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.