Monday, May 30, 2011

The most amazing thing I saw on Broadway...

I thought the highlight of my day on Saturday would be getting a ticket to Anything Goes, one of the hottest shows in town.  The show was great, but the audience at this Saturday's matinee got an extra special happy ending.  Let me back up...

Walking into the Stephen Sondheim Theater, I saw that all of the ushers were wearing Sailor caps.  And I thought, This is perfect for Fleet Week!  Because New York was overrun with sailors, and I'd seen them in the audience of every show I attended.  I figured they'd feel right at home at Anything Goes.

After the show, as the curtain call was ending, Joel Grey stepped forward and stated that as it was Fleet Week and the show wanted to acknowledge all the servicemen in the audience.  He asked them all to stand so that we could thank them.  The audience went wild.  It was so nice!  Then Joel said, "Hey, Sutton, maybe we could bring one of these guys up on stage for a photo op?  You want to pick someone out?"  So, Sutton Foster stepped forward and pointed at a Marine in uniform in the audience.  Joel Grey asked him to come up on the stage.

A moment later, he and his girlfriend came out on the stage.  Joel handed him the mike and asked his name.  And then he asked if he had anything to say.  At which point, Captain Zubah Koweh turned and proposed to his girlfriend, Ensign Amy Sullivan, in front of over 1,000 people!  Seriously, the whole audience was crying!  It was wonderful.  And that's a matinee I'll not be soon forgetting.

Coverage in the NY Daily News here.

Mailbox Monday: Memorial Day edition

Hey y'all,

Happy Memorial Day!  I hope you've had a lovely holiday weekend.  I'm writing to you now from my hometown of Washington, DC, where I arrived this afternoon.  I have so much to blog about, but it's going to take me a while to catch up.  For starters, I'll tell you that the Book Blogger Con and the rest of my time in NY was awesome!  I promise to post about everything soon.  But first, an abreviated Mailbox Monday post.

Since I'm visiting with friends and family here in DC, I loaded a ridiculous number of books into my luggage to give away down here.  In many cases I have multiple copies, but here are the books I brought to give away:

So, those are the first few books from BEA.  The boxes I shipped should be waiting for me next Monday.  It should be an interesting list.  And I think that's all for now.  More soon!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

BEA: Day 3

I forgot to mention the celebrities.  They're always around at BEA because they're always publishing something or other, and lets face it, booksellers aren't immune to a little star power.  So, I mentioned Diane Keaton at the breakfast yesterday, but I forgot to mention two others I saw.  Former Hercules Kevin Sorbo was looking worse than expected (though a far cry from anything resembling "bad").  And Jimmy Fallon was looking better than expected.  Seriously, much better looking in real life.  Huh.  And there were several celebs today as well...

My day started early again with the author breakfast.  Today's line-up was as good as yesterday's, if not better.  Nonetheless, the room was half empty!  I've attended these breakfasts since forever, and I've never seen anything like it.  Anyway, the host this morning was Jim Lehrer of PBS.  His next book will be about presidential debates from his perspective as a journalist and insider.  It sounds quite interesting, and I was able to grab several copies of the galley.  Lehrer is always a reliably good speaker, but then again, he should be. 

Next up was Roger Ebert, and of course, he doesn't speak anymore.  He had his computer speak for him, and commented that he's realized his life-long ambition of sounding cooler than HAL.  Additionally, he had his wife, Chaz, read excerpts from his forth-coming memoir.  He sort of gesticulates and emotes as others speak for him.  He and his wife were really sort of adorable.  (I'm hoping to post video of a lot of these breakfasts talks next week, but unfortunately, the audio is better than the picture, I'm afraid.  Flip cams aren't really made for distance work.  Anyway, there may be video of some of the things I'm describing eventually.)

After Roger was the Irish, Booker Prize-winning novelist Anne Enright.  I've never read her, but I tend to enjoy Booker winners, so I was really interested in hearing her speak about her forthcoming novel, The Last Waltz.  I was also able to snatch several galleys of this title, and I'm looking forward to reading it, but I have to admit that she wasn't a great speaker. 

And finally, Erik Larson spoke about In the Garden of Beasts.  He is a terrific speaker (and a not bad looking older gentleman).  His talk had the feeling of being extemporaneous, as though he knew his subject matter so well inside and out that he could just speak comfortably on the subject off the top of his head.  It's probably true.  I was able to grab many copies of this finished hardback, and while I read little non-fiction, it does sound interesting.  I may give it a read, and I will certainly be giving copies away soon.

After breakfast, I did a quick walk through of the show floor on my way to hear Jane Lynch speak.  That's right, Gleeks, she's got a memoir coming out called Accidental Happiness.  She got up on the stage and said something about reaching several milestones.  She got married.  To a lady.  Because she's "a gay."  Also she turned 50, bought a house, and is financially solvent for the first time in her life.  How all of that translates into "write a book," I don't exactly remember, but I should have good video of this one to post later.  After she spoke and answered questions, she was just signing some little cards advertising her book.  They didn't even have blads there for her to sign.  I certainly didn't need a signed card, but I really am a huge Gleek, and I wanted to meet her.  She was lovely when she was speaking on the stage.  During the signing, she kept things moving quickly, but gave everyone a moment.  I told her that I always enjoy seeing her interviewed because she looks like a completely different person without her Sue (Sylvester) face on.  Then she made the Sue face at me.  She was very friendly.

So, the show was closing down at 3:00pm instead of 5:00 today, the final day.  I certainly didn't feel the need to stay until the bitter end.  I walked the floor, grabbed what galleys I could.  Got several signed books.  Don't ask me which ones.  I never really know what I pick up at BEA until I unpack the boxes.  Okay, I remember one debut novel I had signed today was Girls in White Dresses by Allison (?) Close.  There were others.  Oh, and John Rector, who I know from T-fest and mutual friends signed a galley of his latest. 

Years ago, I made a rookie mistake at BEA.  I waited until the very end of the show to take care of my shipping--and was stuck waiting in lines for several hours!  Well, I never made that mistake again.  Now I'm in there early, but truthfully, things were so quiet at the show, I don't think there ever were lines.  Anyway, shipping was fairly painless, other than the cost.  I packed up a bag of books to share with family and friends in DC next week, and ultimately I did ship three boxes of books back to California.  A grand total of 121 pounds worth.  They should make it back there before I do.  I'm looking forward to really looking at what's in there!

I was considering hanging around til 3:00pm to swing by the opening reception for the Book Blogger Con, but I really didn't have the energy.  Also, I had left my cell phone on the charger in my room, and I needed to make a call.  The last thing I did before leaving BEA 2011 was swing by and listen to Jane Fonda talk for a while.  You got it, another memoir.  All in all it was a fine show.  I made contact with several publicity folks, and as noted above, have more books than anyone could possibly read.  Humpday giveaways should be interesting for a while.  I'm really looking forward to the Book Blogger Con starting at o'dark hundred tomorrow.  I am also hopeful that I may get to sleep in one day this weekend.

I went back to my room at the glamorous Westside YMCA (What am I, made of money?) and finalized dinner plans with my friend of 20 years, Roland, and relaxed for a couple of hours.

Theater Postscript:  You thought I was out of celebrities for the day?  Roland and I went to see The House of Blue Leaves with Ben Stiller, Edie Falco, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.  The production received mixed reviews, but Roland and I both enjoyed it an awful lot.  The play is somewhat bizarre.  Reality and characters are heightened, and the plot is absurd.  But the language is magnificent, and there's something very powerful and effecting about it.  I have always been fond of the play.  And Roland, who is a talented composer, playwright, director, and filmmaker was exactly the right person to see it with.  We had a great chat as we walked out of the theater.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

BEA: Day 2

Okay, it's after 1:00AM, and my sleep deficit is significant.  This is going to be super brief tonight--you heard it here first.  I'll add artwork later.  (And speaking of which, it seems my videography attempts from day one weren't an "abject failure" after all, so there is hope of adding video later, too.)  Also, happily, I just went back and fixed all the typos in yesterday's post.  Count on me proofreading this one about 24 hours from now, okay?

Let's see, I started the day at around 6:30am, so that I could get over to the Javits Center for my 8:00AM author breakfast, which featured Diane Keaton, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Charlaine Harris, and which was hosted by Mindy Kaling from "The Office."  I was primarily there to see Eugenides, and happily he spoke the longest and was by far the most interesting.  And I think I've got the whole thing on video.  Diane Keaton was predictably entertaining and did a fabulous reading from her forthcoming memoir, complete with emotional breakdown and tears.  Authentic?  The breakfast was well worth attending, despite the early hour--though I've never been to one of these breakfasts that wasn't.  There was one  disappointment, however.  One of the big benefits of plonking down extra cash for the breakfasts is that you usually get copies of the speakers' and host's books.  Today, the only book they had available on tables and seats was Charlaine Harris's latest Sookie Stackhouse novel, which is of less than no interest to me.  (However, I suspect that it would be of great interest to some of you, so I grabbed a stack for my house, ha ha.  Book group and blog giveaways are forthcoming, and if you're one of my RL friends, just let me know if you want a copy.  Friendship has benefits.  And so does reading my blog, apparently.)  Oh, they also had blads of Mindy Kaling's forthcoming book.  Apparently Mr. Eugenides was making changes to his novel as recently as... yesterday.  He says he's done now, but no galleys for a while, I guess.  Fingers crossed for better luck tomorrow.

Another benefit of getting to the hall early is the opportunity to pick up tickets to signings that require them, but I mostly struck out.  However, I ran into Heather Graham's husband, Dennis, today (I saw Heather yesterday.) and he did me a good turn.  He was like, "Do you want a ticket to the Dave Barry/Ridley Pearson signing?"  Oh hell, yes!  Not only did I get a signed galley of their really delightful-sounding forthcoming YA novel, the two of them yucked it up on video.  They're reliably fun.  Thanks, Dennis, you rock!  Saw lots of other lovely friends today, including the awesome Laura Caldwell, Rick Mofina, M.J. Rose, and Joshua Corrin.  Josh and I were reminiscing about our MWA dinner at the Tonga Room during Bouchercon last October, and what a great time was had by all.  What's especially nice is that all of us will be together again in six weeks for Thrillerfest.

Highlights today included lovely chats with Alice Hoffman and Luis Alberto Urrea, who joked about (former San Francisco mayor) Gavin Newsom with me.  I got signed galleys from both, and I'm especially excited about reading more Hoffman, as I loved The Red Garden.  This is a period drama, and looks very different from that one.  The truth of the matter is that I don't remember much about most of the books I acquired today.  I was grabbing and stashing today, and spent much less time in lines, and more time walking the show floor. 

Another BEA observation that many have commented on:  There seem to be a lot of librarians attending this year.  Is it just that there are fewer booksellers?  Anyway, it was a shorter day for me.  I played hooky and snuck out early; I had a date with Chris Rock.  One more note:  I'm buying stock in Dr. Scholl's.  It's a miracle product!

Theater Postscript:  Yes, my date with Chris Rock was to see the matinee of Motherf**ker With the Hat.  Now, among those who know me well--or superficially, for that matter--I have a reputation for being foul-mouthed.  I can only wish to be as creative with my obscenity as the cast of this show.  I was amazed how profane and yet brilliant the language was!  I seriously loved this play, and as brilliant as the performances of the cast of five were, for me it really was about the script.  It was a perfect blend of comedy, tragedy, and high drama.  The cast really was wonderful, and I believe that three of the five actors are Tony-nominated.  Rock was not nominated for this debut performance, but I thought he was strong.  It's also worth noting the amazing set and design work.  Set changes were a delight to watch.  And this show got the standing ovation.

Following the mat., I had the time to sit down for my first real meal all week.  It was nice.  To sit.  And to eat.  After which, I went to the theater right across 45th Street from the one I was at in the afternoon.  There, I saw Jerusalem, which has been one of the most highly praised productions of the season.  I can see why.  Mark Rylance is brilliant, and given that he's nominated for the best actor Tony for two separate plays this year, I have to assume he's a shoo-in, and for this play specifically.  I don't even know what else to say about this production, other than go see it if you have the chance.  Big standing O, and not even three curtain calls would quiet the audience down.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

BEA: Day 1

Okay, I arrived in New York on the red-eye 17 hours ago, and I can't remember the last time I slept, so this is going to be a very brief update.  I will attempt to flesh things out and add some photographs later.  (I was trying to shoot some video today, but I think that was an abject failure.  I need to practice so that I can push the right buttons under pressure!)

So, it's been three years since I last attended BEA, but I've probably been nearly 10 times over the years.  I mention this, because this BEA feels... toned down.  There are less people than I'm used to seeing.  It's really nice not to have to fight your way through the crowds so much, but there's also a little less excitement in the air, somehow.  The other things veterans of BEAs past have noted is the toll the economy has taken.  I think exhibitor booths are less extravagant, and for sure I've never seen so few galleys being offered on the floor.  It's bizarre!  I guess the good news is that I have to make fewer visits to the shipping room, and my packages won't cost a fraction as much to ship home.  In years past, the galleys would be piled high in every booth, but this year mostly they're being offered at limited signing events.  And while it is always nice to meet the author and have a book or galley signed, this is very time consuming and you can't be in six places at one time.  So, there's that.

I always go into BEA with a game plan.  I know who's signing what, where.  I've got highlighted schedules, priorities--the whole nine yards.  I must be an idiot.  Once you hit the show floor, all of that goes right out the window.  Unexpected signings crop up.  You run into friends.  Lines take longer than planned.  I accomplished very little of what I planned today.  But it was still an awesome day!  For every planned event or signing that I missed, an unplanned one took it's place.  It's a fine trade-off.  And for all the cut-backs mentioned above, no one will feel sorry for me when a full accounting of the week's books is made. 

So, probably the absolute highlight of my day was one of those completely unplanned occurrences.  I was walking the show floor, and I saw a not too large group of people watching some sort of demo.  Looking up, I was like, That's Margaret Atwood.  And, sure enough, it was.  I started typing out this whole long story of how Margaret's publisher invited me to go up on the "stage" and interact with her, but I started to fall asleep while typing it.  Suffice it to say that happened.  Then some technical difficulties happened, which allowed me to have a little chat with this amazing lady I'd never met--or even seen speak before.  And I got to lead off with my favorite opening:  "Ms. Atwood, I wrote the #1 review for Year of the Flood on Amazon.  It was a rave entitled, 'Margaret Atwood makes me want to stick my head in the sand.'"  She cracked up.  I cracked up Margaret Atwood.  So, that was very, very cool.

Another highlight was getting a signed galley of Lev Grossman's The Magician King.  I didn't even know that he was publishing a sequel to his awesome novel, The Magicians, until I saw him listed for a signing at the show.  It was definitely one of the top books I was looking forward to acquiring, and I was thrilled to meet Lev for the first time.  He's a chatter.  His signing line took forever.  But, of course, what that really means is that he's genuinely nice and friendly.  Lev's long line sadly kept me from getting a signed copy of Diana Abu-Jaber's latest, but at least I was able to grab a galley, so I was very happy.  Another highlight was getting a signed copy of Chuck Klosterman's sophomore novel.  I loved Downtown Owl, so I can't wait to read it.  And one more hot galley I acquired was from a familiar face from home.  It was Danny Handler's (AKA Lemony Snicket's) first YA novel, entitled Why We Broke Up.  I had a typically bizarre interaction with him.  He's not my favorite person.  He is funny, and the crowd does love him.  Oh, and his publisher gave away my favorite BEA giveaway in many a year.  It's a really nice magnet set.  Thanks, Danny!

So, I did run into plenty of friends.  Sophie Littlefield was signing her excellent zombie apocalypse, Aftertime, and was her usual gracious and friendly self.  We may get together later this week.  I also had a great chat with author T.J. (Tom) Waters, who was at the show demoing his Autography device I wrote about here.  I got a much better demo today.  OMG, it is truly, deeply cool what they can do!  Side note, what a nice guy.  I'm looking forward to seeing him at T-fest in a few weeks, and surely a few more times this week.  I heard J.A. (Joe) Konrath was around, but we failed to connect today.  But I did run into other authors, booksellers, and friends from every level of the publishing food chain.  You never know who you'll run into, and it's a real treat.  You feel like a member of a community among friends. 

I never sat down today.  I never ate.  I worked.  And now, as predicted, I really, really hurt all over.  My feet are probably the worst, and so I did something I've never done before in my life.  Once I left the Javits Center--hold on to your hat--I bought some Dr. Sholl's gel inserts.  They're really helping!  Perhaps tomorrow will be a little easier.  Especially if I get a few hours sleep.  I think, with this post, I've definitely proven that I don't know the meaning of the word "brief."  :-}

Theater Postscript:  Yes, I ran straight from the exhibit hall to the theater, grabbing a slice of pizza on the way.  Tonight I saw the musical Catch Me If You Can.  It was a great start to my week of theater.  For starters, it kept me awake!  I can not say enough good things about Norbert Leo Butz.  I've seen him in so many shows now, and he never disappoints.  And kudos to Aaron Tveit!  He really deserved a Tony nod (more than Tom Wopat, if you ask me).  He really carried the show.  He's a triple-threat with charisma to spare, and you can take his money notes to the bank.  What a voice!  As for the show itself, it was enjoyable, but nothing I'd rave about.  But that's me.  I'm not big on populist musicals.  I thought the story's framing device was a bit dorky, though I do enjoy actors breaking the fourth wall.  The music was catchy (a left-handed compliment coming from me) and there were some genuinely clever lyrics.  It was very enjoyable, truly.  But no standing O.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mailbox Monday: I Love New York! edition

Happy Monday, readers.  Are you sensing a theme to this week's Mailbox Monday post?  I'm not actually in NY yet.  I fly on the red-eye tonight.  The next week in NY will be exhausting, but exciting!  I mean, NY itself is no big deal.  I'm there every other minute, or so it seems.  Still, it's been three years since I last attended BEA.  I'm very excited about attending my first Book Blogger Con.  And this is unquestionably the best theater season we've seen in quite a few years!  So, hopefully, I'll have a lot to report on, if only I can find the time.

Oh, with regard to the photo on the right:
This oversized mailbox in Times Square is actually a stamp-selling booth, one of five set up in Manhattan and the Bronx during the Christmas season of 1960. 
So, there you have it.

As for books, the week got off to an interesting start with:

The Great Leader
by Jim Harrison
Release date: 10/4/2011
Source: electronic galley from publisher

Jim Harrison is another of the many, many literary oversights I'm guilty of.  I hope to rectify myself by reading this fall release.  The plot sounds pretty interesting.

by Deon Meyer
Release date: 9/6/2011
Source: Electronic galley from the publisher

I was supposed to review Meyer's last book, and er, um, it never happened.  I would like to get around to reading this one.  It has a rhino on the cover, after all.  (Plus, I can read this one on my Kindle, and that makes all the difference in the world.)  I'm looking forward to my introduction to this popular South African author at last. 

I Married You for Happiness
by Lily Tuck
Release date: 9/6/2011
Source: Electronic galley from the publisher

Literary and short are two of my favorite qualities in a book.  On top of that, I'm pretty sure this got a starred review in PW.  That's good enough for me.

Trader of Secrets
by Steve Martini
Release date: 5/31/2011
Source: Finished hardback from publisher

Such is my life that I've made polite dinner conversation with Mr. Martini, but I've never read him.  Until recently, I was very anal about starting series right from the beginning.  I think I've realized that I won't live long enough to do that anymore.  Recently, I've been jumping into series wherever, and trusting the author.  It's worked out well.  And any book with the Washington Monument on the cover automatically gets a second look.

French Lessons
by Ellen Sussman
Release date: 7/5/2011
Source: Paper galley from the publisher
I have to tell you, the galley in my hands has a much cuter cover, but I guess this is the final.  What were they thinking?  This is the sort of book that I want to begin reading IMMEDIATELY.  But I also want to save it until I'm finally going to Paris.  It's an impulse I frequently have.  In this case, I don't think I can wait.  This Paris-set novel looks adorable.  Also, the author is local to SF.  Jon and I already have plans to go see her read on July 13th, the night before our annual Bastille Day dinner.  It'll be a Francophile week--how perfect!

Jamrach's Menagerie
by Carol Birch
Release date: 6/14/2011
Source: Paper galley from the publisher

I was delighted to see this galley show up in my mailbox.  The story seems a little odd and quirky, but I'm really intrigued by this tale of strange creatures and high seas adventure.  I'm not sure I'll like it, but I'm looking forward to reading it!

Agatha H. and the Airship City
by Phil and Kaja Foglio
Release date: 1/4/2011
Source: Electronic galley from the publisher

A YA adventure that caught my eye.  Another title I'm looking forward to checking out when I need a break from heavier fare.

Books finished this week:

Skinny by Diana Spechler

A Little Bit Wicked by Kristen Chenoweth - The perfect book to lead up to a week of Broadway shows

Currently reading:

Cry of the Phoenix by J.G.

Let the Great World Spin by Collum McCann - I've been waiting to read this in NY.

In other news:

So, I attended the first preview of the new stage musical of Armisted Maupin's Tales of the City last week!  I can't wait to tell you about it!  I have so much to say.  Alas, I simply haven't had time leading up to this trip.  And obviously, I'm going to be trying to blog about BEA and BBC this week, in addition to a grueling schedule, so I have no idea when I will find time.  Suffice it to say, there are the bones of a great musical there, but they've still got significant work to do to get it in it's final form.  It was a thrill to be in the audience.  Jon and I will be seeing the show at least once more before the run ends.  A sort of before and after, if you will.  I really will try to blog about it soon.

So, as you've gathered by now, I'll be on the road for the next couple of weeks.  I'm heading to DC after NY.  Blogging time will be limited, but I promise to do my best!

And now, what books have you acquired this week?  What have you been reading?  Please let us know in the comments!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Magic and hope in the most unexpected of places

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive
by Steve Earle

I have no idea why I started reading this novel. Sure, being named Best of the Month on Amazon and the starred review in PW caught my eye, but the book’s description just seemed unappealing. Still, I had a copy in hand, and it was invitingly short. I suspect I started reading merely to cross it off my to-do list. Holy happy surprises, Batman! This novel is going to be one of my favorite reads of the year, and surely the most unexpected. Who would ever believe a novel populated by junkies, prostitutes, and drug dealers could ever be so uplifting?

The novel opens on the wrong side of the tracks in San Antonio, Texas in 1963. At the heart of the story is Doc:
“He was Doc. Just plain Doc. With the exception of just a few isolated incidents involving the local constabulary, it was the only name he had answered to in years. Nobody on South Presa knew him by any other name.

Somewhere back in the Orleans Parish courthouse there was a fading piece of bond paper with an official-looking seal attached that said his name was Joseph Alexander Ebersole III and that he’d been born alive at 10:37 on the morning of January 17, 1910. The same name appeared elsewhere in the state archives as Dr. Joseph A. Ebersole, but there was an ugly red stamp across the face of the document declaring his license to practice medicine in the State of Louisiana had been permanently revoked.”
Doc’s been feeding a morphine habit for decades now. Having lost everything, he’s made a home in a disreputable boarding house. He supports his habit by practicing back street medicine, performing illegal abortions; treating gunshots, knife wounds, STDs, and a variety of commonplace ailments. Early in the story, a Mexican girl named Graciela is brought to him for an abortion. Things get a bit dicey, and she requires some recovery time in his care, but it quickly becomes apparent that the thug who brought her in is never coming back to claim her. And so Graciela stays, and there is something of the miraculous about her, because she seems to affect everyone she touches for the better.

How the ghost of Hank Williams fits into this story is perhaps more than I’m prepared to explain in a brief review. Suffice it to say that there are elements of magical realism in the novel. And the story feels magical. This is not a light, whimsical tale—though it has its moments. The depiction of the hell of addiction is nightmarish, conveyed effectively by a writer who knows. No, a novel set in this world can only be so happy, but debut novelist Earle has peopled his story with indelible characters. In his capable hands, the dregs of society are fully humanized.

Oh, and for those who are wondering, yes, the author is the musician, actor, playwright, and political activist Steve Earle. How is it possible I was previously completely unfamiliar with this Renaissance man? Well, rest assured, he’s on my radar now. I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive is the strongest debut I’ve read in quite some time. Earle’s use of language is simply a joy to read. The subject matter of this story brought John Irving’s The Cider House Rules to mind, as both are period novels that deal in part with illegal abortion. Irving’s novel is an epic, while Earle’s is barely more than a novella. And the stories told couldn’t be more different. And yet… Mr. Earle may have captured a bit of Mr. Irving’s tragicomic tone. And any comparison to John Irving is the highest praise I can offer. This is not the happiest story, but by the end, you’ll be feeling hopeful and very grateful to have picked up the book.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The joy of "getting it"

A few weeks ago, I was reading an interview with a novelist who was discussing the changes filmmakers had made to his novel. He said, “It’s their turn to hold the conch.” And I didn’t even have to think about it, I immediately understood what he was saying because I caught the reference to The Lord of the Flies, a novel I’d read 30-some years ago. As surely you know, he who holds the conch gets to speak.  Or, you know, totally change the story of the novel.

I love getting the reference. Oh, sure it’s great to catch a film or pop culture reference, but for my money, getting a literary reference is the best feeling in the world. I do feel just a little bit superior on those occasions when I see someone wearing a t-shirt that reads “Who is John Galt?” The wearer and I are members of a somewhat exclusive club. And there are certain uses of the number 42 that are guaranteed to elicit a smile from me.

Literary references have become a part of my basic vocabulary, part of the very way that I think. I recently described a zombie apocalypse as a “brave new world.” I will often ironically describe something as “double plus good.”  Does anyone understand my Orwellian Newspeak?  Do they catch the literary reference, or do they simply think I’m really, really inarticulate?  Just yesterday I referenced Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the review of an Africa-set novel—and I haven’t even read that book!

Is it just me? Do you also know the joy of getting the reference? What are some of your favorites?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lisbeth Salander meets Sydney Bristow in the heart of darkness

The Informationist
by Taylor Stevens

Positive word of mouth is a double-edged sword. Take The Informationist, for example. Positive reviews in the publishing trades are what first caught my eye and made me want to read this debut by an unknown author. But those same reviews significantly raised my expectations, perhaps unrealistically. I note this, because while ultimately I enjoyed The Informationist, it took me a while to get into the book. While undeniably a plot-driven action-adventure thriller, it’s really so much about character.

Specifically, it’s about Vanessa Michael Munroe, the eponymous Informationist. When asked about her work, she replies, “I go into developing countries and gather information—usually abstract and obscure—and turn it into something a corporation can use to make business decisions.” That would be a highly sanitized version of what she does. Munroe is a chameleon, changing back and forth from Vanessa Munroe to Michael Munroe as identity and gender suit her needs. She’s a harsh character, and really took some getting used to. Even now, I couldn’t describer as the least bit likable. She has no warmth, no apparent humor, and makes few attachments. Her code of morality is… situational. So much of my response to this novel had to do with my response to her, and as my attitude became more accepting, my interest in the tale being told expanded.

The core of the story is simple. Emily Burbank disappeared in a remote area of the African jungle four years ago, when she was in her late teens. One of her traveling companions turned up catatonic in a European mental institution. The fate of her other companion is unknown. After all this time, there is little hope of finding Emily alive. Nonetheless, her oil billionaire step-father has spent millions on the search. This is not Vanessa Munroe’s area of expertise, but she knows the region and the languages and is a brilliant analyst. Munroe is a last ditch effort for the closure that Richard Burbank seeks.

Of course, there’s more to it than that, but that’s enough to know going in. Most of the action takes place in Africa. Some locations were so off-the-beaten-path that I wasn’t sure they existed before a Google search. Stevens does a great job of rendering the setting, but don’t expect a jungle adventure full of exotic natives and deadly beasts. No, the scariest creatures in this book are the men. In that respect, it’s probably more realistic than many an African adventure. The story moves well enough and is plenty engaging once you get into it, but I can’t say it had that breathless, can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough quality that I do so love. On the other hand, I think this is a smarter, more substantive tale than many of those books.

In the end, it really does come back to character. Munroe is cut from a bit of the same cloth as Steig Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander with a dash of Alias’s Sydney Bristow. She’s impressive as hell, more than a little scary, and deeply flawed. It was interesting meeting her, but the jury is out on whether I want to spend more time in her company.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An amazing talent… for annoyance

by Connie Willis

Connie Willis’s novels have been recommended to me many times over the years by a variety of sources—though never this particular novel. As an introduction, it was a limited success. I only found Bellwether to be so-so, but it certainly wouldn’t discourage me from reading more of her work in the future.

Bellwether is a short satirical novel, set in the world of science for profit. It’s the story of how a social scientist researching fads and trends meets a colleague studying chaos theory and information diffusion, and how they team up to survive their corporate management and the “help” of a surly office assistant. Along the way, Willis takes pot shots at parenting, cuisine, fashion, lifestyle, and other trends, and those who adhere to them.

Honestly, on paper, this looks it should be a home run for me. I’m a big fan of satirical novels, but I’ve seen similar takes on office culture done better. (Max Barry’s Company is highly recommended!) Another issue is the fact that I listened to Bellwether as an unabridged audiobook. Reader Kate Reading (yeah, that’s her name) did a fine job with most of the narration, but for the annoying office assistant, Flip, she did a really annoying Valley Girlish voice. It got old fast. Not only that, she used the same voice for all of the many other annoying characters the protagonist encounters. It was a legitimate choice, implying a sameness to the hostile, ignorant, lazy characters in the book, but again, it was tedious. I find stories about really annoying people tend to get on my nerves. Maybe it’s me?

I did think the information on the science and history of fads was quite interesting, but there was simply too much of it. And there were some laughs along the way to the novel’s clever ending, but they didn’t fully compensate for the negative aspects of the book—for me. I will read Willis again, because she is clearly a talented writer. But next time I’ll stick to a recommended title. I think I could become a fan; this just wasn’t the right starting place.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mailbox Monday: Countdown to BEA edition

It's becoming abundantly clear to me that I've barely scratched the surface of mailbox creativity!  You home-owners get all the cool accessories.  But I have to admit looking for mailbox photos has become great fun.

So, Thursday night my friend Mike and I went on over to the Booksmith on Haight to hear the incredibly awesome Arthur Phillips read from The Tragedy of Arthur, which as you know I have been reading for the last seven years.  (I've got to finish that book!)  Can I mention again how awesome Arthur Phillips is?  He reads fantastically, and can maintain character at least as well as Steven Colbert--which comes in handy when you're promoting a completely fictitious memoir.  And he's got a wonderfully dry sense of humor.  Mike and I had the best time!  And as if that weren't fun enough, I also got to hang out with bookseller extraordinaire, Cynthia St. John.  She invited me into the back room at the Booksmith.  I felt like an audience member going backstage.  Very cool.

On the subject of Arthur Phillips' awesomeness...  You don't see this every day, but a sales rep from another publishing house (who shall go nameless) showed up at the reading.  That's how awesome Arthur Phillips is.  Anyway, it was really lovely to see my sales rep friend too.  Good literature just brings all the best people together!  And on that note, I picked up some good books this week:

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore
by Stella Duffy
Release date: 9/27/2011
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

Nothing like starting the week out with something light, right?  This could be interesting.  With that cover and title, at the very least it's sure to be provocative and titillating.  Don't hold your breath waiting for a review.  I promised not to post one before late September.

Mark T. Sullivan
Release date: 8/6/2002
Source: Hardback purchased from

This is one of those thrillers I've been interested in reading for nearly a decade now.  For some reason, I never acquired a copy when it was newly released, but I never entirely forgot about it either.  Last summer, I saw a nice trade paperback copy on sale for something like $28!  So, I went to see if it was available on Kindle, and it was... For $18.99!  I do not know what the deal with this title is.  Anyway, I've had the sample sitting on my Kindle for the past year, waiting to see if the artificially-elevated price would go down.  It hasn't.  So, I finally purchased a pristine hardback copy through for $3.95, which included shipping.  I would have happily purchased it from Pocket Books, but because of the insane pricing both the publisher and author lost a sale today.  :-(

The Vices
by Lawrence Douglas
Release date: 8/16/2011
Source: Electronic galley from the publisher

Something in the description of this tale of possible murder and excess among the ultra-rich caught my eye.  Also, I believe there may be Jewish themes in the novel, which is enough to make me curious to give it a try.

Killing Kate
by Julie Kramer
Release date: 7/26/2011
Source: Paper galley from the author

I've been enjoying Julie Kramer's light mysteries featuring tele-journalist Riley Spartz since before the first novel was published.  And this despite the fact that the first novel was about a guy who killed women named Susan!  So far, "Kramer the Namer" (as I once dubbed her) has given us Stalking Susan, Missing Mark, Silencing Sam, and now Killing Kate.  I can't wait to dive in!

A Young Wife
by Pam Lewis
Release date: 5/14/2011
Source: Paper galley from the publisher

Hmmm, this could be good.  I enjoy a nice historic drama ever now and again.

Sequins, Secrets, and Silver Linings
by Sophia Bennett
Release date: 1/1/2011
Source: Girls Night Out goody bag

Yes, I really did receive a hardback copy of this novel at a 21+ event called Girls Night Out.  I think the cover tells you everything you need to know about this book.  Into the Children's Hospital pile it goes.

The Vault
by Boyd Morrison
Release date: 7/5/2011
Source: A bookseller friend

That pack of weasels over at Simon and Schuster hasn't gotten around to sending me a galley of The Vault yet.  And, I have to admit, I haven't been too worried about it, as I've already read a slightly earlier version of this novel.  But I happened to be hanging out with a bookseller friend last night and she mentioned that the lovely Mr. Morrison had personally sent her a galley, along with a hand-written note.  She can't wait to dive into the book, and happened to have an extra galley.  She asked me if I had one, I said "No."  And then I did.  Thanks, C!

The Skeleton Key
by James Rollins
Release date: 5/31/2011
Source: The author

It occurs to me that I forgot to add this to my list last week, which is just as well, because apparently it was a secret.  I'll be posting a review in the immediate future.  Oh, and a review of  the amazing The Devil Colony will be forthcoming as well, just as soon as I write it.

Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism
by David Nickle
Release date: 5/3/2011
Source: Electronic galley from the publisher

 Honestly, the title and cover alone make me want to read this book.  And as a member of a not-so-popular minority, I've always been fascinated/horrified by the history of the eugenics movement, especially here in the U.S.  This novel, set in 1911, sounds seriously creepy!

The Last Unicorn
by Peter Beagle
Release date: 2/8/2011
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

I heard Peter Beagle speak and read a few weeks ago, and he was simply delightful!  It made me sad that I'd never read his most famous book.  I saw this beautifully illustrated graphic novel at the time of the event, but didn't pick it up, preferring to read a non-graphic novel.  But perhaps I'll give it a chance.  I've never actually read a graphic novel, and I may need an infusion of whimsy if I read the book above.

by Sophie Littlefield
Release date: 7/19/2011
Source: Electronic galley from the publisher

And I will definitely need an infusion of whimsy after reading this book, the second in Sophie's zombie apocalypse trilogy.  It's the follow-up to the awesome Aftertime.  I'm looking forward to reading this one!

Oh, and in addition to these books, I ordered like 20 Kindle freebies.  I'm hoarding them in case I'm ever stranded on a deserted island, just me and my Kindle.  But I'm so not listing them here, LOL.

Oh, and it's worth mentioning that I also went out to hear the wonderful Tim Sandlin read on Saturday night.  I recently reread Skipped Parts, and found it even better than I remembered.  I really need to read more of that big stack of novels I had him sign.  Mr. Sandlin doesn't have the stage presence that Arthur Philips does, but I've long admired his work, and it was a pleasure to finally meet him.

Books finished this week:

I'll Never get Out of this World Alive by Steve Earle - OMG, I LOVED this debut novel!  I'm shocked by how much.  I hope to have a review up this week.

The Informationist by Taylor Stevens

Currently reading:

The Cry of the Phoenix by J.G.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I wish I had better news to report...

Sweet Jiminy
by Kristin Gore

As a big fan of all things Gore, it gives me no pleasure to pronounce Sweet Jiminy, well, a train wreck. I don’t know what happened. I read Ms. Gore’s debut, Sammy’s Hill, several years ago. It was flawed, but at least entertaining. This one is flawed, and notably unentertaining.

Here’s the story: Out of the blue, one day 25-year-old Jiminy Davis up and decides that the life of a Chicago law student is not for her. Not knowing what else to do with herself, or where to turn, she shows up at the door of her maternal grandmother, Willa Hunt, in Fayeville, Mississippi. While there, she embarks upon an interracial romance, and generally gets the town good and stirred up. One of her discoveries during this period is that she was named after an earlier Jiminy. That Jiminy was the daughter of her grandmother’s friend/maid, Lyn. Teenage Jiminy and her father Edward were murdered in a brutal and unsolved hate crime back in 1966. When contemporary Jiminy starts digging into the past, most citizens of Fayeville clam up tight. So, she brings in outside help in the form of Hispanic truth-finder Carlos Casteverde. Because, of course, once the truth is finally brought to light, the hate that has poisoned this town for decades will finally be exorcised.

Does that sound like some sort of unholy John Grisham/Harper Lee mash-up? I only wish. On the plus side, the novel is mercifully short. However, that may be its biggest flaw. The story jumps around from POV to POV, constantly, and with jarring abruptness. One moment a character is fighting for their life in the hospital. The next, they’re back at home and on their feet again, with absolutely no transition or explanation between the two. If one were being extremely charitable, one might describe the novel as episodic, but the episodes aren’t particularly interesting, and Gore does nothing to hook her audience into continued reading.

Additionally, in the space of 240 pages, a huge cast of characters is introduced, but most are insufficiently fleshed out to differentiate them. Despite the heavy (some might say clichéd) subject matter, there are out of place comedy elements present, making me wonder in passing if it was all some kind of satire I really, really wasn’t getting? Even the romantic subplot at the heart of the novel was a dismal, ridiculous failure.

Oh well, I would have read this in no time flat—if I didn’t keep falling asleep. On a sunny Sunday afternoon. I’m not kidding. (I still love you, Al Gore!)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Who do you love?

Love you More

It’s been many years since I’ve read one of Lisa Gardner’s novels. I think I read the first book in this series of five, but I’m essentially coming to Love You More as a stand alone. And while there would surely be more depth and resonance if I knew the entire history of Boston homicide detective D.D. Warren and state trooper Bobby Dodge, Gardner does a fantastic job expositing what the reader needs to know. Namely, that the two were once lovers, and that while there were some bruised emotions at one time, they’re both happy with other partners now. Which is good, because they’ve been thrust together investigating a shooting. State trooper Tessa Leoni used her service revolver to shoot her husband of three years in the kitchen of their home. What might appear as an open-and-shut case of a battered woman snapping is complicated by the fact that Leoni’s six-year-old daughter is missing.

The story is told in chapters alternating between Leoni’s first-person narration and third-person omniscient from the D.D./Bobby side of the investigation. And it’s clear, right from the beginning, that there’s more to the story than Leoni is letting on. She freely admits that she is lying to the police within the confines of her own skull, but the knowledge that she alone holds is teased out only gradually throughout the novel. Meanwhile, D.D. and Bobby are racing against the clock to find an innocent child, and this case has really gotten under D.D.’s skin for reasons both personal and professional.

While police procedurals are not generally my favorite, I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers. Plus, I’m something of a smarty-pants; I’m good at figuring these things out. Let me be the first to admit that Lisa Gardner had me as bewildered as the cops in this intricately-plotted page-turner. Leoni’s case is complex, sad, and hugely compelling. And even without having read all of the D.D./Bobby books, I found these characters to be richly drawn, appealing, and believable. I enjoyed this novel from start to finish, and now that I’m back in this world, it’s going to be very hard to resist grabbing the next book in the series.

HUMPDAY GIVEAWAY: I'd Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman

The very kind Megan at HarperCollins sent me a galley of Laura Lippman's wonderful stand alone thriller I'd Know You Anywhere in honor of the book's trade paperback release last week.  What she didn't know is that I read the book when it was released in hardback last year.  It was my first Lippman, and I loved it.  Here's what I wrote at the time:
Once upon a time, Eliza Benedict was Elizabeth Lerner. Elizabeth became Eliza at the age of 15, after she was abducted for 39 days by spree killer and rapist Walter Bowman. She was the only girl who survived. In the years since that autumn, she’s carefully guarded her privacy and done everything possible to move on with her life—with more success than most people who have never been traumatized. She’s happily married to her college sweetheart, and the contented stay-at-home mom to two.

All of that changes with the posting of a letter. After 22 years on Virginia’s death row, Walter Bowman has seen her photo in Washingtonian Magazine, and as he writes, “I’d know you anywhere.” This first communication is the beginning of increasingly escalating contact from the inmate and his associates. What really happened all those years ago? And what does Walter want today? These are the questions that Laura Lippman sets before readers in this well-written, richly-characterized novel of suspense. The story being told unfolds beautifully, and as disturbing a character as Walter is, he’s equally fascinating. And at times, I wasn’t even sure if he was the biggest monster in the book.

After her long, celebrated career, this was my introduction to Laura Lippman’s work. It won’t be the last novel I read. How delightful to know she has an extensive backlist now waiting to be explored.
It's actually one of my more concise reviews.  Okay, my mom really wants to read this book, so if there aren't at lease five people vying for this trade paper galley, it's definitely going to her.  Otherwise, same old rules as always.  Happy reading and good luck!

  • The giveaway is open to anyone with a U.S. mailing address ('cause I'm footing the postage).
  • To enter, all you need to do is post a comment below by Wednesday, May 18, 2011.
  • At my discretion, if there are less than five respondents, I can cancel or extend the giveaway.
  • Winner will be chosen by me with the help of a random number generator, and will be announced in the comments section of this thread.
  • Please check back to see if you've won. If you have left a way to contact you, I will do so.
  • The winner has one week to respond to me at with a mailing address, or I will choose a new winner.
  • If a second winner fails to respond, the book automatically goes to the lovely members of my face-to-face book club.
  • Previous giveaway winners are welcome to enter.
  • Finally, if at all possible, please comment below only if you're entering the giveaway.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A story so amazing, I wish it weren’t true

Long Way Home: A Young Man Lost in the System and the Two Women Who Found Him

I’m a fiction girl. Ninety percent of what I read is fiction, and I like it that way. So, that when I read something especially upsetting, I have the comfort of knowing, “It’s just a story.” And it is for the reason above that it has taken me six months to review Laura Caldwell’s extraordinarily compelling non-fiction book, Long Way Home: A Young Man Lost in the System and the Two Women Who Found Him. This book affected me so powerfully that I needed time to simply process my feelings.

“The Sixth Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to a fair and speedy trial.” That is what I kept repeating to myself as I read the absolutely staggering true story of Jovan Mosely. Jovan’s story begins in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. Despite every bad influence in the book, this teenager had managed to keep out of trouble and away from the gangs. He was smart. He did well in school and was thinking about college. All of that changed on August 6, 1999 when he was 19 years old. He was out walking with some friends and acquaintances when they came across a group beating a man in the street. Jovan took no part in it, and when he saw the direction that things were heading, he walked away. But witnesses placed him at the scene. When the victim died, Jovan was picked up for questioning. He was not out of custody again for the next six years of his life.

The phrase that comes to mind to describe Jovan’s ordeal is “miscarriage of justice.” I’m aware of what a cliché it is, but how else can you describe an innocent man’s life stolen? Jovan’s story reads like a John Grisham plot at its over-the-top best, but it’s a lot less entertaining when there’s a real life on the line.

Enter author Laura Caldwell. In addition to being a writer of light mysteries, she is a former civil attorney and a professor of law at Chicago’s Loyola University. She has researched this story backwards and forwards and has laid it out in a straightforward and engaging manner. Additionally, she addresses what went wrong by looking at the issues from all sides, rather than simply casting blame. Caldwell is more than qualified to be the chronicler of this tale, but perhaps what is most amazing is her personal involvement in the story. After years of unjust imprisonment, Jovan finally acquires competent counsel in the form of defense attorney Catharine O’Daniel. At last he will get his day in court. But his attorney needs help trying this pro bono murder case. One thing leads to another, and she convinces a writer with no background in criminal law to second chair.

It’s such an amazing story! Surely someone is developing the film? But it is when she becomes a major player in the drama that author Caldwell shows the most restraint. There’s no self-aggrandizing here. In fact, she downplays her role as much as possible. I’ll say it again, John Grisham couldn’t have invented a more compelling tale. Truthfully, by the time I finished reading the book, I felt angry and helpless, as there is little the average citizen can do to change the system. But my eyes are open now, and to the degree that I can effect change, I will.

Read. This. Book.