Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Have people gone mad? It's gotten to the point where I think that I have been transported to another planet. Seriously, what in the hell is matter with people? Two books that I believed had serious, structural flaws have surfaced on a number of Best of 2011 lists, and I just finished the blockbuster best seller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I hadn't exactly been avoiding this book, but the hype turned me off (shades of Da Vinci Code), so I didn't really leap to purchase a copy. I kinda hoped my mother might read it and then lend it to me. Which didn't happen. Then I saw the movie trailer and I admittedly have a serious jones for Daniel Craig, and although I abhor screen violence toward women (I walked out on Silence of the Lambs three times), I thought, hmmm, the Craig factor might too overpowering to shun the movie. I decided to read the book so that I would have a sense of the plot in case I had to walk out at some point.

This book, despite all its hype and mega-sales is mediocre at best. At. Best.

First of all, although I write fiction, I would never presume that just because I have a proven facility with words, I could present myself as a journalist. It's a little like being a damn fine piano player and then thinking you can play the harp because they both have strings. Larsson's journalistic background undermines the first third of this book. Info dump after info dump after info dump pile on top of each other. Beyond some amusing lines every now and then, the dialogue is interchangeable. All the characters sound the same. The dialogue isn't relieved by any descriptive back story or physical tells. And, in fact, the back story in this novel is handled with a heavy-handed pen. Even worse, the main premise for the protagonist's taking off for the hinterlands of Sweden seems, well, manufactured beyond belief. If he's such a marvelous journalist, why are he and his partner (also, we're told, an amazingly competent journalist) so naive and trapped so easily. I mean, wouldn't you think after twenty years in the business they might check out the veracity of their source so that they wouldn't be the subject of a libel suit?

So, for me the book begins with an implausible premise, especially when the reader is regaled with exactly how good a journalist he is. In fact, he's portrayed as one of the one few moral voices left in financial journalism in Sweden. Except apparently he isn't. The reader is left with the impression that he's either incompetent or immoral. Anyway, it's a device to transport him to a remote location in Sweden to solve a locked room mystery, except this is its sister story, the remote island mystery. The mystery finally begins to reveal itself, which is interspersed with snippets of Salander's story. I have little to say about the mystery because if you've read as many mysteries as I have, then you most likely know the ending by Chapter Four. This book was no exception. Once I got the basic background, I had "solved" the mystery, even if I didn't know how it was done; this is why characterization in these books is key.

Which hello, just not there. Protagonist is a cliche character, the typical extremely attractive man with lots of smarts and a decent heart. His interactions with women are cliche. Even his interactions with Salander are cliche. How refreshing it would have been had these two not become lovers. She is the only character in the book who is not weighed down in cliche, and then damn it to hell, she turns cliche at the end as well.

So what do we have so far? Clumsily interjected back story, paragraph after paragraph of info dumps, pedestrian dialogue, and a majority of characterizations little more than recycled tropes. Let's list another major fail. Setting the majority of the book in a unique location begs for a tremendous sense of place, something that is a cornerstone of what I expect in most successful mysteries. Nope. We strike out on this front as well. I kept hoping that there would be a map at some point because I had such a hard time imagining where these houses were relative to the bridge. Other than being told it was cold (and this is the most glaring weakness of this book, we are told everything), I have only the sketchiest idea of what comprises this island's topography (other than one hill), it's flora (some trees and shrubs), and it's unique identity relative to this story. Other than it being an island and essentially the Vanger compound, it doesn't play into the novel at all. You might say, well, that should be enough. No. It's not. I suggest you read Martin Cruz Smith's Havana. I was sweating while I was reading that book because the descriptions of Cuba and the heat and the unrelenting humidity was such a part of the story. That book couldn't have occurred anywhere else. This book? I really didn't feel it was particularly Swedish, frankly.

Essentially, this book was a lot of soapbox wrapped up in a mystery. It was about exposing the level of violence toward women (as this is not unique to Sweden, it didn't strike me as particularly a reflection of Swedish society so much as a general issue in modern society). It was about exposing the level of support for Hitler by Swedish Nazis in World War II. It was about exposing the failures of the Swedish state to protect its wards. It was briefly about hackers and their world. It was not a successful novel. I struggled to get through the first third--questionable initial premise for the protagonist's trajectory; all this blather about the security agency that had no point--at which point the sexual abuse of Salander occurs, which is such a cheap, cheap shot for getting us into the novel, but I have to admit it worked.

And I felt that way throughout the novel. It was like the trifecta of cheap shots. Rape scene, bring out the Nazis, and how can we possibly forget the tried-and-true serial killer. Yahtzee! I know it's not fair, but I have just finished re-reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by le Carre where you have the most perfect blend of characterizations, back story, and plot. Which was a best seller in its own right. This is how far we have fallen. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is this decade's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Please.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Fads, Let Me List Them

I generally listen to the news as I grin-and-bear (more bearing than grinning) my daily commute, however, one morning I was so out of it I just left it on the rock&roll station that is my husband's choice of ear food, and I noticed something about current music. I should place this in some context. The rock&roll station he listens to has an eclectic mix of current offerings, classic rock, and some blues thrown in to show how cool they are. Although owned by a huge media conglomerate, it has wisely realized that pre-programmed shows in this market won't work, and it seems that the DJs actually have some choice in what is played. So the other day I'm listening to a Beatles song and the next song up is something "today-ish," which is a nice way of saying I don't know who in the hell is singing.

What struck me throughout my entire drive is that current music and current style of writings are dove-tailing each other. Wildly popular music (and I even include Adele in this although I do adore her voice) is essentially notenotenotenote, different two notes, notenotenotenotenote. I assume this is due to the influence of rap, but there is virtually NO melody. However, this lack of melody is always compensated for by a kick-ass percussion background. I don't know enough about rap to make any sort of intelligent statement about it other than to me, personally, it's more spoken word, with a kick-ass beat to it.

Books these days are more or less the same. Little characterization for the main protags (or in some cases NO characterization--where's the "melody"), however, we do have kick-ass world-building (essentially the percussion of the novel), and the minor characters seem more thought out than the main characters. To me a book doesn't move forward unless the main protagonist is somehow affected by what happens in the book. All the world-building in the world can't save a book for me unless the main character moves.

This is why writing a mystery series is, inherently, limiting. Because aside from solving mysteries, your main protagonist needs to move emotionally, and how many personal epiphanies can one character have? I think you can have five books of epiphanies, and after that you either stop the series or the book becomes basically a soap opera with a mystery included. The mystery in a novel fulfills the same role as world building does in the fantasy novel. It is key, but it's not *key*, if you get my drift.

Fantasy novels are easy to pick on because world building is so integral to their structure, and even as I wade through popular reviews of such books, many of their readers *only* care about the world-building, so maybe the authors are writing to their readers; I don't know. I think a lot of mystery readers really only care about plot. The classic mystery's roots are embedded in Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, who never age and never change. Not that I haven't torn through the entire Christie oeuvre; I have. But in general, such one note protagonists don't work for me. A number of books I've read recently just don't *go* anywhere. Oh, physically they do, as in lots happens, and I can't say they aren't well written, because a lot of them are, but the main character stands still while everything happens around them. It's not a personal journey, which, at heart, I think every book needs to have at its core.

Or if it doesn't, then it's a comment on the character's existential crisis (and I don't usually throw those sorts of terms around because, well, how pretentious, but here I really do mean this). Two writers who pull this off are Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Frankly, most of the books I've read who have a moribund protagonist are *not* using this character as emblematic of modern existential angst, they are just being lazy, but indeed the whole point of Chandler and Hammett's novels *is* the existential centerlessness of Marlowe and Spade. So, yes, it can be done and done beautifully, but it must be part of the whole concept, not because, wow, the world building/plot so shiny, ultimately so hollow.

Time to re-read The Long Goodbye.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

M is for Mystery Joins the Ranks

M is for Mystery--the independent mystery bookstore that has been a bastion for readers and writers of mysteries for over a decade--began its fire sale last week. It now joins the ranks of those small independent bookstores that have closed their doors. This time around it doesn't seem to be a financial blow to the solar plexus as a result of the e-revolution or the discount revolution. Ed Kaufman is retiring. He sent out smoke signals about six months ago that he was ready to hang it up and did anyone want to buy the store. Would that I had that chunk of change. Talk about a dream come true. Sadly, I've got one kidlet still in college and another heading out for college next year and all extra cash (and then some!) is being funneled into tuition dollars. As no one in the mystery community stepped up to the plate, finally he sold the store to someone who is going the used book, antiquarian route.

It was telling that at the joint MWA/SINC Holiday party at the store yesterday the new owner didn't even step up to the mike to say hello to the local mystery community. I knew at least half of the people in the room; most of them were local writers. That the new owner didn't even feel compelled to say hello to us said to me that we won't have a role in his vision for the new store. Well, that's his right, and I'm not trashing him for that. It's just, well, sad. And it's chilling for people like me: writers with a limited market whose limited market happens to be mystery aficionados. The elimination of yet another mystery bookstore (Kate's in Massachusetts--another venerable institution for mystery readers and writers--closed last year) is another lost opportunity for marketing in a market that is shrinking as I type.

And as much I think that the e-revolution is here to stay, I will say unequivocally that browsing the shelves of a bookstore is not the same as browsing the net. Ed was having a 50% off sale, and, um, I went a little wild. I bought a ton of books that I'd actually seen ballyhooed on amazon but wasn't wowed by, but in the store reading a page here, a page there, I was hooked. I bought eight books. Granted, they were 50% off, but even if they had been 50% off on amazon, I STILL wouldn't have bought them. They didn't jump out at me. On a bookshelf, their covers were much brighter and shinier, and I could thumb through the book at random (not read an excerpt that is chosen for me).

That is the big difference here. I like the physical feel of a book, but I also love the ease of picking up an e-reader. Both have pluses as reads. But in terms of sales, I tend to buy lots in stores and when I purchase books online for my Kobo, I buy ONE book. Because browsing the compiled lists touted by amazon or Barnes and Noble is limited. It's always the books from the big publishers that are being pushed, never the small book that could delight. Sometimes you want the blockbuster and sometimes, damn it, you want to be delighted.

Anyway, this is yet another sad footnote in how the world of reading is changing. Thank you, Ed. As a reader I appreciate the love and dedication you put into your store, and as a writer? Ditto.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

That OTHER Blog

Where I talk a little bit about new novel's structure: www.penandprejudice.com.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Book Review: Blue Nights

I should preface this review by saying that I adore Joan Didion's writing. There really is no one better at cataloguing the social chaos and energy that defines a specific shot of history than her. I grew up in the California of the 1960s and 1970s, and if anyone asks me about those years, I point to her. Like most of her readers, I read with such sadness about the death of her husband and daughter, and finished her book The Year of Magical Thinking with such profound respect; she defined unfathomable grief with words.

Blue Nights—her ode to her daughter, Quintana—is also a well-written book, but when I finished it, I slapped it down on my dining room table with a rare sense of irritation. With most books there is you, the reader, who is, hopefully, at the mercy of the author. The author pulls you into their world. Generally, you don't pull them into yours. When that happens, a book sort of fails. I didn't get pulled into Joan Didion's world. As a parent, I couldn't help but pull her into mine, and the parent in me was snorting in disbelief and sometimes outrage. There is an underlying question throughout the whole book: was she a good enough parent? I can't really answer that question. It's a question that all parents ask themselves frequently, although usually not hand-in-hand with mourning a child's death (and, yes, this is the worst thing that can happen to a parent, bar none). But it's hard not to stare in disbelief when she comments that her daughter was terrified that her father would go first because then Quintana would be under the care and responsibility of her mother. Why wouldn't she be terrified? This is the same woman who felt it was perfectly acceptable to bring her infant to a reporting assignment covering the fall of Saigon. Who thought it appropriate in response to this assignment to go out and buy a bunch of designer clothes. And while this disconnect with reality is a trademark of hers, it might work for her persona as a writer, it fails when we consider her as a parent. As a writer, we might find it privately amusing that she would fly from Honolulu and arrive in Hartford when it was below zero without a sweater. When it’s her kid shivering, then it’s impossible to not judge her. The reader takes a back-seat to the parent.

Didion's detachment has always been her strength. But it's an odd detachment, which is why I think it works so well in her writing. Because it's the detachment of the walking wounded. Someone so battered by reality that detachment is the only way to survive. It's the detachment of someone trying to make sense out of the nonsensical. As a parent (and please don't assume that I think I'm a fantastic parent--merely adequate), I'm listening to her questioning her efficacy as a parent, and I feel like shouting, honey, it's not about you. That's what parenting is. It's not about you. Which seems manifestly unfair because her writing has always been about her and not about her. But you can't carry that sensibility into parenting. I read over these verbal snapshots of her life and marriage, and all I can think of was that Quintana never got to be a child. She’s described as being precocious in this book, but to me it feels like more of a coping mechanism. They may have loved her unquestionably, but the Dunnes went on location, stayed in swanky hotels, wrote their articles, movie scripts, and books, and dragged her along for the ride. She had to become an adult in a child’s body.

So much for the personal issues I had with this book. We come to the writing. The last third of the book is devoted to Didion’s sense that she is losing her ability to write. It's part and parcel of other physical frailties, but although the physical maladies are terrifying, they pale in contrast to the idea that she's losing her truly wonderful way of parsing words. That her style is becoming trite, that an ability to write so clearly about the lack of center is now suffering from not having its own center.
And while I can't say that her writing falls short (the beginning of this book is as masterful a beginning as I've ever read), there is a sense of, um, where's the editor? Her repetition of phrases and concepts that in previous works united a bunch of seemingly disparate events to create a fractured whole, now does seem something of a tic.

Another stylistic choice that seemed to dominate this book was, for want of a better word, product placement. And by that I mean it is never a pair of shoes, a hotel, a sweater; it's Laboutins, the Dorchester, cashmere. Truly, are we supposed to lament that Bendel's is no longer the same? Even people are nothing more than product placement. This actress, this director gave a speech at Quintana's wedding.

Part of the strength of Didion's work written in the 1960s and the 1970s is that the protagonists of her essays were no different than you or I, except that maybe they were part of Manson's family. And although that is a hell of a difference, in her hands it was also not a hell of a difference. A "there but for the grace of God" sensibility dominated. In her current work everyone has a name. A big name. Almost like these larger than life people had no right to up and die. Unlike you and me. Because we don't have names. It's unsettling at first and then becomes annoying. It undercuts the real issue in this book. The loss of her daughter. Does it really matter that she went to school with and had dinner at this restaurant with this Hollywood icon? It doesn't make her passing any more tragic, although there is the hint that she was special because of it. When in reality, she was special because she was so loved.

In the end I certainly would recommend this book because Joan Didion is one of the most thoughtful and fantastic writers of her generation, but Blue Nights doesn't have the strength of The Year of Magical Thinking. I think this is the most personal of her books (for obvious reasons), but it's also one of her weaker books, perhaps the inevitable fall out of the detached finally becoming attached with little to attach to.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Guest Blogger Ann Parker

Dear Readers:  You're in for a real treat today. I'm part of a blog tour for Ann Parker, whose writing I adore. Seriously, there are people like me who can, on occasion, write, and there are people who are artists with words. Ann is one of these writers. I've had the privilege and joy to watch her write her way through three books, and here now is a spotlight on number four. If you like mysteries and you love historicals, Ann Parker is the writer for you.


Eat Well and Thrive… or Not – by Ann Parker

Firstly, I want to thank Claire Johnson for the chance to guest post on Roux Morgue as part of my virtual tour for MERCURY’S RISE, the fourth in my Silver Rush historical mystery series.
Since I write mysteries, people die and my sleuth, Leadville saloon-owner Inez Stannert, must ferret out the criminal and the crime. This latest book in my series takes Inez to Manitou Springs, a fast-rising health resort and tourist destination, where there was a whole lotta dying going on, not all of it (or even most of it) of a nefarious nature.

In 1880, during the time the book takes place, Manitou was famous for its mineral waters. It also had a mild climate, wide open spaces, and beautiful scenery. It had some very high-class (for the West, anyway) hotels, and it had many many physicians. The reason being that Manitou was a “destination resort” for many from the East Coast and Europe who suffered from a variety of ailments, particularly tuberculosis.

The cause of tuberculosis, or consumption as it was popularly called, was still unknown in 1880. Robert Koch, the physician who would discover the bacteria that causes the disease, was still conducting his research in Germany. Even though no one knew for certain what caused this dreaded disease, that didn’t stop physicians from developing their own theories and regimens for “curing” or at least slowing its progress.

Diet, in particular, was seen as an important element in controlling TB. However, some of those diets are pretty alarming by today’s standards: if the tuberculosis didn’t kill you, it seemed that your plugged arteries probably would. For instance, a Fannie Farmer cookbook from 1904 (long after Koch’s discovery), advises a dining schedule that a Hobbit would appreciate: besides breakfast, dinner, and supper, “there should be a luncheon in the morning, another in the afternoon, and still another before retiring.” Fats, in the form of cream, butter, olive oil, bacon, and beef fat were part of the recommended diet. And eggs. Lots of eggs. Preferably raw. Some doctors advised 18 eggs a day. Milk and beef were also staples of the consumptive’s diet (and we’re talking full-fat milk here, cream and all).

Still, eggs, cream, and beef fat would have been far preferable to the “slaughterhouse cure,” that became popular among consumptives in Denver in 1879. This particular cure involved drinking the blood of freshly slaughtered oxen and cows. And if we’re to segue into talking other comestibles taken to forestall the march of tuberculosis, I should mention the patent medicines and nostrums peddled to a desperate public, who lived in fear of the “white plague.” These so-called medicines and tonics contained ingredients such as cod-liver oil, lime, arsenic, chloroform, turpentine, kerosene, the ever-present alcohol, and yes, mercury.

We can all shake our heads in dismay and wonder what people were thinking of back then, to turn to some of these diets and remedies. But we have the virtue of hindsight. What will folks a couple generations from now think of our efforts to tame diseases such as cancer with diet? It would be interesting to know…

-----------BIO-----------

Ann Parker is a California-based science/corporate writer by day and an historical mystery writer by night. Her award-winning Silver Rush series, featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert, is set in 1880s Colorado, primarily in the silver-mining boomtown of Leadville. The latest in her series, MERCURY’S RISE, was released November 1. Publishers Weekly says, “Parker smoothly mixes the personal dramas and the detection in an installment that’s an easy jumping-on point for newcomers.” Library Journal adds, “Parker’s depth of knowledge coupled with an all-too-human cast leaves us eager to see what Inez will do next. Encore!” Learn more about Ann and her books at http://www.annparker.net

MERCURY’S RISE and the other Silver Rush mysteries are available from independent booksellers, amazon.com, and Barnes and Noble.

Leave a comment on this post to be eligible to win a Silver Rush mystery prize! Winner will be announced later this week. To see the rest of Ann’s virtual tour, check out her Appearances page on her website.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Farewell

I took down the rant I put up yesterday because it doesn't serve any purpose other than to paint me as a crank with a grudge. Not that I don't feel strongly about these things, but...enough.

Anyway, on to not necessarily lighter but certainly more important matters. We finally had a wee little send off for my uncle today. He died a few months ago, but my aunt was quite sick herself and it's taken this long for her to bounce back. She and my uncle were good friends with Jessica Mitford, so a funeral was not in the picture! We just had a get together at my cousin's house, with boxes of See's candy (my uncle had something of a sweet tooth) on every surface. I made a cake, and I got to hug a lot of people I don't see that often; people who knew me and my sister as small children and now we're in our fifties. My uncle loved a good party, even better was a party with his family around him. He would have approved. Cheers, Uncle Fred.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

amazon's march to the sea

On the heels of post at that OTHER blog (www.penandprejudice.com) regarding the disconnect between technology and publishers, this morning I picked up the business section of my local paper to read that amazon has made a proprietary relationship with DC comics. Although there seems to be a little backtracking on just how exclusive (initially you couldn't even access DC's publications on a Kindle app), the essential bones are that if you're into graphic novels? Buy a Kindle Fire.

Barnes and Noble responded by pulling all of DC's material from their shelves, because they feel that being dissed in the electronic arena is tantamount to an act of war. I get the sense that DC was surprised at the vehemence of their response, but then B&N are fighting for their lives. The debut of the Kindle Fire is smack down competition to their color Nook, and then in a classic one-two punch, amazon delivered the second blow with this sweetheart deal with DC.

I'm not a graphic novel person, but as I mentioned yesterday, you want to capture the demographic below thirty-five, then you'd better provide some visual candy. Of course, graphic novels are so beyond visual candy, but there is a reason why they and manga are so popular. Visuals, my friends. Visuals. Look at the popularity of tumblr. I moseyed on over there and was immediately struck by the lack of words. Although words are my thing, I can't deny that visuals now seem to be a key aspect of social media. Note the lack of graphics here!

So what's a DC fan to do? Buy a Kindle Fire? This brings us to the issue of torrenting, essentially piracy.

(1) There are people who just don't believe in paying for artistic content period. I suspect that few of them produce artistic content, otherwise they might understand why those of us who are victims of torrenting are a little outraged at this viewpoint, even as we are hopeless to combat it.

(2) Then there are those who think that artists charge too much. This is the push behind cheap e-books. There are many legitimate arguments to be made that the actual printing of a book is NOT the gross amount of the final price. Although it's not insignificant, it certainly doesn't support the notion that most people who want cheap e-books harbor: that readers should get an e-book at something less than a cup of coffee because publishers are now not printing them.

(3) There are people who are poor and who bootleg because it's either that or staring at four blank walls.

(4) Now we come to that elusive group that seems to be responding to DC's decision. Those who are perfectly willing to pay for content--and actually WANT to support artists--provided they feel it's reasonable. They don't want to get ripped off. If they feel they are getting ripped off, then then will pirate with glee.

The material is out there. We all know that. I can Google both of my books and find torrenting sites galore that feature my books. But I try to tell myself that most people want to support me as a no-name author. But if you piss people off (witness the reader outrage when Michael Connelly's publisher decided to protect hardcover sales by making the e-book MORE expensive than the hardcover), then you're alienated a group of people who heretofore had been loyal customers--as opposed to scumbag pirates. And most of these people have laptops. And Internet browsers. And they know how to download.

I think we'll see some serious backtracking here from DC. Because they've pissed off an important segment of their market when there is an alternative market. An alternative market that is FREE.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

More frustration in the land of self-publishing

I've updated my self-publishing blog. Read my thoughts here: www.penandprejudice.com.

I also finished a book last night: Julian Barnes and his Booker Prize winner: "The Sense of an Ending." There is something about intelligent Brits that always makes me feel dumb. I don't feel that way about American writers that I think are brilliant. But a very smart English writer leaves me a little ashamed of my ignorance. In fact, they make me feel ignorant. This book did that. I rant and rave here about how the I.Q. points of most books I pick up have, collectively, dropped about 100 points. This book is not like that at all. Smart. Very smart and beautifully written. I recommend.


It reminds me of two books that I love very much: Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier" and McEwan's "On Chesil Beach." There is the same sense of time and an unreliable narrator and epiphany and sadness and personal tragedy and age and defeat, all wrapped up in gorgeous writing.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Signal Boost

New column on the perils of publishing in the digital age! Check it out: www.penandprejudice.com.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

State of Morgue

What a grueling few months. It seems appropriate to comment in bullet form because, well, that seems to be how my mind is working these days. In short bursts. Because that's indicative of how much time I have.

  • I have stalled on marketing my romance based on Austen's Pride and Prejudice (my version is called Pen and Prejudice) due to work suckage. Given that my life will not be my own until after the first week in November, my plans of getting this out the door by Christmas is now something of a pipe dream. However, I'm making lists. LISTS! of what I need to do once work has calmed down.
  • I have not read a good book in ages and then I did. Frankly, I'm not very interested in this period of history--I think you have to be into military history and carnage on a level that makes the Tudors look like pantywaists--but I will say that Stacy Schiff's biography of Cleopatra was delightful. It's another one of those histories that is based on very little actual sources, but she wrings as much as she can out of the paucity of sources and does so in such an engaging, humorous, sure voice that the centuries melt away. I admired very much the way this book was written. I can't vouch for the interpretation of the sources, but I can tell you that Ms. Schiff deserved that Pulitzer. It's so refreshing to read a book where the author can write! Eventually I'll put up a formal review on my Goodreads page, but this is really worth picking up and devouring.
  • I decorated the house for Halloween today. I love fall. I love the colors. I love the shadows. I love how the sun has a cool heat about it. Hey, I live in California. We had a high of 80 degrees today, and yet in the shade there were hints of chill.
  • Given the publication of the trade paperback of Roux Morgue this August, I've decided to write another Mary Ryan book. I've been toying with the idea for a few months now. I need to run it by the powers that be at PPP, and at their okay it's going to be full steam ahead.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hello, trade paperback. How lovely to see you!

Huzzah! The trade paperback of Roux Morgue has just come out. Nothing more satisfying than walking into my local Barnes and Noble and seeing my book featured on their "New Mysteries" shelf. Wow. Hmmm. Am now considering writing another Mary Ryan book. After flogging Pen and Prejudice, of course.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

New Day, New Idea

So, we've embarked on a little experiment. Check it out. I don't think there's any possibility of failure here. It's about exploring my options in this changing publishing environment.

www.penandprejudice.com

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Made a Decision Today: Campaign Week One

I have a finished book that can't find a home. I worked on it for a year and have been shopping it for nearly eight months. I could say that the market sucks right now and make a lot of excuses about how the demise of Borders and the explosion of e-publishing has changed the submission game. All this is true, but it doesn't change the really salient fact here: it's still on my hard drive and not in your hot little hands.

I believe in this book. It's a Jane Austen pastiche, essentially, a modern take on Austen's Pride and Prejudice, with some crossover with Bridget Jones' Diary meets I Don't Know How She Does It. There's a wee side bit about trying to write and not feed your kids Cheerios for dinner every night, and some meta on writing in general. The book is extremely faithful to the original plot line, except our heroine isn't a 19th-century unmarried woman in a society where marriage is the only game in town and she doesn't have the money or a title to attract suitors. My heroine is a woman who's trying to succeed as a genre writer while raising her kids and working full time. I'd like to think their sense of integrity is the same. Oh, we also have a dishy male suitor who pushes all the wrong buttons, but by the end of the book ends up pushing all the right ones.

So, I'm taking the plunge into self-publishing. I'm done with sending out endless queries. I toyed with sending it directly to smaller romance publishers to market and bypassing the agent route, but this takes an inordinate amount of time, and I feel I'm out of time. Do I want to wait another six months for a response to my submission(s). No, I do not. The market is only going to get worse, not better. I thought I'd use this space as a "travelogue" of sorts, documenting my experiment with the "new" market.

Certainly I can't do worse. If it sits on my hard drive, I won't make ANY sales.

Campaign Week One

1. Read through it one more time for typos.

By the way, the title is Pen and Prejudice.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book Review: One Day by David Nicholls

I find this book very analogous to "Eat, Pray, Love." I really enjoyed the writing style of the book, but ultimately the book fell apart for me. I assume that this writer is the Nicholas Sparks of Britain. Being British, of course he's much more erudite and funny, but the feel of this book is the same as his American counterpart: high-brow popular romance that you're not too embarrassed to be seen with. Scratch that. I would never read a Nicholas Sparks book in public. I would have no problem reading David Nicholls on the subway. Again, a smart, engaging book that unfortunately is without a heart.

I'm not going to talk about the ending, because it seems to me that by the time I had reached the ending I was up to my eyeballs in disenchantment, but suffice it to say, David, what in the HELL were you thinking? Did you think this would elevate it to literature light? Catapult it out of clever romance into something less cheesy? I'm really curious as to your motivation.

Anyway, this is the story of Emma and Dexter and their twenty-year friendship. It might have been a little more ambitious if Emma had been the wanker and Dexter the decent one, but why quibble at this point. There's a nice plot device where we see these two and where they are in their respective lives every St. Swithin's Day. The major problem is that Dexter is too much of an asshole that Emma's love for him starts to undermine her character. She's presented as someone whose integrity is essentially Dexter's port in a storm, and although she cuts him loose at various points in their friendship, these seem like life-saving maneuvers on her part, not kicking his shallow ass to the curb maneuvers. This continuously undercuts HER characterization. She has a series of her own slightly unethical relationships, which I suppose are supposed to humanize her, but if she's willing to sleep with her boss, then why isn't she willing to compromise herself with Dexter who she's very much in love with? I don't understand.

The reader becomes very invested in these characters as the novel moves forward over the years, although Dexter's marriage is something of a cypher, as is Emma's transformation to best-selling author. All of a sudden Emma is chic just like Dexter suddenly falls in love with an ice maiden. These transitions are jarring, but I sort of went with it, but then as the ending unfolded I really resented them. Rather like eating a cookie that I thought was okay at the time, but then realized that it gave me a stomach ache thirty minutes later.

We do not understand why Emma continues to love Dexter until a series of scenes at the very end of the novel. Again, I don't quite understand the motivation of tacking this on at the very end. Because by this point, we STILL don't like Dexter and that dislike isn't dislodged by the touching scenes at the end. It's a little too little and far too late.

Book Review: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman recently wrote an article about being both a writer and a critic, and the potential ethical landmines. I wrestle with this concept a lot. Okay, I'm not a critic. I'm a reader who has opinions about books. He's the book critic for Time, which means he has oodles more cred in this department than I do. Although I continue to rumble the issue around in my mind, the bottom line is, I guess, that I'm a writer and I read. I strive to be the best writer I can, and I also have opinions about the books I read. I think we have to leave it at that. My writing needs to stand on its own terms, separate from how I view other writers' works. Also, inherent in having a foot in both worlds is that if you don't think I am uber critical of my own writing and fully aware of all its faults, there's a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.

Anyway, onto the review. Some months back on this blog I reviewed Grossman's book The Magicians. An admitted Harry Potter fanatic, I inhaled this book and reveled in its strengths and forgave many of its weaknesses because the world-building was so fascinating and beautifully written. The moribund characterization of the protagonist, Quentin, was something of a warning bell, but in a well-written book there is often an energy that will carry you along, successfully eliding over the sticky bits, and this was such a book. I ended that review with a bit of a "hmmmm" about Quentin, but all in all, a very enjoyable, fascinating read.

*****SPOILERS*****

In The Magician King we return to Fillory, where Quentin, Janet, Elliott, and Julia reign as monarchs. Monarchs of what I can't say. They essentially do nothing. Their jobs seem nothing more than titles as they faff away their days doing, well, nothing; this becomes very important by the end of the book, IMO. Two competing story lines fill out of the bulk of the book: Quentin's quest to become some sort of hero (why he is compelled to become a hero when he was clearly the hero in the last book is inexplicable--defeating Martin Chatwin wasn't enough?), and the back story of Julia's quest to assume her rightful place as a magician. In a fully successful novel, two competing story lines often ramp up the tension as the reader bounces back and forth from one cliffhanger to another.

Interestingly, although nearly a third of the book is back story (usually a pacing killer), Julia's story dominates this novel completely. She is accessible and sympathetic as a character in all the ways that Quentin is not, although neither character is particularly nice. Quentin began this series as a smart-ass arrogant know-it-all, and he finishes the series to date basically the same. I don't see much of a difference between the Quentin at the end of Book 1 and Quentin at the end of Book 2. In fact, his odd friendship with Benedict feels out of place; shoehorned in as a plot device. There was a lot of tell not show in this book, with Quentin's friendship with Benedict only one example. There was a lot of, well, I don't know why I liked him, but I did. I don't know why I need to travel to the underworld to talk to a kid that I haven't really connected with and who clearly doesn't like me, but I do. I get the sense that Grossman is trying to elevate Quentin's character by these acts of bravery, and yet, IMO, they don't work because Quentin as a character hasn't grown enough to successfully explain his motivations. We are left with a "I must, therefore I do, otherwise the plot won't move forward" type of sensibility.

Julia on the other hand! Wow, I loved her back story: her isolation, her slowly disintegrating relationship with her family, and her choosing magic over her family. THIS was what was missing in the first book with the Brakebills students. How their relationships with their parents were so abysmal that pretty much across the board they were able to dust off these relationships like so much dandruff. Not Julia, her story was beautifully handled. I found myself wanting to skim the "present day" Quentin story to get to Julia's back story because it was so compelling. Her characterization was flawless, which is why I don't get why Quentin is STILL a sarcastic wanker. Clearly, Grossman is capable of writing a complex, fascinating sympathetic character complete with warts and flaws. Unfortunately, it's not his protagonist.

This is one of those unusual situations where the events that surround a main character should change him/her but do not. I think that part of the problem is Quentin's continuous snarky asides; they undercut the tragedy. By the time we reach the end of the book and Quentin faces the ultimate tragedy, there is no sense that Quentin is capable of mourning, because he's not even mourning Alice in this novel. She's become the "She Who Must Not Be Named" character that no one dare mention. Which means that the one avenue whereby we could see a wounded Quentin is cut off.

So we come to the end of the book. I found the last twenty pages inexplicable. I couldn't understand the logic behind them. It just didn't make sense. You banish the one person responsible for saving the magical world because he doesn't have a passport?????????????????????????????????? Excuse me! And everyone around him is like, sorry, buddy, those are the breaks. Catch you on the flip side. The loss of Quentin's crown means there is no place for him in Fillory, except he does BUGGAR ALL, so WTF. It feels like he's merely a placeholder, his crown nothing more than a passport. Clearly these royal roles mean nothing because they are casually handed out like a box of chocolates. Josh. Poppy. You're up! Why couldn't they have created yet another role for him, because, frankly, his role as king seems equally manufactured.

It's obvious that there will be yet another book in this series, which is why Quentin is yet AGAIN in exile from Fillory. I anticipate in Book 3 he will either resurrect Alice or he will meet Alice2. I think that Grossman could have gone a long way in humanizing Quentin if he'd had him faffing about much less and mourning Alice much more. At this point Quentin is pretty much in the same place at the end of Book 2 as he was at the end of Book 1. He hasn't moved that much as a character. He announces he wants to be a hero, the genesis of which is never explained. Why does he want to be a hero? I'm still wondering. To assuage his conscience over Alice's death? To save others because he couldn't save her? I honestly don't know. All I know is that this was an exceptionally clumsy end to a book that had many moments of elegant, punchy writing.

At this point, Grossman's sobriquet as the writer of the adult Harry Potter has even more cred as he begins to share J. K. Rowling's fatal flaw: exceptional world-building at the expense of his characters.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Guest Blogger Camille Minochino!

So, I'm turning over the reins to someone else for this installment. Camille Minichino is one of the reasons why I'm a published author.  She's the sort of person the word "stand-up" comes to mind. Tireless in her support of my writing, I'm only one of a legion of writers who she's championed over the years. But I'll let her speak for herself. She does it better.

Mangia Mangia

Food and crime novels seem a perfect fit. Especially for cozy mysteries.

Action heroes in geopolitical thrillers don't have a lot of time to cook or even to stop for a snack, what with aborting the assassination of a world leader, keeping greater Los Angeles from falling into the Pacific, or saving the world from total nuclear destruction. Imagine a Jack Bauer-like man of action in a cave in a country ending in –stan, pulling a spinach and cheese soufflĂ© out of the oven.

But cozies, or traditional whodunits, are designed for comfort, with nothing too graphic to deal with and justice for all in the end. And nothing says comfort like food, whether it's a special gravy or brownies with icing.

Sophia Loren, nee Scicolone, said, "Everything you see I owe to spaghetti."

(I doubt it. Not with that body.)

I express my Italian-ness at dessert time. I'll pick at the pasta, pass on the chicken and veal parm', and double up on panna cotta and gelato.

My first protagonist, Gloria Lamerino of the Periodic Table Mysteries, eats this way and looks more like me than like Sophia. Gloria's fictional diet is like my real diet, with lots of affogato and tiramisu and three kinds of biscotti. Much to my embarrassment, cannoli appear at least seven times in my first novel, "The Hydrogen Murder."

Did you think it was a coincidence that I'm starting my July blog tour for "The Square Root of Murder" on the site of a pastry chef?

Food and drink are the writer's friends, setting-wise. They hit all the senses and immediately establish the ambiance. We feel the textures in a mouthful of endive and bleu cheese, see the array of colors in a multi-bean salad, breathe in the aroma of fresh baked bread, and taste everything. We can hear the bubbles of sparkling water and the sizzle of a steak on the grill. A few food words—coffee and an almond croissant, French toast with thick strawberry syrup—and we've got the reader salivating.

 Menu choices are also a giveaway device to identify characters. We build expectations about the person who orders the shrimp salad as a main course vs. the one who craves a burger and fries. Whereas in life, the same person may enjoy both at different times, in fiction, it works better to nail down a food trope.

I did my first protagonist, Gloria Lamerino, a favor by giving her a love of garlic. I hate it, and all my life have had to answer the question, "How can you be Italian and not like garlic?"

In my defense, I've come up with Italian G words that I do love: Galileo, Ghirlandaio, Ghirardelli, Gilda in Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto, maybe even Garibaldi. (But not Garofalo, though I think she'd be great as Gloria in the movie version I've dreamed up.)

There also seem to be gender roles with regard to food in books and movies. Men make pancakes; women make salad. Women always have a baguette sticking out of the grocery bag; men carry six-packs. Men bite into a donut; women pick off a few molecules of a muffin and utter "Mmm." And of course, with some celebrity exceptions: men are chefs; women cook.

As a reader, I tend to judge characters by what they cook (or not) and what they eat. As a mystery writer, one thing I know: I could never kill a pastry chef.


Camille Minichino is a retired physicist and dessert lover turned writer. Her akas are Margaret Grace (The Miniature Mysteries) and Ada Madison (The Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries). The first chapter of "The Square Root of Murder," debuting July 5, is posted at http://www.minichino.com.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day: Problematic Day

My father is now dead. He died exactly how he didn't want to die, by inches, bits, and pieces, as his body kept telling him that he was done. Yet modern medicine ignores the body's telltales signs and keeps coming up with medications and treatments that prolong our lives beyond their "sell" date. When he lost his capacity to swallow, I thought to myself, christ on a bicycle, if that doesn't signal that the body is done, then what does? And yet, doctors also take oaths that demand they do everything to preserve the sanctity of life. I'll let the ethicists debate this one, because, really, at this point I don't have a frigging clue what that means.

Anyway, that's not the point of this piece, which is, the problematic father. My dad was a man of unbelievable strengths and profound weaknesses, and it's hard to think of him without acknowledging the whole: the brilliance tempered with the massive self doubt and hatred; the wit juxtaposed to the caustic jibe; the gentle man whose politics were so right that they made my teeth ache.

But on this day I think I should concentrate on the good. The trips to Tilden with my sister for pony and carousel rides. The Sunday afternoons spent at Oakland's Fairyland. Endless games of pee wee golf at that place on Telegraph Ave. I'm sure all this was unspeakably boring, and yet he weathered through it and I don't remember any complaints. The carousel at Tilden still survives, as does Fairyland. The pee wee golf place got swallowed up years ago by an office building. Some landmarks of my childhood still survive--not many--but enough that I've taken my children to these places and in the process walked in my father's shoes for a bit.

So, yes, I chose to remember those Sundays at Fairyland and Tilden, and hot dogs at Oscars. Good times, Dad. Thanks..

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My Hair

I have a love/hate relationship with my hair. At one time it was my glory. Truly. I have gobs of it and when I was younger the color is what is known in Victorian novels as "titian." I was extremely vain about it, and damn it all, I had a right to be. At various points in my life I grew it so long that I could sit on it.

As I stare at fifty-five this year, my hair is now the bane of my existence. Mostly because it grows like a frigging weed (always has), and it is now starting go grey. Which in and of itself isn't that much of a tragedy, however, when you already have "spunky" hair, grey hair, which in and of itself is spunky enough (a nice way of saying porcine-like), grey spunky-squared hair is a BITCH.

I must keep it short because the grey has a mind of its own, and if it's any longer than two inches I start looking like a one of the witches from Macbeth. Not a look I want to cultivate.

Unfortunately, whenever I feel blue or insecure or just fidgety I think, wow, that grey is depressing. I should do something about it. You'd think I would learn. The first time I felt this way I had a biggish book event looming, and two nights before I got a case of the wibbles and dyed it. Sigh. Because I have WAY TOO MUCH HAIR, and I didn't cover it nearly enough. I ended up looking calico. That mottling on cats is adorable. On me, not so much.  I should have gone to a salon and had them cover it up with something, anything, but I didn't. I asked my daughter to help me apply another coat. Two hands are better than one, right? I ended up with muted calico. Needless to say I wore a beret to that event. In the middle of a northern California fall day. The temp was maybe 85 degrees at seven at night.

But it doesn't stop there. I did it again, the NIGHT BEFORE another event, thinking it was just that particular brand. It wasn't. I had shorter hair by this point, but it was not so much calico as lopsided--lighter on one side. I spent the entire night with my head slightly tilted so that people would suspect the light was wrong, not that this fool woman yet again was playing Revlon roulette.

The last three weeks have been grim for various reasons, and I've been feeling hermitish and blue, and in a fit of insanity, yes, you guessed it, I dyed my hair last night. It's a horrible color. Medium brown, my ass. It's kind of a deep red that probably would look cool on someone twenty-five, but on me it only looks desperate. Even more horrible, it looks REALLY permanent. Like it will take a good six months to grow out.

Sigh and damn.

Clearly, she cannot be taught.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What Every Writer Needs: An Editor

So. I've been browsing through my book reviews, and still debating whether it's wise to write and review, and I don't want to chuck the writing but I enjoy reviewing, and, oh, crap. What to do, what to do, what to do? While browsing I keep noticing the fatal flaw that dogs nearly all of these books that are good books but fall short of great, and that's the absence of the editor. And by that I mean that these books might have been vetted by a marketing crew, a production crew, and possibly a copyeditor (although even that is becoming rare), but NOT AN EDITOR. Or at least undergoing what I consider a rigorous editorial review.

The classic role of an editor is to browbeat, chastise, sternly lecture, and/or praise a writer into producing the best possible book with the material they have. Being something of a Hemingway and Fitzgerald fanatic, I often reread the letters between them and their editor, Max Perkins, and I think, wow, that is just not happening today. As New York publishing continues to flounder, the traditional editorial system is going by the wayside. You can see it in the writing. There is a lack of focus, a fuzziness. A good editor sees the promise of a whole book and does everything they can to push the author to her or his best writing self. It's having a sense of a book's integrity that is unique to that book.

I'm even talking about schlock. There is a case to be made for decent schlock. I've spent many rainy afternoons curled up on the couch reading decent schlock. It has a place on my bookshelf and rainy afternoons are tailor made for the potboiler. But even a decently written potboiler needs a second eye. Someone who says, wow, the schlock in Chapter 5 is marvelous. But Chapter 8 is largely unadulterated crap so rewrite or remove.

It's a jungle out there. Competition for people's time is fierce. It seems to me that instead of firing the editors, we should be hiring MORE of them. There are so many books that I've read in the last three years that I believe could have been great if handled by an editor with a fearless pen.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: Popular Crime

I continue to have mixed feelings about reviewing books because I think I'm basically polluting my own waters by commenting on my fellow writers. But things are changing so quickly in the book-writing world with the advent of e-publishing, that I'm not sure that I will even have a viable writing career unless I take the bull by the horns myself and extract myself from the current publishing model. My latest novel (a pastiche of Pride and Prejudice set in the mystery writing world) is currently been rejected by a number of agents, and I'm seriously now looking to self-publish it. I think it's a fun book and a decent read, but no takers so far. I refuse to let it sit on my hard drive--after all I spent a year of my life working on it-- so as the rejections roll in, I'm now leaning toward publishing it myself.

How in the hell does this relate to book reviews? Well, I'm really curious at what is currently being published, because I know so many authors with a tried and true record of sales who are being dropped by their publishers. I follow what is being published fairly closely to try to get a handle on the market and see if I fit in (um, no), and increasingly I'm in shock at what is hitting the shelves.

To whit. (I love typing that.) Bill James' book Popular Crime."Now I understand he's written something of the bible on baseball and I really do like his style. It's the type of writing that always charms me. Breezy, funny, knows when to turn off the sarcasm and get serious (something I struggle with). I cannot fault him his voice in this book, and I have an admittedly unabashed (and unapologetic!) fascination with crime. This writer even got a spot on Colbert, which is why I bought it.

But. It's not a book. There's no central theme, no overreaching arc that I could point to and say, this is what Bill James' thinks of crime. I know what he thinks of specific crimes, but I don't have much of handle on what he thinks our relationship to crime should be. Seriously, that it was a book at its most sneaky is trying to do. Woo you over to the dark side. This can't woo us because it's too far-reaching and not specific enough.

It would have worked as series of magazine articles. Maybe. It's largely a catalogue of gruesome crimes, with some not-so-veiled criticisms of the legal system, criticisms of the police, a panache of historical commentary, and his opinions on various crimes (did Lizzie Borden do it sort of thing). That's it. There's the throwing out of possible themes but none of them gel into what I would call a central theme that runs through all these anecdotes. And I kept looking for it, something that binds all this together in one package and, well, it's not there. It seems to me that something could be made about popular crime and the media, how it changed over history. People's reading habits. Did technology fuel the interest in violent crime. If yes, how? If no, why not? He tries to get there but he doesn't ever succeed because I think there's too much of him in the books for that to work. Plus, that would have taken some deep wading into sociological issues that I don't think he's interested in exploring. He could have written a book about police departments and the historical evolution of crime fighting. Mistakes that are no longer made. Mistakes that are continuing to be made. And, again, there's hints of this but no real cigar we can smoke. I can think of several directions this book could have gone in, and the principle problem is that it touched on many but refused to dedicate itself to one or even two themes.

As I end up saying nearly every time I write one of these reviews: where is his editor? Once again, we have a very decent writer who doesn't have a lighthouse operator showing him his way. That is what a good editor does. She/he is the beam of light that says, "This is your safe harbor. That idea, that construct, that context is going to smash your writerly efforts on some pretty nasty rocks. Come this way."

Blog Stuff

So. I have feeds for several blogs and the majority of them are food-centered blogs. (There is one that I absolutely adore, even if it's primarily about men's shoes. It's at times totally irreverent and a tad aging frat boyish and bone-deep charming and sometimes achingly sweet and touching. I'm grateful I don't live in the south because I have a feeling there are tons of men with exactly this swoon-inducing combination of traits--not the aging frat boy part but even in him it has a boyish come hither about it).

And you know what kills me? They can use wonderful pictures of lemons and strawberries and cool plates and wonderful champagne flutes and I write mostly about ideas and it's really hard to find pictures about ideas. You know? So this blog is visually flat--although I'd like to think intellectually as sassy as a lemon. Yet we are a visual culture these days, and I'd like to give this space more punch and I'm stymied;

Stymied, I tell you!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I'm Back to Normal

I'm generally a very happy person. Glass half-full is my motto at the best of times. However, there was a really dark period in my life, which was exacerbated by moving to the burbs and a bunch of issues that aren't any one's business but me. I can honestly say that I was so clueless regarding my depression that I couldn't even label it depression until my therapist forced me to name it. It took a long time to go away completely, and I didn't even realize that vestiges of it hung on for a good long time; sort of like a prolonged hangover of the psyche.

But I knew that it was finally finished and buried (one hopes forever) by the fact that I'm cooking again. Serious cooking, pouring over magazines and web sites and itching to try new things. I'm also gardening (interestingly that was the first thing to come back), and I've just ordered a slew of sewing patterns. Although I might not seem like it from this blog, I am a revoltingly domestic person and my love of all that went when I became depressed. And that's what is so awful about depression. It cuts you off from you. It's like your soul has been put in locked box and the key is nowhere to be found. You know that you used to cook, garden, and sew, but those are nothing but memories. For the life of you, you can't fathom who that woman was. When you come back from something like that, then you find yourself looking at your depressed self and saying the same thing: who was that poor woman?

Anyway, I've just purchased a slow cooker from Target now that my working ass is full time. The first recipe definitely needed some serious tweaking although the bones are there. The dog has claimed the garden from me, but we have a large yard and there will always be the debris to clean up. And the watering, since the dog ate the wonderful irrigation system my husband toiled over for months. Oh, and I think I'll make myself a cape for when I attend those crazy Harry Potter functions. I'm always decidedly under dressed.

Yes, I'm back. What a long strange trip it's been and I never, ever want to go back.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Wow, Authors Are Caught in the Middle Here

So, I just finished Michael Connelly's The Fifth Witness. If you like courtroom procedurals, this is your kind of book. I have several friends who are D.A.s, and I like books that delve into the strategy aspect of a trial. Unfortunately, the plot is nearly identical to the first book in the Mickey Haller series, The Lincoln Lawyer, but Connelly is a compelling writer so I think most people will enjoy this if it is a little deja vu-ish in terms of plot. Personally, I didn't think that the characterization was all that swift: (a) the new legal sidekick was boring and her moral dilemma even more boring because this issue was dealt with very effectively, again, in The Lincoln Lawyer, and we seem to be back-tracking in terms of Haller's personal moral ethos; (b) the victim was surprisingly absent in this book, merely a name, and by the end of it we really didn't care that he was dead because he was a scumbag, too; and (c) Haller's client was too much of an enigma. That is what made The Lincoln Lawyer so compelling a read. Louis Roulet was an exceptionally well-drawn predator, and we were practically eating Haller's frustration along with him. This client remains at a distance and to me that's problematic. However, I did stay up until 3:00 am reading it in one fell swoop, and I can't say that about many books these days.

What is most interesting about this book is the review war currently going on at Connelly's amazon page. Readers complaining about e-book pricing are flooding the site with negative reviews because the e-book version is more expensive than the hardcover. Yes, you read that right. And readers are pissed off. Man, are they pissed off. People are heading to libraries, waiting for the paperback, deciding to cross Connelly off their reading list, it goes on and on. The book itself is being lost over the issue of its pricing. Obviously, I don't know how much control Connelly has over the pricing model for his novels. I know that the one-star reviews are overwhelming and while a few of them didn't like the novel, the vast majority of them are complaints about the pricing.

In an era when publishers should be doing anything possible to keep their readers reading, they are alienating the readers who are their future market: those with e-readers. This doesn't make sense to me. The statistics that I've read say that 50% of the market will be electronic in five years. If you piss off the e-reading market, then I can imagine the piracy market will all of a sudden become exceptionally attractive. The only rationale that makes any sense at all is that they want to maximize their hardcover release by making the e-market release too expensive. I would imagine three months from now this will appear as an e-book at about $12.99 or less. But now there's a whole lot of pissed-off readers who aren't going to read a Connelly book no matter how cheap it is or in what format. They consider an e-release as a first-run release, and they don't care about the hardcover market. At this point I think it's a tug of war. The publishers are pushing this pricing for e-books because when most books are e-publications they will be in a position to price it like it was a hardcover; they think they just need to ride this out. Eventually readers won't have a choice.

I don't think it's going to work like that. I think that books are going to be pirated or authors are going to start cutting out the publishing houses and publishing themselves, which is already happening. I would imagine that Michael Connelly and his agent are reading every single one of those negative reviews related to pricing, and if I were him, I wouldn't be too pleased at the way this is coming down.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Birthers and Racism

I'm a very political person, so please bear with me. Those who seek to deny Obama's election to the presidency by virtue of his birth (the charming sobriquet "birthers") are, to me, inexplicable. You don't like his policies? Fine. You don't like his cabinet choices? Okay. You fundamentally disagree with his political outlook? Great. Start throwing your energies into trying to defeat him in 2012. But to try to deny him his right to be president as duly elected in this country--and to my knowledge there is no movement to declare that election fraudulent or questionable, unlike some other elections I could name--you've lost me. And not only that, you've enraged me, because the lack of bonafides of other U.S. presidents hasn't been an issue, obviously, for a number of people who have sat in the Oval Office. How does been president of the Screen Actors Guild or being the owner of a baseball team qualify one for the being President of the United States?

I don't watch much television--the news is about it--but finally one of the more august journalists, Bob Schieffer, labeled what I believe is behind the genesis of this movement: old-fashioned racism. However, there is an interesting article in Salon today that delves into this issue a little more deeply, and, yes, birtherism seems to have its roots in old-fashioned racism, and it's yet another example of how the Civil War and the issues surrounding that conflict still confront us over one hundred years later:

http://www.salon.com/news/politics/birthers/index.html?story=/politics/war_room/2011/05/04/obama_bin_laden_birther

Sunday, May 1, 2011

It's Here and Sooner than I Thought

Check out this link

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/04/29/BUIO1J9820.DTL

to the S.F. Chronicle regarding Krakauer's new non-fiction book ripping to shreds the mythology surrounding the immensely successful book, "Three Cups of Tea." I'm not going to weigh in on the validity of either book because I haven't read either book. What is fascinating is that Krakauer released his book from Byliner, a no-name e-publisher (although now soon to be a household name in publishing). "60 Minutes" ran a story on Mortenson and  "the day after the program aired, 70,000 free PDF versions of "Three Cups of Deceit" were downloaded within 72 hours of its release, according to the company. Six hours after the release of the $2.99 tablet version, available on the Kindle and Apple's iPad, it shot to the top of the Kindle Single list and has led Amazon's overall nonfiction sales ever."

I don't think anyone needs to wonder why Krakauer went with Byliner. First of all, check out the pricing: $2.99. I doubt any mainstream publisher would have agreed to that kind of bargain basement pricing. Sure, it means he has to sell a hell of a lot of downloads to make any money, but he's got the writing cred to pull something like this off. As he has proved. Will a bricks and mortar publisher pick up the paper rights to this book? I'm not sure. Because they'd have to match what is inevitably a sweetheart deal between Krakauer and Byliner in terms of profit sharing. Plus, if you don't have the e-rights, is it worth printing?

This is not to say that Byliner didn't score an incredible coup by signing Krakauer. If I tried to do something like this, it would be pointless. It takes someone of Krakauer's stature and marketability to pull this off. His track record sells him, and I would imagine it took some serious mental crunching to determine the demographics of his readership. I think they probably ran the numbers and realized that 70% of his readership has an e-reading device of some ilk (a number only bound to go up). The exposure on "60 Minutes" was the ultimate coup. All of this was very well timed, and I suspect that Krakauer went with a small publisher because his traditional publisher couldn't get their act together to publish ASAP.

The continuing disarray of mainstream publishing and their head-in-the-sand approach to the whole e-book phenomenon means that e-publishers like Byliner have a real chance of stealing a whole lot of their talent. Of course, a mention on "60 Minutes" is about as good as it gets in terms of free advertising, something not readily available to the fiction writer. But it's the wave of the future, and if I won the lottery, I'd set up an e-publishing house yesterday. Because I love books, and I don't have a lot of respect for what is coming out from New York these days.

This does raise the thorny issue of pricing. Because that sort of pricing demands that you sell a ton of downloads, but authors like Krakauer have that capability. Someone like me, not so much. And if enough authors of Krakauer's stature keep publishing books at $2.99, then there is constant and unrelenting pressure on all of us (publishers and authors alike) to match that pricing. It's like how amazon offered best sellers at $18.00 and all of a sudden people only expected to pay $18.00 for best-sellers, and good-bye independent bookstore, hello amazon and chain stores: capitalism at work.

Clearly, this is a cautionary tale for all mainstream publishers. Scrappy, fearless e-publishers are out there making deals with your writers. They are handing them the lion's share of the profit and harnessing the power of amazon.  It's a new day and publishers are hiding under the covers. Get off your butts and stop delaying publication of your manuscripts for over a year. Set up, IMMEDIATELY, your own e-division so that you can publish asap material that is hot and relevant. Some authors will work both in "print" and the "e" medium, but some manuscripts can do very nicely in only "e" versions. What you will lose in print sales you will gain by printing something relevant and CURRENT. Start labeling yourselves as hip, current, on top of what is happening. Stop seeing the e-revolution as the death knell and more of a different cash cow. Krakauer's 75,000 downloads speaks volumes. At least it does to me.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book Review: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I loved this book. The blurbs on the back likens this book to a Jane Austen novel (which publicists tend to do and they are always so far off the mark), but this time they actually got it right. Major Ernest Pettigrew lives in a small English village in Sussex. Retired, widowed, and in danger of fossilizing, he falls in love with a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper named Mrs Ali. That's pretty much the whole story. And yet what Helen Simonson does with this simple plot is really the stuff of Austen. What is so lovely about this book is that this author understands something so key: that a protagonist must move emotionally. She presents an unlikely scenario--this rather hidebound older man who falls in love with a woman who is profoundly divorced from his culture and his class--and makes this transition plausible. Like all satisfying novels, our Major must make some difficult choices, and yet by the end of this book he is more than willing to pay the price for these moral victories.

This novel isn't perfect. I found the ending a tad bit melodramatic. Then I thought of the endings of several Austen novels and damn if they weren't as melodramatic. Having said that, I don't think it works as well here, but it's a slight quibble. And his relationship with his son is, I think, overdone. We find ourselves rooting for the Major so vigorously that we can't imagine how he has produced such a selfish, immature lout of a son. That he also feels that way is immaterial, especially since the Major becomes the moral center of the book. It doesn't quite work that the son is so shallow.

These are tiny quibbles though in the overall wonder of this story. I don't say this about many novels--more's the pity--but I found it enchanting.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Thin Line

There's been an interesting discussion on DorothyL, the mystery lst srv, about some readers feeling that the presence of an author's website contains a tacit invitation to engage with the author, and why bother having a website if you don't have any intention of getting up close and personal with your readers, as in responding to their queries and/or emails.

I think that today's artists are caught between a rock and a hard place. There is a heightened degree of intimacy demanded by one's audience these days, and while I'm as addicted to celebrity gossip websites as the next person (I don't read People magazine but I sure scan the headlines), I think that a website is or should be nothing more than advertisement. Hey, I'm going to be here, reading from my book. Want to meet me? Or, my next book is going to be published on this date and it's about this. To me, that is the extent of what a web page should be about. It should inform. You may ask, well, there's usually an email address so isn't that an invitation? I see it more as a professional necessity for those in the industry. And while I answer every single piece of email I receive, I can't imagine if you're a popular author how inundated you'd be with fan-email. You'd have no time to write. Feeding the publicity machine would be your sole job.

Also, and no one talks about this, but you can know far too much about people. I've been to a number of mystery writing conventions and I've met my fair share of authors, and you know? Most of them are wonderful people. Some aren't. And it's colored how I feel about them forever. Some authors have lost me as a reader because now I know them as people and it impacts my enjoyment of their material. Of course, the same thing can happen in reverse. You meet someone who is mediocre on the page, but in person they are adorable, and that author now has a new reader. I'm not that into spy thrillers unless you're John le Carre, but I heard David Balducci speak at Bouchercon last fall and damn if he wasn't a fantastic interview and I think I'll pick up one of his books.

But it usually doesn't work out that way. Given how polarized people are these days, do you really want to know that I'm politically left of center? Probably not. Do I want to know that you're a member of the Tea Party? No, I don't. I'm increasingly feeling that my world of fiction or someone else's world of fiction should not be intruded on by reality. That all you need to know is what is between Chapter 1 and the end.

I think that if an author wants to be close and personal with people that's what Facebook and Twitter is for. I have a Facebook, but I rarely use it, but I do not have a Twitter (and have no intention of signing on). Neither do I have a problem with people contacting by email; in fact, I enjoy it. Email me anytime. But I do wonder about the how faint the lines between artist and audience are becoming. Would I have enjoyed, say, Hemingway's books if I'd known that he was a serial monogamist who became a narcissistic jerk later in life, or cherished every magnificent sentence F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote knowing that he liked to get tanked up and then pick fights with people? Maybe not.

I do know that I know won't support some authors (and artists) who I feel are morally bankrupt. Thirty years ago I wouldn't have known anything about them, and I could have gone on appreciating their art in the embrace of my naivete. Now, it very difficult and sometimes I find impossible to separate the artist from their art. It's really hard to ignore that man pretending to be Oz when the curtain's whipped back.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ruthlessness

I've been on a memoir tear lately, having torn through biographies or autobiographies of Muriel Spark, Keith Richards, Anne Sexton, Linda Gray Sexton, and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I think with the exception of Keith Richards (what a stand-up person; I like him enormously), all these people come across as extremely ruthless. Perhaps Linda Gray Sexton is less ruthless than the rest of them, but I think anyone who tries to commit suicide has a certain obsession with the "ME." And, yes, I realize that enormous amounts of pain--physical or otherwise--can overwhelm to the point where the "ME" is the only thing that matters. I've been depressed and I've experienced horrific amounts of physical pain to the extent I wanted to hang myself, so, yes, there are times when it really is only about you. However, despite all my mental or physical anguish, I have never and can ever conceive of wanting to commit suicide because I do think that's when the ME becomes, well, ruthless.

With the exception of Keith Richards, I find that I do not like these people because of this very ruthlessness. I even find myself feeling irritated by them; these people are compelling and yet also repelling. A. Sexton is enormously selfish; Plath I find something of a fool (I could see her eventual crisis coming from a mile away); Hughes is nothing more a brute with a brain; and Spark is odious. And yet their art is amazing. I'm not one for Hughes' poetry because the whole shaman/life force/superstition/occult metaphor does not work for me, but I can't deny that he was a phenomenal poet. And Sexton's poetry is similar to Plath's in that here they are in the late 50s, early 60s and realizing what a bum deal it is to be a woman, especially a woman competing in a man's world. It's hard to read about Plath's determination to be the happy homemaker/poet/uber wife, seeing herself as second best to her husband; not only seeing herself as second best but relishing that role. Equally painful is reading how Sexton learned how to mine her craziness for her art, not realizing of course that there's only so much crazy people can take before they are worn out. Hughes and Spark are cut from similar cloth; focused and determined and steely (there's no other word for it) they demanded respect and never let anyone push them around. It's a toss-up who I dislike more, Hughes or Spark. Perhaps Spark because there is no dismissing that Hughes was a brute but he did love deeply (if extremely unwisely). Spark hoarded all her love for God and didn't seem to have much for anyone else.

Anyway, I think the point of all this rambling is that I don't see myself as an artist, although I do see myself as a writer. Clearly I'm not ruthless enough. If I were more like any of the above, I would tell my husband, "Yes, I know that we have children with college tuitions looming and we get our medical benefits from me and we have a mortgage and our parents our aging, but I want to sell this house and move to Ireland and write a big book. I know this means we will have little retirement and our kids will suffer from my selfishness but this is what I need to do. I must do it."

That's what these people did. Their art came first. I push my "art" into the corners of my life that are vacant. An hour here, four hours there. I have been selfish in my life, but not ruthless. Although I won't deny feeling envy for people who are.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Books That Changed Me

Below is a list of books that changed me. That upsided me on the head in the most wonderful way, that said, hey, words? They are magic. They will transform you. Take you places you never thought you would. Make you think. Make you cry. Make you grow up. Make you care.

Jane Austen: all her books, ALL of them.

John Fowles: The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre.

Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bells Tolls (I know it's not his best but there are passages that make me cry at their sheer brilliance).

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night (could anyone create a more lyrical sentence? I don't think so).

J. K. Rowling: the Harry Potter series (not that these books aren't terribly flawed, but I've made so many friends from this world that, yes, this series changed my life).

Ford Madox Ford: The Good Soldier (what a fascinating book).

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings trilogy (no explanation needed).

Calvin Trillin: About Alice (because, wow, what a lovely marriage).

Raymond Chandler: ALL of his works. The man had a way with metaphor and simile that I think is really unparalleled

Dashiell Hammet:  ALL of his novels (although I have to admit the The Maltese Falcon is perhaps the most perfect piece of crime fiction ever written. Except for, perhaps, The Long Goodbye, which is a debate I have with myself constantly. Which is better?)

Vera Caspary: Laura (because, really, a novel with three distinct POV's and so well written, never a slip in voice).

Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night, because I am basically Harriet Vane and there is no man in fiction that I'd rather be married to (and that includes Mr. Darcy). Plus, wow, really smart plots, Dorothy!

Truman Capote: I love his short stories more than his novels, so The Dogs Bark and The Muses Are Heard make this list, although I do love his writing in general.

Gore Vidal: This is problematic for me because I despise his comments regarding the Polanski affair and am not feeling very charitable toward him these days, but his historical series starting with Burr is truly amazing. If you want to understand the U.S., read this series.

So these are my favorites. Yours?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Recipe: The World's Best Poundcake

Although food looms large in my life (my cookbook collection is obscene), it doesn't seem to loom large here. Let's rectify that. I cut this recipe out of the S.F. Chronicle over thirty years ago, and I have yet to find a better recipe for pound cake. It's frigging perfect.

The World's Best Poundcake

1 c butter (2 sticks) room temp
2 c sugar (I used the superfine baking sugar from C&H)
5 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 c all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp nutmeg

1. Butter and flour a bundt pan. Sift flour twice.

2. Cream together butter and sugar until very light and fluffy.

3. Add vanilla to eggs. Add 3 eggs one at a time, bearing at least one minute after each addition. Scrape down bowl. Mix for another minute. Fold in 1/4 cup flour. Mix well.

4. Add remaining 2 eggs, beating well after each addition. This should now have the appearance of whipped cream. Add nutmeg and salt to remaining flour.

5. Stir in flour all at once using a wooden spoon to combine. Mix well until blended but do not overmix. You've just spent ten minutes putting air into the batter, by overmixing it you'll take a bunch of it out.

6. Turn batter into pan. Place in a COLD oven (yes, cold) and turn heat to 350 degrees. Bake 55 minutes or until knife comes out clean.

7. When done, place pan on wire rack for 4 minutes, turn out onto rack to cool.

This cake keeps forever. If I'm serving this to guests, I add a generous spoonful of strawberries and a wee bit of whipped cream, but that's just window dressing. This recipe doesn't need any "props," it's delicious plain.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Myself/My Daughter

The less said about the Oscars the better. I've never seen a more boring, ill-conceived, poorly written show in my life. Not even Anne Hathaway's charm could save it, because all her charm was sucked out and stomped on by James Franco and his hipster sneer.

Anyway, the highlight of the evening was texting with my daughter back and forth, commenting on how boring the show was and giving thumbs up and down on the gowns. And with the exception of that hideous gown worn by Mandy Moore, whose skirt was threatening to eat her and it was only by using her microphone to beat back all that fabric that she survived the night, we were simpatico on all counts. In fact, we were texting each other identical comments back and forth. I typed, CELINE!!!!! And a half second later CELINE!!!! appeared on my phone. We are clones of each other, probably the most clear cut defense for the genetics trumping environment debate imaginable. It's something we've accepted, because when you're faced with overwhelming evidence, you just have to roll with it.

When daughter was college hunting we stopped by our dear friends' house who live in Pittsburgh. They hadn't seen daughter in years and we weren't in the house more than forty seconds before dear friend said, "Apple doesn't fall far from that tree, does it?" Because, no, it doesn't.

I'm concerned about Mandy Moore, because once she put that microphone down, she was defenseless against all that skirt. Has anyone seen her since?

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Political Landscape

The political gods giveth and they taketh away. I pick up my newspaper and there's a story on Obama's decision to abandon defense of DOMA by the DOJ, and right next to it is a story about the Wisconsin governor being punked by a newspaper reporter, vowing to break the backs of the unions and, wow, too bad we can't use force to disperse the crowds. WHAT????

There are no words to describe how crazy the political landscape has become with the introduction of the tea partiers into the mix. I imagine Boehner is weeping into his pillow every night because he co-opted their support to get the House and yet now he finds (surprise, surprise) that they are uncontrollable and even more important ungovernable. Why would he think a group of people who believe in only themselves as the rule of law would take kindly to being used as chess pieces in the Repubs battle to dislodge Dems and Obama? Why? What in the two years leading up to that election gave ANY indication that these people would be sheep to your agenda? And now they are proving not to be sheep at all. They voted with the tres liberal Dems to end the war in Afghanistan, they are holding your feet to the flames over the budget, and even better, their extremist agenda will hand the House back to the Dems and locking Obama in for another four years.

Because, you know what, John? They are nuts. They are extremists. They despise government and will do everything in their power to undermine it and push forward their agenda. Ask the Governor of Wisconsin. Sounds like he's a hair's breadth away from firing on the demonstrators. Oh wait, that was the Assistant AG in Indiana who believed we should take these people out. He was fired for that comment, although he's been known for years for his extreme agenda. Sadly, it's only because his big fat mouth went crazy on Twitter and someone actually was able to tie it back to his real person that he was fired. Apparently, being a Nazi supporter doesn't bar you from being the legal representative of the state in Indiana. Cross that state off my list.

John, if all this doesn't sound crazy to you, then God help you.

The shenanigans in Wisconsin are galvanizing labor on a scale unseen in decades. The recent gutting of funding for Planned Parenthood? Way to completely alienate your female voter. WHICH YOU NEED. Because if the Dems are smart they will jettison Biden, throw him the Secretary of State bone, and move Hillary into the VP position for the 2012 election. Right there and then you are toast. PP is not all about abortions, idiots. In fact it's about taking care of women. And as Jon Carroll pointed out in his excellent column in the S.F. Chronicle this morning, it's not the labor unions who gambled with the sub-prime mortgages and sent the country into the worst financial depression since 1929. It was people like the Koch brothers. And by the way. People who can't collective bargain and aren't assured of their health care? All of a sudden Obama's health care plan is going to seem mighty attractive. In fact, you couldn't possibly have orchestrated the demise of Repubs in 2012 any better.

Media glut has its pluses and minuses. We are subjected to crazy people like Beck but we also can see the national impact that electing these extremists has on nation's laws and ethos. It's the only weapon against the massive amounts of money that people like the Koch brothers are funneling into these campaigns. What does it say that the Governor of Wisconsin will not accept a phone call from the Democratic Minority Leader of the Wisconsin Senate but will take a phone call from a Koch brother? I think it says a lot.

So while we champion the inevitable demise of discriminatory practices in regards to marriage between partners, regardless of their sexual stripe, we also cringe when we pick up the newspapers. The events of the last week are the best and the worst examples of what characterizes the American political scene these days.

Friday, February 18, 2011

That Borders Bankruptcy

Well, not like everyone didn't see that coming.

There's been a lot of interesting chat about this on the Internet. There's some blow back from smaller booksellers who are bitter and say that this is nothing more than the chickens coming home to roost. That they are now the victims of amazon's scorch and burn approach to book selling and how does it feel? I see both sides because a lot of people are now losing their jobs and good luck finding a job in this economy. I also learned something new: that Borders, for all it's big boxishness, was something of a champion for the fiction trade paperback writer. The kind of writer who is kick-ass but needs someone biggish like Borders to help them make their name. Another note, my book critique group meets in a Borders twice a month and that store is closing. We're going to have to find another venue, which isn't the big issue, but we've been meeting there for years and I can't help but think of those employees who I greet every time I walk into that store.

For me it personally sucks because I'm on the verge of trying to shop a book. It's not a mystery but it's about the mystery writing world and being a no name, and although there are autobiographical elements in it, it's NOT autobiographical. It takes Elizabeth Bennett and makes her a writer and takes Mr. Darcy and makes him a publisher, and social comedy ensues. I went into writing this knowing it would be a tough sell, but I had a blast writing it, and it's a fun romp (truly, it's a decent read) and now it will be an impossible sell. Because publishers are already struggling and Borders' survival is questionable even when pared down to the nubs and there is debt. OMG, there's debt. Publishers are now carrying Borders' debt and they are going to even be more loathe to take chances. For all of us writers with books to shop this can't be a more horrible time.

Maybe I should just save myself a lot of energy and angst and self-publish it.

Sigh and damn.