Thursday, March 31, 2011

Crimson China

Hello Flower.

How lucky for me when an author I like, Betsy Tobin, has a new book out that I like, Crimson China, and that book has a gorgeous cover. It's a trifecta! Publishers do love a cover that shows a woman from behind or the side so you cannot see her face.

Crimson China starts out at the deep end of the drama pool. A woman, drunk, sets out to drown herself but ends up saving the life of a young man instead. The man is Wen, an illegal Chinese immigrant. He was almost drowned while working as a cockle-picker in Morecambe Bay, England. (Cockles are small saltwater clams.) The tide came in too quickly and he got trapped. Angie, Wen's savior, takes him home and tries to nurse him back to health but it isn't long before their relationship changes from platonic to passionate. They are two unhappy, damaged people can they heal each other? Angie aborted her suicide to help Wen but is she replacing her alcoholism with another addiction? Wen's grief and shame at surviving when so many others were drowned, his fear of the law and the gang that smuggled him into England all shadow his recovery.

When Wen is assumed to be one of the missing dead from the disaster his sister Lili decides to come to England to lay his ghost to rest. They have each already used up one life in China. They were brought up by step parents after being found alive in the earthquake rubble that killed their parents. Lili doesn't know what debts Wen incurred to get to England or how ruthless the gangland collectors will be if they find he's alive.

Tobin used a real life tragedy as the starting point for this novel, the Morecambe Bay Cockling Disaster. Cockles are harvested by raking through the sand at low tide. In 2004, twenty-three illegal Chinese laborers were drowned when they were cut off from the shore by the incoming tide. At the subsequent trial one man, a Chinese gang-master, was convicted of multiple counts of manslaughter for callous behavior motivated by money.

The coupling of Wen's story of survival, grief, life as an illegal alien and Angie's alcoholism could have been turned by Tobin into movie of the week melodrama but instead the author has written this gratifying novel with restraint and sensitivity. She alternates the point of view in Crimson China but always brings us back to the largely invisible world that both Wen and Angie inhabit. It's a world made up of desperate circumstances and isolation. Despite one or two awkward plotting problems, Crimson China is an involving and well written novel.

I do have a little bit of bad news. Crimson China is not out in the U.S. yet. I haven't found a release date. Tobin has had two other novels published here: Bone House and Ice Land (enjoyed them both very much), so here's hoping...


P.S. While reading Crimson China I was reminded of another excellent novel about the contemporary immigrant experience in England, The Road Home by Rose Tremain. That is a remarkably good book but hells bells look at that awful cover on the paperback on the left. The hardcover jacket is excellent. They should have stuck with that.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead

Flower, hi.

~~Sigh~~ The Girl Who Would Speak For The Dead. Love the title. Love the cover. Love the book? No. Deep like yes, but love? No. I would have loved it at 14 but not at 14 + a couple decades.

The genesis of the storyline is compelling. It's summertime 1925 and thirteen year old twins Michael and Emily are b-o-r-e-d. They have the luxury of boredom. Their family is well off and they have acres of freedom to enjoy. During the course of their idleness Emily figures out that by bending her ankle just so she can make a wonderfully fierce knocking sound. That's the kind of thing that can amuse a kid all day. Michael and Emily think they have found a way to make that amusement last the summer. Why not frighten the local children with conversations from beyond the grave? They could have a seance with Emily's ankle as ventriloquist for the dead. Their jump from bone cracking to the buried is a natural one. Their much loved Father was killed in The Great War and the shadow of that loss engulfs their household.

The twins enjoy scaring their friends but as their performances become more elaborate they attract the adults in the neighborhood. Soon their bilingual skills are taken out of the nursery and put into the drawing room. In a time when so many were still mourning loved ones lost in the War, Michael and Emily find themselves in demand by grieving grown-ups. Michael is thrilled by the attention and power it presents but Emily is uncomfortable and confounded by their new found importance, by the desperate needs of the adults. As the whole charade spins out of their control Emily becomes intrigued by the family secrets her "powers" are unearthing.

There is more than one strength in author Paul Elwork's writing. Emily's transformation from selfish child to sensitive teenager and coming to terms with her conflicting emotions regarding her and Michael's deceptions are mapped out in a believable and interesting fashion. Elwork's descriptions of the grief his characters are experiencing are realistic without being sentimental and contrived. The atmosphere that Elwork wraps around the novel from the lazy heat of a boring summer to the uncomfortable intensity generated by the twins' performances for the suffering is all beautifully rendered.

The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead is a well written coming of age novel, but as I said before not for someone my age. I am going to pass it along to my 15 year old niece and I know that she will love it. The problem for me is the novel doesn't take that next step from telling the reader the story and telling the reader all about the characters to allowing the passion and precision of the writing to let the reader discover the those things.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

City of Thieves

Hello Flower.

The city in City of Thieves is Leningrad. The year is 1941, the Siege. It's only autumn but already every piece of wood in the city has been burned for warmth, mud supposedly laced with sugar from underneath a former food storage locker is selling as a delicacy, family members and friends seem to disappear daily, survival is an hour to hour struggle and the authorities are on the prowl for black marketeers, Nazi sympathizers and in general anyone who could qualify as a usual suspect.

Seventeen year old Lev Beniov is arrested for violating curfew and for the theft of government property which is a capitol offense in this beleaguered city. His Mother and sister were evacuated out of Leningrad but he stayed behind almost as a lark. In jail Lev meets a charismatic con-artist, Koyla who becomes a combination of mentor, father and best friend to the boy. Koyla is in custody for desertion, another death sentence offense. Not the best influence for the impressionable, directionless Lev.

In the first movie moment in the novel we find ourselves in a very dark version of a Hope and Crosby Road picture. Lev and Koyla are offered a temporary stay of execution if they can come up with a dozen eggs for a NKVD Colonel. NKVD are the Russian initials for what was The People's Ministry for Internal Affairs. They were a public and secret police force. The Colonel who in the Road version of this story would have been played by Walter Slezak, wants the eggs for his daughter's wedding cake. Of course. The world is collapsing. People are starving in the streets and the enemy is pounding down the gate but the Colonel needs a wedding cake.

Finding eggs during the Siege is a search for the Holy Grail if ever there was one. Lev and Koyla's quest will take them behind enemy lines, into the devastated Russian countryside, they will mix with partisans, rebels and cannibals, kill a couple Nazis, love, lose and grow up. That is the real point of this boys own adventure. City of Thieves is the story of what happens to Lev's idealism and youth on the Eastern Front.

City of Thieves is fast paced, has excellent and believable dialog and memorable characters. For all the camaraderie and snappy patter author David Benioff hasn't skimped on the horrors and suffering brought on by WW2 and the Siege of Leningrad. Benioff may have made City of Thieves screenplay ready with impossible situations and skin of our teeth escapes but he also made it bittersweet and surprisingly touching.

P. S. Among quite a few  screen writing credits David Benioff  has is one that I find especially exciting. Benioff is one of the writers working on HBO's adaptation of Game of Thrones. That is book one in the epic George R. R. Martin fantasy series. I have to say I loved, loved, loved the novels in the Song of Fire and Ice series and I cannot wait to see A Game of Thrones on television.


And my friend the next novel in the Song of Fire and Ice saga will be on sale July 12, 2011. It's called A Dance With Dragons.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Flower. Hi.

Interested in Moondogs? Moondogs is a terrific novel. It's the kind of book that brings desperate elements together in an unusual location (for me) in a surprisingly off kilter way. There's a grieving son, an estranged Father, soldiers with wizard-y superpowers, a local celebrity hero cop who has inspired a series of over the top action movies, adulterous embassy employees, a meth-addicted cab driver, a smoking rooster, a prostitute and a actor with political ambitions. All these characters come together in the Philippines when the estranged Father is kidnapped by wannabe terrorists before he can reunite with the grieving son.

A little interruption in the regularly scheduled book review if I may. Kelog the smoking rooster? A riot. As the sister of the winner of the Best Rooster Trainer at the 1978 Ross Park Pet Show---second only to Westminster in pet show prestige in the U.S.--- I can be looked to as an authority on roosters. Kelog is one of the best villains ever.

Too many years of retail and visits from sales reps have me aching to tell you that Moondogs is blank meets blank. Not because this novel is a mish-mash of the creativity of others but because it is so original that referencing Moondogs to even the smallest similarities in other works would give you a better idea of what to expect when you read it than my tiny mind can produce. This is a twenty first century screwball comedy. The situations are realistic enough to make you appreciate the humanity in the story but at the same time so broad that the humor and almost Tall Tale qualities carry you along on a very enjoyable ride.

Moondogs author Alexander Yates gets a big round of applause for this his first novel. He has balanced the unsavory with the farcical in this novel like a pro. His writing is crisp and colorful and his story is inventive and well paced. Adventure and comedy may jump off the page in Moondogs but not at the expense of a heartfelt Father Son story.

P.S. That cover? Hideous. It's too busy, too dark and completely unappealing.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Started Early, Took My Dog

Hello Flower.

I have been a Kate Atkinson worshiper since her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum. In fact I adored that one and her next two novels so much that I felt betrayed when it was announced that novel number four was going to be a mystery. Sorry my snobbishness is showing but there it is. How could my girl stoop to a writing a mystery after crafting such excellent literary novels? I like mysteries and I do read them but not nearly as often as I read novels. So in protest because I knew she'd feel it, I passed on reading her mysteries. I showed her.

Fast forward a couple of Atkinson's mystery novels later and I succumbed. You don't want to know the hairy details. Let's just say it involved a trade show, an excruciatingly airport delay with a boss I despised and a $12 tuna sandwich. My defeat was glorious. What a thrill to know how wrong I was and that I could have Kate Atkinson back close to my heart. Her idiosyncratic outlook, her canvas of eccentric, damaged, funny and sad characters are not things I want to be without.

Atkinson's detective is Jackson Brodie. He comes standard with a chunk of the classic crime solver attributes: a disastrous personal life populated by ex-wives, children he doesn't see enough of and great loss. He is secretly sensitive, intuitive and has a healthy disregard for authority but Brodie has more than enough individuality and quirky colleagues and acquaintances to make him unique. Something else that Brodie has to set him apart from other detectives is an author who routinely writes about his cases through the eyes of multiple narrators. This is more the trick of a novelist than a mystery writer. Atkinson's use of various points of view heightens the reader's stake in her characters lives and how much they have to gain or lose.

The newest Brodie mystery is Started Early, Took My Dog. As with the other books in this series being at the wrong place at the right time for plot reasons gets the mystery started. The semi-retired Brodie is traveling, seemingly seeing the sights and musing over his messy life. Nearby a former policewoman, Tracy Waterhouse, turned private security manager witnesses a Mother mistreating her young daughter. Minutes later Tracey has purchased the child. This is the first time in Started that a child is separated from its parent but it won't be the last. Children who have been abandoned either by choice or by chance liter the landscape of this novel. They are the common denominator that brings Brodie, the police and the victims together.

Atkinson will occasionally rely on coincidence to advance the plot in Started. The mystery in her mysteries in general are interesting puzzles but not as tightly plotted as say an Agatha Christie or P.D. James. Atkinson does share their deceptively straight forward writing style but instead of her mysteries being a Who Done It, they are more like a How The Hell We All Got To This Point and are all the more complex for that perspective.

The strengths of Atkinson's novels (mystery or otherwise) are characterization and sophisticated, intricate relationships. In that way there is no such thing as a minor character in anything by Atkinson. In Started, Brodie and Waterhouse carry the bulk of the action but their characters are not allowed to go it alone. The amazing interweaving of people, their histories and agendas into complexities that you can sink your teeth into is exhilarating. Atkinson fills us up with bad local TV actors, sketchy cops, prostitutes, Polish contractors, new pets, over reaching government officials and former lovers all struggling for happiness around the Leeds area where Brodie was raised. What gets them each attached to the crimes and overlapping in each others lives in this novel is believable and important to the plot. No one dances through this book for the sake of mere entertainment, every appearance has a consequence.

Started Early, Took My Dog is Kate Atkinson quenching! How deliciously fabulous is that? Unfortunately I doubt that nice full-up feeling will last me the year or more until her next book comes out!

P.S. The cover? Terrific. Best mystery cover I have seen in a long time.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Tiger Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Tired Writing

Hi Flower.

I was sent a copy of the novel Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna a few months ago by a friend in London. Lucky me! I was looking forward to reading it. I had first heard of it last year when Penguin India bought it for publication. They reportedly paid the highest amount ever for an Indian novel for Tiger Hills. That kind of thing makes me interested. A new author, a publisher confident about their book...sounds like a good mix, right? Then to heighten the anticipation, after I got the book I let it sit for a while where I could see it, touch it, knowing that I was going to read it soon.

Well, soon came. I read Tiger Hills. A big Indian novel. A big, uneven, predictable, disappointing novel. This is a multi-generational love and catastrophe tale written with prose that would make a turn of the century potboiler seem contemporary. If you can't guess by page 10 what is going to happen in this cliche filled curry stew then you have never read a book or seen a movie in your life.

Oh well.

Happy to be reading something else

P.S. The cover? Seriously? It makes the novel look like a collection of inspiration passages. Snooze. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Brothers Ashkenazi


I didn't even know he had a brother! Isaac Bashevis Singer I mean. Back in the day (those days being prior to his death in 1944) I. (Israel) J. (Joshua) Singer was the big cheese. Isaac of course would go on the win the Nobel Prize. Yeah that's fab-o but Flower, Israel Joshua wrote one of the best novels I have ever read, so who's the real winner here?

Other Press has reissued Israel Joshua's long out of print
The Brothers Ashkenazi. This 427 page (Yea!) novel was first published in 1937 in Yiddish. This edition is a reprint of the 1980 English translation by Singer's son Joseph. I first heard of this masterpiece on the wonderfully interesting blog Neglected Books.

Singer gave us a broad view in Brothers. This is a family saga but it is also a saga of the economics, history and the culture of the Jewish community in Lodz, Poland. There is a constant march of conquerors and the conquered through this city. I am no scholar and there are no dates in Brothers so I am best guessing the timeline. I think the novel runs from roughly 20 or so years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the 1920's. There are a couple special guest star moments when Lenin and Nicholas and Alexandria appear which help to place a date to the action but other than that let your knowledge and a good history book be your guides.

There are three main characters in Brothers: twins Simha Meir and Jacob, and the city of Lodz. Simha and Jacob are a kind of Cain and Able in the story and Lodz is the catalyst for constant change. From birth Simha is clever and grasping. A boy with a businessman's brain and a conman's heart. Jacob is handsome and popular but a bit dim and unfocused compared to his brother. Their father is a hard working and deeply religious man. He lives his life for God and his Rabbi. His only wish is for his sons to value piety over prosperity but the family fortune mirrors the secular fortunes of Lodz.

As Lodz grows from workshops to factories, from farms to ghettos the opportunities to make money grow too. The quickest way to wealth is to marry well and the quickest way to expand your wealth is to go European, abandon your Jewishness. Both of the brothers follow this path. Jacob's financial success is a haphazard mixture of luck and his good looks. Simha's success is a graduate level course at The Wharton School of Business. His Machiavellian machinations are intricate and predicated on his enviable insight into human nature and ability to predict.

Singer wrote The Brothers Ashkenazi in a style reminiscent a 19th century novel. The depth of detail into the novel's events, the number of events covered over the roughly hundred years of the story and the cradle to grave stories of so many characters make you think of War and Peace or a slum ridden, Jewish, Middlemarch. Where it does not compare to 19th century fiction is in Singer's clear eyed vision. There is no sentimentality in this novel. All of the drama, humor and surprises come from mercilessly honest storytelling.

I wish I was better equipped to explain the magnitude of this novel. The Brothers Ashkenazi is a powerhouse. A timeless novel that addresses the poverty, greed, religion, revolution, capitalism, communism, war, prejudice and loves experienced in a Jewish community in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. I cannot imagine that I will read a better novel this year.


Friday, March 11, 2011

The Tiger's Wife... It's GRRRREAT!

Flower, hello.

In every review you will see of The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht you will be told that she was the youngest of The New Yorker's twenty best writers under forty list from last year. OK. Nice, but as lists go, who cares? I guess I could care because if I like writer under forty then presumably they will produce more novels for me to read than the best writer under eighty but over seventy. If. If it turns out that writer has than one story to tell, won't suffer from writer's block or make the list that guides me The Best Writers Who Work On Tuesdays In Months With R's In The Name And Are Without Nut Allergies.

So? Did the toddler come through? Oh yes she did. As she and the other kids would say, "She brought it."

Téa Obreht has written an intense, coming of age novel about loss, mourning, life and the storytelling that inhabits a history. The Tiger's Wife is set in an unnamed Balkan country. This is a country whose past for the last century or so was been a constant struggle for independence, stability and equality. Wars dovetail the books plotline. World War Two and a civil war that strongly resembles the Serbian Croatian War. The civil war is recent enough for what side you were on to be a constant judgement in the book.

Natalia Stefanovi is a young physician born and raised in this difficult country. She feels lucky that the war has left her untouched. She uses her profession to try and make amends for that by tending to the causualties and orphans of the war. When the novel starts she is on her way with help for a village that had formerly been within the borders of her own country. When she arrives Natalia discovers that her beloved Grandfather, also a physician, has passed away. His death was not unexpected but where he died was mysterious. Her Grandfather had told his wife that he was going to meet Natalia but instead he went to a village none of them had any connection with and there he died. Natalia's mourning for her grandfather is wrapped up in her obsessive desire to understand his sudden journey to that village and the few pocessions he took with him on that final trip.

While growing up Natalia and Grandfather shared many rituals. Her strongest childhood memories are of the two of them going to the local zoo and Grandfather's repeated readings of The Jungle Book stories to Natalia. His habits and storytelling formed the backbone of Natalia's identity and her connections with her homeland. These stories play a major role in the novel.

One of Grandfather's stories is about "the deathless man". This man is a kind of hobo Dorian Gray. Grandfather meets up with him several times over the course of his life. Each time the vagabond explains that he is immortal and indeed Grandfather sees no signs of aging in the man. The man is collecting the souls of the dead, a never ending harvest in this country. Is he the Devil?

Another of Grandfather's important stories took place during one of the hard, snowy winters of WW2 when Grandfather was a young boy. As a result of German bombings, a tiger had escaped a local zoo. Fear of the tiger paralyzied the village. Here was a danger that could stalk them in complete stealth unlike the waves of bombings and soldiers the war provided. The defiant tiger seemed to befriend a poor, deaf-mute woman in the village. She was the abused wife of the local butcher until the butcher suddenly disappeared. Bias, misunderstandings and terror led the citizenry to conclude that the woman must have killed her husband and fed him to the tiger.

Obreht moves us forward in The Tiger's Wife through Natalia's search and the folktales of the character's and country's past. This is no anecdotal filled stop and lurch ahead again novel. Obreht moves fluidly between the fables and the narrative storyline of the book. The result is a complete portrait of Natalia, her family, her heritage and her country and a powerfully moving mixture of opposites. Natalia's modern look at life and death through science and the myths and superstitions that ruled the past and govern the locals search for peace for their dead.

The Tiger's Wife is a stunning novel. You cannot help but be impressed knowing that it is also a first novel but I think that I would be just as impressed if it were Obreht's twenty-first novel. In perfectly chosen words and through the experiences of a complex young woman we learn the labyrinthine hundred year history of an unknown but very familiar region of the world. Natalia's pilgrimage into her Grandfather's life is an absorbing reading experience from a humane and adult perspective.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Change the Publishing Model Instead Of Talking About Changing It

Hello Flower.

Publishing and book selling are changing and markets are shrinking. While all that is happening from everything I read the sales of paper books still accounts for 80%  or more of all books sold. Obviously some people want real books and we all want bookstores, right? So can some of these changes be beneficial to books and book selling?

Are you eager to know what I would do if I had the power to change how book selling works? I kind of think you might be.

For as long as anyone working in publishing and book selling can remember a bookstore has had to be either returnable or nonreturnable, correct? Given the abilities of computers these days why should stores have to choose? Why can't Publishers allow stores to order the titles they feel confident in as nonreturnable? If you're doing your spring buy with say Little Brown and you know that you can positively sell 40 copies each of the new Patterson, Meyer and Atkinson and 20 copies each of a few other authors before that frontlist bill comes due as nonreturnable your store could get on average 55% on those titles verses the average 46% that you would get on the rest of your returnable order. When a store does reorders and backlist orders they would get to pick and choose returnable or non by order. Given that publishers would now be selling more books as nonreturnable they could afford to lower minimum quantities for ordering. How hard could it be to find 20 units from any given Publisher to do a nonreturnable order on a twice weekly basis?

How does this effect the returns a bookstore is going to want to do? Well if over a 6 month period you have ordered 80 copies of Patterson and only the initial 30 were nonretunable you can only return up to 50 copies. This would mean that stores could not just generate a return, pack it up and wait for the credit. Big deal. A store would need to be more aware of it's ordering. It is easy enough to code purchase order numbers so that every number that starts with an N is nonreturnable. I know that with at least two of the most popular point of sale computer programs in book selling that you can sort publisher files by PO numbers, then look at those orders in an inventory file and generate a return to that publisher.

The benefit to publishers? More nonreturnable sales would immediately mean less returns and less remainders. The potential is then there for stores who like the extra discount and who know their customers to be more adventurous in their nonreturnable choices. Let's say the average independent bookstore's spring buy from Little Brown is 1000 units over 300 titles. Is it so far out of the realm of possibility that 400 of those units might be purchased as nonreturnable? Then for a few months for 100 of those 300 titles to be reordered as nonreturnable? I don't think so. Over the course of the first 3 months of a Patterson paperback your store might sell 100 copies. Wouldn't it be nice for you and the publisher if 70 those 100 copies were at 55%?

Nonreturnable options for bookstores also gives the stores the choice of discounting more often. Stores compete with online. Online is discounted and you never have to leave your house. An extra 8% could go far in terms of a stores ability to support an in-store buyer program for it's customers and/or item discounting. It also would mean more revenue for the bookstore and the publisher.

Happy to help

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Inspector Frost And Jane Eyre

Hi Flower.

I'm always interested how a person comes to read this book and not that book. How do you come to a book Flower? How do you choose?

The books that I read as a teenager that have stayed with me the longest seem to be the books that I was led to by television or the movies. The perfect example of this is Jane Eyre. I saw Jane Eyre before I read Jane Eyre. I was 12 or 13 and a small bunch of us were sick. My poor Mother. It was me, brother V and sister A. We were in the last halcyon days of staying home from school with strep throat so there really was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

The Front Room, because it was the one with the TV in it, had been turned into our sick room. This was in the Dark Time before even VCR's let alone DVD players and TV was different back then. After tiring of game shows and soaps we came across Jane Eyre. I must have had the remote (Thank goodness they at least had been invented by then!) because a black and white movie from the 1940's is not something V or A would have given a second look at.

I loved it. Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Agnes Moorehead (Endora without her mod, caftan party clothes on! Who knew?) and he with the most marvelous voice, Henry Daniell. I was familiar with the title because there was a copy of that book in the bookcase at the top of the hall stairs. After basking in the delights of the movie I got the book and started reading. It was even better than the movie! Go figure. To be honest seeing the movie I am sure helped me to understand the novel and overcome any difficulties with the 19th century writing style.

This was the edition I read. It was a Signet paperback. I have no idea what the pub date on my copy of this edition was but I remember that the price on it was $1.75. Isn't that a wonderful cover? I was able to look it up on line and find out that the cover illustration was done by James Hill. I was not able to find out much information on Hill and his other work.

As an adult it's a rare thing for TV or movies to bring me to a book. One exception was Inspector Frost. Maybe ten years ago the British television series was shown on A&E. I adored it. The character of Frost and the actor, David Jason, who played him were a perfect match. Frost is a typical detective in some ways. He's a loner, cares too much about victims, is not politically correct, chafes under authority and doesn't care about things or appearances but what sets him apart is that he is also an every man. Oh yeah and he's not an addict or recovering addict either, that's refreshing. He's the guy who lives down the street in the house where the grass always needs to be cut, whose car rattles a bit and who knew your Father years ago. Short, rumpled and earthy David Jason makes Frost a slightly softer man than he is in the novels but Frost is still the type of memorable character you want to spend time with and not just a jumble of habits that grow wearisome.

After seeing the series I read the novels Inspector Frost was based on by R.D. Wingfield:

Frost At Christmas

A Touch of Frost

Night Frost

Hard Frost

Winter Frost

They are terrific books. The mystery part of the mysteries are tightly plotted and page turning. Wingfield builds the depressed midlands city of Denton from the poor up. The characters are vivid, working class, real people from the coppers to the villains. The interaction between Frost, great at his job but hardly a model civil servant, his fellow officers and the public is by turns sharp, funny and heartbreaking. I have to say I learned some very colorful slang from these novels as well.

Why am I heading down memory lane with the Inspector? Well because there is now a brand new Frost novel available! Sadly, R.D. Wingfield passed away a few years ago but author James Henry has taken on Frost and brought us a brilliant prequel to the series. In First Frost, Jack is only a Detective Sergeant without the spectacular track record that afforded him leeway to be insubordinate latter in his career, with an unhappy marriage and a special gift for irritating others. His direct superior is on a bender and the other is missing so when a young girl disappears Superintendent Mullett is forced to give the case to Frost despite his better judgment.

As of right now First Frost has not been published here in the U.S. and I cannot find any indication that it will be, BUT the original five novels in the series are available here and definitely worth your time! Or if you prefer try the television series either way you cannot go wrong.

P.S. I do adore the cover on the first copy of Jane Eyre I ever read. It has been a favorite ever since that fateful sick day. A cover I judge other cover by.
Here is the current cover on the Signet edition. What do you think? Does the word hideous come to mind? Traditionally Jane Eyre covers have been figurative--as most covers for classic novels are. Usually a Jane Eyre is a reproduction of a painting of a solitary woman from the 1800's sewing or reading.
 I have never seen a cover on Jane Eyre that looked so 1984 Rosamunde Pilcher, so collected nature poems, so banal.
As long as I am complaining about the utter bleech of the current Signet edition how about a couple wonderful covers that come out recently? These two are by Coralie Bickford-Smith and Ruben Toledo respectively. They make me want to buy and read Jane all over again!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Lyrics Alley


Lyrics Alley is a skinny book Flower. Sorry, should I have issued a spoiler alert before I wrote that? Well, in for a's not only skinny but it has that fashionable trade paperback trim size. What I think of as the silhouette of an Edwardian novel. Do not let the 320 page count fool you. If this were the normal size hard cover the page count would be about 170 pages. So how did I like this novella/short story? Loved it. I only got to love it for a couple hours but I loved it nevertheless.

Author Lelia Aboulela brings us inside the closed world of a prosperous home in 1950's Sudan. In the larger world at this time Sudan was about to gain it's independence from Egypt and Great Britain and embark on a series of civil wars but those events are barely touched on in Lyrics Alley. That side of life is not what this novel is about. Lyrics Alley is smaller in scale and bigger in humanity.

Despite a lifestyle dedicated to custom, Mahmoud Abuzeid is a forward thinking man. He has successfully managed the family business and been a wealthy and respected man in the community for many years. Mahoud has been grooming his favorite son Nur to take over the business. Mahoud's wives, the traditional, Sudanese born Waheeba and the much younger, Cairo born Nabilah speak for fight between the past and the future. Although Waheeba is Nur's mother and runs his household, Mahoud prefers the more cosmopolitan company of Nabilah. When war between the wives escalate and a tragedy befalls Nur change amid competing desires come to the family whether they all embrace it or not.

Although the political changes in Sudan are not made a specific part of the story in Lyrics Alley, Aboulela finds other ways to bring the 20th century creeping into the Abuzeid enclave. The close knit character's searching for more choices, freedom and independence are manifesting themselves in this novel and not in harmonious ways. Mahoud has seen himself as the benevolent patriarch, deciding what's best for everyone without a thought of being challenged but change can be insidious, seductive, unstoppable even for a dictator.

Lyrics Alley is a thoughtful novel written in precise, controlled language. It is clear that Aboulela cares deeply about these characters. The loving hand she brings to their every day is juxtaposed by the big mountains Aboulela gives them to climb: tradition verses change, duty verses freedom, silence verses argument, and religion verses doubt without ever creating a villain. As the narrative shifts between different voices and mindsets and you desperately want everyone to be happy, but how often does that happen?


Friday, March 4, 2011

Why Don't Publishers Try To Sell Books?

Flower. Flower. Flower.

I'm curious.

I have been reading off and on for a couple years (on the web and in newspapers) now about some authors who have gone the self-publishing route via the Internet and been quite successful. I have no personal knowledge as to how these authors achieved their success. Of course they have written books that have a tremendous amount of appeal to readers but we all know that isn't enough. Quality does not equal sales. My guess is that these writers all do an enormous amount of marketing and self promotion. That is an extremely difficult thing to do.

The articles detailing these success stories always point out that Publishers are afraid of these authors. They shouldn't be they should be in awe of them. Not because this style of publishing is a threat to the hold on the market that the long established methods have in place but because these authors have learned how to sell what they produce. That is something that Publishers have never learned how to do. Making the consumer aware of your product is the biggest part of selling and yet what happens in publishing? Books are written, printed and then comes the disconnect. Publishers rely solely on others to sell for them.

I have worked in this business for thirty years. I have yet to see a marketing plan in any catalog for 99% of all books published that consists of anything more than a list that says: inclusion in the white box, targeted web marketing, ARCs available for reviewers, reading group guides available, co-op money available, some vague, potential author appearances and the offer of a counter sign. By the way seeing those things listed in the catalog is no guarantee that any of them will really happen. The 1% of authors that publishers deem worthy of more effort will have national media attention added to that list and the sales rep will assure you that they are hoping for an Oprah or Today Show or Daily Show appearance and to expect a review in the New York Times.

When a book by a first time or midlist author takes off their publisher will give a bookseller chapter and verse on how well their plans for that title worked. OK. In the real world everyone who has ever worked in a bookstore knows that publishers have no clue what to do with all the books they produce. That once a manuscript has been selected by an editor, given a cover, handed to a sales rep, cataloged and shipped to a store it's the booksellers problem. The bookseller ordered it for their store, they can sell it. Retail and publishing are two worlds that only meet at trade shows.

What actually happens to make an unknown book sell? Best case scenario is that some bookseller reads a book, loves it, writes a recommends card for the book, handsells the heck out of it and the bookstore owner or buyer mentions this to another bookstore owner or buyer or sales rep and the process starts all over again in another store.

Sometimes an author works at getting publicity for themselves. They might have a website, do some emailing, maybe they are able to get their local paper to write about them, offer themselves to stores, libraries or reading groups for events, etc. It's a hit or miss proposition depending on how dedicated or aggressive the author is.

Every other way a book can sell can be put down to pure chance. Maybe the book was faced out on the shelf and it caught a customer's eye, maybe a customer liked a previous book by that author and happened to find out that a new book was available. Any media attention is a maybe as well. From the maybe it will happen to the maybe it will be positive to the final maybe that an interested consumer was paying attention and is willing to purchase the book.

That brings me back to my curiosity. If I'm a publisher why aren't I contacting any of these successful Internet authors and paying them to share the secrets of their success with me, my marketing department and my sales reps? Obviously these writers know how to sell and could teacher a Publisher a thing or two about how to sell a book.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Beauty of Humanity Movement

Flower, hi.

It's Amy Tan-tastic. Sorry. I had to get that out of my system. Actually that is a horribly small minded thing to say about this novel but it will be written about The Beauty of Humanity Movement I guarantee. Why? Well not because both of these novels are outstanding. It will be written because Beauty interweaves the life stories of several characters of Vietnamese extraction throughout it's plot therefore what else is there for it to be compared to but an Amy Tan novel that unites the life stories of several generations of Chinese and Chinese-American characters? You have to keep all the Asian novels together right?


This is a beautifully written and atmospheric novel by Camilla Gibb.  Beauty is set in contemporary Vietnam but encompasses a hard look at the cost of the last seventy years of Vietnam history through the eyes of three individuals. In Hanoi, Old Man Hung’s pho is famous. Pho is a soup that is “a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French” and that combination of cultures and conquerors says a lot about the search for identity in this novel. Hung has spent his life selling his pho, surviving poverty and political upheaval. Hung has lives through French colonization, Japanese occupation, Chinese occupation and now the Capitalism occupation. In the 1950's Hung had a successful cafe and a soft spot for the dissident artists and intellectuals he let use his place for secret meetings. Now the 80 year old sells his delicious masterpiece from an old cart constantly dodging the police.

Hung's noodle shop is one of a young man named Tu's favorite places. Tu' is the grandson of one of Hung's old radical friends. He works in a relatively new industry in Vietnam. He is a tourist guide for a company called New Dawn. Tu' spends his days pointing out the sights and wondering what his tourists, especially the repentant American Vets, are really seeing in his country. Maggie has also found Hung's pho and Tu'. She was born in Vietnam but raised in the U.S. She has come back to her unwelcoming birthplace in search of the artist Father she cannot truly remember. In order to stretch the bits of memory she has about her Father Maggie will need the Vietnam of Hung's past and the modern Vietnam of Tu'.

Gibb captures the culture, smells and history of a nation that has all three in spades. Her descriptions of the food alone make me yearn for a Vietnamese restaurant to open up next door immediately. In The Beauty of Humanity Movement food and suffering seem to be the only constants in Vietnam over the last one hundred years. Camilia Gibb has taken a time honored plotline, searching for your roots, and by placing it in a country as young and as old as Vietnam has infused a freshness and complexity that had me enthralled.

P.S.  The Beauty of Humanity Movement was first published in Canada last year. Here's their cover. I love it, as I love the U.S. cover but they are so similar I have to wonder why the change at all? Then I look a little closer and I see that the Canadian cover references the past and the present. I like that.
You win this one Canada.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

New Jane Harris Novel!

What exciting news Flower!

In May Faber & Faber is publishing novel #2 by Jane Harris. I am thrilled. I adored The Observations! It was excellent and had one of my favorite characters ever in Bessy Buckley.

This is from Faber & Faber's website:

Gillespie and I
As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, nearly four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame she maintains he deserved. Back in 1888, the young, art-loving, Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes - leading to a notorious criminal trial - the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disorientate into mystery and deception. Featuring a memorable cast of characters, infused with atmosphere and period detail, and shot through with wicked humour, Gillespie and I is a tour de force from one of the emerging names of British fiction.

Sounds terrific doesn't it? And. Aren't you thrilled beyond words that book 2 is not a short story collection as happens so often? I cannot wait. And. Look at the cover. Gorgeous.

I have poked around on the internet to find out the U.S. release date for Gillespie and I  but I'm not finding anything yet. Oh well. If it turns out that Gillespie isn't going to be released here about the same time as in the U.K. I will either get a copy from a friend over there or the very good Book Depository with their free worldwide shipping. So there.

Happy, Happy, Happy