Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Author, Donna Moore
I'd heard that GO TO HELENA HANDBASKET was side-splitting funny, but when I saw the back cover blurb describing it as "Bridget Jones meets Raymond Chandler meets Jeffrey Dahmer," well, that gave me pause. The reference to Bridget Jones almost scared me off. I'm glad it didn't.
Helena Handbasket must qualify as one of the worst detectives in fictional PI history--even her cat has a better handle on the case (a sly reference to the crime-solving cat mysteries, I think). But the story is such a great send-up of the detective/serial killer novel, that her blundering and obliviousness become part of the big joke (a touch of Stephanie Plum, if you ask me).
With a secretary/sidekick named Fifi Fofum (every character in the book has an outrageous pun for a name) who spouts hardboiled banter that sails completely over Helena's head most of the time and the requisite cop who advises her throughout to keep "her big nose" out of the investigation (giving her quite the complex about the size of her proboscis, along with the one she already had about her "arse"), the intrepid protagonist manages to survive the case (despite suffering numerous fractured bones and other ailments from various attacks--a sly reference to the seemingly indestructible hardboiled investigator, no doubt) and even catch the killer, who is revealed, true to the tradition of the genre, in a final twist at story's end.
She does all this while agonizing over her weight, what dress to wear and which of the men involved in this sordid affair could be Mr. Right (thus, the Bridget Jones reference).
I will indulge myself in my own pun when I say the story ends with a bang (or at least seems to). And you can only fully understand what I mean by reading the book. Which, by all means, you should.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Monday, July 21, 2008
by guest blogger Star Lawrence
Author, Kim Barnes; reader, Scott Shina
As an animal lover, I almost didn’t review this because of the horrific opening scenes. So be warned. The images will haunt, but with her seamless, beautiful writing, Barnes will pull it together. Trust.
I don’t always love coming-of-age stories, but this one is special. Buddy and Lee Hope are brothers, seven years apart in age. They grew up on a hardscrabble farm in
At 17, Buddy is sort of kicking around, not going to school, jabbering with
The Caruso in the title is Enrico Caruso, a horse, not the famous singer. But the operatic reference evokes the wider world Buddy only begins to glimpse. I was almost in tears a couple of times over Buddy’s intelligence and how exposed he is to the horrors of the world. Even when you “come of age,” I guess those still come as a shock every time.
FINDING CARUSO is read by Scott Shina, a reader I have not heard before. He does the intonations and
This book reminded me of Hud, one of my favorite movies. Older brother Lee is a cynical womanizer like Hud, and Buddy is confused and tender like Hud’s brother.
But there are differences. Like in that movie (originally a Larry McMurtry book called HORSEMAN, PASS BY) Lee and Buddy eventually part ways, but it’s more like an inevitable drift to different agendas than a big moral lesson on “how to be” or “how to be a real man.” Buddy figures that out for himself.
Friday, July 18, 2008
According to the announcement, "Booksellers are encouraged to work with their local community to get customers to participate. Participants are asked to have family and friends sponsor them to read for the full 24 hours, and prizes are then given out to the highest fundraisers. The profits are then donated to a local nonprofit of the bookstore's choice."
GalleyCat is less than thrilled about the event, characterizing it as a "gimmicky stunt" comparable to "goldfish swallowing or telephone-booth-stuffing." (And they make a good point about audiobooks.)
The cause sounds good and I love to read . . . but not that much. Sounds like less of a celebration than an ordeal (one a bit too reminiscent of cramming for finals). I wonder how many people will nod off in mid-page?
How many readers out there would really want to tackle this?
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Author, Sara Gran
The best stories are the kind that linger in your mind long after you've finished them. For me, DOPE by Sara Gran was that kind of story.
Josephine "Joe" Flannigan is just the girl next door--if you happen to live in Hell's Kitchen, that is. Joe grew up there under the not-so-watchful eye of a single mother, so it was up to Joe to look after herself and her kid sister, Shelley. Both girls end up falling in with the wrong crowd and getting addicted to heroin, but pulling themselves out of "the life" in very different ways. When the story begins, it's 1950 and Joe is making a living picking pockets and "boosting" (to use the parlance of that time) jewelry and other valuables from stores. Shelley has become a successful model and aspiring actress.
When a suburban couple hires Joe to find their wayward daughter in the streets from which she came, it looks like easy money. But the investigation turns out to be a lot more complicated than she expects. And the further Joe delves into the matter, the more trouble she unwittingly creates for herself.
Apparently, this is Gran's first foray into noir writing. For my money, she gets it all just right. I love the 1950s setting (back when men wore hats and women wore gloves). There's even a mention of the Automat, which took this reader down memory lane. (Not all the way back to 1950, mind you, but I do remember Horn & Hardart.) I hope Gran will consider writing more crime fiction, especially hardboiled or noir--we can always use more female authors in that genre.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Author, James Lee Burke, reader Nick Sullivan
Are you a Dave Robicheaux fan? Dave is one of those rugged (but tortured, of course) ex-alcoholic cops so beloved in fiction—but in the hands of master storyteller James Lee Burke he always takes on an edge that surpasses his imitators.
At the heart of this tangle is Dave’s late mother, casually described by a black pimp as a whore, which sets Dave off on the trail of who murdered her by drowning her in a mud puddle.
As always with Burke novels, the locale, Louisiana in this case, is at least the equal of any of the characters. Burke lovingly describes every sight and smell of nature down to the molecular level—the scent of fish spawning, cane fields laid parted like hair by wind and strobing in lightning strikes, the smell of testosterone on the sweat-crusted work clothes of men he meets.
Although many Burkes are read by Will Patton in a soft southern purr, this one is narrated by veteran reader Nick Sullivan, who does a pretty fine job also, especially with Purcell’s raspy growl and the lilting Cajun cadences.
If I had one criticism it would be the psycho killer hooking up with the daughter Alafair. Burke has played this card before. Leave the poor girl alone to go to the library in peace.Star
Sunday, July 13, 2008
I've noticed some authors (or editors--I don't know who actually writes them) will provide suggested questions in the back of their books. But, if you have those, you wouldn't have to look for others, would you?
If it's a classic book (or even a high-profile modern one), I'd suggest Googling the title and looking for discussions about it. I'm sure there must be some great fodder for thought out there. Also, check online discussion groups. What's the buzz about the book? Is it controversial and, if so, why? What questions have other people raised about it?
Any other suggestions are welcome.
Friday, July 11, 2008
And one of my very favorites, Sue Grafton, has won a Cartier Diamond Dagger (sounds like something you'd wear to a banquet) for T IS FOR TRESPASS. A great book, IMHO.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Author, Tom Clancy; Reader, Stephen Hoye
The “Get the hell off of my plane” president Jack Ryan’s son, Jack Jr., has appeared in the pantheon of Tom Clancy heroes—then Clancy wrote this book that is not about him, really.
Clancy can be quite a kidder. You know those
In the interests of disclosure, I once ran into Clancy on the Internet—and asked his advice about a screenplay another gal and I were writing on Fred T. Jane, the naval artist who started Jane’s Fighting Ships and that whole publishing dynasty. Ironically, Clancy sent us a ton of downloads from Jane’s about dreadnoughts—and we countered many of his crinks with our research. He signed off, saying, “Well, I never said ladies couldn’t write about warships.”
I got sort of sick of Clancy novels in print when great gobs of Jane’s seemed to have regurgitated into them. Now, though, I listen—and found the blabby discursiveness more agreeable. And at least in this one, he avoids an icky romance, and God forbid, flirty talk, which is not the forte of any male techno-novelists that I know of.
As for the plot, you’ve heard of 9/11, right? And how shadowy, Internet-wielding bad guys are ceaselessly scheming to wipe out American women and children? In this version, a think-tanky place run by a former senator hires a set of twins, one an Afghanistan-toughened Marine and the other a bend-justice FBI agent to scoot around
Oh—and their cousin, Jack Ryan, Jr, is also an analyst at the same quasi-think tanky place. He sorts through terrorist missives and targets evil doers.
Eventually, of course, the three cousins tag up and Jack even has a little adventure of his own in the terrorist discouragement department.
The reader, Stephen Hoye, is a little nasal and can get sing-songy, but generally does a listenable, patient job of unfurling the story. The
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
"We’re building up our book coverage because book content really works for our audience," NPR senior supervising producer Joe Matazzoni said. "Books are among the top three topics attracting traffic to the NPR site."
Happy news. It would seem that literacy and media coverage of things literary are not quite dead.
Sunday, July 6, 2008
On books in DC, McMurtry said, "Washington is a civil service town in which the stars are not the politicians or the bureaucrats: the stars in D.C. are the journalists . . . A world in which journalists are stars is not my world. What depressed me most in D.C. was that the various great houses I was invited to contained so few books."
So how come I used to see so many people reading books when I rode the Metro? Maybe the great unwashed masses who don't live in those "great houses" are better-read than the people they work for, because I saw no small number of commuters clutching books as they made their way to their offices. And not just junk. Sometimes, when I was reading a particularly controversial, classic or unusual book, I'd even get a comment from one of my fellow passengers on how he or she had read it and loved it.
I can appreciate McMurtry's views on DC's civil service-orientation and tendency to glamorize the media, but to say that we don't love our books . . . well, obviously, the guy has never been to my house.
Saturday, July 5, 2008
Yes, folks, the Internet really is providing astonishing new opportunities for writers. But will it sell? After all, you can get the blog for free.
Friday, July 4, 2008
Author, Marisha Pessl
I’d read a bit about this book and what an amazing piece of work it was (especially coming from such a young author). Naturally, I was intrigued. So I picked up SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS while on vacation.
Marisha Pessl is an amazing writer. She is obviously one who is well-read, intelligent and hopelessly enamored of words. She loves words and wordplay so much, she writes with the giddy enthusiasm of a kitten chasing a string or a child, running from one Christmas gift to the other, trying to figure out which toy to play with first. In her energetic prose, Pessl does tend to pile on the metaphors, like a customer at an all-you-can-eat buffet piling mashed potatoes onto her plate. She crams them onto the page, like rush-hour commuters onto a subway car. And her sentences (frequently interrupted with sometimes long parenthetical thoughts that may occasionally drift from the original topic of the sentence, but that’s okay) are often a profusion of words, tumbling over each other, much like boulders in a landslide.
And then there are the citations (plus illustrations or, as they're called in the book, "visual aids"). Yes, a clever device (some even do double duty as metaphors, such as, “We walked by what had to be Bethany Louise’s room, painted gum pink, a pile of clothes on the floor (see 'Mt. McKinley,' Almanac of Major Landmarks, 2000 ed.)”) that demonstrates the protagonist, Blue Van Meer’s, scholarly upbringing under the tutelage of her itinerant professor father. (Not to mention that she's incredibly well-read. Is there a book or article she hasn't read? Is there no source she's unable to quote at the drop of a hat?)
Blue’s mother having tragically died in a car crash after a long, tiring night of working on her butterfly and moth collection (her specialty), the father-daughter duo set off on an extended road trip, in which Blue gets to attend a multitude of schools over the years, treating each new venue as a place to observe human behavior, rather than develop close ties (which will only have to be broken when she moves yet again) and develops a close relationship with Dad that some people might envy (compare Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, 1973).
Yes, it’s a youthful, showy, poetic, almost gymnastic kind of writing. The kind that, when it puts one so young into the exalted heights of the New York Times bestseller list, might lead an older, more jaded person to feel a bit put out (see F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce in Amadeus, 1984).
But you know what? While part of the charm of this book is its abundance of zeal and cleverness, and we can forgive a gifted young writer any tendencies to soar like a hawk and do loop-de-loops like a stunt pilot with her words, what really matters (and what’s really true) about this book is that it tells a terrific (in every sense of the word) story about someone you can really care about.
Pessl’s story has a well-structured plot, in which Blue finally settles in during her senior year at a private high school with a group of favored students known as the Bluebloods--and, given her unconventional upbringing, Blue’s desire to be included with them surprised me, even disappointed me a little (see Lee Fiora of Prep by Curtis Sittenfield (Random House 2005)). Nonetheless, it’s the only way you can really get to know Hannah Schneider (who we learn right from jump dies by hanging), become familiar with her dark secrets and delights and take a glimpse, along with Blue, at how the other half lives.
And what starts off looking like a father-daughter road trip chronicle turns into a coming-of-age story, in which Blue starts to rebel (ever so slightly) and keep secrets from her father, which all leads up to the scene where Hannah’s found dead. That’s when Blue (thinking things are not what they seem, always observing, looking for the truth) starts checking into the whole thing. Her investigation leads from one revelation to another and the plot twists come so fast and furious, they leave you breathless. Until, at the end, Blue is left pretty much feeling like this (see Visual Aid below):
I have to say that, as a mystery writer who’s come to expect the unexpected, I actually anticipated the final, apocalyptic revelation (and even expected it to be worse). But it did nothing to ruin the book at all. In the end, like any great mystery novel (and although this is not genre fiction, it is at its core, a mystery), the reader is left, mouth agape, saying, “The clues were right in front of me. I just didn’t see them.”
ADDENDUM: I forgot to mention that this book ends with a final exam! (No kidding.) In keeping with the pedagogic nature of the work, Pessl finishes the story off with a set of questions--true/false, multiple choice and one essay--that actually raise some interesting theories about the story and suggest topics for discussion, much like the suggested topics for book club discussion at the end of other books I've read. And, no, Pessl does not provide answers.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Of course, I can't read about THE ODYSSEY without thinking of "Ulysses", that wonderful movie with Kirk Douglas. Circe and the Sirens (sounds like rock group, doesn't it?), the Cyclops and lines like "More wine for Polythemus! Son of Neptune!" (Not to mention one of my favorites, "Beggars were always welcome in the house of Ulysses.")
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
I went to the one in DC (not known for mad, crazy anything--except maybe the way the government works) a couple years ago and that was a sensory-overload experience.