Saturday, December 29, 2012

Another Sad Chapter Closed

It is with great sadness that I write that Ed Kaufman, the former owner of the mystery bookstore, "M is for Mystery" has died. Ed announced his retirement last Christmas at the annual MWA and SINC holiday get together. It was obvious from the announcement and the singular lack of enthusiasm by the new owner of the space that we mystery authors had lost the last and final space in the Bay Area dedicated solely to mystery novels (as the S.F. Mystery Book Store had also recently shut its doors).

I'd like to thank Ed for all his support over the years. He loved mysteries and his store, as a gathering place for authors and readers, reflected that. Even more importantly, though, he made a no-name mystery author like myself feel so thoroughly, well, professional. Like I was a real author. And you say, well, you had a book published, doesn't that make you feel like a real author? Sadly, no. Ed rolled out the carpet and kept asking me when my next book was going to be out and actively made me feel like the real deal. Being an author is basically to court doubt every time you sit down at one's computer. Ed, for a brief hour, made me feel that I was part of the author crowd. That people didn't line up out the door for me to sign their books, but that I was still, yes, the real deal. I thank him for that. It was more important than he'll ever know. Ed was the real deal himself. He will be missed.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Back to Our Regular Programming

I am currently reading a novel that has gotten a tremendous amount of buzz in the last few months. Most of the buzz has been positive, but there have been a few people I know who have expressed--how do I put this--frustration with the ending. Halfway through it, I'll probably put up a review at some point soon, but based on the reactions that I've been reading, I think this might be a good time to bring up the issue of trust.

I've talked a lot about the implicit contract that develops between a writer and her/his reader. In a successful contract, the writer and the reader are on the same page. It basically boils down to the reader, in essence, saying: "You wrote a novel in such a way that most of my expectations were fulfilled. Thanks!" This contract falls apart when a reader's expectations aren't met.

The most difficult aspect of this writing business is accepting that not all people will like your writing. I've gotten to the point where I think that if 75% of readers likes what I've written, then I'm doing pretty damn well. Like I've said before, part of what makes a novel work is an understanding that the person flipping through your book shares some of your baggage or at least understands your baggage or is enthralled by your baggage or sympathizes with your baggage. The writer and the readers are handing that suitcase of anxiety, woe, humor, danger, frustration, sadness, and joy back and forth between each other as a reader journeys through a novel. What happens when a novel doesn't work? Then when the hand-off happens, the reader withdraws their hand and the baggage falls to the floor. The journey stops.

When I first starting writing mystery I got a lot of advice about what readers will and will not accept but there seems to be three basic tenets: (1) you can kill people but not animals (interesting that); (2) you can kill a child but it's difficult and problematic and you'd better be a damn fine writer to pull it off; and (3) you should have all the clue(s) available to the reader so that they can solve the crime. Number three is occasionally abused (and probably the most famous abuser of all would be the writer Conan Doyle), but not too often. It might not derail a book, but I know that if an author does abuse that rule that it will haunt them a little, as in, Wow, I liked that book, but the writer didn't play fair. T

So what is fair? Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd defined "clever," taking the notion of the unreliable narrator to its zenith. What distinguishes a clever twist from a pulled-the-rug-out-sneaky trick? When does a reader accept that an unreliable narrator is not a form of betrayal? I think that it does all boil down to how the author lays the ground work throughout the novel and how that groundwork compliments the ending. No reader wants to feel duped. Surprised? Yes. Isn't that what makes mystery such a compelling genre: that sense of surprise? The "aha!" But no reader wants to feel betrayed, because after all, they've been hauling that suitcase of baggage for about 70,000-90,000 words.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

That Sound You Hear Are Moderate Republicans Positioning Themselves

Finally, finally it's beginning to happen. The moderate Republicans who have essentially been stomped into the ground and silenced during the Tea Party avalanche are now beginning to step forward and begin the slow process of taking back their party. Despite the craptastic economy, Obama's basically poised to win this.

Frankly, the only people the Repubs have to blame are themselves. The Democrats suffered a similar isolation (and defeat) when the left wing of the party held sway until Bill Clinton wrenched it away them. And let's be clear that I fall squarely in the far-left spectrum of political beliefs and yet I concede that this is what had to happen for the Dems to win the White House; it didn't hurt that the economy was in the toilet, making Bush senior very vulnerable. As has been Obama. I've heard over and over again this was the Republican's race to lose. Yep, all they had to do was run a centrist campaign and they would have mopped the floor with Obama.

Why do I say that the moderate Repubs are finally wrenching their party back to where it was pre-Tea Party? Two reasons: one is that Chris Christie basically gave Obama his biggest endorsement of the entire campaign and probably did more for Obama's numbers than any single event (with the exception of Romney's 47% comments). Christie has his own agenda for sure--hello, 2016--but more than that, he has a history of collaborating with Dems to get the job done, and that hasn't changed despite the GOP's determined efforts to obstruct all agenda (regardless WHAT the agenda is) as long as it means collaborating with the Dems. Christie is one of the few Republicans who seems to remember that government is a collaborative experience. Anyway, I would imagine people like Mitch McConnell (who has hired a Tea Party hack to run his 2016 Senate campaign--might want to review that strategy, Mitch) are furious. I would also imagine that Christie is getting a lot of behind the scenes support from those Republicans who have been bullied over the last two years by the extreme wing of the party to vote their way or the highway.

Two? The only issue the Republicans have been talking about for the last two weeks have been the events in Libya. Johnson went so far as to say that abortion is a non-issue and that every constituent he talks to is demanding answers on Benghazi. Interesting that. Ninety-seven percent of the population say they have strong feelings on abortion, while roughly half of the people polled had no idea what had happened in Libya (and it's not hard to make a leap that they don't care either). Today Condi Rice has come out and said, wait a minute, buckaroos. When events are happening that fast on the ground, it's difficult to get the facts straight. Don't jump to conclusions. In other words, back off.

That both of them, eminent Republicans, essentially endorsed the Obama administration the WEEK before the election says to me that the moderate Republicans are making their moves. They've written off Romney as being the puppet of the extreme wing of the party, and they've also written off this election. They are positioning themselves for 2016, which, mark my words, will be a centrist campaign that will appeal to precisely those voters who probably wouldn't have voted for Obama given the state of the economy but did so because the GOP cut its extremist throat. There are clearly some people who have had enough, have seen the damage done to the GOP by their extremist platform that marginalizes women and minorities (who are key to any election these days), and are determined to wrench the party back to the center. Look for a Christie/Jeb Bush ticket in 2016.

Good luck.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Thank Heavens to Murgatroyd, the Debates Are Over

Yes, Obama "won." I put that in quotes because common wisdom says that beyond having their children returned to them in body bags, Americans are pretty much divorced from what is happening in the rest of the world, and debates on foreign policy are, unfortunately, not that important to them. Unless there are body bags involved. This isolationist posture is extremely problematic because in this global economy financial crises in Europe will always impinge on America's economic health, and yet most Americans seem oblivious to this. I have yet to see any candidate say, yes, our economy is shit, however, it's much better currently than most economies, and, frankly, it's not going to get a whole hell of a lot better until Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal get their frigging acts together. No one says that. But from everything I've read, that seems to be the low down. If you have a third of your trading partners in the financial crapper, then who are you going to sell to? The trade deficit is held hostage by the financial meltdown overseas, and no matter how much wand waving Romney et al. can do, there is only so MUCH they can do. Except move money around, which is what they love to do anyway. Sigh.  Anyway, Americans tend to only care about Americans. What happens in those other countries, pfft!

Regarding Romney's performance? Sadly, I think this is the real Romney. And equally sadly this is the Romney that we rarely have seen in the entire year he's been on the campaign trail. Romney could have saved himself a whole lot of trouble by just using his two minutes to say, "Me, too!" Which is not a bad thing. His political career has been characterized by a general middle-of-the-road approach to most issues, and we probably would have seen a lot more of this Mitt had his party not been hijacked by extremists.

This does bring up the issue of integrity. And how he felt he had to sell his soul temporarily to the extreme wing of his party. And how Obama's constant hammering of him on his flip-flops actually does have some merit. I don't know if there is a real Romney. It's hard to tell at this point. I think this was the real Romney last night, but then again, he has shown that he is extremely vulnerable to machination of politics. Does this mean that he will constantly cave to the extreme wing of his party in order to get their cooperation as he has done this entire campaign? The man who has touted his ability to work with Democrats in his state, doesn't he realize that the people he might not be able to work with are from his OWN party. That he will, in essence, be in the same position that John Boehner has been in for the last two years? And what will he do in that situation, should he become president? Will he cave to them like he has done in the last two years of his campaign?

I'm truly curious.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Message

Clearly, I've been obsessed with politics lately, because it seems like there is so much to lose. That there is an ambition and determination by some folks to turn the clock back seventy years. That a number of people are comfortable with how life was in 1950 when women didn't have sex before marriage, when marriage was between a man and a woman, when woman didn't have many ambitions outside of the home, where gay people didn't exist, where black people were maids, and where Hispanics were basically domiciled in their banana republics never to be seen and certainly not heard.I imagine life was simpler in the 1950s. It was more of a lock step. And yet. Yet, people were challenging that in literature. Gore Vidal. Truman Capote. Norman Mailer. All men, sadly enough. It took some time before all that smoke screen was blown away from that fantasy to reveal that June Cleaver was pounding back a fifth of whiskey a day and Ward Clever was trying desperately not to go crazy as he did that nine-to-five dance.

So it's down to the message. And isn't that what writing is about? Crafting a message so that people will listen. I write fluffy little beach reads that probably don't have a ton of "message," but I tried to put in some context about working with illegals and what that means without getting all "soapboxy." I can tell you that I saw red when Mr. Romney began talking about "self-deporting." Like all these illegals would risk their effing LIVES to come to this country if they had a choice. I can't tell you the number of conversations I've had with Latinos who come here because, hello, they have no choice. They want to eat, and they want to have a roof over their heads. No one wants to be in exile. So, yes, I tried to craft my beach reads with something of an insight into what it means to be illegal in this country.

Fortunately, my parents, who immigrated in the 1950s, were white. They also had skills that were marketable (a doctor and a nurse, respectively), and the U.S. welcomed them with open arms, given that they had sponsors. However, they also didn't feel they had much choice. Britain was still rationing in 1954, a concept I'm sure that Americans have trouble with, but it was a salient point in my parents' decision to leave. In fact, out of the three boys in my father's family all THREE sons immigrated. In my mother's family, two out of her four siblings immigrated. People don't leave their families and their homes because, hello, they want to wear Rolex watches and drive Cadillacs. They leave because they don't have much choice.

So my wee little, barely known mysteries touch on these issues. In my experience the majority of the people I worked with were fleeing war-torn countries (thank you, Ollie North) and/or crushing poverty. By that stupid, stupid remark, Mr. Romney yet again reveals his profound ignorance on what motivates those who are NOT to the manner born.

Meg Whitman and HP and Campaign Nonsense

As I am sure it's no surprise, I did not support Meg Whitman for the California's governor race two years ago. Jerry Brown has proved to be a total delight. I would imagine that the Democratic legislature isn't too happy with him, as he seems to be running the state on a relatively no bullshit platform. He's not playing fast and loose with the numbers, hiding deficits here, and hoping that the next administration will have to deal with the financial meltdown. He is refreshing. I don't agree with him on everything, but I respect him, and that's saying a LOT in this political climate.

Anyway, my comment here will be brief. Meg Whitman said in a shareholders meeting a couple of weeks ago that it will take years for Hewlett Packard (the firm of which she is now the CEO) to come back to financial solvency. Of course, this was NOT her stance during the campaign when she claimed she would turn the finances of the State of California around in mere minutes after her election. Now maybe I'm dumb, however, I think that the issues surrounding state financing are even more complex than the issues surrounding a company like HP. And if it's going to take HP years to regroup, why would I think that Meg Whitman could wave her magic wand and that everything in the State of California would be magically fixed under her tenure? Wouldn't THAT have taken years as well? Stop lying.

This brings to mind Mr. Romney's statement in the debate last night was that within four years under his administration we will be completely energy independent, a figure that NO ONE has supported regardless of how much we drill and how fast. In fact, it has been deemed impossible given our rate of consumption. Stop lying.

Debates and the Role of the Moderator

I'm not going to comment on President Obama's debate performance last night other than to congratulate him on a job well done. Personally, I think that Mr. Romney's weaknesses were highlighted (and, yes, the women/binders thing will haunt him), and that President Obama did a good job of highlighting those weaknesses, much as Mr. Romney did in the last debate in highlighting Mr. Obama's weaknesses. They are both coming into this election with some real soft spots that only need a little poking to go viral. At this point we all know that Obama's weakness is the economy, and we also know that Romney's weakness is that he has no concept of how the majority of Americans live.

Mr. Romney seems to be in a time warp, largely I think out of naivete rather than malice--as opposed to someone like Rush Limbaugh. I think that fact that he believes that he was elected and THEN (in his words, which have been debunked by the organization that provided him with those now-infamous binders) he went searching for women to fill various positions is damning enough. That this wasn't on his radar. That he didn't ALREADY have women working in his campaign and shaping his policies. If you think about these comments and not even question the veracity of his statements, it was only in the aftermath of his win that he thought, "Gee, maybe I need some women in my government." Now it turns out that the number of women appointees actually fell during his administration.

Anyway, the point of this post is to comment on the conservative backlash against Candy Crowley for having the temerity to call the candidates on their lies. Let's just call them lies because that's what they are. Given that the GOP has, for the last fifteen years made the "lie" an acceptable form of discourse, I, for one, am glad to see that someone, ANYONE, has started to say, Ahem, no.

This isn't restricted to just Republicans. If anyone is running for office and lies about something, I think they should be nailed on it. This is not party-specific. People are cynical and dispirited and hate Congress for a reason. They don't want to be lied to. They might want jobs and security and gas at $1.86 a gallon, but they also don't want to be lied to. STOP LYING. Everyone.  Conservatives have dominated the discussion for the last fifteen years because they have no compunction about lying.  Or omission, they are good at that too. Remember poor Fox News and how absolutely horrified they were that Bin Laden has been killed under Obama's watch? They couldn't even bring themselves to mention Obama's and Bin Laden's name in the same breath because that would actually would/could/might imply that Obama had something to do with it?

There are many, many issues that I think one can nail the Dems on. The problem is that the GOP are so intent on manipulating the message that they have forgotten their message. Or maybe they don't have one. I don't know. There was a time, and it wasn't that long ago, when the Republicans had a philosophy that wasn't based on lies. We have to go back a ways, like possibly pre Ollie North, and, oh, possibly pre-Watergate, where the issues weren't that we were, oh, lying or doing something illegal, the bad part was that we got caught. This is what makes people cynical and angry. Stop lying. Stop justifying reprehensible behavior. Stop being racists. The country isn't white anymore, and your tactics of subtle and not-so-subtle race-baiting are going to marginalize you further and further until you are totally irrelevant. Except for, perhaps, rich white guys.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Eyes on the Prize

We are heading into the final leg of this political race (and those of you who follow this blog for the book end of things, I apologize), and it's looking like Mr. Obama will be re-elected, barring some horrific gaffe or disaster on his part. And it also looks like a number of Tea Party favorites are currently in a position where they are fighting for their political lives.

This is the thing. I'm pretty left. There hasn't been a major candidate that exists that is as left as I am. I acknowledge that my views are not mainstream. I also acknowledge that there will NEVER be a candidate who passes my litmus test. I have made do with all the Democratic candidates that have come along. Probably my favorite has been Bill Clinton. And yet he also deregulated banks so that they could merge their securities departments with their banking functions, which essentially laid the ground work for the financial meltdown you saw in 2008. And he also pushed through NAFTA, which killed the labor movement in the United States. As much as I adore Bill, he's not perfect by a long shot. But basically, he adheres to a general philosophy of that it takes-a-village mentality, and doesn't chastise the poor for being, well, poor, unlike the Republican mantra that equates poverty with sloth and sin.

I acknowledge my otherness. I don't hate the system because it doesn't adhere to my views. I believe that democracy, which is the general will of the people, is a pretty damn fine system, and if I'm outside the bell curve, that's is my problem. The majority of Americans are far too conservative for me, but I recognize that THEY are the majority. I am not.

So Tea Partiers, this is a shout out to you. Accept your otherness, your extreme point of view, much as I have learned to accept mine. Do you know why your Republican candidate is losing? I will tell you why. Because you have bullied and threatened and forced others in the Republican party to adhere to your narrow viewpoint, so much so that you have ensured his defeat. I don't think much of his moral center (indeed, I don't think he has one--ambition thy name is Romney), but he's fairly middle of the road, albeit a little wedded to a leaner, meaner society. You pushed him into extreme positions (that he now finds himself backtracking on) to satisfy your narrow point of view.

Which was so pointless, Republicans! I thought you guys had brains.

How do you combat Obama, a President who inherited a mess of an economy, let's be fair, and who couldn't possibly fix that economy in four years, but why quibble about that. Common sense would say pull that centrist rug out from his compromised economic feet and hijack his stage. Romney would have been an ideal candidate for that. You didn't. You lurched even FARTHER right. Bad call. And Romney, who is basically a centrist, found himself caught in a horrible bind. He was dancing the extreme right mamba when really he was a centrist waltz kind of guy. Which he had to do to appease you people. Which meant that he entered this election with a credibility gap that continues to widen.

I know you wish that most Americans would think like you do. I wish that most Americans thought like I did. But I don't push my admittedly different agenda onto my candidates. I accept that I'm far too left for most Americans, but you have failed to accept that your viewpoint is far too right for most Americans. You have brought this on yourselves. I hope that this elections finally ends the hegemony of the Tea Party because I am sick of you people. I am sick of someone like Sarah Palin who thinks her high school education has given her the credentials to comment on global, political, and economic issues. I am sick of candidates who have benefited greatly from lucrative government contracts and yet see everyone else's use of government funds as handouts. I am sick of your racist, ignorant remarks. I am sick of you debasing, ignoring, and trivializing women.

What is even better is that I think that a huge number of Americans are sick of you, too. You know what? Keep on talking. Keep on exposing your ignorance. Keep on advertising exactly who you are and what you stand for: bigotry, sexism, hatred, racism, and ignorance. Talk your way out of office. Talk your way into political oblivion. Because you've had a little over two years to spread your message and let me tell you, people are getting it. Ask Mitt Romney.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Some Days are So Damn Depressing

As if we needed any more evidence that much of the animus toward President Obama is racial in origin:

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Book Review: Winter King by Thomas Penn

In my never-ending quest to read possibly every single published book on the Tudor monarchy, I spied this little gem a few weeks ago and picked it up. It's difficult to get a handle on Henry VII. Some of it is due to his personality--he played his cards close to the vest, unlike his son--and some of it is due to Tudor spin--they were, after all trying to bolster up the royal credentials for a man who didn't have that many. Overblown prose trumpeting his reign seemed to be the order of the day.

Although the first quarter of this book is a little dry, at around the twenty-five percent mark Penn all of a sudden takes off and finds his voice. What a beautifully written book. In a sure voice, Penn captures without so much as a hiccup the tenor of these men, an era of the fantastically ambitious and avaricious. Add several whose claims to the throne were considerably more legitimate than Henry Tudor's, and you have an age where the royal fortune is so fragile that success and failure seem to turn on the seemingly most trivial events, like a storm at the right place at the right time. Although these events are dramatic enough in themselves, Penn takes this up several notches by deftly marshalling these events into a coherent, fascinating narrative. The chapters dealing with the alum trade are alone worth buying this book.

The personalities of them men are large and Penn draws these men with the drollest of pens. From the enclave of rapacious Italians to the poets and humanists vying for royal favor, from Henry VII's financial henchmen Dudley and Empson to the emerging players that will play such a huge role in his son's reign (Wolsey, Cromwell, More, and Warham), Penn adroitly weaves in all their stories as the background to what is a monarchy that is obsessed with its legitimacy. Henry VII's solution to his less-than-stellar credentials was to amass so much money that he was able to buy stability, even if it meant terrorizing his people. His son would be no less obsessed and equally adept at terrorizing the populace.

A delightful read, I highly recommend it.

Mitt Meet Dick

I think that most politicians make hard choices to get to where they want to go. Support this so you'll get money for that. How far you are willing to go to "seal the deal" is what divides someone who has decided to sell their soul versus someone who basically rents out their soul every now and then.

Given the tenor of the Republican Party these days and the wholesale gutting of any Republican who isn't right of Genghis Khan, it wasn't surprising that the individual who got the nom would either (a) be a rabid Tea Partier or (b) someone who was more moderate but talked the Tea Party talk. Personally, I've thought that (b) would be preferable because I find the Tea Party political platform racist, reactionary, jingoistic, and, oh, did I say racist?

Given the last two weeks of the campaign, I'm beginning to change my mind.

Because I always thought that Mitt Romney had at least a sprinkling of core values that he'd hold close to his vest. Or let's put it this way, I always thought he was a decent man who was bowing to the insane pressures of a political party that was currently dictated to by a bunch of extremists. If he was lucky, the Republican Party would finally wake-up, realize that these extremists are destroying the party, and return to its roots of fiscal conservatism. At this point, Romney could heave a sigh of relief. Because it seems that the one thing this guy understands is how to make money.

Sadly, two things have happened in that last two weeks that have made me realize that Romney is neither an (a) nor (b) kind of guy. He's (c), someone who will do anything to achieve his ambitions. This is possibly the worst politician. Richard Nixon was that kind of politician. As far as Nixon was concerned, the most glaring problem with Watergate was that they got caught. At that point all conversation stops because this person has crossed a line. Whatever ethical center that might have existed previously has been replaced with cold ambition. Mitt Romney meet Richard Nixon. You two might have a lot more in common that you realize.

What tipped me over the edge? First, Romney's about face on health care. Or should I say "twirl" on health care. As Governor of Massachusetts we see him legislate a pretty damn smart model on revamping health care, so smart that the feds essentially adopted it as their model. He repudiates it in order to get the nomination. He doesn't merely repudiate it. He makes it one of his strident selling points. Then, when people finally, FINALLY, wake up and see, hmmm, not being bounced for pre-existing conditions, my kids get to stay on my plan until their are older, etc., etc., this health care thing might not be such a bad deal, Romney completes the twirl and says, well, some of it isn't bad and he would keep those bits that people like. Excuse me?

Number two is more damning because it's not policy or political, or it shouldn't be. The ONLY response to the death of Ambassador Stevens and three others is condolences for their families. There's no other way to respond to this tragedy. Oh wait. There's attempting to make political hay out of an awful event.

That's the problem, and where we are now entering Nixon territory. Because once you have lost sight of the fact that there ARE lines, then it's all over. You aren't merely renting out your soul on occasion, you have truly sold it.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Tension, Baby

So I was talking with some other authors the other day, discussing what makes a book work. This was a pan-genre discussion, although most of us are writing mysteries. But we all read across the board and, naturally, we all want to corral that magic that makes a book work.

What makes a book work? Two things: voice in concert with tension.

I've talked about how voice is so important. Someone could read me a passage from a book and I could tell you whether it was written by James Lee Burke or Robert Crais. The Burke passage will be lyrical and romantic, even if the passage is about killing a man, and the Crais passage will be punchy with lots of description of the actual gun. That's voice. Words that an author owns as his/her own, that identifies them unequivocally.

I think that voice is something that can take years to develop. It's about how you work with language. This is not in response to fads or the tense de jour. It's you and your brain and it's unique and marvelous.

Tension? This is more mechanical and not necessarily intrinsic. There are several ways to introduce tension. For those writing cosies, humor is the ticket. It doesn't have to be a howling sort of humor like, say, Donna Andrews, but it helps if you have humor plus something else. A fair amount of humor and violence usually works (like Ford's early Leo Waterman novels). Violent and sex are easy ways to introduce tension--probably the easiest--although sex is a lot harder to write than you would think. And, of course, action, action, action, baby. This can be psychological action, which is a fancy way of saying character development, but something needs to happen in a novel and how it unfolds is tension.

I think this is partly why mysteries work so well as a "good" read because you have the plot marching the action forward, with the accompanying who-did-it conundrum lurking perpetually in the background. And with the who is always the accompanying why, which I think should be as much psychological and physical. This is just a freebie because all mysteries have that question hovering over the story. Which is why I tend to like character-based mysteries as opposed to plot-based mysteries because most plots are pretty transparent--you read enough mysteries and by page 75 you know who did it--and it's the who that becomes so important. And then you have the writer who does both. Hits both character and plot out of the park.

Although she's now derided, I really don't think that anyone did it better than Agatha Christie. Pick up one of her books. The character development is marvelous, especially for the minor characters. And yes, the language is dated and major characters perhaps improbable (is there possibly a more improbable character than Hercule Poiret, but, hey, humor!), but, God, it all works so well.

Tension. A good thing.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Say What?

This election only gets more and more bizarre. I saw news clips this morning of Romney endorsing "segments" of Obama's healthcare plan. THIS? After months and months and months of hammering home that he would repeal "Obamacare," he does yet another about face and now endorses bits and pieces of it? Even though it was based on a plan HE legislated, Romney has repeatedly repudiated any and all of that legislation in his frantic quest to nail down the GOP nom.

I find this not only strange, but political suicide.

Note to Romney:

Mistake No. 1: You do NOT put all your eggs in one basket--in other words, the right-wing ultra conservative faction of your party that currently owns the party--and then walk away from it once you've nailed down the nomination. Obama will KILL you in debates. You are entering this election with a huge credibility problem as it is. You've done a 180 on issues that you ran on as governor when sold your soul to the Tea Party conservatives, and that's the thing about television. The Dems will keep replaying your flip-flopping. Even the most jaded person will find this hard not to see you as someone without ANY core convictions. You are all ready perceived of as someone who will say anything to get elected. You've just confirmed it.

Mistake No. 2: Your base is conservative white people. Sorry, even more importantly, conservative OLDER white people. And yet you chose a veep that has come out in favor of a voucher system to combat the Medicare crisis. No one but a goddamn fool would recognize that a voucher system where you have ONE person trying to shop for insurance isn't any way, shape, or form as powerful as, say, the U.S. government shopping for health care. Hey, so you've managed to alienate the elderly. If you lose Florida, thank Paul Ryan.

Mistake No. 3: Your other problem also relates to Paul Ryan. Dude, you should have picked a woman. Haley of South Carolina would have been perfect. She's a smarter Sarah Palin. She's relatively unknown, she's beloved by the Tea Party, and most importantly, she's not a white male. Conservative women have greater potential of shoving through conservative, reactionary social policies like limiting abortion than, say, a white guy like Ryan.

Mistake No. 4. This is a twofer. You alienated the seniors by picking Ryan, thereby endangering your lock on Florida. And by picking Ryan, you also widened your huge gap with Hispanics. If you just couldn't commit to having a woman as a veep, then Rubio was the obvious choice here. Tea Party, Hispanic, charismatic, let me name the ways in which he would have benefited your ticket.

Ryan does NOTHING to bring in the senior, women, OR Hispanic votes. We know that this election is going to be a squeaker. You need those votes and Ryan can't deliver them for you. Even worse, he's a liability in those very areas where you need help. Hell, even his seat in Wisconsin is now shaky.

At this point, all you have going for you is the visceral hatred of Obama floating out there. I think we should just label it what it is. There are a lot of people who hate having a black man in the White House. You've made a deal with those people. But they don't love you so much as they hate Obama. You'd better believe that the most damaging aspect of the Republican convention was not the hurricane or the lies or the Eastwood mess. It was the overwhelming panorama of faces in the audience. They were all white. Contrast that to the panoramas of the Democratic convention. The only way you could have nipped that pretty damning evidence that this is a party in freefall with limited appeal would have been to choose a non-white veep.

But you didn't. You made a pact with the extreme edges of your party and now you're realizing that, hey, they aren't representative of the majority of Americans. They are loud and powerful, but they are a minority. If you alienate them by moving to the center (and the reality is that you couldn't win the nom by NOT appealing to the extremists in your party and that's extremely sad), then you will lose them, too. They will write in Ron Paul. And as much as conservatives bleat about Obama's "socialist" agenda, the man is a basic centrist. As you know! He is running on the Clinton model. Keep center. Most people are center. It's only the fringes of your party (and fringes of the Dems) that are out there politically.

Mitt, you're blowing it. Think of it as a business. You've just lost your market share.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

This Time of Year

Even in California we have seasons. It's subtle, yes, but all of a sudden the shadow deepens and there's a bite in the night air. The trees are beginning to loosen their leaves, and the roses are nearly done blooming.

It's also my father's birthday tomorrow. He's been a dead a number of years now, but I like to think of him on his birthday rather than on the day he died. A difficult man at best, I wish we'd had a better relationship. I've found that a lot of daughters have problematic relationships with their fathers, but I think my relationship wasn't the stuff of Freud. It was more that he was a deeply unhappy man who always seemed to make the wrong choices in his life. It's hard to connect with someone who is unhappy. Their personal misery usually trumps pretty much everything. You come in second, third, fourth, hell, maybe even fifth.

Anyway, I saw my hands on the steering wheel of my car and they are my father's hands. You'd think by the time I was fifty-five this wouldn't be much of a revelation, but it was. I suppose I've had him in the back of my head for a couple of weeks now, as his birthday got closer and closer. I've inherited many things from him. My height, my wit, my intelligence, and now I can add his hands to that list.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

And Now a Note to Obama

People need answers. Give them more credit than Washington has been giving people lately. You think that people want to hear the spin that the GOP is handing out? People know differently. Please do not follow-up the Repub convention with a similar level of lying. All they are offering is Bush redux, yes? The world has gotten a lot more complicated since then, and the simple solutions don't work anymore. Say that. Say that you're working to end unemployment but that it's not like you can pull a switch and, voila, it's done. Like what the GOP are saying.

I mean, let's think about it. If it was really easy to get the jobs numbers where you want them to be--like, oh, I don't know, because maybe your re-election depends on it?--wouldn't you do everything in your power to raise those numbers? Let's think on this for a second. Poor job numbers are seriously affecting your re-election. WHY WOULDN'T YOU DO EVERYTHING IN YOUR POWER TO CHANGE THAT?  And yet the GOP puts out this message that you could care less.

Don't lie. Please don't lie. Don't make things rosier than it is. We are in a global economy and we're not an island. What happens in Europe, affects us. I think you need to come out with a host of measures that appeal to the middle class. They are the engine that buys cars, washing machines, lawn mowers, and durable goods. If they aren't buying them, then no one is.

And I think you need to lay out a list of all the things that government has done. The good things. The GOP has been spreading this message that government is bad. Counteract that with a message laying out exactly what government has done. Because people are the government. Our vote ensures that. We know what happens when government gives up. Witness the debacle after Katrina. Government didn't step up and help the people. Witness what happens when it works. The three major car companies are in the black, reaping profits for the first time in years. Have paid back their loans. On what level is this failure?

Above all, be honest. People are really sick of lying.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Silly Season

We head into this election with the race being pretty tight. I have been a life-long Democrat, and I can't imagine voting Republican solely for the reason that I view our social obligations as a fairly big tent. I think that our Puritan heritage whereby wealth is seen as a benediction from God is a pretty corrupt and dangerous POV, and yet it has been the economic engine for our country for the last two hundred years. Nothing like a distrust of government and a veneration of money as a way to run roughshod over minorities, the law, the land, and other governments who might stand in the way of making money as a blueprint for success. And yes, Halliburton, I'm looking at you.

Okay, so we know that I'm not on board with the Republican ethos. And yet, I'm part of the 1%--okay, maybe the top 10%. My husband and I live in California, so although we might make an obscene amount of money, we live in a small, 1500-square-foot house that is worth over $700,000. We drive cars that are ten years old, and our vacation every year is camping. Such is California Dreamin'. However, we don't carry any credit card debt, and I have the freedom to go to the grocery store and buy a nice bottle of wine when I feel like it. I consider us very lucky. I am more than willing to pay more taxes, and I fully support Jerry Brown's tax increase (which will affect us). And it's not because my kids are in school. They are graduated. It's because an educated populace is important to maintaining a healthy society, and California's schools rank forty-eighth in the nation in what we pay per child. Right in front of Alabama and Mississippi. I wish I were joking, but I'm not. When my children were in school, we wrote lots and lots of checks to supplement our kids' education. We were in the position to write those checks. Every time I signed my name, I wondered about all those people who couldn't afford to write checks. Whose kids got one hour of sciene a month as opposed to mine who had two hours of science a week, solely because my community could afford to write checks. This is NOT a level playing field. So yes, I support Brown's tax increase. Bring it on.

So, the Republican convention. This is a shout out to Congressman Ryan. Did you go to confession after you made that speech? As a practicing Catholic, you should have had your confessor on speed dial. If you can't make a case for your party other than to lie about your opponent, you have a problem. Surely you don't need to lie. There are a number of things that I would call Obama to task on (Gitmo and his cosy relationship with Wall Street to name two), but these probably are not the things that you find objectionable. But, come on! I guess you can't mention the stock market, because last time I looked it was up over 13,000. Wasn't it down at 8000 when Bush left office? And all economic indicators are pointing up. Not way up, but up enough, so perhaps that doesn't give you enough ammunition. And you can't really fault him for not being religious because he invokes God in his speeches as much as you do (something I find extremely problematic, but then I actually believe in the separation of church and state). But still. There must be a few things you can nail him on.

The problem is that the Republican party has lost its center. You guys don't have a platform anymore. You can't have a ethos that is based on American ingenuity and smarts when you've excluded a huge majority of Americans. Like all those black and brown people. The ones who weren't at your convention. Every time the camera panned the audience, it was a sea of white faces. That's not America anymore. I know you wish it was, but it isn't. And the more you push an agenda that excludes minorities and women, the more marginal you will become.

Stop lying. Remember who you are. Why I am, a Democrat, telling you how to run your business?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

My Plea to Restaurant Owners

I'm blessed with having parents who are amazingly spry and with it mentally and are pushing eighty-two and ninety-one, respectively. My stepfather was a POW in World War II and worked in the mines in northern Japan. As a result of that and working in machines shops all his life, he is pretty deaf. He wears hearing aids, and, yes, they are top-of-the-line hearing aids, but still there are limitations to what a hearing aid can do. Background noise is problematic.

Anyway, we took my mother out for her eighty-second birthday last night and as is common these days, the server began rattling off a laundry list of that night's specials. Because of the background noise and how fast she was speaking my stepfather missed ninety percent of what she said. My mother, who was at the end of the table and is going slightly deaf (although she denies it), couldn't hear anything this woman said.

Restaurants, spend a couple of dollars a day and TYPE UP AND PRINT OUT THE SPECIALS AND CLIP THEM TO YOUR MENUS so that seniors can take full advantage of the lovely fare you have to offer. Instead of putting them in the position of (a) admitting they're are deaf and making the waiter repeat what they've said four times; or (b) having them pretend they aren't deaf and not ordering what they want.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

More Thinkee Thoughts on "Game of Thrones"

I was discussing with a friend the "Game of Thrones" books. He's on book four and I've got books three and four lined up to get me through my work-related business next month in Lisbon. And we were talking about my observation in my last post about how fearless Martin is. He is so bold. He is beholden to no character. He kills off the characters we love, he has the characters we despise triumph. He will spend three chapters establishing our loyalty (or at least sympathy) to a character that he THEN proceeds to kill off. Like, I said, the man has authorial balls.

We were also discussing the issue of how the book is chopped up into different, competing POVs. I think that this can be problematic for the reader because we are leaping around from venue to venue, character to character, more often than not ending a specific POV on a cliff hanger that doesn't get resolved until two hundred pages later. And yet we don't mind. At least, I don't. I've been trying to put my finger on why this doesn't bother me, because normally I prefer a fairly coherent narrative, and I think it's because of Tyrion Lannister. He acts as the reliable narrator and holds the entire series together while all the action takes place in other arenas. He's the ringmaster of the book.

I personally adore Tyrion, but that's not really the issue. It's that his POV is actually the "true" POV of the book. Oh, you might hate him, hate his relatives, hate it when he's successful, love it when he's debased, but he's rarely, if ever wrong about ANY of the characters or the action. He despises his nephew for all the right reasons, but he's also determined to help him keep his throne. Tyrion's assessment of the other characters and the action in the book are all seen through an extremely rational lens, albeit with Lannister-colored glasses.

His POV helps anchor the narrative so that we can leap from POV to POV without getting whiplash. I sigh with relief with I finally arrive back in his POV because I can relax. I'm "home" in a sense. I trust him as a character in a funny way.

Please. Don't tell me if he gets killed off. I can't handle it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why I'm Loving "Game of Thrones"

This isn't a book review, per se. It's about looking at a book author to author. Once you start writing and have achieved a modest level of competence, the reading process is never the same. It's much like seeing a woman who is flawlessly made up, stripped naked of all her make-up, and what you're left with is the bones. Sometimes she's even more beautiful without all that crap on her face, and sometimes she's not. When I dislike a book, I really tend to dislike it. Because I know that it's not that hard to fix holes in a plot, and I can smell when an author is being lazy and phoning it in (which tends to happen in a long-running series), or is enamored with their status as an author and thinks that anything can pretty well fly. All of the above make me extremely intolerant and, as this blog so often attests, something of a cranky pants when it comes to writing.

However, the converse is also true. When I see an author make a decent stab at a book, even a book that has one or two major flaws, I am so willing to forgive. Because it's both incredibly easy and astonishingly hard to write a book. And when someone's passion flies off the page, I am more than willing to forgive, well, an awful lot if they care about their characters.

This brings us to the Game of Thrones series. I've just finished book 2 and have books 3 and 4 all lined up to go. Why do I love this series so much? Are there flaws? Yes, there are flaws. When George R.R. Martin's characterization is brilliant, it is really brilliant. When it is awful, then, it's pretty bad. I have hopes for Sansa Stark, but she started off ridiculously stupid in a family of very bright people, and if it hadn't been for the stunning, just jaw-dropping characterization of Tyrion Lannister, I don't know if I would have finished the book. But Tyrion is truly amazing and Sansa is improving. I don't know anything about Martin's personal life, but I'm guessing he doesn't have children, because the children in these books are both far too young and far too old, but he tells a cracking good story, so, yes, the magic is still working for me.

But what he does, and I admire this so much, is that he's fearless. He kills off people we love. He humiliates people we admire. He makes proud, decent men do ugly, awful things. He has the bastards be triumphant. For this alone he should be read by anyone who wants to write a book. Because if you become a fearless author, then your reader will always be on tenterhooks. Because you're not afraid to do anything with your characters. Which means that the person turning the page has no idea what's going to happen next.

Bravo, George! Bravo!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Must Love Dogs

Fair warning: this is a post about my dog and not a book review. I have read that book, which has its charming bits but kind of falls apart at the end, and once again I find myself wondering what makes Hollywood select one book over another to option. I had a similar reaction to the movie, but I do like Diane Lane and John Cusack a lot, so I was willing to actually see it in a theater (even though it's definitely only netflix caliber).

This is a dog post inspired by the fact that I came downstairs this morning and once again the dog's water dish was empty. Now my bedroom is an addition squatting over the garage, and we have to keep our bedroom door open because we have a cat who sees a closed door as an act of war, so I can hear anyone who comes into the kitchen. I know that several people (glares at husband, daughter, and son) came into the kitchen after I went to bed and did not check the dog's water bowl.

Which I do every time I enter the kitchen.

This is why the dogs always love me best. Love me with that adoration that only dogs can bestow, that, I will do anything for you, you r teh bomb, you are the first thing I think of when I go to sleep and the last thing I think of, kind of love. In humans this is psychotic stalkerish behavior, in dogs it's pretty normal.

The kids resent this because they know on one level they are much cuter. But they aren't consistent. Those same mommy genes that program me to know when they have a cold before they have a cold, ask them if they've eaten in the last three hours because I suspect not because they are as cranky as a bag of weasels (blood sugar issues), and always remind my daughter to bring a sweater ANY WHERE we go because the girl is half lizard are the same genes that make never forget to feed the dog and fill its water dish. Dogs are simple creatures. They really only have three speeds: affectionate, giddy, and mopey. We have a Golden and he really does get a wee bit giddy. He also gets mopey if I'm not home. But mainly he's just plain affectionate.

They can also be maddening, as when their biological imperative to chew ends up destroying the drip system, lawn chairs, and plants. I remember piling up numerous tales of chewing woe to regale my vet with, only to be told, hmmm, not that much of a chewer for its breed. NOT MUCH OF A CHEWER??????????? Then I remember the previous dog who ate through a sheet vinyl floor (so that we had charming patches of duck tape over the holes for five years as that remodel was going to happen any day), stripped the wall paper off the kitchen walls (which my husband replaced with "wainscoting," which I put in quotes because it was that sheet plastic you see in fast food restaurants), and drip system number 1. No, we didn't learn our lesson, and when it came time to think about another dog--or, to be honest, the kids and I were thinking about another dog; my husband is an unrepentant cat person, I wonder why--we broke down and got another puppy.

Bear is now over two years old and is probably the sweetest dog on the face of this earth. How sweet? Even my husband likes him. And truly, I can have the crappiest day in the world and I know there will be someone who greets me with uncomplicated adoration when I walk in the door. Just because it's me.

And because the second thing I do after dumping my purse in a random chair is to check his water dish.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

And Then This Happened

Things have been unsettled for several months. I hit a horrible patch at work, my mother became ill, my kids graduated from high school and college, and I don't know what to do with my writerly self. Well, I sort of know. I have this Jane Austen pastiche that I need to self-publish. I have reached the point where it's nearly there, but the nitty-gritty details have to be dealt with. And being detail oriented at work means that being detail oriented the rest of the time is difficult. I want a break from details! But now that things are sort of stable, I need to sit down and wade through the minutia of this process.

What do I do next? I have a fabulous idea for another Mary Ryan book that I think I could pound out in three months. I have something of a passion for pirates, and I have plans to write a fantasy set in the 19th century. Swashbuckling and the Regency and swords, oh my. I've been reading up on 19th century Britain and did you know that coffee houses were your modern day equivalent of a street corner. Prostitutes plied their "wares" at coffee houses.

And part of my issue is that I edit for my job. It's very difficult to wrangle with other people's words all day and then come home and try to comb your brain for something intelligent to say. Really, all you want to do is watch HGTV reruns with the Property Brothers. Or reread Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (for the eighth time).

I'm currently reading Bill Bryson's At Home. Expect a review soon.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

I love Anne Tyler. She writes like I wish I could write, with a causal style that seems so easy and isn't, and when you actually take it apart you realize that it's not casual at all. Every word matters. And there's always a great zinger, that one sentence or phrase that ties the seemingly casual four paragraphs together with a "See? This is where I was going."

Given the demise of bookstores (who would have predicted three years ago that I would bemoaning the closure of chains!!!!), I buy actual books whenever I can. I have a bottom-basement e-reader. I use it on occasion. But even those who love readers will note that it's not the same read. It's like my job as an editor. When I really need to pick a manuscript apart, I have to print it out. The three-dimensional aspect of paper, type, and your eye/hand whatever contribute to a deeper read. I should ask my opthamologist why.

Reading for real enjoyment (or for work) needs that three-dimensional component to it. Naturally, I have read several books on my e-reader and have enjoyed them. But as I was browsing in my local bookstore the other day, I saw a copy of a book that I adored (The Paris Wife) that I had purchased as an e-book, and I loved it so much that I've decided to buy it. In hardcover. Because it was that good and I think that if I read it in hardcover, I would enjoy it even more.

Anyway, I saw that Anne Tyler was out with a new book [The Beginner's Goodbye (BG)] and I rushed to buy it. Well, I don't know if it qualifies as a book, more novella than novel, but why quibble? She is one of my favorite American authors: Breathing Lessons, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and The Accidental Tourist are all fabulous reads, top notch. She's like the American Jane Austen, except her books aren't about unmarried women in the English countryside, they are about unhappily married couples in Baltimore. There's always a quirky aspect to her stories and I like that. Because I think most people are quirky, they just try to hide it.

Did I like it? Well, yes and no? I add the question mark because I'm still thinking about it (which I think is always a good thing, except in the case of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a book that I couldn't get out of my head because the popularity of such a mediocre book had me mulling over the vagaries of the publishing industry for weeks). The Beginner's Goodbye has a great premise (dead wife comes back to resolve on some level what had been an unhappy marriage).  Tyler always has some thoughtful observations on relationships, and what I've liked about her previous novels is that she ends her books with her characters earning a type of happiness, but it's not all wrapped up in a bow. This book's ending had a big fat ribbon around it with sparkles on the ribbon. Not only did the ending feel false, I think she could have ended it without the final chapter and it would have been a much stronger book--although even shorter.

Also, if you want to read a book that I think has very similar elements, and, in fact, feels like the same book but in its final draft, read The Accidental Tourist (TAT). In BG the protagonist suffers a stroke as a child and is paralyzed on one side. In TAT, our protagonist suffers a broken leg. Both men are almost destroyed by a death in their family, both protagonists end up with their houses being unfit for habitation and move in with their sisters, and both of these sisters, who seemed fated to spinsterhood, end up making improbable marriages. Both men work at small publishing houses that feature books in a niche market. Finally, both men end up marrying their polar opposites. Okay, BG doesn't have a dog in it, I admit. But this struck me as being essentially the same novel. At many points in this novel, I thought that the protagonist of TAT was speaking when it was Aaron of BG. I loved TAT, so it's not like I can say I don't like BG. But when I put it down (it's a two-hour read max), I wanted to pick up TAT again and savor it, because The Beginner's Goodbye felt unfinished and unrealized, and worse, a retread.

In short, it's a well written (if somewhat limited) book, but if you want to read it all fleshed out, with a fully imagined plot and some kick-ass characterizations, pick up The Accidental Tourist.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Note of Sadness

The world of writing and reading and my general cranky pants approach to life has been interrupted by one of life's real moments: the death of a family member. My mother-in-law passed away this week. She had been in failing health for many months, but I don't know if that makes it easier. Perhaps less of a surprise, yes, the but the sense of loss is the same. Someone who has filled a place in one's life is no longer there. The longer I live, the more I realize how irreplaceable people are. Their unique contribution remains unique. You fill in the hours that would have been their hours with other people, other conversations, but their unique scent doesn't fill the room and their particular voice is silent.

Not being religious people, we are all struggling how to structure her memorial in the absence of ritual. Because the thing about ritual is that there are distinct road maps. Given that neither of us are formal people, my husband and I struggled with this when we got married. My sister had a full-blown Catholic mass, which was very big on ritual and their responses scripted out. Being total pagans, my husband and I couldn't go that route, and without a traditional structure, we found that our ceremony was going to be approximately three minutes long and that included the music. We filled the time with poems that we both loved and stretched out the music, and hoped against hope that no one would miss our vows to each other if they yawned.

Similarly, we are now organizing a memorial that has no structure other than we're all terribly sad, we agree that food would be lovely, and perhaps some New Orleans jazz would be grand. Perhaps a tribute or two would be also be nice. And maybe that's enough

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Time for Guest Blogger Camille Minichino!

Camille Minichino is back as my guest this go around, and I'm just going to make a little personal aside here. If it weren't for Camille and Penny Warner, I wouldn't be a published author. The mystery community is a supportive bunch, especially nurturing and encouraging, and Camille is one of the best. Anyway, Camille has a new book and a new series coming out, and she has some thoughts about that elusive title "writer." Enjoy!

I'm a (Gulp) Writer

Sometimes I wish I were a plumber. Or an electrician. Or a pastry chef. Then, at least, the next time someone asks, "What do you do?" I'll have a simple answer.

Right now, what I do most is write. But I have trouble saying "I'm a writer." Sometimes I can manage, "I write mystery novels," because having sold 17 books to publishers, and having just submitted my 18th manuscript to my agent, I think that's a fair statement.

But "I'm a writer" carries with it a certain presumption, that if you look up "writers" on Wikipedia, you'll find my name between Herman Melville and Margaret Mitchell. The fact that I'm on the bookshelves between Ngaio Marsh and Marcia Muller helps a bit.

When I show up for a book signing, I might say, "I'm the author," so the clerk will know what to do with me. But I never say, generally speaking, "I'm AN author," or "I'm A writer," simply that I'm the one billed as the author for this evening.

The first time a reader came up to me at a conference and said, "I like your books," I thought she'd made a mistake. I lifted my badge on its lanyard and said, "I'm Camille Minichino. I don't think—"

"Yes," she said. "And I like your books."

Why such insecurity? What makes what I do an occupation or a profession, as opposed to, well, simply what I do? Salary might be one thing. I don't get a salary for writing. Now and then I get an advance or a check for royalties, but it certainly isn't what keeps me in the style to which I've become accustomed.

In fact, many people don't think writing is a business at all. I know my relatives and non-writer friends have no idea how a novel comes to be. Or that it's something they should spend their money on. They assume, with each new book, that I'll remember to give them a copy. More than one has been known to say, "Hey, I don't think I ever got a copy of that third book in the second series."

It's the same even with service providers. The receptionists in offices I frequent say, "I hear you have a new book out. I'll take one." As if they're doing me a favor, helping me offload all these copies that just pour into my house for free.

I wonder if any of these people say to their plumber clients, "Hey, my faucet is leaking. You can come over and fix it."

I'm not as ungenerous as I sound. I donate books all the time, to libraries, schools, and event hostesses. And the giveaways on blog tours (like today!) are a lot of fun, besides, hopefully, encouraging new readers to take a chance on my books.

I guess I'm looking for a little more respect! (Sorry to channel Dangerfield.)

I'm sure no disrespect is meant. I believe this is how many people think a 350-page manuscript comes into being:

1. Allot a few hours a day for a month, maybe two if it's Christmastime.

2. Make sure there's enough paper in the printer.

3. Open a blank document and start writing the title and the first page.

4. Continue writing the story for another 349 pages. (It's a lot of typing, but eventually, the pages will be filled.)

5. The end.

No wonder I don't think it's worth mentioning that "I'm a writer."

The day I received a doctorate in physics, there was great fanfare. Academics love pageantry! Robes, velvet hats with tassels, trumpets, and a grand, symbolic climbing of the stairs to the lofty stage where our professors sat.

After that, I had no trouble, saying, "I'm a physicist."

I think that's what writers need. We need a ceremony with that first book. Not just a little party with tchotchkes and cookies, but a full-fledged initiation, Trumpet Voluntary blaring.

On the other hand, one "stranger" saying, "I like your books," makes up for a lot.


Camille Minichino is a retired physicist turned writer.

As Camille Minichino, she's the author of the Periodic Table Mysteries. As Margaret Grace, she writes the Miniature Mysteries, based on her lifelong hobby. As Ada Madison, she has launched a new series, academic mysteries featuring Professor Sophie Knowles, math teacher at fictional college in Massachusetts.

Soon, every aspect of her life will be a mystery series.

Camille has also published articles for popular magazines and teaches science and writing workshops in and around the Bay Area.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why Do I Love a Book: Part I

Look! Graphics! I have graphics!

Am I a cranky pants? As I look over the reviews I've done in the past few months without a doubt the thumbs down far outweigh the thumbs up by a considerable margin. And yet some of the books that I've "yayed" about included a deal-breaker plot issue that written by another author would have won it a world of hate, as they say. So what distinguishes these books from on another?

First, I think that non-fiction has a leg up. The bar for publishing non-fiction seems to have remained fairly static over the years (discounting, of course, the phenomena of celebrity authors, the nadir of which has been reached with the publication of Snookie's Confession of a Guidette). No publisher is clamoring for David McCullough to churn out a book every nine months. Plus, the dynamic between the non-fiction world and the reader is slightly different. The fiction author has the Herculean task of pulling you into their world and keeping you there. The non-fiction author has the slightly less Herculean task of dragging you into another world--the past, the present, the scientific, etc. It's not as personal. I was going to write that it's more clinical, but I've read some non-fiction that is so passionate about its subject that to call this writing clinical would be blasphemous. Taking the real world and making it as interesting as the world of the imagination is damn difficult. There are the limits of the subject itself, no insignificant matter. But just as there are limitations on the subject matter, the subject matter itself can be its own advertizing. Who doesn't find murder fascinating? Well, I do, so already you have me hooked and it's going to take a lot of bad writing to "kill" that initial buy in. Having said that, I do think that based on my reading career of over forty-five years comprising a fair amount of both fiction and non-fiction, that for mainstream publishing the bar for non-fiction remains high.

While the bar for fiction? Sigh, I'm not going to go on and on here as I've done in the past about what I consider the steady decline in the quality of fiction. To me it's obvious and if it's not obvious to you, consider yourself lucky.

I do consider the fiction writer's primary hurdle--where they are obligated to make their world yours--to be one of those mountains coming to Mohamed deals. The inside of my head is a very weird place with lots of baggage that can't help but migrate to the page at some point. Voice is how I tell you that my baggage is brilliant and fascinating and my neuroses let me show them to you. Characterization is what's in my baggage. Sometimes this baggage is composed of nothing but shirts whose buttons have been ripped off or they are all black or in fantastic colors, and there's a bunch of lingerie hidden in the corners. Sometimes I've got nothing but shoes and why is that? Plot is what color is my baggage. A plain brown suitcase could contain a shocking number of very revealing black bras. Or it could have stacks and stacks of maps to various countries with a gun nestling in the middle of them. I use this analogy to point out how varied all these components can be--although I will say that if you ain't got voice you got nothin'--and still have a novel work and work beautifully.

In order to make that baggage interesting enough that a reader has no problem in picking up that baggage and hauling it around for something like three hundred and fifty pages is no easy task. A book doesn't work when the outside of my suitcase is too gaudy or someone wants red lingerie instead of black, or the sight of a gun makes the reader cringe, or my voice is too damn whiny, choppy, cliche, or epithet-ridden to appeal. Then the suitcase is dropped and the journey stops right there. The sound of my baggage hitting the tarmac with a fatal thud makes my author's heart skip a wee beat.

It's the worse sound in the world.

Part II coming!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Book Review: Faithful Place by Tana French

Tana French has been on my "author to read" pile for a very long time. Not only had her debut book, "In the Woods," been talked about by everyone I knew, she was being ballyhooed as a new and refreshing voice (a description that has also been used to death by those lauding Steig Larsson's "The Girl..." books and look how well that turned out; that's six hours I'll never see again). Still, I'm always on the lookout for fresh voices, but somehow I never got around to reading her. Then a friend lent me her latest book, "Faithful Place." Another fellow mick, he recommended it highly, saying that the depictions of Dubliners were so dead on that while reading it he felt that Ms. French had cribbed her notes from one of his family gatherings.

I finished this last night, and I have mixed feelings about this book. The writing is, hands down, gripping, nuanced, mature, biting, funny, sly, and so dead-on vernacular (but not Mark Twainish about it) that it was like lower working-class Dublin was sharing my seat with me. In short, I would donate a kidney to be able to write like that.

The book itself didn't work so well. The first half is pretty much as good as it gets, and then the book slowly starts to disintegrate, with the mystery and justice being tidied up in a clumsy, entirely unconvincing fashion. Not that I didn't know who'd done it a quarter of the way in, mind you, but I've stopped counting that as a deal breaker. No, it was that the story and mystery didn't work together particularly well. We have this story of the prodigal son returning to face demons he hasn't faced in years, and I didn't feel by the end of the book that the demons quite mattered anymore. It wasn't that the protagonist came to terms with them, it was that they ceased to become an issue, and it felt that Ms. French all of a sudden realized that they should become an issue, and then we have a series of clumsy attempts to wrap things.

The unmasking of the murderer I found completely implausible. Using the protagonist's child as part of the reveal was strained to the point of ridiculous. As IF! I found it totally ludicrous that a note that implicated the murderer was in a desk drawer for twenty years. Plus, don't you think that if someone were being murdered roughly twenty yards away from where their boyfriend was standing that she might give out a holler or two, nosy neighbors be damned? Again, this I found totally implausible from an author who is smartsmartsmart.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with this story is the relationship between the protagonist and his daughter. Yes, I know this is a book about families, but in order for the kid to be a legitimate part of the story, Ms. French has to up this kid's maturity quotient by a factor of forty. It didn't work for me, partly because Ms. French kept the kid bouncing back and forth between nine going on twenty, and nine going on seven. You can't have it both ways. She needed the kid to be young because loss of innocence was an important issue for the protagonist, but then you cannot have her act out of her age just because you've constructed a plot that needs her to have the perspicuity of a seventeen year old. Writing convincing kids is one of the hardest things to do. I know two authors who've done it pretty well to perfection and they are the benchmark for me: Harper Lee's Scout Finch and Stephen King's Danny Torrance. This author falls far short.

So while I  adored the writing and by that I mean the agility and grace of the language--and I cannot stress this enough--I found that the murder mystery didn't gel with the larger story. Usually in a murder mystery, it's the other way around. This mystery took a distant back seat to the story of this massively dysfunctional family, and in the end, Ms. French had to bash it all together to make it fit. It didn't quite work, in my opinion. However, I am so wowed by her writing that I will eagerly seek out her other books.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Book Review: Mary Boleyn: the Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir

Did I need to read yet another Tudor biography? Apparently. I think I have all of Alison Weir's books or damn near all of them. She always does a fine job of marshaling together the facts, and if she doesn't have the humor of Antonia Fraser or the truly biting (delicious) wit of David Starkey, then she makes up for it in a solid presentation that doesn't leave too many questions.

This is largely a book not so much about Mary Boleyn--because it becomes glaringly obvious very early on that you can't write a biography of Mary Boleyn--but a book about debunking all the myths that surround Mary Boleyn. Weir does a decent job of proving that there is a paucity of credible sources and only two letters that can be attributed to her hand. The woman didn't rate much if any commentary by anyone, not even those perennially gossipping French and Spanish ambassadors! Which given that is a biography of Mary Boleyn makes this book inherently problematic. We have a biography about an unremarkable woman (literally) who lived in remarkable times.

If you can't write about Mary, then you're left with no choice but to write about the other people who've written about Mary. The entire book is basically Weir taking on a slew of other historians for what she considers inaccurate and in some cases just plain made-up assertions about Mary Boleyn. And while I am not knocking Ms. Weir's research, the problem is that when you take away the fantasy (she seems to have a real bee in her bonnet about Phillipa Gregory's "The Other Boleyn Girl" and all I can say is that, hey, it's fiction!), the leaping to conclusions, the suppositions, and the basic inaccuracies, then we are left with a bland young woman in an age of huge personalities whose only claim to fame is that she bedded two kings. A person who left so little mark on history that no one really has anything to say about her that doesn't relate to her much more famous (infamous) sister and her brother in-law/ex-lover, Henry VIII. Mary Boleyn seems to have been pretty enough to have attracted the attention of two kings, but even that is speculation. We don't even have a portrait that can be legitimately traced to her. In fact, the miniature on the book jacket is NOT her, and I think it a perfect metaphor for a book about someone who remains completely obscure despite the 400 pages devoted to telling her story. I came away feeling that the historians who made up a bunch of stuff or really stretched their interpretations of the sources to a strained degree did so because there really is nothing to tell here. It's kind of understandable.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

These Foolish Things Remind Me of You

So. We're having friends over for dinner, and usually when I cook I want music on, something rockin' with a beat. Motown usually works. Janis. Allman Bros. Stones. But today, after something of a hellish week where I don't have much brain left, I wanted order and something soothing. Not too orderly as in Bach, but something with passion tied up in a neat bow. Beethoven!

I can't help but think of my father when ever I hear Beethoven. Classical music was his life's blood, and the hours I listened to KKHI as a child...Well, it was a lot. There was always that terrible moment when a new song would come on and my father would grill me and my sister as to which composer has written this specific piece. We never knew, but then we were eight and six at the time, so I consider a little slack is in order. As I grew older, I grew more savvy, and when the quizzing would start, I began to say Beethoven automatically in the hopes that I'd be right. Luckily, it more often than not turned out to be Beethoven. Lucky me.

Anyway, I was listening to the Pathetique sonata, a piece that I tried in vain to learn, and I thought of my father. Nice, kind thoughts, actually. And then I wondered about the other givens in my life. Dad = Beethoven. The smell of bacon = my mother (who still to this day cooks a full breakfast every Sunday morning). Nail clippers = my husband (who once tried valiantly to protect me from a bunch of homeless people who were circling a phone booth we were in with the file attached to his nail clippers). St. Patrick's Day = my friends Micheal and Tanya (who give the best party ever). And that kind of laughter where you cry it's so funny = my sister. Because we when get together, we laugh like that.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Have You No Shame, Mrs. Deen?

I don't watch television (well, with the exception of HGTV with my daughter when she comes home from college and the occasional bout of CNN if and when something news worthy happens), so I'm basically ignorant of the legions of celebrity television chefs that rule the airwaves. To me, there is only one person who deserved her own television cooking show, and that person was Julia Child. She knew how to cook, and she had a personality and charm that made you want to cook. End of story.

A couple of years I found myself in the X-ray department of my local hospital (irony of ironies), and as all waiting rooms in hospitals now have televisions to convince you that you're not waiting THAT long, I found myself watching Paula Deen's cooking show. I know it's not fair to base one's opinion on one show, however, an entire fifteen minutes devoted to dumping cartons of sherbet into a punch bowl filled with 7-up and then mixing them together does NOT constitute cooking in my book. There was some other recipe on this show that had something like forty pounds of butter--I think it was mashed potatoes and the ratio of butter to Idahos was essentially one to one--and, again, not particularly noteworthy. Let's put it this way, neither her ideas nor her personality had me frantically searching my TV guide for the next installment of her show.

Then lo and behold it was announced this week that three years ago she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. One hates to be cynical, but the fact that she has withheld this information (which is, of course, her right) until she successfully landed a sponsor to pay her for her years of promoting fat-laden, unhealthy food and her moribund lifestyle seems, uh, a little craven to me. She continued to offer her up her brand of fare for three solid years without a single mention that the very food that she was extolling you to cook was likely to make you obese, and, therefore, vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes. How lovely, folks. Just eat your way to medical intervention. Donuts? Have four. Deep-fried cheesecake? Have another piece.

Is it just me or is this insanely irresponsible? Granted, I'm surrounded by medical types on both sides of the family, so perhaps my layman's knowledge of medical stuff is a little more informed than your average Joe. Diabetes is a nasty disease. How nasty? It's like up there with cancer as far as I am concerned. It affects your entire body. As in losing toes and going blind to name a couple of  potential side effects. I've currently embarked on a regime to eat better and exercise more, and the primary reason? My sugar numbers are heading in the pre-diabetic direction, and I would rather cut out chocolate forever than get diabetes. THAT'S how bad a disease it is.

So, I have to ask Mrs. Deen, why didn't she tell her loyal fans immediately that the lifestyle that she was promoting was in fact a direct line, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars, to a lifetime of being insulin's bitch? The standard line seems to be that they wanted to have a clear message about all this before making the announcement. It took THREE FRIGGING YEARS to hone a public response to this news?

I don't think so. It took three years to find a sponsor. She disgusts me. Either keep it personal because it is personal, or use your new-found knowledge to immediately revamp your show so that your old message of "every thing's better deep-fried" is now "let's find new ways to make delicious food and not kill ourselves in the process." I'm not saying that she doesn't have the right to deep-fry cheesecake. But what I am saying is that there are consequences to that type of lifestyle choice--as she has found out--and, personally, I believe she has a responsibility to let her fans know exactly the cost of such a lifestyle.

In my opinion, there's no middle ground. You have a show. You have people who follow you. Well, now they've been following you into Type 2 diabetes. Will they get a discount on their insulin if they mention your name? Hope so, because insulin is expensive.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Posting Fool! The Biography

Wow, three posts in a week. I'm outdoing myself. Still no pictures though. Sigh.

After I finished writing up yesterday's post on Reardon's biography of M.F.K. Fisher, I began thinking about what a different animal the biography is from, say, the novel. Unlike the novel, where even when it's not about the author, it's ALWAYS about the author, a really good biography is about the absence of self. In the biography, the writer tries to step back and take a really clinical and hopefully unbiased look at the life they are chronicling. There were certainly passages in Reardon's book (and Moorehead's on Gellhorn) that had me raising my eyebrows at both women under study (neither of them would be in contention for a mother-of-the-year award), but the biographer really doesn't have that luxury. She/he can't roll her eyes and say, oh for heaven's sake: you take off for France when your daughter is clearly not mentally able to care for her toddler and you wonder why your sister--who has assumed your responsibilities--is miffed at you? The biographer just puts it down on paper and lets the actions speak for themselves. I'm sure that Ms. Reardon has opinions regarding Mary Frances and her too-apt tendency to throw her hands up and then board the next plane as does Ms. Moorehead--who was personal friends with Martha Gellhorn--and Martha's tendency to cut off long-term friendships with a precision and arrogance that is cruel, but neither of them let the self intrude.

When the self does intrudes, the biography becomes either a love letter or a hatchet job, neither of which is the stuff of good biography. I felt that way about the Muriel Spark biography that I reviewed, what, last year? Stannard was terrified and in awe of this woman and it came through on the page. He always had an excuse and an apology for her rotten behavior, which undermined what he was trying to say about her. I am at a loss to define Muriel Spark because her biographer wasn't honest with us. His self interfered. "Yes, she was imperious and demanding and often cruel, but, but, but, love her anyway," he begged. "Because I am so in thrall with her and I want you to be too."

I don't think we need to be in thrall of anyone. We just want to know what makes/made them tick.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: The Poet of Appetites: the Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher

M.F.K. Fisher is pretty much the perfect writer in my eyes. I mean, come on! She writes exquisite prose about food. I've owned Joan Reardon's biography of M.F.K. Fisher for a while, and in keeping with my current obsession with biographies, I pulled this from the bookshelf of doom (where I can never find the book that I want, however, I usually find something that I want to read). I devoured it in two days. The stories that rivet me the most are the ones that I have some connection with. Books set in the Bay Area where I grew up and continue to live immediately have an "in."

I had just finished cooking school when M.F.K. Fisher's star went supernova. As an industry insider, I had a few chuckles over several veiled references to people in the food business who, although not named, were rather obvious if you were part of that culture and I was. It was a heady time. The Bay Area was truly at the forefront of the food revolution that sent people back to farmer's markets for organic lettuce and the local butcher counters featured free range chickens and Nimian Ranch beef and Peet's owned coffee and restaurants were theater. When I wasn't working (when wasn't I working?), I was eating out. There was Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower and Mark Miller and a host of other people who were rewriting food in America, and M.F.K. Fisher was the intellectual doyenne of them all. I had friends who were a lot braver than me and made pilgrimages to Glen Ellen, California, to have lunch with her. I adored her as a writer before I became a chef, as my love of language is on par with my love for the table.

This book reminded me of another biography of a strong, independent woman whose relationships were the proverbial nightmare and who was often the lone woman in a field of men, and that is Martha Gellhorn's biography. Both women struggled mightily with doubts regarding their writing, but whose editors probably had permanent ulcers from trying to "edit" them. Both of them had strengths that were regarded by others (and themselves) as weaknesses. Gellhorn was acknowledged as one of the premier war journalists of the twentieth century, and yet she despaired because she could never write a really good novel. Fisher's prose has been acknowledged as having few peers, and yet those around her kept pushing her to stop writing those "food" books and write novels. In old age, both women held "court" with younger admirers (indeed, this is almost shockingly identical). Gellhorn had her "chaps" and Fisher had her "foodies." And both shared a certain--how shall I put this--oh, hell, I'm just going to say it: both women had a real, bone-deep selfishness that perhaps was the flame to the fire of their art. I don't know. I just know that both of their lives were punctuated with fractured relationships, and both of them had extremely problematic relationships with their children. They were both exceptionally nomadic with a similar schizophrenic need for isolation and community. When they were isolated, they wanted company. When they had company, they longed to be alone. They spent a great deal of their life escaping their life.

Anyway, Reardon does a very fine job of capturing the elusive Mary Frances. We follow her palate from the orchards of Whittier to the cobble-stoned streets of Dijon to the brutal beauty of the California desert to the mustard-dotted fields of the Napa Valley to her last place, a ranch in Sonoma. It's fascinating watching a woman so in tune with the simple beauty of food and her surroundings that she turns the minutia of a simple meal into a verbal feast. Equally fascinating, I shuddered as I read about her yanking her children from this country to the next, refusing to give them the grounded childhood that she had had. It's clear from her letters that she really didn't want children who had child-like needs. She wanted mini-adults to ooh and ahh with her as they traipsed over France. It's a little mind-boggling that she was shocked that both children were often behind grade, because she had no compunction about taking them out of school and shoving them into whatever school she could find for three months here, four months there.

If we have the less than stellar mother, we also have the writer whose turn of phrase leaves me breathless. Reardon does a marvelous job of charting the trajectory of the aimless girl, Mary Frances, who becomes the formidable writer, M.F.K. Fisher. Reardon doesn't excuse Mary Frances, but neither does she hold back from giving Mary Frances her due. The chapters written of her first two marriages are especially fine, creating a solid sense of her growing strength as a writer. Highly recommended read.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Cranky Pants 2011

Looking back over the books I've read in the last year, it's impossible not to recognize that I come across as, um, slightly cranky. A part of me thinks, I should lighten up, and another part of me says, why should I apologize because another writer hasn't done their job.

There are so many books that I've read lately that needed another six months worth of thought. And this is the truly tragic fallout from the current publishing clime, the publication of books with excellent bones that don't realize their potential. These books need a stern editor, not a marketing director, and yet that seems to be what is driving the publishing industry these days.

I'm not saying that every book needs to be literature, but I am saying that within its own specific niche, most books should be a lot better than what is currently being published. Even a beach read, which is how I categorize my own meager output, should be a damn good beach read. It should fulfill its purpose. Most books aren't about making earth-shattering statements. They are about entertaining us.

I was talking to a co-worker today about Michael Connelly. He doesn't hit it out of the park every single time, but I would never accuse him of being lazy. His plot busts are minimum (there is one in one of his Lincoln lawyer books that made my eyes hit the wall, but generally speaking, he's top notch in the plot department). He also thinks about his characters. THERE he is never sloppy. And he does something in a series that I find rare. He moves his characters forward. Sometimes it's more of a lurch than an arc, but he's not phoning it in and he never writes cliche. This is why I was so dissatisfied with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Every single character was a cliche, with the exception of Lisbeth Salander. And then, damn and blast, Larsson trots out the cliche at the end with a cheesy romance angle.

All I am asking is for simple entertainment. I'm not looking for literature. I'm looking for plot that doesn't make me squint, characterizations that aren't cliche or improbable, and some spark that is all an author's own.

The best books I read this year were mostly non-fiction (another plug for Schiff's Cleopatra, yowzah, that was beautifully written), with a few notable exceptions. The exceptions don't mean that they were perfect. It just means that they were magical enough that the author had me, owned me, and whatever stumbles they made I was willing to forgive them.

I felt that way about two books this year. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson and The Weissmans of Westport by Catherine Schine. The ending in "Last Stand" was far too dramatic in what is essentially a very quiet book, and there is an absurd plot issue in "Westport" that took me to the brink. However, both books say so loudly, "I love this story. I care about these people. They have become part of me and I hope they become part of you." And when you have that passion on the page, then a reader can forgive a lot. That is why cliche is so damning in a novel. Cliche is the universal. It's the phrase that is so ubiquitous that it has no meaning. It's the ultimate in familiar. When a character is nothing more than a bunch of cliches (as I found the character Blomkvist in "Girl") there's no mystery in the character itself. I'm not reading to find out who this character is. I know who he is. I was not surprised by ANYTHING he did as a character in "Girl." That book relies solely on the mystery of who Lisbeth Salander is. THAT's why I kept reading. Larsson clearly loved her enough to give her an identity outside of the cliched characters that populate his novel.

That's what I'm looking for. Authors who care enough about their story so that as readers we can pick ourselves up off the ground when there are any stumbles. Because there's enough magic to ward off the bruises.