Sunday, October 31, 2010

Six Suspects

Hi Lily!

Six Suspects. Yet another book I picked up because I thought the cover was pretty. Oh well. We all have to make our decisions based on some type of criteria, right? So what if mine is a shallow one. It works for me. To prove it let me tell you that once again the pretty cover got the job done. Six Suspects is a fun, fun read.

Vikas Swarup's previous novel was the inventive and fascinating Q&A which was made into the movie Slumdog Millionaire. As with Q&A, Six Suspects takes place in India, combines horrific with humor and follows the old "life is like an onion" adage; as each layer peels away the story becomes more pungent, deliously out of control and strong. Oh yeah and in their own way they are both mysteries as well.

Suspects is about solving the murder of Vivek Raiwho. Should anyone care that Vivek is dead? Sleazy Vivek is the playboy son of a government official who among other things was himself acquitted of murder despite a multitude of witness to his crime. The six suspects in Vivek's murder are taken directly from Central Casting: the Actress, the idiot American looking for a mail order bride, the Bureaucrat, the Tribal native, the Thief and the Politician. The setting is as satisfyingly well contained and populated as any Ms. Christie could devise. So far mystery traditionalists will be happy. What next? Flashbacks from the suspects and multiple false endings. It's a Bollywood version of Clue complete with plenty of witty and biting satire on Indian politics and culture.

Six Suspects is no subtle puzzler. This mystery novel is loud and brash, Dehli noir. At the start of Suspects we're told that there is a caste system even in murders. There is one in books too and I would say that this one is somewhere up around Brahmin.


Friday, October 29, 2010

The So-So House

Lily, one of these things is too much like the other.

When I was 9 my favorite book was Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field.  Did you ever read that? When Hitty was first published in 1930 it won the Newbery Award that year for the best children's book. Hitty is a doll. She was made in the early 1800s in Maine for Phoebe Preble. Hitty's adventures (and all she learned) with Phoebe and her subsequent owners enthralled me as a little girl and has recently had the same effect on my 10 year old niece. There was lots of action, history, humor and life lessons in Field's book.

My favorite novel from 2008 was People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. In that novel the travels of a rare, illuminated manuscript are traced through the experiences of several of the owners of the book. Once again lots of action, history and life lessons in a more adult way of course. At the center of this novel is a young woman who is working to restore the priceless text and gets caught up in it's history. People is an exceptional novel that I was able to put/force into a lot of eager hands.

Fast forward to October 2010 and The Great House by Nichole Krauss. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read this novel because I thought The History of Love was a wonderful book. Love is a book within a book about great loves, lost loves and finding love all wrapped around a fifty year old lost novel. Krauss's new book uses the provenance of a 19 drawer desk in order for her to string together some good short stories and call it a novel. The past and present owners of this huge desk are diverse only in the events that cause their sufferings. They are at times a blur of tragedies and isolation that stagnates any interest you have in their lives, losses and the ideas of permanence and memory that Krauss brings to House.

What made me press on and finish The Great House? The writing!Nichole Krauss is an enormously gifted and powerful writer. She is someone who truly can paint a picture with words. There were many times while I was reading House that I had to stop and reread a sentence or a passage so that I could marvel a little longer at her vision and skills. Reading her is like discovering a language you never knew existed. It's all new. I look forward to her next novel, not to another short story collection.


P.S. If you took a look at other new titles in the bookstore in 1930 you would have found: The Maltese Falcon, As I Lay Dying, The Greek Way and Civilization and Its Discontents. Not a bad year, right?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Wake of Forgiveness

Hello Flower.

What do you get when you mix Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, Shakespearean tragedy and an exceptional cover with homesteaders? Wait, wait, wait we'll be adding in strong, evocative writing too. No need to guess my friend. It's The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart.

Take a look at that cover. Isn't it beautiful? It's smart too. Everyone loves a horse. It is not a gender specific symbol. The photo is powerful so the consumer/reader can expect drama but it isn't overwhelmingly masculine of threatening. You don't immediately think "Oh this is about male characters and that's not what I read" and stroll on. You pick it up to see what it's about and that alone is a win.

In Lavaca County, Texas 1895 Czech immigrant Vaclav Skala is left alone to raise his four sons and work his land. His wife has died giving birth to their son Kaval. We don't know what Vaclav was like prior to his wife's death but afterward he is a heartless man obsessed with success. His sons are worked so hard their necks are permanently bent from plowing. He is a brutal man with one Achilles heel, horses. When his son Kaval displays an aptitude for horse racing, Vaclav tries to use it to increase his wealth. This is fathers verses sons and brother verses brother on an operatic scale but never unbelievable.

The writing in Wake is gorgeous. It's the great strength of this novel that these emotionally harsh lives are described in wonderful language. You can feel the texture of the wind, smell the tobacco and wrap yourself up in the bitter complexity of the family relationships. Machart doesn't allow the poetry of his writing to interferer with the action. Wake has the prerequisite amount of hustle and bustle for a western it just describes all that activity with juicy vigor.

All of the westerns I read are judged up against Lonesome Dove--a perfect novel. How did The Wake of Forgiveness match up? They are very different books despite the commonality of setting. Lonesome is a celebration of people. Wake is a study of Fate. For better or worse Lonesome Dove is my benchmark--oh well. The Wake of Forgiveness is no Lonesome Dove but it is very good and holds the promise of a writer capable of a Lonesome Dove of his own.

Happy Trails

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I Heart x 400 Jo Nesbo!


So... recently I learned two things on

1. Jo Nesbo will have a new book out in Spring 2011

2. The screen rights to the new book, The Snowman, have been sold

That is good news married to more good news. While a huge chunk of the planet has made Stieg Larrsson the new J.K. Rowling I have been attending a different church, The House of Jo Nesbo.

Harry Hole is Nesbo's man. He's a loner, he drinks, he's prickly, he doesn't like authority and cannot successfully sustain a romantic relationship. In other words he has all the attributes of the cliche copper according to detective fiction. What makes him different? Jo Nesbo. In another writer's hands Harry would be the any one of a thousand detectives but Nesbo brings a hundred tiny details to Harry personality, full developed supporting casts and magnificent plotting to his mysteries. There is no room to relax when reading a Nesbo novel. He keeps the tension coming not just by superbly crafted stories and interesting villains but also by the relationships between his main characters, the victims, the witnesses and the suspects.

Harry Hole, like all the best anti-heroes, lives and works in a gritty world. Jo Nesbo is as good at creating atmosphere as he is storylines and characters. He uses locations and settings that enhance the underlying suspense in his stories and bring clarity to circumstance. Nesbo has recreated Oslo with all the detail of a travel writer but this Olso is not for tourists.

Coming to Harry recently delayed my love~~sob~~but did give me the opportunity to read a fist full of these addictive like crack novels in one long juggernaut of thrills. First up in the Harry Hole to read list is Redbreast, then Nemesis, The Devil's Star and coming in May 2011 will be The Snowman, but I was lucky enough to have the Brit edition where it is already available. There are other Hole mysteries: The Batman, The Cockroaches, The Redeemer and The Leopard that are available outside of the U.S. Batman and Cockroaches are the first and second books in the series but when HarperCollins decided to publish Nesbo in the U.S. they opted to start with book three. It looks like The Leopard will be released sometime after The Snowman. I'm not sure what is going on with The Redeemer. It's in print in Canada but not here...why? Getting these books you have to solve your own mysteries.

You know though, there is a down side to this the-first-one-is-free ecstasy/slavery I have been living. I am now caught up with all of Nesbo's books that have been translated into English. Damn. I should have listened to my Mama and learned Norwegian.


P.S. Jo Nesbo has a terrific website--best designed author site I've seen. Definitely worth a look. Don't miss the video trailer for The Snowman either.Warning! It will make the waiting more difficult!

Monday, October 18, 2010

I Would Read Anything That Looked Like This!

Flower you and I have seen it all!

Publishers have tried an awful of bad ideas to sell books. Once the store I was working in was overnighted a loaf of bread by a publisher to draw attention to a novel set in a bakery that they were releasing. Another publisher sent a car decorated to look like a globe around to the store and people normally kept in their offices poured out of it to encourage us to carry their travel guides rather than let us wait on customers on a busy Saturday afternoon. We have also received from publishers: countless T-shirts, water bottles, maps to made up towns, stress balls, mugs, baby shoes, underpants and thousands of other pieces of crap in the name of marketing.

So how about a good idea? If more books looked like these...well, who would be able to resist them? Not sure you can tackle Anna Karenina? Look how encouraging these covers would be. Want to pat yourself on the back for completing Ulysses? That little blue guy is already proud of you just for trying. Embarrassed to be reading The Joy of Sex while commuting to work? With these the world will never know. Want to make it look like you are using your iPad for literary puposes? Of course you do.
These adorable books are designed by Heidi Kenney and are available at the wonderful My Paper Crane.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Elephant's Journey

Hi Flower!

True story, my friend. In 1551 King Dom Joao of Portugal came up with what he felt was a brilliant idea. He would re-gift his costly to keep elephant to his cousin the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian as a belated and extravagant wedding present. This will enable him to kill two birds with one stone, but how to get it here? Of course there is only one way, the elephant will have to walk from Lisbon to Vienna. That in the tiniest nutshell is The Elephant's Journey by Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago. You now know the story but not this magnificent novel.

The two main players in The Elephant's Journey are Solomon, the elephant and his Indian keeper Subhro. There are many other characters who wander in and out on this road trip to Vienna, all well defined and interesting but Solomon and Subhro lead the parade. This duo has already made the trek from India to Lisbon. Life in the court in Lisbon has been comfortable and quiet. There was a wealth of excitement at their arrival but after a few years Solomon is only a part of the landscape and Subhuro is a forgotten man in a hierarchy where he has no place. On the road to Vienna all that will change. Once again the two will be the exotic main attractions and our ambassadors to the 16th century world.

The Elephant's Journey is successful as an entertaining, enlightening novel and as a stylistic exercise. The storytelling is as light as air. There is a fairy tale quality to Saramago's imagining of Solomon and Subhuro's adventure. The story itself however is not bathed in one long loving glow. The standard victims of Saramago's ire and wit: the Catholic Church, politics and politicians, ignorance and brutality all get his brilliant attention but the tone of this novel is feather light. The book feels as though it was written all at once. There isn't any conversational punctuation to bring stops and starts to your reading. The thoughts and actions of the characters flow side by side with Saramago's editorialized history in one effortlessly enchanted breath.

Saramago has infused The Elephant's Journey with the verbal traditions of storytelling, the roundabout joys of intelligent conversation and his own spirited genius.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Rector's Daughter


I discovered The Rector's Daughter while poking around on Virago's website. I like Virago. They only publish books written by women which is interesting but not what draws me to them. They publish two of my very favorite authors: Angela Carter and Sarah Waters and I am a huge fan of the Virago Modern Classics series. These are neglected, out of print books that Virago brings back into print. By re-issuing these titles Virago helps to broaden what books constitute The Classics. Don't think that I'm whining when I point out that for centuries men decided what The Classics were, I'm not it's just the way it's been. With few exceptions women writers did not have the same opportunities to get published as men did and their works were generally not taken as seriously as the writings of their male counterparts. Virago redresses that. And. Let me be honest. By publishing books that are new to me because they are brand new and books that are new to me because they had gone out of print makes me feel like there is even more that I get to read which is so wonderful.

The Rector's Daughter was written by F.M. Mayor and originally published in 1924. It caught my attention for two reasons. The intellectual reason is that the title sounds like it could be a novel by Trollope, one of my many favorite authors. The other reason is the secretly-I-am-12 reason. Rector? Damn near killed her. Okay. I have gotten that out of the way and can now move on to a book I adore.

Dedmayne Rectory is in decline. Canon Jocelyn is aging rapidly, the house itself is an out of fashion pageant to Victorian decorating and Mary, the Rector's daughter, is a 35 year old spinster. Mary's life is organized by parish activities and the care of her sister Ruth and their Father. If Mary had lived in a different time or a different household Ruth's death might have freed her to develop a more independent life of her own. As it is the loss of Ruth only seems to cement Mary's loneliness. Her attempts to expand her world are thwarted by her not unkind Father. She experiences a brief but deeply felt romance with the arrival of Mr Herbert but what she wants is out of her reach and Mary has never learned how to pursue.

Take a bare bones look at the plot and not much happens but read The Rector's Daughter and you experience a lifetime of small lives. There is a community of richly drawn characters circling Mary. Mayor used these characters not just to believably populate Dedmayne but also to highlight Mary's Victorian life verses her desires. Her journey outward isn't dramatic or life changing by today's standards but Mary's Victorian upbringing had not prepared her for personal growth let alone what the world would expect of her in the Jazz Age.

F. M. Mayor wrote a fantastic, delicate masterpiece but how did she also manage to make this quiet novel a page turner? Incredible talent or writer voodoo? Her Mary is a complicated woman and the unfolding of her emotional life had me enthralled. I absolutely loved this book. Thank you Virago for making The Rector's Daughter available for me to be amazed by.

So Happy

P.S. Virago is a U.K. publisher but their many fab-o titles are readily available here in the U.S.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

We Have A Winner!


The Nobel Prize for literarture has been awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa! A writer that:

1. I have read exstensively.
2. That I enjoy.
3. That is in print in the U.S. and readily available.
4. Deserves this great honor.

So Congrats to Mario! Conragts to his publishers. Congrats to all the readers who will now discover him. And most of all congrats to all the booksellers that can now sell even more of his books!!


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives

Hello Flower!

Polygamy is one of those things that has that train wreck fascination/repulsion factor for most people. It's a guaranteed ratings booster for news programs and chat shows. Right up there with the long lost family dog who reappears just in time to save baby Lucy from drowning in the pond out back. There are tons of nonfiction books available about escaped wives, daughters forced to marry elders and founding and history of various groups that advocate having multiple wives but how is polygamy doing in fiction? Is it becoming the hot new fiction sub-genre? There was The 19th Wife a couple years ago and both The Lonely Polygamist and The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives a few months ago. Three titles on one subject might not seem like enough of a trend to you to turn that subject into a hot topic in publishing but it was the first time in my 30+ years in bookselling that I remember 3 fiction titles with polygamy at their core coming out within such a short span of time. These titles were well reviewed enough and sold well enough to get your polygamy novel moved a little higher in the to be read manuscript pile but they weren't the breakout bestsellers that creates a place on every publisher's list for a novel on that topic.

Is there a lesson here? Um...yeah. Add a character to that crime novel set in Scandinavia that you are writing that is living with wives 1,2 and 3. Hey! Maybe your detective should have many un-divorced from wives but of course still be lonely and tortured. I am officially declaring copyright on this idea. It could be genius.

The one polygamy novel that I have read is The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. It is a first novel written by Nigerian poet Lola Shoneyin. Secret Lives is a contemporary story of a successful Nigerian businessman. Baba Segi has four wives and seven children. They are the proof of his virility and prosperity. Until wife number four, Bolanle, entered the household things were apparently running smoothly for the Segi family. Bolanle's university education, youth, beauty and inability to conceive has set her apart from the other wives. This change in the family sets events in motion that bring disastrous consequences.

Nigeria adds an otherness (to small town U.S.A. me) to the story that made polygamy somehow more acceptable. It became more of a flamboyant excess rather than something immediately stomache turning, although that did come later. It was another unique element in the book set in an exotic land. That enabled me to better enjoy the subtleties that Shoneyin brings to the marriage dynamic and makes more startling the violent episodes in the story. All of the wives entered the marriage for different reasons and they all bring a different power to their role in the group. Shoneyin shifts the telling of the story around to each of the wives, Baba and even his driver. The wives histories and how they ended up in a polygamous home were very interesting--especially when seen though various points of view.

With The Secret Lives of Baba Seg' Wives we get a view of a small part of Nigerian society as well as learn more about Nigeria in general. That is something almost completely missing from our literary buffet in this country. Shoneyin has produced a well thought out and effective novel with vigorous characters. She is a novelist to watch and look forward to.

And. This would be an excellent book club choice.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Golden Mean


In my opinion the most famous teacher-student relationships are Aristotle and Alexander the Great and Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. They had exceptional starting material but you have to give Ari and Annie a chunk of credit for helping to get two such powerful conquerors into the world. A+ for them.

The new novel The Golden Mean written by Annabel Lyon recreates the teacher student relationship of Aristotle and Alexander. The what happens of it all is already known. In 342 BC Aristotle reluctantly becomes tutor to Alexander the son of his childhood friend Philip of Macedon. First impressions were not impressive between the teacher and the future King but soon each comes to respect and revere the other. Then? Both go on to live forever in memory and influence.

There are two fabulous strengths in The Golden Mean. The first is the total immersion into this world that Lyon builds for you in the everyday details of life in 342 BC. Through exquisite writing you can indulge in 304 pages of the fascinating nitty-gritty of ancient living. There is no sense of the author stacking up all the facts that she unearthed in her research in every spare corner of the novel so that you know all the work she did on the book as so often happens in historical fiction. The story is paramount and the knowledge of life in 342 BC is presented as the delicious icing on the cake.

The second strength is the dialog. How do you design conversations between two of the most significant figures in human history so that they sound real and believable? The death of this novel would have been if Lyon had only been able to parrot the historical lessons of Aristotle and Alexander in their speech and not been able to make their talk come off as improvised and fresh. How did she do it? Gigantic skills. Impressive.

If you don't know much about Aristotle and Alexander the Great, The Golden Mean will teach you as it stimulates you. If you do know the nuts and bolts of these events and teachings you will be absorbed in the human side of this history.


P.S. The U.S. cover is very appealing and conveys a power that these lives certainly had.

What do you think of the Canadian cover? It is much more daring but is it as good a match to the story? I don't think so but it would make you look? I think that it would make you pick this book up and that's half the battle in sales.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Bitter? Not me.

Flower, once upon a time when I was aworking the register at the bookstore a little boy came up to the register and put a copy of Frog and Toad Are Friends on the counter. As far as I could tell he was by himself. He looked like he was about 7. He pushed the book across the counter to me and then carefully and with much gravitas set down a small cardboard game piece like the one pictured above. It had a picture of a very cute ham on it. He looked at the ham and looked at me--which I didn't take personally--and slowly guided the card across the counter to me. I took the card, put it in the register, put the book in a bag and gave it to him. Then he walked out of the store. We never saw each other again.

I don't think that a week has gone by that I haven't thought about that exchange. I'm planning on one day telling  my former boss/bookstore owner, D about that experience. In my head it goes like this. D is lying battered and beaten just like Masala after the chariot race in Ben Hur.  I come in strong and victorious like Ben Hur ready to forgive him his past transgressions. D/Masala says "There's still enough of a man here for you to hate, Juda". I say (and here is where the movie and I part ways) "Oh really? Well then let me tell you about the time I exchanged a $3.95 book for a worthless piece of paper with a picture of a ham on it". Being a Jew in a hot climate, Ben Hur would have had a card with a picture of unleavened bread or maybe a fig on it not a ham so you can see how this is different from the movie. "And I even kept the picture. You got nothing!!!" Then D/Masala lets out a got-me-in-the-gut groan, the classic death rattle and dies. It's just something I play in my head on long drives or every 12th waking moment.