Tuesday, June 30, 2009

'Possession': A (Suspense-Thriller) Romance

Review: POSSESSION (Random House 1990)
Author, A.S. Byatt

POSSESSION is--there's no other word--an extraordinary book.

Touted as an "intelligent, literary, and ambitious thriller" by The Times (London), the story is also subtitled: "A Romance." And it is all these things and more.

The main character, Roland Mitchell, is a literary scholar working in the bowels of the London Library. He's perusing a long-undisturbed book authored by the subject of his study, poet Randolph Henry Ash, when he discovers two letters Ash started writing to a woman--one to whom the married Ash was obviously attracted. Purloining the letters in order to find out her identity (and keeping this find to himself, instead of sharing it with Professor Blackadder, for whom he works as a part-time research assistant), he learns that the woman may be a poet named Christabel LaMotte, who up until this point was thought to be a Lesbian with no connection to Ash. Roland's research inevitably leads him to Maud Bailey, who runs another university's Women's Resource Center. Maud is one of two people in the world considered to be complete experts on Christabel LaMotte. Their alliance (an uncomfortable one, at first) grows closer and more intense the more they learn about the relationship between the two poets.

Ah, but they aren't working in a vacuum. Others start to sniff around and figure out what they're up to. Including Fergus Wolff (Maud's ex-lover), Leonora Stern (the other LaMotte scholar), Beatrice Nest (custodian to Ellen Ash's papers), Blackadder and a certain Mortimer Cropper, a nefarious American (the book is nothing, if not thoroughly British) and Blackadder's arch rival when it comes to anything related to Randolph Henry Ash. So A.S. Byatt intricately and deftly weaves elements of the thriller, suspense and romance into the story. But that's not all--because the letters and manuscripts the two scholars find tell a story themselves. Another story of romance and suspense. So the story of Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey ends up being written around the story of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. And the overall effect is--amazing.

A few caveats: the prose is rich. In fact, to merely say it's rich is like saying creme brulee topped with whipped cream has a few calories. It has the flow and feel of the 19th Century literature by the poets being studied, layered with the modern sensibilities of the scholars studying them. And poems by Ash and LaMotte are embedded throughout the text. These poems reflect part of their story as well, since they're intended to show how Ash and LaMotte's relationship affected their work. (As Roland and Maud's joint research may affect their relationship? Hmm . . .)

I usually read a lot of hard-boiled and noir fiction--terse, gritty, unsentimental. But this book was a welcome change of pace for me. One scene in particular, in which Roland and Maud make a major find, was so suspenseful, I could swear it raised the hairs on the back of my neck (not too shabby for a couple of bookish types looking for old letters). And I was simply amazed at Byatt's talent in creating not only the characters and plot for the main story, but writing the poetry, letters, etc., and creating the characters and plot for the story within the story.

To pull it off, Byatt had to switch points of view, now and then--sometimes within the same scene. Some authors will tell you this breaks the rules. But then rules are intended to be broken--when you know what you're doing. Which, clearly, Byatt does.

Which is to say, the book is probably not for everyone. It's not a formulaic thriller or romance--not a "beach read." The book has substance, but substance I could sink my teeth into, while having a story I could get lost in.

In conclusion, anyone who says that "literary writers" (whatever that term means) don't know how to create a plot needs to read this book. It puts the lie to that particular bit of conventional wisdom.

I'd like to think the book shows how well the conventions of genre can work in literary fiction. How they're not mutually exclusive. That we can, in fact, all get along.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Making up with the Moon, Singleton Hippie Art

Making up with The Moon(C) Singleton 2009 SOLDI danced barefootedin the blue green tidal pool...a make believe paisley water garden,salty and cool..And waved good~bye toThe Ocean.She wasrunning off to meet Eternity,her giant seafoam petticoat dragging the sand...trinkets and treasures tumbling from herpockets...A love affair that never ended....And then I felt you...there in the night....in the

(Belated) Appreciation of James Joyce

Yeah, I know . . . I'm several days late and so on. Joyce's birthday was June 16. But I thought this example of his work, Molly Bloom's Soliloquy, (found on Work-in-Progress--a great blog, BTW) was so . . . different. Beautiful, lyrical (try reading it aloud yourself and see--what do you emphasize? how do the words flow from your mouth?) . . . not the kind of stuff I usually read. (James Joyce wouldn't be, would he?)

Anyway, though I've waited far too long to put this up, I'm doing it anyway. Because it's cool and it's good to read outside your comfort zone, now and then.

And I still have to watch the video . . .

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Literary Winner Who Feels Like a Loser in LOSER'S TOWN

Review of LOSER'S TOWN (audiobook) (HighBridge Company 2009)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

hor, Daniel Depp; read by Don Leslie

New stuff in town. That town would be Hollywood, of course, where Robert Mitchum once said losers come to succeed. Daniel Depp is the author. Depp, Depp—yes, he's Johnny Depp's half-brother and a darn fun writer. His new series character is David Spandau, a stuntman turned mavericky employee of a staid bodyguard and security firm in Tinsel Town.

I absolutely fell in love with Don Leslie, this reader. He has a slowish, distinct, bass voice and sounds very wry and precise, perfect for describing this Pulp Fiction-like cast of characters, who ruminate or blab on as juicily as Royale with DOUBLE cheese. Elmore Leonard—do you feel Depp's hot breath on your neck?

The plot is a little sketchy. Spandau is hired by an up-and-coming young actor named Bobby Dye, who is in the clutches of a mob punk named Richie Stella. Everyone smooches Dye's butt except Spandau, who prefers to protect it instead. Something about a personal code of honor or something.

I particularly liked Spandau's friend Terry, an Irishman short of stature but gifted in talk, lovemaking, and the martial arts. What more could a woman ask, really? Of course, he is a little bit of a loose Howitzer.

We want more Spandau! And be quick! Terry? Well . . . Terry. You'll find out . . .

Star Lawrence owns a recession coping and humor site called Do the Hopey Copey, at http://hopeycopey.blogspot.com. She can be reached at jkellaw@aol.com.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ray Bradbury Fights to Save Library

How apt is this from the author of FAHRENHEIT 451?

Bradbury is a staunch defender and lover of books and libraries--a trait we happen to share.

I noticed he also claims to remember being in the womb and being born. Oddly enough, I remember it, too. (Or, at least, I remember remembering it. Not quite the same thing . . .)

And I've just got to quote this part from the article (for the ironic value, if for no other reason):

"The Internet? Don’t get him started. 'The Internet is a big distraction,' Mr. Bradbury barked from his perch in his house in Los Angeles, which is jammed with enormous stuffed animals, videos, DVDs, wooden toys, photographs and books, with things like the National Medal of Arts sort of tossed on a table.

"'Yahoo called me eight weeks ago,' he said, voice rising. 'They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? "To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet."

"'It's distracting,' he continued. 'It's meaningless; it's not real. It's in the air somewhere.'"

Oh, really. Well, I wouldn't have known about this article without it, Ray. I can't help but love your crusty attitude (even share it to a degree), but let's face it. The Internet--for good or ill--is here to stay, buddy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Top 10 Longest Novels in English

It seems only fitting that I should so closely follow a recent post in defense of long books with a list of the 10 Longest Novels in the English Language.

Interesting list. And who knew that ATLAS SHRUGGED had more words than INFINITE JEST?

In fact, to my surprise, INFINITE JEST (with more than 1100 pages) came in at No. 10. Go figure.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

'Last Night at the Lobster' Brings Back Old Memories for This Ex-Waitress

Review: LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER (Penguin Group 2007)
Author, Stewart O'Nan

Maybe it's just because I'm a former waitress, but I found LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER to be a particularly appealing little novel. At 146 pages, it might even qualify as a novella (you don't see many of those these days).

It's about a guy named Manny DeLeon, the manager of a Red Lobster tucked in a corner of the parking lot for a New Britain, Conn., mall. It's a snowy night, a few days before Christmas. It's also the last night that this Red Lobster will be in business.

Apparently, they're not doing as well as they should. So corporate is shutting them down and keeping Manny and a few others on to work at a nearby Olive Garden, where Manny will be demoted to assistant manager. But that's not the only thing on Manny's mind.

There's also his pregnant girlfriend, Deena--the one he's not sure he wants to stay with--and his not-so-secret fling with Jacquie, a waitress at the Lobster (the relationship's over when the story begins, but not gone from Manny's thoughts). Let's just say Manny's got a lot on his mind this particular snowy winter night.

Along with his sense of loss about the Lobster closing (Manny revisits memories of old times, even as he goes around, robotically preparing the restaurant for its final day of business), he feels anguished and guilty about the people he won't be able to take with him to the Olive Garden. Not to mention the gift he still has to buy for Deena, which he'd rather get for Jacquie. But that's all over . . .

This concisely written gem by Stewart O'Nan manages to perfectly capture the feeling of working in the restaurant business (in down and dirty detail), convey the chilly ambiance of New England in winter and tell a story about imperfect people trying to get along and go along in an imperfect world.

The story works on so many levels--from the detailed descriptions of how Manny clears snow from the walk to the empty feeling of corporate indifference Manny is left with at the end of the day (or even the beginning of this one).

The story also has the most vivid and colorful characters--people you'd recognize if you've ever worked in a restaurant. For me it was like, "I know these people. I've worked with them!" And the events of this particular night also work at many levels--funny, poignant, even semi-tragic. And O'Nan manages to do this in a mere 146 pages. That's amazing in itself.

And lest you think Manny is a jerk for having two girlfriends--just read the story. You'll see he's anything but. (Okay, he's not perfect. But he's actually a pretty nice guy.)

Manny may have his flaws (separation anxiety apparently being one of them--he seems almost obsessively concerned with the fate of a decorative marlin hanging on the wall), but in the end, he's just a guy trying to do the right thing. Whatever that is.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

In Defense of Long Books

In an age in which our attention spans have been reduced to those of gnats--or is it cats?--well, either way, they're short. Really short. After all, so much to read, so little time to do it, right? So, anyway . . . where was I? (Sorry. Got distracted.)

At a time when our attention spans have shrunk like cheap T-shirts in the wash--what a nice metaphor--um, yeah. Shall we try again?

These days, people want to get into a book fast. They want to read it fast and get on to the next one, because their attention spans are as tiny as gnats--there's the gnat metaphor! I knew I could conjure it up. Ah, good. So, as I was saying . . .

It's nice to know there's one staunch proponent out there of the idea that a long novel is not necessarily a bad thing to read from time to time. That, truly, reading for pleasure is about the journey and not the destination. That reading is not a competitive sport in which the one who reads the most books wins.

I've read WAR AND PEACE. It was a great book--really! Well worth the two and a half months it took.

A great piece of literature is a wonderful thing. But even I haven't worked up the energy to tackle this one yet. Maybe someday.

(If anyone has read David Foster Wallace's magnum opus, please feel free to comment on it. Thumbs up or down?)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Singleton Hippie Art, Make Believe

Make Believe(c) Singleton 2009And there, in our technicolorimaginations, wepainted a Fairytale...Scribbledthe storyon blue lined paper,bathroom wallsand cocktail napkins...And sprinkled themin the wind,a paper trail of words...cookie crumbs for the curiousor the non believers... I imagineyour smile now...your head tossed backin accidentaldelicious laughter,as you read the Ending... a single word

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Lunch Reads

I'm a big fan of short fiction and just learned about this site called Lunch Reads, featuring short stories you can read on your lunch break. One per day, Monday through Friday. (For the legions of people eating lunch at their desk. Probably far too many, but that's another story.)

Anyhow, I read a story on the site by Jenny Milchman, a New Jersey-based suspense writer. It was highly suspenseful story of a seemingly close-knit marriage that may (or may not) be going south. Well worth the reading.

Check it out. It's a two-parter. (Don't you hate that? When you're left hanging and have to wait for the other shoe to drop? But that's part of the suspense, right?) However, I've got the links to both parts here: Part One and Two of "Gone."

By the end of Part One, I was dying to read Part Two. And I hung on every word of that part until I reached the end. It's the kind of story that keeps you guessing right up until the last lines. Milchman paints a vivid picture of Jersey and manages to create two fully-rounded characters within the constraints of the short story form, while telling a compelling tale. Hardly an easy task.

I'd call it a page-turner, except it's in pixels not pages. So maybe I should call it "fast scroller"? A "page-downer"? (As in hitting the "page down" button?) Or maybe a "mouse clicker"? (As in clicking the side bar to go down the page?)

Anyway, the site is something for you to check out during your lunch hour. Or any spare hour you might have.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

'Identity Crisis' Available on Kindle

Just wanted to let everyone know that IDENTITY CRISIS, my mystery novel, is available on Kindle now.

And if you'd like to read the Amazon reviews of the print edition, you can find them here. That's the old cover image you see to the left there.

And, at some point, I'm hoping to reissue the book in print form as well. When I do, it will have another cover, like the one below (both back and front are shown).

A darker, more menacing look, yes?

'The Tourist' Takes a Long, Strange Trip

Review: THE TOURIST (Minotaur Books 2009)
Author, Olen Steinhauer

If you're looking for a spy novel full of convoluted twists, shady people and double-crosses, THE TOURIST should be right up your alley.

The story is about Milo Weaver, a CIA agent who once worked in "black ops," which is to say he worked in an unofficial capacity for The Company (as the CIA likes to call itself). Or, to put it yet another way, Milo worked as a "tourist" for the CIA. Going wherever they told him and just following orders.

But that changes. Sometime after 9/11, Milo gets married, acquiring a step-daughter in the process, and goes from being a tourist to serving as a manager in the CIA's New York City headquarters. And one of the things that makes this book so compelling is Milo's grappling with the pressures of handling his job and taking care of his family. But all that comes later, actually.

It really starts when he's tracking the Tiger (an assassin with, as one character notes, a rather corny nickname). He finds him and one thing leads to another and another . . . and the next thing you know Milo's acting as a tourist again and finding out all sorts of crazy stuff. None of it good, of course. Especially for him.

I'll admit, I was initially discouraged by the amount of exposition right up front in the book, when Milo is questioning the Tiger. Yeah, it's handled as dialogue, but let's face it, there's a lot of explaining going on here--much of it overwhelming in detail and a bit confusing. But that's okay, because Milo sums up the major points after they're done talking. So, okay, keep going, I think. Because it is interesting and Olen Steinhauer adds great humorous touches, both in dialogue and description.

So on I went. And each step in Milo's journey would lead to yet another new expositional conversation. More details and confusion, but again, that was okay. Milo provided a synopsis for dunderhead readers like me, who don't keep a scorecard.

Without saying too much, just know that the story leads up to several big revelations--for Milo, his family and others. The plot works like an intricate contraption worthy of Rube Goldberg. A lot of spy-versus-spy stuff (in this case, CIA versus Homeland Security) and paranoid scenarios in which various people try to out-guess each other. But does the story make complete sense? I don't know. Like I said, you'd really need a scorecard to figure that one out.

But Steinhauer writes with such great style and humor. His characters are so interesting and the plot moves along at such a nice pace (even with all the exposition thrown in), in the end it hardly matters. Especially when you get to read lines like this one from one CIA manager to a hapless underling: "If you ever send a goddamned Homelander upstairs again without clearing it first with me, you're out of here. You'll be guarding the front gate of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad wearing a George Bush T-shirt instead of body armor." (Good one!)

Not only that, but after all the expository conversations and such, the story builds to page-turning climax. With even more revelations, double-crosses and twists.

This is one of those stories in which you don't really know who the good guys are, but don't have quite as much trouble identifying the bad ones (if that makes any sense).

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it for anyone who loves spy novels. But if you asked me to explain the whole "who struck John" aspect of what happens, I'd be at a loss for words. I think I would've needed a flowchart or something to keep track of all that and I was too busy enjoying the story. So never mind all those nasty little details--on with it!

And there's one other question that I can't answer and, without giving away too much (I hope), the question is this: Why did they do this to Milo? The nature of "they" and "this" are best understood by reading the story. And as for the answer--maybe I'm just a dunderhead reader, but frankly, I haven't got a clue.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Singleton Hippie Art, The Girl with The Swirl

The Girl with The Swirl(c) Singleton 2009SOLDAnd in the morning....Long before sunrise,wide eyesand the scratchy soundof the Morning Newswakes the world,She's a Mermaid....Finger painting little "I love you"s...in the sand...Splashing in paisley colored tidal pools...gathering periwinkles for hide and sink,Etch~a~sketching tatted lacefrom the footprints oftiny sideways crabsand Seagulls on parade

Dribs and Drabs

This article takes an amusing look at the bestselling books of 1907 and asks if they were any higher quality than today's?

Plus, Stephanie Plum's creator is writing a graphic novel. (That's graphic as in cartoons, not graphic as in . . . you know.)

And here's an interesting low-tech concept in the Age of E-Books.

(Got these off The Reader's Advisor Online.)

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