important. I mean this literally. Go into your closet and put on something purple. I could get all meta-ish here about blogging and Internet privacy, but I'm not because the message today should be simple and not cluttered with meta.

GLAAD has designated today as Spirit Day, which was created to honor LGBT youth who feel that life is not worth living due to the hate, bullying, and cruelty they face daily. Your son, your daughter, your niece, your nephew, your next door neighbor's kid, anyone of them could be gay. Or bisexual. Or transsexual.

I got my purple on because I can no longer be silent about this hate mongering, this equating homosexuality with alcoholism, or depravity, or sin, or whatever bizarre and vicious words ignorant people use to defame our LGBT community.

Go to your closet. Now. Deck your ass out in purple for the Tyler Clementis and Matthew Shepards of this world. I think the hate mongers have had more than their fair say. Now it's our turn.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cranky Pants Away

So we've been ridiculously cranky here in blogland. Let's talk about the pluses. I'm attending Bouchercon next week, which if you don't know is THE mystery convention of the year. It's in San Francisco this year. I'll be on a panel with fellow Poisoned Pen authors and our wonderful editor, Barbara Peters. If you can't make the 8:30 am panel (no, that's not a typo), then try to catch me in the hallways if you're going. Shout-out to Jeri, yes, lunch on Friday works for me. I usually wear a kimono (a garment meant to hide a multiple of sins).

Also, I haven't talked much about the puppy lately. He's growing. He's chewing. He's basically winning the on-going war against the sprinklers. He now looks like a dog, however, he still acts like a puppy.


Pretty damn cute, eh?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Politics: the Dirtiest Game in Town

I've been battered by Meg Whitman's negative political ads for the last year, and all I can say is November can't come soon enough. I'm a committed Democrat, so the chances that I would vote for Ms. Whitman are highly unlikely, but I do have some questions that I'd like answered (and these apply to other Republicans who are running in national elections and who also seem to sneer at a system that they are dying to be an integral part of). An actual response as opposed to the canned sound bites would be appreciated. Because I should tell you that the sound bites are no longer working. You're starting to sound like a robot. FYI, you should be very worried. The newspapers of my youth (which never met a Republican they didn't love) endorsed Jerry Brown. The L.A. Times(!) endorsed Jerry Brown.

So first off, I can't help but see spending $120 million of one's own money as nothing more than a power grab. Because you didn't believe in the process of government to ever cast a vote, and yet now you're asking for my vote. I see a profound disconnect there. We should we endorse you to run a system that you've never endorsed? Your apology during the first debate was pretty damn sad. I can see missing one election. Maybe two. But your voting record is abysmal. There's no other word for it. It says that you really didn't care about the system because, hey, you were busy making money. And I will point out that this system that you say is so broken allowed you to amass enough money to comfortably spend $120 million on a political campaign. So what is it? Is the system that you have chosen to sneer at broken or it is working? Your bank account would seem to bear testimony that it's working REALLY well. Let's put it this way. My bank account wouldn't let me wage a political campaign to the tune of millions of dollars.

Second, I really don't get where you talk about your Silicon Valley experience as some sort of general blueprint for success. You keep trotting out the word "manufacturing." I will point out the eBay manufactures nothing. You don't even manufacture the content! You merely provide people with servers and search engines so that they can sell stuff. That's NOT manufacturing. That's, well, selling stuff. Even more ridiculous, you're not even selling your own stuff; you sell other people's stuff. So how can you even begin to talk about manufacturing like you're some expert where the closest you've ever been to manufacturing is, well, hell. You've never been close to manufacturing anything other than your own image.

I didn't want to get into the nanny thing, but needs must. I'm somewhat sympathetic to you up to a point. I actually take as a given that you didn't know. Although we differ dramatically on the issue of immigration, I do believe you that you didn't know. That's where my sympathy ends.

First of all, if you were so desperate to court the Latino vote, then you made a fatal mistake in hiring Pete Wilson as your campaign manager (Mr. Prop 197). To have that man as your chief strategist says all we need to know about you really feel about the immigration issue. If it wasn't all sound bites, then you wouldn't have had him as your second in command. So, yeah, major fail there. Second major fail? You should have used this situation with your nanny to cement yourself as a tough but compassionate person who understands that this is a complex issue. Your strident sound bites on immigration came to bite you in the ass. You know first hand how complex this issue is; you LIVED it. So you tell this woman that you cannot have her employed in your family because you are breaking the law. Then you give her a significant severance package and you hire her a lawyer. Because as you say, she's family. You use this in your campaign as an example of how you understand the issues and how this touches all our lives. Even yours.

This would have been a tremendous bonus to your campaign because there is nothing about your life that is remotely like mine with the exception that we both have two children. THAT'S IT. Your extreme wealth, politics, and values make us polar opposites. That's the burden that enormously wealthy politicians have to carry: that intrinsic lack of empathy for those in need.  I knew the minute that George Bush, Sr. didn't know how a supermarket scanner worked that he was toast against Bill Clinton (whatever his faults, he understands what it's like for someone working 9-5). On possibly the one issue that I might have been actually sympathetic to you, you fired this woman so that she wouldn't be burden to you going into a campaign. What naive planet are you on that you didn't think this wouldn't haunt you? Is it because she was so insignificant that you never thought she'd have the wherewithal to challenge your version of events, which, yeah, was nicely played out when you accused her of stealing your mail. In case you didn't know, that's entitlement with a capital "E."

Also, if you don't have any proof that the Brown campaign orchestrated this smear stop saying it. Because if there isn't any proof, you are only digging yourself in deeper and deeper as someone who has a massive sense of entitlement (there's that word again!), who is not beholden to the laws everyone else is, and when you get caught, then you whip out your entitlement to blame someone else. You are not the first high-profile person to be caught with your pants down regarding undocumented workers in a household. Own up to your mistakes, and then people might lighten up or give you a pass on your nonchalance regarding her eligibility documents.

Another bit of unsolicited advice: Pull that ad that says, "I spent one day at the border and the border patrol don't have nearly the resources they need." One day. Wow. One FULL day. Amazing. Now you are an expert. I imagine Jerry Brown in his stint as Attorney General and Governor could dreg up more than just eight hours to study this issue.

Now we come to the real problem, Meg. The very fact that you have spent that much money on a campaign says that you are used to buying your way into situations. It's like someone put the governorship of California up on eBay and you keep upping the bid, determined to win. You have been so immersed in a system where anything can be bought if you keep bidding, that you don't understand that some things cannot or should not be bought. Certainly not by someone who couldn't even get her ass into a voting booth once a year.

So I'm curious. How are you going to get things done in Sacramento should you get there? Buy legislators? Because, FYI, they don't have the war chests you do, and they are VOTED in (by people who vote). This is a concept I know you have trouble with because you keep saying that you're not beholden to anyone. I think everything you have done in this campaign has shown this to be a bald-faced lie.

You are beholden to money and power.

You are the poster child for why we need campaign finance reform. I hope you go down in flames.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book Review: The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott

This is one of those books that you either love or are irritated by. Its disjointed structure is both its strength and weakness. I loved it, but then I'm partial to memoirs and this story occurs largely in the Bay Area, so there is that connection for me as well. Plus, this author talks about writing on a meta level that few authors ever get into. Plus I had my own crushing experience with writer's block. Plus, hello, I'm a crime fiction author and have a prurient interest in murder, and the Hans Reiser case was front and center news for months. Plus, I'm friends with a couple of Alameda County District Attorneys. I, too, shop at Berkeley Bowl, like Nina Reiser did. So there are a lot of connections here that probably would make me predisposed to like this book, even if it were a mediocre read.

On the surface, this book is about Elliott's crippling writer's block and how a fascination with the murder of Nina Reiser and the people who surrounded her broke that block. The Bay Area is a big place, but it's actually got a small town dynamic to it, and it turns out that at least one key person who the police looked at as a possible suspect (Nina Reiser's ex-boyfriend) was known to Elliott through their mutual participation in the local S&M scene.  That's just one of the coincidences that floats in and out of this narrative.

What this book is really about is Elliott coming to terms with his relationship with his father. Elliott's fascination with Hans Reiser and the other people in the ugly interaction between Hans Reiser and his wife is like a knife to old wounds (which if you read the book you will appreciate the choice of words). This is one of those books where you need to go with the flow. The narrative isn't linear, it takes some mental energy to cobble together a coherent sense of his story, but the writing is so spare, honest, and bright that I didn't mind. Some people will mind. There's a fair number of words devoted to his S&M practices, but it's not gratuitous because it's integral to why he deliberately sabotages relationships that are important to him (surely a form of masochism) or cannot seem to accept love unless he has to pay a physical price. Which, yeah, seems pretty much a blueprint for his entire childhood.

One thing that did strike me about this book was that he ended it with an attempt to reconcile with his father (who trashes his son's books on his amazon page). He says at one point, "...I realize that I love him and my relationship with him is the most important relationship in my life." Sadly, I think that's true. It's also the least important relationship in his life.

I liked this book very much.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

We Interrupt Our Regular Programming...

Enough. Done. Stop it. In the past month I've had three people that I know come down with cancer. I've had two people I know mention that their mothers are being screened for breast cancer. I had breakfast last weekend with a friend who is a cancer survivor. It's getting to the point where I'm afraid to open my email or answer the phone. Of course, avoiding such news isn't going to stop it from happening, but I'm thinking, wow, such wonderful people. And of course, there's always that nagging wee voice. If them, why not you?

::Arranges for mammogram::

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Publish or Perish

So, I've finished my new novel. It's weird and definitely has a specific slant to it. It's not a mystery but it's about the mystery writing world. The criticisms that can be laid at its door are exactly its strengths (in that although it is niche--most definitely--it will really appeal to that niche). I have not submitted it to Poisoned Pen for consideration because (a) it's not a mystery;  (b) it was a book I had to write; and (c) it has not gone through their vetting process, which is mandatory [as to why I didn't submit it to vetting process see (a) and (b)]. I would be shocked to the point of perpetual lock-jaw if they liked it. It's not their sort of book, which is not a condemnation of them, so much as a condemnation of my imagination. But not of them.

I have it out to an agent. If she passes on it, I have a couple of other agents I have in mind. But seriously, it's going to be a bitch to market, and I can see people reading it, liking it, and then saying, no, it's not for me. I get that. I have other books to write, so I'm not going to sweat this one out for months and months. If all these agents pass on it, then I will self-publish. Which, yes, is a dirty word, although it's becoming increasingly less dirty as the publishing business starts careening into bankruptcy.

Barnes and Noble has put itself up for sale, and while there's a proxy fight that will probably delay that sale, the fact that it's putting itself up for sale speaks "volumes". Take a look at the inventory levels at your local book chain. Have you noticed that the books that are in high demand (reference books, Spanish for Dummies stuff) are now in the front of the store, and the musty and out of the way corners are now reserved for fiction? Notice how all the "things" have been moved to the front of the store. Gadgets, pens, notebooks, cards, all these things that aren't books but have a whopping profit margin are now in the front of the store. The inventory is non-existent as the staff moves the bookshelves farther and farther impart to give the impression that the stores are full of books, but they are not.

This is the publishing business imploding in front of your very eyes. So imagine what this is doing to the already decimated mid-list author. And the only way authors can fight back from being dumped by their publishers is to self-publish. It's the ONLY way for them to survive. These are decent authors with a dedicated following who want to read them. Of course, their readership isn't in the millions but probably tens of thousands or even one thousand, but they STILL HAVE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO READ THEM. They just don't have publishers who want to publish them.

Enter the eBook and the eReaders  and ability to be your own publisher. And people are buying. Spend a week reading the posts from participants on DorothyL and every week there's a thread on where's so and so, I loved his books or her books. Well, I can tell you, nine times out of ten they were dropped by their publisher. But now authors have the ability to publish an eBook or even a trade paperback from (ISBN number and everything), and a few of them are saying, yes, I'm going that route.

I might have to go that route. I don't want to, but I spent nine months working on this book. It's fun and a great read, and if you're in the demographic I'm targeting, I guarantee you'll love it. But that doesn't mean that a publisher wants to publish it or that it's even worth their worthwhile financially to publish it. I understand that. But there's nothing stopping me because I've already put in the time that I always put in. It's lemonade out of lemons time.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

September 10

No, that's not a typo. I know you were thinking, ugh, another 9/11 comment. Nope, this is just a personal acknowledgment that it is my father's birthday tomorrow. He's been dead a few years now. Being the victim of some horrible disease that robbed him of his brains, bit by bit, you could say that he's been a dead for a number of years.

He was a difficult man to put it mildlly. To say that our political beliefs were at polar opposites doesn't quite do justice to how differently we viewed the world. I could never understand how someone so intelligent (and his I.Q. was phenomenal) could be so stupid. I imagine he thought the same about me. One of those people of whom people say, "He could whistle birds off a tree," he was also legendary for alienating people with equal ease. You either loved him or you hated him. Whenever I'd go down to the hospital where he worked I was never sure of the reception I was going to get. Either people would glare at me or give me a broad smile when I asked for him. It was never indifference!

I put my daughter on a plane to go back to college yesterday. She barely knew him. By the time she was really aware of people around her, he was little more than a shell, barely talking, barely registering anything. Of course, we didn't know that this was only the beginning of the slide, and that it was going to get a whole hell of a lot worse. But the reality is that had he not gotten ill, it is very unlikely that I'd call him up to tell him that she'd arrived safely (like I'm going to do with my mother this morning). We didn't have that kind of relationship.

That's the thing about death. It ends all the fantasies that you may have. That one day my father and I could discuss politics without getting into a screaming match. That he'd actually call to see if his grandaughter gotten to her destination safely. That, well, you get the picture.

Anyway, Dad, I hope that where ever you are Leonard Bernstein is conducting Beethoven's 9th and there's a prime rib dinner with all the trimmings in front of you. Happy Birthday.

Love Claire

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Galloping to, Um, Whatever?

At the finish line! I've been toiling all summer on new novel. It's not the third in the Mary Ryan series (although I do have a kick-ass idea for the third book), but this is something, um, different(?). Husband is heading off to Burning Man to be wild and crazy--the antidote to his being uber responsible and conscientious the other fifty-one weeks of the year--and I'm finishing this goddamn book.

I'm not sure if other writers have the same peaks and valleys when they write, but these are mine. Around the 20,000-word mark I'm far enough into the story to have spent some significant effort and time, and yet I feel a little unsure. For one thing, I've got another at least 60,000 words to go and that feels so unbelievably daunting. Plus, this is where I start to wonder if I can pull this off. I do liken being a writer to being a magician, and at this point, I've gotten no farther in the trick than opening my hands to show that they are empty. This is probably the most dangerous point in the whole process. Yes, I've spent a goodly number of hours at my keyboard, but I could walk away without too much self-flagellation. I had my typical 20,000-word meltdown with this book, but my critique group said, "Oh noes, keep on going!" Which is one (but certainly not the only) reason why I'm in this critique group.

The next critical point is around the 50,000-word mark. This is generally where I feel euphoric. I've worked out most of the bugs and the world is so beautiful! I tend to do that as I write, revisiting chapters over and over again, so by 50,000 words it's a very solid 50,000 words. Plus, there's only about 25,000-30,000 words to go. Right?

Right, and oh on my god, there are the most painful and awful words. Because this is the point in any book where I have to produce the rabbit out of the hat. It means wrapping up plot points, making sure that *I've* made sure that the novel up to this point is going to serve my ending, and that the entire frigging book makes sense.

I've read many books where the last third is the most deadly. Where a writer has had a fantastic idea and served it well but couldn't quite pull it off, and in the last 30,000 words the entire concept falls apart (and yes, Nick Hornby, I'm looking at you and "Juliet, Naked" and the last book in the Harry Potter series). The rabbit has to appear. And this is where the magic metaphor ends because generally a writer can do all sorts of wonderful things to make you fall in love with a book, but if the end doesn't work, then you've failed as an author. It's like a getting the most fantastic meal and being served a boiled shoe for dessert. No amount of verbal pyrotechnics are going to save you. The ending must work, and while you can often band-aid problems in a book with a great ending, if you have a great book but a lousy ending, then you've lost the reader. IMO.

So we are on the home stretch. I've got maybe another 5,000 words to crank out, assuming that critique group doesn't absolutely loathe the chapters I'm going to submit tomorrow night. Then the first draft is done. And then it's to my agent for vetting and her esteemed opinion.

Then we see.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Book review: Muriel Spark: the Biography by Martin Stannard

I had a ridiculously long post on this book, and then I hit the wrong key and lost it all. Whenever that happens I take it as a sign that I'm being too long-winded. I understand that Mr. Stannard has written a marvelous book on Evelyn Waugh, and as his biography of Ms. Spark is exceptionally well written, I intend to pick it up. Having said that, I don't this book is well done. Its key flaw is that Mr. Stannard is besotted with Muriel Spark, and his devotion is so marked that it derails the biography. I'm sure that all the facts are in place. Muriel Spark wrote this in 1955 and moved to Italy in this year and got her OBE in that year. Yes, I'm sure all that is very factual. Mr. Stannard is a meticulous writer, but he's not a very honest writer.

Analysis of her books is, naturally, a substantial part of this book, and yet he is so enamoured with her that I don't trust what he has to say about them. Why? Because he repeatedly gives her a pass on her inexcusable behavior. No matter how many times you type that Muriel Spark was an artist and in the passion of exacting that art she was allowed to be dictatorial, rude, vicious, and selfish, it doesn't absolve her of being dictatorial, rude, vicious, and selfish. The woman was a frigging monster of selfishness. I have little time for people who use art as an excuse to be a jerk. She had a long history of cutting people out of her life for the most trivial reasons. The friend who happened to stop by while she was out getting her hair done and earned a dressing down worthy of committing high crimes and treason is just one instance where you as the reader are wondering what in the hell is wrong with this woman? As her fame grew, it seems clear that people were merely props in her rapacious climb to success. At one point the only person she hadn't banished from her sight was her agent. Interestingly, at this point, when she had cut out nearly everyone in her life, her writing became more and more obscure and fantastical. Naturally, she was writing for one person: herself. When she began to emerge from her self-imposed exile from the bores of the world, her novels become more generalized and, no surprise, much more autobiographical. In the last three decades of her life she seems to have found tolerable minions. People who when she said jump, they jumped. And they didn't jump otherwise.

Stannard's refusal to call her on this behavior (and I understand they were, at the very least acquaintances and she offered him access to her papers) mars what is an interesting book. Also, I felt he conveniently elided over her conversion. I never understood why she converted and came away feeling that she only did so as a means of separating her from her fellow Brits and her family. Her Catholicism was quite fluid, and without more in depth analysis, it's hard to see it as anything but a response to Dexedrine-inspired psychotic break.

But let's give credit where credit is due. This is a woman from a working-class neighborhood in Scotland who never went on to university, and yet through sheer brilliance and grit more than held her own with the Oxbridge men of letters of her time. I just wished I'd liked her more, and I wish Stannard hadn't been so wimpy.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Book review: The Tudors

I was a history major at U.C. Berkeley, and my specific field was English Tudor-era history, so you can imagine that a huge hunk of my bookshelves are devoted to this subject. There is something of an embarrassment of riches on this topic, from J. J. Scarsbrick's definitive biography on Henry VIII to Antonia Fraser's book on Mary, Queen of Scots. I can say with confidence that there isn't a popular history of the Tudors that has been published that I haven't read, and I've read a great number of the academic studies as well. So yeah. I get them, I know them, and I looked at this book sitting on the shelf of my local bookstore and thought, please, do I need to read yet another book on the Tudors?

Yes, I did, as it turns out.

Other reviews that I've read focus on the problem with the scope of this book, with literally half of the content devoted to Henry VIII. Which begs the question, why is it called "The Tudors"? I won't say that it's not a problem. Clearly, Meyer is fascinated with Henry VIII and the men who served him (Woolsey, Cromwell, and More are not your run-of-the-mill bureaucrats), and I think that he very much shortchanged the last fourth of the book, which is devoted to Elizabeth Tudor. I get the sense he was exhausted and gliding over events that really could have used some of his tremendous insight and turn of phrase that makes the first two-thirds of this book so enjoyable.

Because really, when you've read as many books as I have on the Tudors, it's the writing that becomes paramount, and this man can write. He's got an ease and facility for taking fairly complicated events and parsing them down to the bones. His chapters regarding Cromwell's stealth and ever-increasingly fatal attacks on the Catholic church are so well done that it's worth buying this book for those chapters alone.

There are a series of sidebars that I know annoyed some people, but I liked them. They take you out of the "story" to a certain extent, but I didn't mind. For an overview history, you don't NEED to read them, but they are, in and of themselves, interesting. The out-take on exactly what societal functions the Catholic church performed and how the break with Rome and cannibalization of the Church as a way to seriously pump-up Henry's power and coincidentally boost the Crown's coffers is especially well done.

I think that the point of the structure (front-loading the book with so much "Henry") is that Henry VIII so fundamentally changed the nature of kingship--castrating the Catholic Church in the process--that his heirs were not only dealing with the usual problems of a small island nation trying to play with the big boys (Spain and France), but faced the double whammy of trying to establish order in the wake of Henry's determined (some might say maniacal) juggernaut to establish his dynasty, regardless of the cost. And this book explains that cataclysmic upheaval (on all levels of society) very nicely, with Henry's heirs struggling to impose order on a society where all of a sudden the rules have changed.

On my Goodreads page I only gave this four stars because I do think the section on Elizabeth could have benefited with a more rigorous treatment. Having said that, Meyer's writing is engaging, witty, and humorous, with a fresh take on a topic that has been revisited many times in the last twenty years. I found myself smiling and enjoying every word. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Book Rec: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

In my other life, I'm something of a Harry Potter fanatic. I know far too much about Harry Potter and that fandom than I'm comfortable admitting. So I picked up what has been labeled the adult "Harry Potter" with a little curiosity. Initially, I thought, well, I have to admit I'm a Harry Potter nut because it will color my review to a ridiculous degree. But having read this book and thought long and hard about it, there are very few similarities, and the similarities that I do see are actually the weaknesses in both books/series.

First of all, there is a fair amount of lip service to a myriad of childhood fantasy books. Pick your poison. Chronicles of Narnia. Yep. Harry Potter. Yep. Hints of Tolkien. Other reviewers who are more into the fantasy realm that I am have listed a number of books that the author slyly acknowledges throughout the novel. The one book I have not seen mentioned is "The Phantom Tollbooth," which I think actually has much more relevance in some ways than any of these books. This is a book about a quest that only the protagonist can realize. Indeed, the inside flap of my copy has a map of the magical land, Fillory, which is so similar to the map in my beat-up paper copy of "The Phantom Tollbooth" that I half expected the protagonist to be named "Milo."

The good. We come out swinging here. Mr. Grossman is by far a much better writer than J. K. Rowling (JKR). He doesn't use excessive world-building to mask an inability or weakness in characterization. To be fair to JKR, not writing for children frees Mr. Grossman up quite a lot, and his book reads true; young men and woman talk like this. I have a kids roughly the same age as these kids, and like my kids they are rude, somewhat irreverent, definitely crude, and yet vulnerable with each other. Plus, setting this novel in a magical college allows him further grit. We have copious amounts of underage sex, drinking, and drug-taking at Brakesbill (the magician college), which pretty much describes my college career. He does not have the albatross that JKR carried around with her for the last five books, which is, who in the hell was her audience? By the end, I don't even think she knew, and it meant that she swung back and forth between both her children's audience and her adult audience, which weakened the series to a near-fatal degree. Mr. Grossman's setting is mature, biting, and all too believable. All the kids that populate this novel have an edge (with the exception of one, and I did have issues with that because that's the one character who becomes the martyr--how convenient).

Basically this is a coming of age novel. Where as Harry Potter had to come to terms with some madman who longed for immortality and thought Harry was the ticket to life-ever lasting, Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist of the Grossman book, is a sullen malcontent, whose magical abilities don't seem to free him from malaise so much as add to it. He loves magic and yet it does not liberate him. Much like Harry Potter, who is strangely untouched by the evil done to him and others, Quentin is untouched by pretty much everything around him. I don't need to like my protagonists and I must admit that Quentin is a compelling narrator, but I'm not sure by the end of the book that I understood what made him tick. He's seemingly asbestos, then he's not, then he is, and at the last are we to assume he's not again?

The magic in this book is appropriately dark and forbidding. And unlike the Harry Potter books where there is a clear line between "good" magic and "bad" magic, here it's a shifting line. As the story progresses in Grossman's book, the choice to use what spells turns out to be a matter of survival than anything else. The brief nod to Quidditch (welters in this book) is pointless. I would have taken it out. Quidditch in Harry Potter played several critical roles (perhaps the most critical was to fake out the reader into thinking that the novels were moving forward), and I think the minor plot points introduced could have been salted in elsewhere.

Where we have Adult Harry Potter Meets the Phantom Tollbooth is Quentin's obsession with the magical world Fillory, the setting of a childrens' book series that ended abruptly with literally no ending. Hark! The magical world in these books is real! No surprises there. I predicted that it would figure prominently in the story no later than twenty pages into this novel. Yet, it's a still a fascinating world (although there were some plot points at the end that left me scratching my head. No one else has commented on these gaffs, but I found myself asking, "Wait a minute. Why was this person killed if this person..." And "Why is **** is a prisoner, if the **** allows the very **** keeping the **** prisoner into the room?")

The one issue that I do have with the Grossman book is a compelling disdain for adults. The parents in this book are completely dismissible and in some cases odious. In fact, the children who go to Brakebills might as well be orphans. While that makes for convenient plot contrivances, it tends to maroon the characters and the choices that they make in many cases don't have consequences emotionally. Don't go home for Christmas. No problem. They won't even know I'm gone. And, of course, as is similar in the Harry Potter books, the adults don't exactly mentor. They use these kids unmercifully to fight the battles they cannot fight (or are too afraid to fight). This absence of adults might have made the book easier to plot, concentrating all evolving drama between the students themselves, but by the end (when all is revealed) it comes off as a plot contrivance, in my opinion. One that bled some of the tension out of the story because these kids aren't making a choice between one world or the other. Perhaps that was the point--Quentin in the end had no choice--but it left me a little irritated.

The ending of this book is appropriately ambiguous, mainly because the protagonist still remains somewhat aloof from the reader. I would say that for me that there was never a sense that Quentin ever wakes up. That the charges leveled against him by his girlfriend, Alice, remain true. He will never, ever, be happy. That does not change by the end of the book, and I wonder as a reader what I'm supposed to derive from this. That by the end of the book, as was the case in the beginning, Quentin seems passive of his own destiny. Someone is putting choices in front of this young man that he can either reject or not, but as a reader I would have thought that his experience would have, at the very least, liberated him from his passivity. In the end, this seems less a coming of age novel so much as an enduring question mark of who this young man is.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Oh, Father, I Hardly Knew Thee and CAKE!

Father's day is coming up (reminder to self, buy gnome for husband) this Sunday, and since my father is now dead, it has turned into the day for championing my husband, which is cool because he works his butt off and deserves some praise and acknowledgment. Plus, um, he IS a dad. There's a meta post in this, on how we are truly adults when the holidays traditionally meant for our parents become holidays for us, but I really don't want to go there tonight.

In my Internet travels I have run across something that might be extremely appropriate (as we are food obsessed here) and father-ish. Matt has a very interesting site here: Please click because even my extensive powers of description are somewhat at a loss to describe how freaking accurate these cakes look. I see that there is one for doctors, which, hey, dad.

This was always a somewhat problematic holiday for me. My sister and I used commiserate on how many HOURS we spent looking for the appropriate card, but, sadly, there really wasn't a card that quite fit. Usually, I ended up getting a blank card with a flower on the front, which, of course, said volumes in and of itself. Anyway, my father did have a sweet tooth and being Scottish loved marzipan, so my dilemma has been solved; a bit late but solved. I could have just baked him a cake and forgotten the dumb card.

So, please, check out Matt's site. It's cool!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Pitfalls of the Unlikable Protagonist

So, I just finished another book where I didn't like the protagonist. Again, the writing in this book is glorious, even superb, and yet the book failed me. I relished the previous book by this author, Andre Acimen, whose "Call Me By Your Name" had me weeping throughout the whole thing. Unfortunately, while I see glimpses of similar brilliance in "Eight White Nights," I only see glimpses. And I think the main problem is that I cannot stand the protagonist of this novel, a man without a name, which isn't a problem per se as lots of book use this affectation, and by now it doesn't appear affected so much as expected in novels of a certain ilk. In fact, it's beginning to rank up there with the overwhelming abundance of heart attacks that seem to be populating novels these days. No-named protagonists with dodgy hearts. A new genre. You read it here first.

I'm not going to give anything like a synopsis of this book because that's not the point of "discussion." All you need to know is that glue of this novel is fairly simple: two characters meet at a party and discover that they are soul mates. Unfortunately, this kinship is largely based on taking snarky potshots at other people. No one is immune. The hosts are sneered at, the other guests at the party are ridiculed, and the ex-boyfriend, who is also at this party, is pitied (and ridiculed to the point where this couple have lunch at his grandparents house, and he's such a non-entity that even his grandparents are willing to accept another man in his place). This kinship is cemented in that they speak in a shared "language," which as far as I could tell really just meant that they were equally rude and cruel. Instead of marking these two as "meant for each other," in my opinion, this snark-speak only put the reader at a huge disadvantage. We fall into the same category as the people around them. Out of the loop. Confused. We feel inadequate because they get it and we don't. I will not deny that these characters have an instantaneous rapport that is unique to them, so much so that I found myself wishing I had the Clift Notes.

Of course, there are many successful novels where the protagonists struggle against world at large, and they have to fight it out alone and, dear god, is Frodo going to make it to Mount Doom and destroy the ring? But although Frodo's quest alienated him from the Fellowship, there was never any sense that I, as the reader, was alienated. Nope, I was right there, sitting on Frodo's shoulder, feeling his conflict, his desperation, and his despair.

Within the first fives pages of this novel, the protagonist is passionately in lust with a woman (who is allowed to have a name, which is Clara) whom he meets at a party. Acimen struggles mightily to include the reader in this immediate passion, however, the device he chooses is too limited, therefore, no name's fascination for her remains puzzling--a simple introduction cannot hold up under all the weight that the author demands of it--with the upshot is that there's an immediate distance created between the writer and the reader from the very beginning of the novel. Usually this distance happens in the last third of a book (see my review of Hornby's "Juliet, Naked") because the writer just doesn't know how to finish a book and tacks on an ending that leaves the reader cold. Here, this distance happens immediately, which becomes a sad harbinger for the rest of the novel. These protagonists go in a direction the reader cannot follow, which is the antithesis of what a writer is striving for. As a writer what you want to achieve with your reader is a relationship so profound that as they are reading you want them to smell a woman's perfume when she leaves a room and the toothpaste on a man's breath before he kisses her. And I think that Acimen felt that the lush detail and truly beautiful descriptions of New York in winter would achieve that. It didn't for me.

I read this novel on the heels of a visit to New York, and my hotel was right next to the World Trade Center site, so you'll understand when I say, why in the flying fuck should I care about a bunch of elitist privileged New Yorkers who don't seem to have any visible means of support and whose idea of a good time is to engage in verbal duels at parties? I didn't at all care about them; that's too mundane. I actively disliked them.

And this is the problem with the unlikable protagonist. Because if you make them too "special," as is the case here, make them too unique, then the reader cannot help but feel that the characters are sneering at them as well. That the reader would be cheerfully lumped in with the masses of people who aren't as educated or smart or witty or brilliant in their mean-spirited patter. A successful novel ropes in the reader so that even if you don't want to, you find yourself identifying or at the very least understanding a character so much so that you care what happens to them even if you don't care for them. It's a fine line to walk (one that I admit is way beyond my ability). I wish that Acimen had achieved that balance. As it was, I found myself reading about extremely selfish people who I would never want to meet. I finished the book because the writing was so achingly descriptive, but ultimately it didn't work for me.

I can think of three novelists who have walked this fine and difficult line: one is Nabokov in "Lolita" (Humbert Humbert is odious but you find him compelling);  Patrick Suskind and his protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, in "Perfume"; and Muriel Spark with her novel "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." I think these characters are monsters to varying degrees, and yet they are compelling monsters. The characterization is so wonderful that you find yourself captivated by them, empathizing with them even though you scorn yourself for it. As readers we don't want to feel that we are pressing our faces against the glass. We want to be on the other side, no matter how uncomfortable or bizarre the terrain. And we most certainly don't want to be at a party and suspect that the couple in the corner is sneering at what we're wearing and our penchant for cheap vodka.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


So we're having people over tomorrow. An old college friend and his lovely wife are coming for lunch, and I've done the shopping and the smell of ripe apricots in my kitchen is overwhelming. I love having people over to "break bread," as they say. Stupidly, I thought this love of company and food would translate into a career. Somehow, having people over for lunch or dinner seems a lot more enjoyable than baking 278 pumpkin pies. The reality of working in the industry is lots of overtime and stress. Having friends over? Not so stressful. I wish I could have a restaurant where it was relatively close to having people over. Where you served what appealed to you as you strolled through the marketplace. Where lots of conservation filled in the gaps between the starter and the entree. Where dessert was just something you ate and not something you avoided because, oh my, too many calories.

Working  in food is nothing like that. But I want that. I want to buy a gigantic Victorian where I'd put long tables in the living room and the dining room and the other room (in Victorians of a certain age there always seems to be a bonus room next to what should be the dining room), and just serve, well, dinner. Where it's about the food, but it's about the conservation and the joy of breaking bread with other people. I saw a newspaper article today about a company that provides cue cards for conversation. Has it gotten to that point where you need a cue card to accompany your pinot? Not in my house.

Book Review: Juliet, Naked

I'm in a rut, retyping the same sentence over and over again. Where is the editor? Yes, I know that Nick Hornby is a great writer, and I can't dispute that based on this book. This is a beautifully written, badly conceived book, IMO. I'm sure I'll get flamed for this, but I found it profoundly misogynistic, and therefore, angry when I finished it.

What do you do when you have a book where all the words are put together in such a marvelous way and yet it doesn't work for you (or me, I guess). The sum is much shittier than the parts!

I think there are two ways to view this book. Either it is unrelentingly cynical, where we are all doomed to be selfish and myopic for the rest of our born days, or it's one of the most sexist novels I've read in a long time. Neither view is particularly appealing.

The good. Well, the writing. Wonderful, witty, insightful, funny, and, I can't disagree, masterful. This novel is written in three distinct POVs--no mean feat. The depiction of fandom is so right on that I thought, hmmmm, what fandom does Nick Hornby belong to? Because I am heavily involved in fandom, and his descriptions definitely had an insider's feel to it. The sense of a worldwide community juxtaposed to the pettiness, the factions, and obsessive-compulsive nature of fans. Being in fandom, it didn't seem bizarre at ALL that someone would make a pilgrimage to a toilet. So yes, that worked for me completely.

The bad. The last third. We have this man (the musician) who is described as a layabout who lives off of women he impregnates. He has children scattered all over the globe that he doesn't seem to care about. Aside from one child (and why this one child is so much better than the others remains a complete mystery), they all irritate the shit out of him. Just because he admits he's an abysmal father doesn't mitigate the fact he is one. And we, the reader, are supposed to give him a pass because he ends up sacrificing his art because of a ten-minute fuck? Sorry. No. No. And can I say no. He does not get a pass. As much as the author would like us to like him (as the female protagonist clearly does), it doesn't wash. I acknowledge his charm for one second, and then I think about all these children he could care less about. And I think, you know, if you had this epiphany in the bathroom, why didn't you invest in condoms and STOP POPULATING THE WORLD WITH CHILDREN YOU ARE AT BEST INDIFFERENT ABOUT?

This is such a male fantasy. This guy is a jerk and yet all these women fall in love with him and bear his children. Not that I want this fantasy where's he's this amazing guy, so therefore, our female protagonist falls in love with him, because how Barbara Cartland of me. No, I want these women to stop falling in love with an asshole. I want them to grow a pair.

And now we get to the real crux of why this book is so sexist. Because the women are idiots. Because they don't use birth control. Because this man has a history of impregnating women and them dumping them. In fact, they have a little club together, Dumpees United, where they can commiserate over what a horrible father this man is. And yet our female protagonist thinks that it's a really good idea to have a relationship and a child with this man.

For the life of me, I don't know why she's so desperate for a child that she doesn't sleep with her old boyfriend. Because, frankly, it doesn't matter. She's leaving one selfish man for an equally selfish man.

I disliked everyone by the end of this book. For their choices, for their lack of choices, for their apathy, for their stupidity, for their shocking lack of self-respect. Not even the beautiful, beautiful writing could save this book for me.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Book Review: Open by Andre Agassi

Wow. Okay, although I must confess to taking a few tennis lessons in my life and, on occasion, watching Wimbledon, that is the extent of my interest in tennis. I recommended this book as a present for my son, who I am valiantly trying to get to read more. Tennis isn't his game, but I read reviews of this book and thought it might catch his interest. It had caught mine. After seeing it parked on his dresser for nearly six months without having been moved a single inch, I thought, hmmmm, does this live up to the hype? You bet your sweet ass.

First of all, any book that throws down the gauntlet and says, yeah, I know you don't know anything about "fill in the blank," but you're going to learn and you're going to like it has my respect. I feel that way about John McPhee's books. This is solely down to an author's expertise. In any one else's hands the very concept wouldn't get me by the second page. And while Agassi's book is ghostwritten, there is absolutely no denying that it's Andre Agassi's voice on the page. By page 2 this book owned me. Seriously.

I tore through it, relishing every single, fascinating description of the matches that Agassi played. Of course, what sells this book is that these aren't just descriptions of matches. They are Agassi's evaluation of both his mental and physical state and judgments of his opponents' mental and physical state. The psychological aspects of this book were a surprise and a real treat. How a match can turn depending on the mental shift of a player. How to evaluate a player's strengths and turn them into weaknesses. This is all told against the backdrop of what is now a familiar story with prodigy child athletes: abusive, ambitious father, athlete mills (similar to puppy mills), etc. It's a poignant read (ghost written, which Agassi freely admits in an afterword), funny in many places, gripping in others, and fascinating to watch a young man who was certainly swallowed up by the machine of professional sports but didn't, in the end, let them spit him out. I highly recommend this book.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Yes, Irony Abounds

I wanted to alert people to a new book by Stephen McCauley. It's called "Insignificant Others," and it will be available in June. He hasn't written that many books--we get one about every four years--and I have loved all of them. There are not many authors that I automatically recommend (see previous blog and my growing irritation with publishers and lazy authors), but he's one of them. He never disappoints. His books are funny (really funny), wry, a wee bit sarcastic (I love that in a writer), and always poignant.

It's nice to see a writer move into their skin, to see them starting to flex their writing muscles and, yes, grow as a writer. This doesn't happen any more because authors are churning out books like Model "T" Fords, and if you don't have time to think about your craft, then you don't develop your craft. McCauley has wisely taken his time, or he has lots of money and he doesn't have to tap-dance to a publisher's demands for something that looks like a book, reads like a book, but is nothing but a poor imitation. Regardless, there is a growing confidence and mastery from each book to the next.

His first book was "Object of My Affection" (yes, they made a movie out of it), which was followed by "Easy Way Out." Both are absolutely side-splitting funny, with the hints of the poignancy that really comes to the fore in the latter books. Next was "Man of the House," which I think is his weakest (I say this somewhat in quotes because if I  had written it I'd be in ecstasy), but I still enjoyed it. Most decent authors write a "bridge" book.  By that I mean a book that is trying to make that leap to the next level. I felt that this was a bridge book for him. I base this on his next release, which was "True Enough." I've talked with other writers who found humor to be a crutch after a while, and I think Mr. McCauley reached the same conclusion. Not to say that "True Enough" isn't funny. It's very funny, but it's less about the funny and more about that poignancy. And then we have "Alternatives to Sex: A Novel." Which. Yeah. Lovely, lovely book.

I've read the synopsis of his new book, and it sounds like all of his other books (even though they are quite distinct from each other--by that I mean all the protagonists are completely distinct--the only thing that unites them is their sexuality). By that I mean, they are about people and relationships and people falling in love and falling out of love and messy friendships and, well, you know. People. No bells and whistles. Just really good writing. How rare is that? Apparently, REALLY, REALLY RARE. I can't wait to read it.

Am I Jaded?

I've just put down another book that had a stellar beginning and a magnificent promise, and an ending that sucked big time. This is the second time in three weeks that this has happened. What's even more irritating is that this book (and the previous one by a very well-known author) received rave reviews. Both of these books couldn't be farther apart on the genre spectrum but my feeling when I finished both was exactly the same. No. I'm sorry, author, but no. You didn't make it work. You had all the tools, you were in the home stretch, and the last third of your book did not work. I have yet to pick up a book this year that I haven't felt that way about. I think the last book I read that I thought was stellar was Calvin Trillin's "About Alice." But that's a different animal and non-fiction, so I don't think it really counts. Goddammit. WHERE ARE THE EDITORS?

Okay, this is a total shout-out to the publishing industry. You are in free fall. You are watching your audience being siphoned off by other media and you don't know why. I'll tell you one reason. You're publishing books that don't work. I supposed they work well "enough" in your mind, but they are fundamentally weak. Even decent authors are now getting turfed on the editorial process and it shows in their writing. You don't want to take the time to run an author through their paces. Make them fix a book with fatal flaws. And you wonder why your audience is shrinking. You don't care about what you are publishing; why should I care to buy your books?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Oh, Back to X-Ray?

I had some medical nightmare a few years back, the details of which I won't bore you with, but it entailed getting far too many x-rays and CAT scans. My husband and I used to joke that based on the number of isotopes I've had injected into my arm, we should just cancel PG&E and put a light bulb in my mouth.

Anyhow, medical nightmare was taken care of (much to my delight!) and because I'm the daughter of a doctor and a nurse, I avoid hospitals if I can. My father used to tell me, "Hospitals kills people!" Anyone who reads this who is the child of a medical person knows that short of slicing open an artery you keep your mouth shut. So I fell in my yard a week and a half ago and banged myself up pretty damn good. Falling down a flight of concrete steps will do that to you. I am a terribly clumsy person, some of which I put down to being far-sighted in one eye and near-sighted in the other; it often feels as if my eyes are fighting each other, with me being always the loser. At least I tell myself that's the reason I"m so clumsy (although my daughter's eyesight is perfect and she seems to have inherited the clumsy gene from me, as well as the, "Oh, white shirt, we most definitely need to spill something on that right away" gene).

That morning I was wearing my computer glasses, which in addition to the weird eyes, really screws up my depth perception, and I put one foot where I thought a step was and... Oh. No. Step. Who knows what happened? I think I tumbled head over heels, but no matter. I banged the hell out of my head, and also hurt my elbow, but I didn't know that at the time. Did I seek medical attention? Nope. I had a conference to go to; I was flying out to Portland that afternoon. Once I ascertained that my eyes were tracking properly, I got a bag of ice, drove to work one-handed so I could keep the ice pack in place on my head, and tried not to think about Natasha Richardson. At the airport I gobbled down a ton of aspirin in the stupid attempt to ward off any impending stroke and spent the entire flight watching a lump on my elbow balloon into something awful and painful.

A week and a half later I am having tea with my mother and I mention the lump, and how the back of my head still really hurts. I show my mother the lump (she was an ER nurse for decades). She demands that I get this seen right away (which, if you know my mother, you obey her). By this point my elbow hurts MORE than when I actually did it, and I'm sort of thinking that I might actually have a slight skill fracture on top of all this.

So I make an appointment for that evening and halfway through my interview with the nurse I realize that she thinks I'm a victim of domestic abuse. There's far more typing that I've ever had in any other office visit (and, believe me, at one point I was practically LIVING at the hospital), and I could tell she didn't believe that I fell down a flight of stairs. Because my injuries were completely consistent of someone warding off blows and the force of the blows would have propelled me backwards, hitting my head. Of course, I compounded this situation by sputtering and insisting that I fell down the stairs, and that I was wearing these stupid computer glasses. I suppose that if I were a victim of domestic violence I would be making similar affirmations and protests.

The doc and resident didn't believe me either until about halfway through the exam and then the tone in the room changed . But I suspect my file is now tagged, and I wonder if my husband's file is also tagged. Of course, I'm happy that these protocols exist because if someone is being abused, then we need to have those lifelines out there, but the whole interaction left me weirded out.

I can't remember being in a professional situation where it was obvious that someone thought I was lying. Oh, people have thought I was incompetent, but that's not the same thing. Also, here I am, with the legacy of coming from a medical family, where it's pounded into you that you must be the model patient, and I couldn't help but fail at being a model patient here. Because they thought I was lying. I was failing on all levels.

My arm will most likely be ugly and lumpy for weeks. But no skull fracture.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wow, there's a lot of tension on DorothyL

DorothyL is a mystery Listsrv that's been in operation for eons where readers and authors get together to talk about mysteries. By and large it's fun, plus you connect with people who share your interest in killing people. Every now and then thought it goes through a testy phase where people are irritated with each other and there is much flouncing (as much as one can flounce with words, and, surprisingly, you can flounce a lot!).

Someone posted  a tongue-in-cheek thing (sort of a MadLib) version of how to write a cozy. Protag greets her postman/doctor/gardener and discovers that his wife/dog/turtle is missing. It went on from there, with a cookie cutter plotline. And yes, there are a lot of cozies out there that would fit that mold nicely. But let's face it, you could do the exact same thing with a police procedural or even a political thriller (aside from John Le Carre they all have that Jason Bourne factor these days). And a number of writers who write cozies were affronted, and a lot of other people (including some who write cozies) said, get a sense of humor.

But I think people are missing the point. I believe you could actually write that story, plucking out the appropriate insert at the appropriate time, and it could be a KILLER story. Because, really, most books aren't that different from each other. Sure, every now and then you'll get a book that blows your socks off in how it eschews convention, but these are rare. My point is that you could write a book using that template and write a very good novel. Because it's not necessarily the destination, but how you drive there. That's the difference between a good writer and a great writer: someone who understand voice, tension, and characterization in service of plot. By this point, if I don't know who did it by the end of the third chapter, I'm convinced I'm suffering from some dreadful brain disease. Because there are very few surprises left in me. Some of this is because I believe (like Nancy Kress, see previous post) that the author makes a promise and that promise should be fulfilled. Unfortunately, in the mystery world that means you know, usually, that Miss Scarlett did it in the library with the candlestick. I think the last book that really surprised me, I mean, knocked my socks off whoa, was Michael Connellly's "Concrete Blonde." What a mofo wonderful book! That was written years ago, which will tell you that, yeah, surprise isn't happening. So the getting there is now so much more important because I know what the "there" is and who will do it.

It's like you're driving to L.A. You can go down 5, you can take 1, or you can do a whole bunch of backroads through dusty, poor rural towns where the WalMart in Fresno is putting all the local shopkeepers out of business. The ending is the same, but the drive?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Writing Stuff and Book Rec

Every now and then I'll get all meta-y and write about writing. I can stop now, because someone has said it a thousand times better than I ever could. This is an excellent book; I highly recommend it:

"Elements of Writing Fiction - Beginnings, Middles & Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing)" by Nancy Kress

Example on flashbacks: "A writer always pays a price for flashbacks. Any flashback, no matter how well written or interesting, will distance your reader from the action. This is because flashbacks shatter the illusion that the reader is a fly on the wall, witnessing events as they happen, right now. The flashback is not happening right now--it is , by definition, already over."

OMG! YES! Thank you. Of course, she's not saying never use flashbacks, but you pay a price for this technique and it will slow down the action. If you're at a point in your story where you can spend a little tension capital, then it's worth it if it acts as a critical plot dump or characterization dump. She has a great bit on tension and how you can't have every chapter or section be crazy with tension because then it no longer functions as tension. You need peaks and valleys.

This book is filled with a host of wonderful nuggets of how writing works mechanically. Yes, I believe there are people who are gifted writers. They just know how to throw words together. But I also firmly believe that anyone can write a decent story that will satisfy the reader. Writing is a lot about mechanics. It's about thinking REALLY CAREFULLY about how you are saying something.

It took me years to get to the place in my writing where I am now. Most of what she presents in this book I gleaned through trial and error (mostly error, still error). I don't know if this book would have cut out a year or two of frustration, but it's nice to see someone articulate why a paragraph works and why it doesn't. Why I will read the first 1000 words of a book and I will say, okay, this writer has a map, a concept, and I will keep on reading. And why with another author I will say, no, this is someone who is without a map, and I'll put it down never to be picked up again. This is not to say they won't find a map. That's the great thing about writing maps. They aren't proprietary. There isn't a secret "map" store. An idea is the first step in making your own map. A map you'll share. I liken an author to being like big game hunter without all the awful killing of animals bit. I'm leading you into the bush. There's danger and beauty and drama and humor. Hopefully, neither of us will get lost. No worries! Here is my map! Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!