Monday, February 28, 2011

"Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Pandemonium."

by Warren Fahy

UPDATE 3/8/2011:  Pandemonium is temporarily unavailable on Amazon and other ebook selling sites.  Reader response was strong enough to interest several publishers in the book, and it is currently unavailable while negotiations are ongoing.  I'll post updates as news is available.  Congrats to the lucky readers who grabbed it quick!

Nearly three two years ago, I read a debut thriller by an unknown author leading me to ask the immortal question, "Where have you been all my life, Warren Fahy?" And more to the point, where did you go? Happily, Mr. Fahy is at last back with a self-published sequel to Fragment. It would be an understatement to say that my expectations for this book were high. Arguably, too high. Let me cut to the chase and simply tell you: this book is totally AWESOME!

Pandemonium opens just a few months after the events of Fragment. Fahy had left the door wide open for a sequel, and he steps right through it as the desiccated body of Thatcher Redmond washes up on a remote Japanese island, carrying it's deadly cargo of Hender's fauna. (Don't assume you know where this is leading. Fahy is always three steps ahead.)

Across the world, Nell and Geoffrey Binswanger are enjoying their first days of wedded bliss. Since their escape from Henders Island, they—along with colleague Andy Beasley—have been working with the five surviving hendros from the island. These gentle creatures have captured the world's imagination and are well on their way to winning their hearts. But the powers that be aren't sure how much freedom these alien intelligences should be granted. They are currently being held in comfortable isolation, but they are petitioning for full freedom—or at least internet access.

Nell and Geoffrey are shaking up the hendros' comfortable routine by going off on their honeymoon. However, just as they're about to depart for Hawaii, the two are given the proverbial offer they can't refuse. It’s a lucrative working vacation studying an extraordinary unknown ecosystem. Their benefactor is a slightly suspect Russian billionaire by the name of Maxim Dragolovich. And before anyone knows where they’re going, he’s whisked Nell and Geoffrey off to a subterranean world like nothing you’ve imagined in your wildest dreams, a world he calls “Pandemonium.” There, Nell and Geoffrey renew old acquaintances and make new ones, and at first it’s all so magical… I don’t want to tell much more. It’s far too much fun to make each delicious discovery on your own!

There’s a reason why sequels rarely live up to reader expectations. When an author has done his job really well, he’s created a whole new world in a book. No matter how great the second novel is, it simply can’t offer the freshness and originality of the first. Let me tell you why I think Fahy succeeds so well here.

First, he offers more of what he got right in Fragment. This novel moves at an absolutely breathless pace. I read it in a single day, and there was simply no way you could have gotten me to put this book down before I reached the conclusion. Fahy’s bread and butter is creating fantastic creatures, both magnificent and horrifying. He revisits some territory in Pandemonium, but he expands quite satisfactorily on what he’d created previously. His imagination is off the hook! But what I love the most is that everything he creates, from the environment, to the creatures, to the technology (which I’ll get to in a moment), is so thoroughly grounded in real, right-up-to-the-moment, science. It’s smart, it’s fun, and it’s truly a joy to read.

I criticized the character development in Fragment and I’m not going to claim that this is a nuanced character study. In fact, the main villain of this novel is again a bit on the cartoonish side, but this time he’s cartoonish in a good way! He’s definitely a more interesting, more well-rounded character. I don’t know that I learned a great deal more about Nell, Geoffrey, and Andy, but they’re likable characters and fulfill their roles admirably. This novel introduces a child character—always a dicey proposition—but I have to admit I kind of loved her. (Except, Warren, isn’t Sasha a man’s name in Russia?)

He definitely walks the same cuteness tightrope in his depiction of the hendros, or sels, or whatever you want to call them. It would have been so easy for them to become twee, but here again, I think Fahy gets the balance just right. I simply loved them. These characters are a golden opportunity for comic relief, like when they gather around to watch a movie and it’s Jurassic Park, LOL. But these creatures are more than cute comic devices. They’re supposedly possessed of great wisdom, and Fahy manages to illustrate that, such as with Hender’s oft repeated admonition for tolerance, “There is no ‘they.’ Remember? There is only one. And one. And one. No ‘they!’” He’s managed to create alien characters that are, if anything, more intriguing and complex than the human ones. Plus, they have a better grasp of social media than I do.

The latter part of this novel involves a military operation. This is where Fahy brings in the big guns. Literally. The military hardware and technology was just so cool! Here Fahy tapped into my inner child, and apparently my inner child is a 13-year-old boy. Who knew? But I was completely enthralled with the exoskeleton robot (think Avatar) worn by one character, the ROVs named after Dr. Who’s Daleks, and the sheer firepower assembled. As one soldier says, “These species may be more evolved for battle than we are, but we have the technology, folks. I guarantee they’ve never come up against what we’re bringing to the fight.”

So, yeah, there’s a fight. And no one is safe. Fahy may kill off your favorite character in the blink of an eye. He creates tension, jeopardy, adrenaline, and he brings it all home for a most satisfying conclusion. He hasn’t left the obvious open door to a sequel this time around, but there was one question he left unanswered… I can’t stop wondering if it was intentional. I sure hope it was.

The bottom line is this: If you liked the first book, I think you’re going to love this one.

Friday, February 25, 2011

EXCLUSIVE: An interview with Warren Fahy on the publication of Pandemonium

So, last night I blogged about some exciting but unexpected news from novelist Warren Fahy, and I invited him to come here and comment further.  He graciously agreed to do so.  What started out as an invitation to write a guest blogger post quickly devolved into an interview because I threw so many questions at the poor guy!  What follows are his frank and illuminating answers to the questions I posed. 

Susan:  Do you have any intention of making Pandemonium available in print?

Warren:  Certainly! I've already had quite a few emailing me with that question, of course. It was my intention all along to publish through Bantam Delacorte. However, with the protracted changes to the manuscript, in which many good suggestions made by my editors at Random House required major restructuring of the story, I had extended myself to the point that it was necessary to bring my book to market. A writer's got to eat. When Random House dug in and insisted that I make one final and, to my mind, devastating change that would have required a total revision to the purpose and theme of the book, it was obvious I would need to find another publisher. As you know, that means many months down the road to reach a payday, and the rent must be paid.

Since the book never actually entered the editing stage, I decided to put my editor's hat on and do the final polish myself. I was a managing editor for years. That last thin layer of work is where the magic happens in a novel. When the concrete foundations of a book are allowed to set, the characters can come to life inside a story, interacting and reacting to each other and their surroundings. You can't really get to that stage, which is the fun part, really, if you don't have a stable foundation. You can't put varnish on a yacht if you have to tear it apart and turn it into a log cabin. I knew what I had was exactly what it needed to be to bookend FRAGMENT in the way that I had always intended. So I took it across the finish line myself and published it myself.

Am I crazy? Perhaps. I’m looking forward now to getting on with my next thriller, too, which has been bubbling on the back burner.

Can you elaborate on "creative differences"?

I don’t want to color the reader’s experience by going into too much detail. Suffice it to say that I felt the changes would have been, in my conception of the characters, inexplicable. Since this is a sequel that picks up some 120 days after FRAGMENT, and not merely another entry in a series, the dramatic events
at the end of FRAGMENT had to lead into the next book, in my mind. I didn’t want to just write “Fragment in a cave,” to use the old “Die Hard on a Bus” line. There were too many intriguing and world-changing events at the end of FRAGMENT to simply move on. I felt it would have robbed the characters of something essential. Random House felt differently, and I respect that. Sometimes, alas, you have to go with your heart. That’s how I wrote the first book, and I wanted this book to be a satisfying continuation of that experience.

Do you have thoughts about current trends and upheavals in the bookselling and publishing world?

The publishing industry has been damaged by the global economic troubles like every other business. Combined with the proliferation of illegal pirated downloads, sales have been down dramatically across the board. The music and movie business has been diligent about policing pirating. But publishing has become the Somali coast of pirating in the last few years.

I have personally counted over 100,000 illegal downloads of FRAGMENT – proudly advertised on bit torrent file-sharing sites, if their own numbers are to be believed. Dozens of sites have offered FRAGMENT for free. My agent has told me I should feel proud, since most books aren’t so avidly copied. (He was joking, of course.) This is devastating to authors and publishers alike. My book deal came along right before the economic crisis and the Cambrian explosion of free downloads. So the landscape in publishing has changed dramatically over that short period of time. In the meantime, eBooks have come along, as well, offering some hope to authors feeling the pinch.

Would you consider returning to a traditional print publishing contract for future titles?

I certainly hope to. I’ve never even read an eBook. When I was 19 I was the manager of a Vroman’s bookstore in Eaglerock, California. I love books. I felt the best way to interest another publisher was to simply show the book I wrote in eBook form. Let the market decide. In the meantime, I can buy some Top Ramen and pay the electric bill.

Will we be seeing any of these characters in the future? Is this a sequel, or the second of a continuing series?

PANDEMONIUM is a sequel to FRAGMENT. I have ideas for another sequel, as well. The difference between a series and a sequel is that a sequel continues to build the world whereas a series, not always but most of the time, starts fresh with only a few references to events from previous novels. I look at PANDEMONIUM as the “Aliens” to FRAGMENT’s “Alien.”

What's going on with the Fragment film? When will we see it in theaters?

The film was stalled in Hollywood for about a year and was taken in a direction I was not involved with and which didn’t spark interest. The Hollywood economy has been equally affected by the times. I felt that it was important for the movie to be true to the book, to its premise, which is an original take on the familiar “Lost World” scenario. Lloyd Levin (The Watchmen, The Rocketeer, Die Hard 2, Green Zone), agreed with me and loved my screenplay. He is the producer I eventually optioned the film to. At the moment, a “package” is being put together (director, stars) and when that is in place we’ll be off to the races. I’ll keep everyone updated at my website!

What's next?

There are several other novels of mine, an epic fantasy and a short novel set in the stone age, which I’m tempted to publish like PANDEMONIUM while I’m working on my next thriller, which is entitled “After” and has nothing to do with FRAGMENT or PANDEMONIUM. I have at least three other books in the works, as well.

Huge thanks to Warren Fahy for his candid responses to my questions!  Did I forget any?  If so, please pose them in the comments.

I'm now more anxious than ever to dive into the novel.  Oh, and Warren, you're welcome to visit and guest blog on a subject of your choosing any time you want.

UPDATE 3/8/2011:  Pandemonium is temporarily unavailable on Amazon and other ebook selling sites.  Reader response was strong enough to interest several publishers in the book, and it is currently unavailable while negotiations are ongoing.  I'll post updates as news is available.  Congrats to the lucky readers who grabbed it quick!

BREAKING NEWS: Warren Fahy Announces Stealth Sequel!

So, some readers may recall that I went a little wild over a debut thriller a couple of years ago called Fragment.  I've maintained a friendly correspondence with author Warren Fahy ever since, and I knew that he'd been working on a sequel, as well as a screenplay for the film adaptation of Fragment.  And I kept waiting and waiting to hear something about a publication date.  And there was nothing--until Wednesday.  Out of the blue, the following press release lands in my inbox:


February 23th, 2011

PANDEMONIUM, the long-awaited sequel to Warren Fahy’s debut novel, FRAGMENT, is now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble eBook. Fahy’s first novel took the book world by storm, published in 2009 in 20 countries and 18 languages. Now, his new thriller PANDEMONIUM has at last been unleashed.

Why only on eBook from Amazon and Barnes & Noble?

“After a long development process working with Random House, we came to an insuperable creative difference in how to approach a sequel to FRAGMENT,” says author Fahy. “Fortunately, in this digital day and age, as an author I had the option to preserve my vision for the story and make the book available to fans. I’m very proud to offer PANDEMONIUM just as I intended it, as a continuation of the original story that stands on its own.”

PANDEMONIUM picks up where FRAGMENT left off, though readers encountering this novel first will be able to enjoy Fahy’s new thriller by itself. In the aftermath of one of the most significant and deadly discoveries in natural history, biologists Nell and Geoffrey Binswanger find themselves confronted with an adventure even more astonishing.

As the world decides the fate of the only living species rescued from a geologically unstable island in the South Pacific, the newlywed scientists are invited by a shadowy figure, Russian oligarch Maxim Dragolovich, to study a new ecosystem in a secret facility deep beneath the Ural Mountains. What occurs in the depths of the Earth will confirm their worst nightmares as they battle to stay alive, the stakes no less than the survival of every species on the planet.

The latest thriller by the acclaimed author of FRAGMENT (soon to be a major motion picture) takes readers on an adrenaline-fueled thrill-ride, once again, into the frontiers of life on Earth, and beyond.

Check for more information, or contact

Now, I can't truthfully claim that the blogosphere is burning up with this news, but certainly there's been plenty of freewheeling speculation between me and my gossipy industry pals.  Warren, come on and do a guest blog about your new book.  Inquiring minds want to know, what's the deal?

Oh, and suffice it to say that I was on purchasing Pandemonium before I'd finished reading the first paragraph of the press release.  My impulse is to read and review it immediately, but I've just begun a time-consuming literary project that'll eat up the next two weeks.  (Details soon, I promise!)  What to do?  What to do?

I'll probably have a review up by Monday.

UPDATE 3/8/2011:  Pandemonium is temporarily unavailable on Amazon and other ebook selling sites.  Reader response was strong enough to interest several publishers in the book, and it is currently unavailable while negotiations are ongoing.  I'll post updates as news is available.  Congrats to the lucky readers who grabbed it quick!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A conversation with Jasper Fforde (part 1)

My own personal Fforde Ffiesta continues this week, counting down to the publication of One of Our Thursdays is Missing on March 8th.  Below is part 1 of an interview with Jasper Fforde supplied to me by his publishers.  To be perfectly clear, I was not the person having this conversation with Jasper, but I very much enjoyed reading it.  I wanted to share the interview, and I thank my good friends in Viking's publicity department for allowing me to do so.  Part 2 of this interview will be posted to the blog next week.

One final note: Readers who would prefer to go into this latest novel blind may want to read the interview after reading One of Our Thursdays is Missing.


Q: In our last chat, you mentioned working on One of Our Thursdays is Missing, and here we are, and Thursday Next is indeed missing. Why make her disappear?

The way I approach most of my stories is by setting myself a challenge and then see what happens. In the past, I have attempted to show how a teenager can save the world by doing nothing (First Among Sequels), what would happen if society were obsessed by visual colour (Shades of Grey), or even how the Three Bears’ porridge could be at radically different temperatures when it was poured at the same time (The Fourth Bear). It’s a form of narrative gymnastics that is great fun, and opens the doors to all sorts of interesting plot devices, switches, and turns. It makes one utilize a certain ingenuity to circumvent narrative problems, too. Great fun.

Q: Tell us a little about your new proxy heroine, the written Thursday. What makes her special, or capable? Clearly there’s a lot to live up to…

Oddly, I preferred Thursday when she was still unsure and afraid of the Bookworld. Where everything was dangerous and perplexing and death, disaster, danger, and mayhem lurked at every corner. The Thursday we saw in First Among Sequels felt a bit too superhuman and a bit world-weary, so I wanted to get back to a Thursday who had more problems than experience. The written Thursday fits the bill perfectly. She has much of the same passion and sense of right and wrong that Thursday possesses, but is still uncertain and sometimes a bit lost. She knows it, too. The fear of her own shortcomings when measured against the real Thursday is one of the things that keeps her drive. That, and finding the “real her.”

Q: The Bookworld, here, has been “remade,” and it’s a startling process we witness at the beginning of the novel. Why, and how, have things changed in Thursday’s world?

It’s one of those ideas that I should have had way back in 2002 with Lost in a Good Book and the creation of the Bookworld. This new, improved Bookworld makes it so much easier to navigate. Instead of all the books being stuck within a central library that you have to enter by reading, all the various genres are on “Fiction Island,” itself one of the hundreds of islands in the Bookworld. If you want to visit a certain book, you simply go by train to the correct genre, and knock on the front door. It adds a sense of geopolitical fun to the proceedings, too. I had this idea and thought it was sound, but the problem was, I had already established the Bookworld. So I simply added a chapter on the front saying that the Bookworld “had been remade.” Fiction is like that. It can be anything it wants. All it needs is the agreement of the reader. And by long experience, I have discovered the reader to be bounteously flexible.

Q: You’ve always had a way with mechanical inventions, but it seems here you’ve raised the stakes a bit. Tell us a bit about Sprockett, or the canon that literally blasts your heroine into the Realworld. What is it that you love about gadgets and devices?

The key here is that they are mechanical inventions, and there is a certain degree of “Steampunkishness” that creeps into my books. It all harks back to when life was simpler, and you could understand how something worked simply by looking at it. Today that’s pretty much impossible, but I still enjoy writing a
bout mechanical devices of ludicrous complexity—which brings us to Sprockett, Thursday’s companion in One of Our Thursdays is Missing. Sprockett is a clockwork butler, who requires winding on a regular basis and is a dab hand at mixing cocktails. Unfortunately for him, he is only a Duplex-5 model and the Empathy Escapement Module was never perfected.

Like Frank Baum’s Tinman, he can’t really feel any emotions—or so he believes. He’s a great foil for Thursday, and allows me to imagine what issues might cloud a clockwork existence—erotic dreams about bevel gears, perhaps, or even the choice of booze.

To be continued...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

GUEST BLOGGER: Sophie Littlefield

INTRODUCTION:  Please welcome author Sophie Littlefield, who has kindly agreed to be the first ever guest blogger to visit In one eye, out the other...  I have been a fan of Sophie's work for a while now, and I'm kind of amazed by her range as a cross-genre novelist.  I was introduced to her via her Stella Hardesty mystery series, the first two of which I've reviewed here and here.  Next, Sophie published a young adult fantasy novel, Banished.  Now, she's released an honest to goodness zombie apocalypse!  Aftertime is garnering rave reviews from Publishers Weekly to readers on Amazon.  My review may be seen here. 

Now here's Sophie...

When Susan invited me to write something for her blog, I racked my brain to see if there was a topic I hadn’t discussed lately, and realized I’ve never really talked much about my writing environment – the time, place, and conditions in which I find myself creating zombie-infected worlds and damaged, yearning characters.

I wish I could say that I have a favorite little coffee shop down in the Mission district, where life in all its variety teems around me; where the homeless rub shoulders with the hipsters and the smells of Korean barbecue and baking artisan bread mingle with the odors of garbage and sweat; where folks duck in for shelter from the fog and drizzle, or to read their newspapers in dozens of languages or to write their memoirs; where a long day at the keyboard can be rewarded with a cocktail in an edgy bar or a walk in the mission gardens.

But no. I write in my little home office for hours at a time, starting around 6:30am when I get up, ending at midnight, and interrupted roundly by all the duties of the suburban mom – driving, grocery shopping, cooking, lacrosse games and music lessons and trips to Home Depot. Sometimes – usually if I can sweet-talk my daughter into coming along – I go to the Starbucks down the road, which shares strip-mall space with a See’s and a Subway and a Baskin Robbins and a Petco.

That’s about as exotic as I get. But in a strange sort of way, I think that the blandness of the suburbs – not to be too hard on my zip code but it does smack of comfortable predictability, of sameness, of conformity – lends itself to giant leaps of the imagination. There’s little in the way of competing stimuli, for instance. A Starbucks is a Starbucks is a Starbucks – whether the shelves of attractively arranged mugs and the subway-tile backsplash is positioned here or over there – and one cell phone toting suburban telecommuter isn’t, I’m afraid to say, all that different from another. (I am aware of the hypocrisy of that statement and accept that the proper response is probably “but wait – isn’t one bottle-blond middle-aged Volvo-driving wedge-heel-wearing zombie author pretty much the same as the next?”)

When there’s not a whole lot going on in one’s environment, one’s mind goes more easily into that vortex of creation where stories are born. My eyes glaze over with visions of teeth tearing flesh, for instance, or desperate coupling in ravaged and abandoned streets, or even mothers reunited with children they’d given up for lost. All the attendant emotions, the sensory details, are so immediate when there are no distractions. (It’s a little disorienting to put the finishing touches on a dismemberment scene only to have a nice older lady in a velour track suit ask if I’m using the extra chair, and I’ve missed more than a few high school pickups and dentist appointments because I lost track of time – but anything for the demoness muse, I always say. She giveth and she rendereth stupid.)

In AFTERTIME my main character, Cass Dollar, is decidedly not standard suburban issue – she’s a beautiful but self-damaging recovering addict who lives in a trailer and works at a convenience store. But as I write the third in the series (HORIZON, due out next year) I introduced a character more like, well, me. This character was an affluent housewife in Sacramento whose days were filled with volunteering and shopping and lunching and trying on clothes until the Siege, which robbed her of everything she knew. And only then did her true self emerge, and I’m having fun creating her journey of self-discovery.

Now I’m not saying that every 40-something woman needs the threat of zombies to come into her authentic self…sometimes, becoming an author at the age of 45 is all it takes.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

“A gentleman of singular and diverse endowments”

Gideon's Sword
by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

The quotation above refers to a secondary character in Gideon's Sword, but it just as easily describes Gideon Crew, the protagonist of a new series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. The opening of this novel is a little unusual. The first fifty pages or so are basically an introduction to the title character, a man with a dramatic back-story. After two brief prologues from Gideon’s past, the action moves to the present day, but as noted above, the real meat of the story doesn’t begin immediately. It’s a lengthy introduction to this not-Pendergast.

For those readers who weren’t paying attention, the basics are summarized by a mysterious stranger offering Gideon a job soon after that introduction:
“The fact is, we know everything about you, Dr. Crew. And not just your burglary skills or run-in with General Tucker. We know about your difficult childhood. About your work at Los Alamos, designing and testing shaped high-explosive charges for nuclear weapons. About your proclivity for gourmet cooking. Your fondness for Hawaiian shirts and cashmere sweaters. Your taste in jazz. Your weakness for alcohol. And—when under the influence—women. The only thing we haven’t been able to learn is how you lost the top joint of your right finger.”
And actually, the job-offering mystery man isn’t a total stranger… Rejoice fans, he is a character from the P&C pangea! (Well, at least I was heartened to see a familiar face in this new landscape.) The job Gideon is offered is short-term. It’ll take about a week, and the payoff is big. He’s basically doing a freelance job on behalf of the US government, and all they want is the impossible. The question is, with all of his singular and diverse endowments, can Gideon Crew deliver?

I don’t really feel the need to summarize the specifics of the plot. This is a thriller. There’s lots of action and suspense, some violence, intrigue, a hint of romance, and a fabulous antagonist. Preston and Child have been doing this for a long time, and they’re very, very good at it. That said, I can’t proclaim this to be their strongest work. I found the lengthy introduction of the character to be slightly indulgent. Also, in general, these two gentlemen are excellent prose stylists—especially given the demands of their genre—but here the writing seemed a bit choppier than usual.

These small criticisms aside, I had a ball reading this novel. It really was everything I’ve come to expect from Mssrs. Preston & Child. The story is fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining. I defy you to not have fun while reading this novel. And I emphatically believe that a change of pace from "all Pendergast all the time" is a good idea. I think the introduction of this new series will add freshness to future stories in both franchises.

I’m intrigued by Gideon Crew. The truth is, we’ve barely scratched the surface on this guy. What other untapped talents does Dr. Crew have? Will he be doing further freelance jobs? How did he lose the end of his finger? I don’t know—but I’ll be waiting with bated breath to find out.

Monday, February 21, 2011

My name is Susan and I’m a dummy…

Blogging for Dummies
by Susannah Gardner & Shane Birley

No, really, a BIG dummy because I’ve been blogging for two years now! I got tired of looking at other people’s awesome blogs and thinking, “Why can’t I do that?” I finally admitted that I was a big, hopeless dummy and bought this book. God, I wish I’d done it sooner!

With two years of experience under my belt, I figured that I’d just skip around the book, picking out little nuggets of info here and there. On the contrary, I find myself reading the vast majority of the chapters in their entirety. The book is written in a pleasant and engaging style. I figure it can’t hurt to do a little remedial work on the stuff I think I already know. Meanwhile, I’m just thrilled with what I’ve learned already. Don’t laugh at the blonde girl, but links have always been a mystery to me. Now, I’m a pro! I’ve “claimed” my blog through Technorati. I’m committed to adding occasional guest blogger posts. I’m working on a simpler redesign of my blog, and I’m considering ways to add multimedia posts. I’m going to spruce up my sidebar and try to engage my community more. The great thing is that now I have a reference that will help me accomplish all of this and more.

My only complaint is that while this most recent edition (the third) is barely a year old, already some of the information is becoming outdated. I don’t know if I’ll spring for the fourth edition once it’s published, but I’ll definitely take a look at it to see what’s new.

I have a list of friends waiting to borrow this reference book. It may not be the right tool for all bloggers, but it you’re as clueless as I clearly am, Blogging for Dummies is highly recommended!

NOTE:  I wouldn't normally post a review of a book like this to my blog, but changes are afoot, and I wanted to give you guys a heads-up.  This would be a great time to chime in in the comments on anything you'd like to see added or changed with the blog.  I'm open to suggestions, and after all, it's all about you, dear reader.  ;-)

Delightfully defied expectations

by Karen Russell

Not that many books actually defy my expectations. Between cover and jacket copy, you usually have an idea of what you’re getting into. This was not true of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! Both the quirky premise and the cover’s cheery alligator (looking like an illustration straight out of a children’s book) had me expecting a lighter, comic novel.

Swamplandia! is the story of an unconventional family, the self-made Bigtree Tribe of Florida. The family tradition of reinvention originated with the paternal grandfather, who left his troubles and debts behind in Ohio to become “Sawtooth Bigtree.” Now the current Chief Bigtree presides over his three children, 17-year-old Kiwi, 16-year-old Osseola, and Ava, the youngest at 13. Swamplandia is the name the family has given to both their Everglades island home, and the gator theme park that is their livelihood. These children are rare hothouse flowers raised and “home-schooled” in this idiosyncratic environment, where they think nothing of fleecing a few tourists, but are actually incredible na├»ve in the ways of the broader world.

I still might have found my quirky comic novel within these pages, but this family has just lost its heart. Hilola Bigtree, beloved mother and star attraction of Swamplandia, has succumbed to cancer at the age of 36. Now the tourists are gone, and the family is falling apart. The Chief clearly loves his children, but they’re all limping along in an environment of benign neglect without proper meals, clean laundry, adequate supervision, or a plan to save their faltering home.

The family is fracturing. First, Kiwi absconds to the mainland, with a vague plan to try to save the family home. Next the Chief leaves on one of his extended mainland “business trips,” the first since Hilola’s passing. Ossie is left behind to mind Ava, but she has been behaving more and more erratically, and in fact, it is lion-hearted Ava who must protect the older sister who claims to be dating a ghost. When Ossie fails to return home one night, Ava knows that she must track her eloping sister through the swamp.

It is more than a hundred pages in when the novel’s most enigmatic character is introduced. The mysterious Bird Man will serve as Ava’s guide through the swamp and will ferry her to the gates of the Underworld to save her sister. And as Ava and the Bird Man make their journey, the reader is left to wonder: Is he her salvation, or just another predator in the swamp?

Karen Russell’s writing is truly noteworthy. She brings her oddball characters fully to life. Chapters are narrated alternately by Ava and Kiwi, each of whom has a rich internal life. Her prose is uncommon and evocative:
“Out here the mosquitoes were after me for red gallons—you could see clouds of them hanging above the grassland. I’m sure they are still out there hovering like that, like tiny particles of an old, dissolved appetite, something prehistoric and very scary that saturates the air of that swamp. A force that could drain you in sips without ever knowing what you had been, or seeing your face.”
The above quote is a great example of the menacing tone that makes up a good part of the book, but other sections are magical or haunting, or, yes, humorous—most notably in the chapters dealing with Kiwi’s exile to the mainland theme park, The World of Darkness, which is an absolute hoot in its over-the-top ridiculousness.

The first third of this novel introduced us to this clan of ersatz Indians and their unusual world. It was enjoyable, but I was mildly disappointed in the novel’s failure to meet my expectations. Things started to pick up in the middle. My interest and curiosity were piqued once the action got going. By the final third of the novel I was turning pages at a lightning pace, just hoping that each member of this endangered tribe would somehow find their way home. Swamplandia! was never what I expected, but it was awfully good.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I'm having a Fforde Ffiesta all on my own...

So, you'll notice that I posted an early review of Jasper Fforde's forthcoming novel One of Our Thursdays is Missing below.  Great news: The book is being published in the U.S. three weeks from today!

I don't know about you, but I'm a ffanatic.  A new Fforde novel is cause for celebration in my home, so celebrate I will.  From now until publication there will be at least one Fforde-related post to the blog each week.  Check back soon for an interview with Jasper about this latest Thursday Next novel.

Brought to you by:

Thursday is here at last! (Well, on March 8th.)

One of Our Thursdays is Missing
by Jasper Fforde

Way back in 2001, buzz rippled through the American publishing industry for a British debut novel, The Eyre Affair. It was this country’s introduction to two unlikely-named characters: Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next. We’ve had a decade to get to know them now, and they haven’t worn out their welcome yet. On the contrary, Fforde ffanatics long for Thursday’s return, as she has not made an appearance since 2007’s First Among Sequels.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing is Fforde’s sixth novel in the series. There is always danger of a continuing series growing stale, but Fforde manages to keep things fresh in a variety of ways. First, he rotates the Next novels with those in two other series. Also, there was a bit of a paradigm shift in the last book, as Fforde moved the action of the story ahead by 14 years. Our heroine was suddenly in a very different place in her life.

Now, she’s just in a different place period, and nobody seems to know where she is. Per the title, one of our Thursdays is missing. However, that leaves one remaining. The fictional Thursday has noted her counterpart’s absence, even if no one will own up to it. She’s on the case—which is just as well. Things are getting somewhat contentious in her book.

This volume, for the first time, delves into the real nitty-gritty of what it is to be read day in and day out. We get a lot of new information about the BookWorld, in part because there’s new info to be had. Fforde recreates his creation in the opening chapter. It’s fiction; he can do that. Also new is Sprockett. As literary characters go, this mechanical manservant falls somewhere in the intersection of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, Matt Ruff’s electric negroes, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl. He’s a welcome addition to the series.

While Fforde has added several new elements this time around, other familiar aspects are absent. This novel takes place almost entirely in the BookWorld. I quite missed the cast of RealWorld (or Outland) characters, but as I became more engaged in the story being told, I missed what was left out less.

The Next books are beloved for their unique and affectionate brand of literary satire. That’s very much in evidence here. In addition to lampooning the classics, there are plenty of playful references to Fforde’s contemporary peers. But on top of that, it’s not a half-bad mystery plot that Mr. Fforde has penned.

The one thing we can count on from any Fforde offering is the author’s trademark wit and humor. His idiosyncratic cleverness is abundantly on display, so I’ll leave the last words to him:
“Budgetary overruns almost buried the remaking before the planning stage, until relief came from an unexpected quarter. A spate of dodgy accounting practices in the Outland necessitated a new genre in Fiction: Creative Accountancy. Shunned by many as ‘not a proper genre at all,’ the members’ skills at turning thin air into billion-dollar profits were suddenly of huge use, and the remaking went ahead as planned. Enron may have been a pit of vipers in the Outland, but they quite literally saved the BookWorld.
Bradshaw’s BookWorld Companion (16th edition)”

Monday, February 14, 2011

And they called it puppy love...

I Think I Love You
by Allison Pearson

This is one of those rare books that starts out strong and just gets better and better as it goes along. The novel opens with a one-page prologue set in 1998, where the novel’s protagonist, 38-year-old Petra, has just lost her mother. Tucked in the back of her mother’s closet, she finds an extraordinary letter, addressed to her, 25 years overdue.

From there, the novel is told in two halves. Part I is set in 1974. The opening line is, “His favorite colour was brown.” David Cassidy’s, of course. Petra and her best friend Sharon are 13, and like every other girl in Wales they are hopelessly in love with him. Or perhaps not hopelessly. Hope springs eternal in the form of Petra’s innocent fantasies:
“I would be hit by a car. Not a serious injury, obviously, just bad enough to be taken to hospital by ambulance. David would be told about my accident and he would rush to my bedside. Things would be awkward at first, but we would soon get talking and he would be amazed by my in-depth knowledge of his records, particularly the B-sides. I would ask him how he was enjoying the fall and if he needed to use the bathroom. It would not be at all weird, it would be cool. David would be impressed by my command of American. Jeez. He would smile and invite me to his house in Hawaii where I would meet his seven horses and there would be garlands round our necks and we would kiss and get married on the beach. I was already worried about my flip-flops.”

The beginning of the novel is about Petra and Sharon; mothers and daughters; and first love, insecurity, and what it is to be 13 years old. I’m American and these girls are Welsh, but the feelings they have are universal, and I don’t know a woman who won’t relate to their growing pains with nostalgia and perhaps a little remembered pain of her own.

It is also about Bill Finn, the recent college grad with the unenviable job of inventing content for the Essential David Cassidy Magazine. The first half comes to head with all of the central characters at the infamous White City concert where a young fan lost her life. Cassidy retired not long after at the age of 24, and Petra, Sharon, and Bill grew up.

The second half of the novel jumps forward approximately 25 years to 1998, and opens with the line: “The day her mother died, she found out her husband was leaving her.” Thus proving that being 38 isn’t necessarily any easier than being 13. It is while mourning both her mother and her marriage that Petra discovers the letter from 1974 informing her that she and Sharon were the winners of the Ultimate David Cassidy Quiz and an all expense paid trip to meet David on the set of The Partridge Family. Her mother kept it from her; she never knew.

The Essential David Cassidy Magazine hasn’t existed for years, but their old offices still house magazine publishers. When Petra dials the number on the 25-year-old letter, she does indeed reach someone who thinks a decades-delayed meeting with David Cassidy would make a great human interest story. And so it is that our three protagonists (four if you count David Cassidy) are reunited, all these years later, for a trip to Vegas that just may change some lives.

“One boy with a shoe, and one girl without: it could be a scene from a fairy tale… reason cowered before romance. According to romance, there was no coincidence. That was the word that nonlovers used, sad souls in the everyday world, to account for the workings of destiny.”
Does it get any better than that? I enjoyed the nostalgia of the first half of this novel, but I’m a grown woman. I know the adult pain that life brings. I loved the second half of this novel, for the relatable reality of Petra’s life and compromises, for the humor that friendship brings to lighten the load, and for giving me a fairy tale that I could believe in.

Valentine's Day Giveaway: Call me Irresistable by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

It's recently been brought to my attention that it's time to resume doing book giveaways.  Good point.  What better day than Valentine's Day (AKA a typical rainy Monday here in San Francisco) to give away a nice romantic comedy!  I've got a shiny, new hardback of Call Me Irresistable by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, which is currently # 17 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

This giveaway is open to anyone with a mailing address in the United States.  To enter, just leave a comment below by Sunday, February 20, 2011.  A name will be picked at random, and announced here next Monday, the 21st.  If the winner hasn't supplied me with a mailing address by Monday the 28th, a new winner will be announced and will have a week to get me an address.  After that, it goes to my book group.  Good luck, and happy Valentine's Day, one and all!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

So you say you need a fiction fix?

Today I was approached by San Francisco writer Benjamin Wachs, who handed me a business card. It said:



He explained that it’s a new project that he started at the first of the year. And if you visit the website (, you’ll see this:

To present one story per day, every day—providing exceptional
authors with exposure and avid readers with first-rate fiction

Other than that, there’s today’s story, a calendar where you can find previous stories, some basic search tools, and submission info. It’s all pretty basic at this point, but every great idea has to start somewhere.  I asked Benjamin some questions:

ST: “What are you doing to market the site?  How many visitors are you getting?”
BW: “I'm marketing it through word of mouth at this point, but that's all.  I'm expecting to make ad buys and such in a few months.  At that point I'll start tracking metrics like hits."
ST: “Are you getting submissions?”
BW: “Most of the writers who I personally invited to contribute were Bay Area writers, and they make up the vast majority of the stories in my vaulthigh quality stories I have on hand in case nobody contributes for several weeks. But (much to my surprise) after the first week I've barely had a single day in which I haven't gotten contributions. Most of those submissions are actually from outside the Bay Area, including NYC, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, LA, Chicago, and even points international: England, Canada, Scotland, Romania (!!), and Australia. I've been somewhat blown away by the response to the site, given how little I've done to promote it.  Also, we're serializing a novel; every Sunday is a new chapter from a previously unpublished novel.  Our first one (scheduled to run pretty much through the year) is Chicago writer Darren Callahan's "City of Human Remains." 
ST: “So, you plan to monetize the site eventually?”
BW: “Yeah.”
ST: “Advertising?”
BW: “Yeah.”
ST: “Then you’ll pay the contributors?”
BW: “I’m paying them now. It’s only $10 a story, but that’s a couple of beers.”
ST: “And it’s readership. I know a few writers who might be willing to submit, especially for a bio credit that links to a full-length ebook for sale on Kindle.”
BW: “Exactly. Right now, everything’s coming out of my pocket. Hopefully, I’ll be able to pay more later.”
ST: “Well, this is very cool! Can I blog about it?”

Permission was granted, and here we are. Go check it out and get in on the ground floor as either a reader, a writer, or both!

Monday, February 7, 2011

The past was Before. The present is Aftertime.

by Sophie Littlefield

Once upon a time, monsters were the stuff of b-movies and campfire tales, and could safely be ignored. And ignore them I did. Last year, a slew of authors got me to believe enough in their science-based vampires to be frightened. It seems that this may be the year of the zombie for me. Not the Voodoo, risen from the dead, magical kind, but the scary, all-too-real, disease-transmitting kind. Sophie Littlefield’s kind.

Ms. Littlefield, it seems, doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Her latest novel, Aftertime, is a radical departure from anything we’ve seen previously. The first-person narrator is Cass Dollar. Cass has awakened after an indeterminate period of time, badly wounded, in clothes she has never seen before. As she seeks to orient herself, so does the reader. We discover that Cass lives in the near future in Northern California . The details of what happened to Cass, and to the country, are somewhat sketchy, and sussing them out is part of the pleasure of the novel. (There are details, but I don’t want to spoil them for you.) What is clear is that something led to a disease. Many of the old and young died outright. But surviving the initial fever was a far worse fate. It is the diseased survivors that have become zombie-like cannibals—predators, killers, and spreaders of disease.

Cass awakens in a terrible state. She partially remembers being attacked, and given her appearance, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that she was turned. Certainly, she has lost time. But far, far worse, she has lost her three-year-old daughter. Finding Ruthie is Cass’s quest. The reader navigates this altered, post-apocalyptic landscape alongside her, and Cass’s voyage of discovery becomes ours.

In many cases, empathy with the central character will carry you through a book. I have to admit that I didn’t really relate to Cass. I share neither of her most distinguishing and motivating characteristics: motherhood and addiction. Cass isn’t a warm and fuzzy character. (I’m pretty sure the warm and fuzzy have died off in this harsh world.) But I cared about her, and I cared about her quest. I was with her in horrified fascination every step of the way.

Leading up to the startling final pages of this book, I thought to myself: All bets are off. I had no idea what Littlefield was going to do, up to and including kill off her narrator. She managed to pull off one of those great endings that made me feel completely satisfied as though the story had been told. And yet…

I wondered. Has the whole story been told? Certainly, I’m still curious about a lot of what went on Before. And while Cass’s tale came to a satisfying conclusion without annoying hanging threads, it’s a brave new world. There are surely more tales to be told. I was curious enough to make inquiries, and I learned that Aftertime is, in fact, the first of a trilogy. Excellent!

Friday, February 4, 2011

GREAT writer, different medium

So, normally I blog fairly exclusively about all things bookish here, but a few nights ago Jon and I went out to hear a different kind of writer speak.  Academy Award-winning writer/director/producer James L. Brooks was at the historic Castro Theater to accept the third annual SF Sketchfest Comedy Writing Award.  For those who don't know, Jim Brooks is the writer/director of the films Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good as It Gets, and the recent How Do You Know, among others.  Additionally, he is the guy behind the classic television series The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Simpsons.  He is the only person to ever win Oscars for writing, directing, and producing a feature film debut.  And he has won more primetime Emmy Awards (19) than any other person in history.  In short, he's got a few accomplishments under his belt, and has had a significant impact on popular culture.

The program last night began with a conversation between Jim Brooks and his long-time friend and colleague Danny DeVito.  What can I say about Danny DeVito?  He was raucous, vulgar, indiscreet, and absolutely hysterical.  The two of them spoke, told stories, and took questions for nearly an hour and a half--much longer than I expected.  I'd like to repeat those stories here, but I really can't.  It would be irresponsible to post the stories DeVito was telling on the Internet.  I can't believe what was coming out of his mouth!

What am I talking about?  Well, there were several tales from the set of Terms of Endeament.  Danny starts, "Jim, I don't think you'll mind me saying...  I mean, there was...  There was tension on the set."  (Brooks begins to look nervous.)  He talked about how he and Jack Nicholson decided to head down to the location shoot in Texas and brighten things up.  DeVito proceeded to tell a story so mortifying for Shirley MacLaine that my mouth literally dropped open and stayed open for at least 30 seconds.  And from there he launched into a whole routine about Debra Winger.  Brooks was visibly uncomfortable at times with DeVito's, uh, candor, but you could see that his discomfort was warring with amusement and affection.  It was hard not to laugh at DeVito's antics.  The audience was roaring.  At one point, while DeVito was talking trash about Debra Winger, Brooks said, "You're crossing the line."  DeVito's response, "What line?  This is San Francisco!  They don't care."  

There was one Winger story I can repeat.  DeVito actually acted this story out, playing the role of Jim Brooks.  Apparently Debra was holed up in her hotel room refusing to come on set.  For two days.  The production was losing a ton of money, and nobody could do any work.  So, first-time director Brooks approached the hotel door with great trepidation and knocked gently.

"Who is it?"
"It's Jim."
"What do you want?"
"Uh... I gotta use the bathroom!"
(A beat.)  "Nice try."

But Brooks was quick to note: "If Debra Winger wasn't in that film, we wouldn't be talking about it today."  Again and again he made sure to praise the people he's worked with over the years, and he gives every appearance of being an honest to goodness mensch

Later, DeVito launched into a series of stories about wild, cocaine-fueled parties back in the 70's and 80's, causing Brooks to wonder audibly about the statute of limitations, and to preface all of his stories with, "If this were true..."  DeVito's comment, "What?  This is San Francisco!  They don't care.  You know how many mushrooms these people did on the way here?"  So true, so true.

One of my favorite topics that came up was their discussion of the late Andy Kaufman.  The tales they told were funny and bizarre, and it was clear that Kaufman had plenty of detractors back in his days on Taxi.  And it was also clear that Brooks could see why.  But, again, his genuine affection for the man and admiration for his talent shone through. 

After a pleasantly impressive Q & A session, the organizers of the Sketchfest presented Brooks with the Comedy Writing Award.  He and DeVito departed.  And the final portion of the lengthy evening was a screening of Brooks' classic film, Broadcast News.  I've seen this film at least 20 times, and it still stands up today.  (Incidentally, Broadcast News was just rereleased in a comperhensive Criterion Collection DVD that's well worth picking up.)

All and all, it was a fantastic night--the sort to remind you why it's cool to live in a big city, and why it's occasionally good to put down the books and get up off the couch.  But don't worry, I'll be back to the books with my next post.  :-)