Tuesday, September 28, 2004

April Smith Online Chat

I just got word from April Smith that she'll be participating in an online chat for The Mystery Place (click on author chatroom).

The chat is scheduled for Wednesday, September 29 at 9pm Eastern (6pm Pacific).

April is a TV writer-producer and the author of Good Morning, Killer.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Shortlist Announced

I know everyone will have already read this over at Sarah's place, but I feel a kind of duty to at least give it passing mention here...

Here's the shortlist for the CWA's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award:

Majorie Eccles - THE SHAPE OF SAND
Janet Gleeson - THE THIEF-TAKER
Matthew Pearl - THE DANTE CLUB
Laura Wilson - THE LOVER

Now, I haven't read any of them (I've only even heard of three of them), but all in all I think that's a pretty darn good shortlist. From having a quick scout of various reviews, I'd say Saylor and Wilson (both of whom have been shortlisted for it before, I believe) look like they both have a very good chance. Last year was almost an open-and-shut case, and I certainly don't think that's the case here.

The winner will be announced on October 19th (which, curiously, is the same day as the Booker is awarded.)

The next development in this year's CWA adventure should be the shortlist (which can certainly be descibed as a list, but is rarely short) for the Debut Dagger for previously unpublished writers, which is to be announced on or around the 27th.

Also, another little bit of news for you... Val McDermid's The Distant Echo recently won the Spoken Word Publishing Association Award for Best Audio Crime Novel.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

King's Crown of Thorns

Clearly, with the release of the two final instalments of his Dark Tower series within four months, we are not getting enough of Stephen King. Because not only did The Guardian give him one of their lengthy profiles on Saturday, but so did The Times. Unusual. Not only that, but The Sunday Times reviewed the final Dark Tower novel (and pulls of the rather nifty trick of not really reviewing it at all).

Neither profile gives much info that hasn’t been covered a hundred times previously, and both, predictably, concentrate on the popularity versus literary quality debate. Heavy mention, particularly in The Times, goes to his being granted the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which prompted Howard Bloom to say the decision was:

another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve
described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls,” he said, “but
perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he
is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence,
paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.”

As far as I’m concerned, King deserves every accolade he gets. Almost every article that talks about him manages to present him as rather bitter and resentful at a literary institution which ignores his contribution almost completely. Now, maybe reporters do exaggerate it and get a kick out of telling us how irked King is with this, but, for my money, he has a complete right to be. Because, whatever way you look at it, King is good. It always annoys me to see people criticising him as “low-brow” when many of his “allies” are literary academics. King is not low-brow, okay? Anyone who can tap into a nation’s fears so successfully deserves to be popular. As does someone who can speak to a section of the public no one has ever really addressed before. Because, whatever, King is popular because he speaks to America. And he does it in a way they can relate to and understand. He shares much with John Grisham, who is similarly underrated by the literary community.

Sure, he’s not a genius. But he’s a terrific writer. He is one of those authors, like Dean Koontz, who can be a tad patchy in between producing absolutely superb novels. For example, Bag of Bones is, in no uncertain terms, a masterpiece, by far and away his greatest novel. (King believes it’s his best, as well.) Sure, his style is sometimes a little samey, and once you’ve read ten you’ve probably read them all, which is why my favourites are mostly the later ones, and the really unique ones. His popularity has endured because he speaks to America with a particular voice, but over the years that voice hasn’t changed much. However, of late it has developed, and into something special. People say he’s no longer as good as the King who produced The Shining, etc, but this is not true. He might, yes, have lost his edge, but instead he has gained a kind of mature wisdom. Unfortunately, to gain that wisdom authors often do have to loose their edge. Instead his writing has developed; it’s gained the art of subtlety, of the undertone. From A Buick 8, in my opinion, is a far, far better novel than Christine ever was. Sure, they’re both about scary cars, but Buick 8 was far more rounded, more contemplative. More human. As I say, more wise. It was a lot more than just a horror novel. It was a rather touching book about the relationships between fathers and sons, and of the various bonds between police officers.

He’s also a terrific thriller writer, too. Again, much of his best works are more thrillers than horror novels, and some of the truly great books among his oeuvre lack any element of horror at all. Gerald’s Game, for example, is a simple but superb piece about a woman in a secluded woodland shack who finds herself handcuffed to the bed after her husband drops dead of a heart-attack. It’s such a believably bizarre yet simple human scenario, but King handled it so well that 300+ pages consisting simply of the terrified thoughts of a middle-aged woman imprisoned on a bed, and her attempts to escape, were absolutely riveting. Even something as mundane as trying to reach water on a shelf above her could extend for 20 pages without once becoming dull.
Gerald’s Game is one of his particular masterpieces of technique, and would-be writers would do well to read it. There’s not a vampire, telekinetic teenager, psychotic writer or horrible sewer-dwelling beast in sight, yet it’s a superlatively sucessful psychological thriller, and I would reccommend it as top of its game.

Other great King books? Many would name Misery, King’s famous “obsessed reader” novel, but actually its sister novel, The Dark Half, is the better book. While Misery is about the relationship between reader and writer,
The Dark Half is a novel about the relationship between the writer and the real person behind. Thad Beaumont buries his pseudonym, only for it to come back and bite him. Almost literally. Not only is it a better all-round piece of literature, it’s a cracking and creepy thriller. What else…Desperation, another of his later books, is dynamite, and so is Needful Things. No one does apocalyptic scenarios better than King, whether it’s on a world-wide scale (The Stand; which I admit to not actually having read – it’s far too long; I only just managed to get through It), or the smaller scale apocalypses of books like Needful Things, which have their base in psychological conflict in small communities which eventually implode. Few writers understand the psychology of communities as deeply as King. Then, of course, there’s his marvellous memoir-cum-writing-guide, On Writing. Oh yeah, and his "Once upon a time in a land called Delain" fantasy novel, The Eyes of the Dragon was damn charming as well.

Anyway, that’s quite enough of me going on about Stephen King. Anyone who has dismissed him in the past (and there are loads of you about) should try one of the above books, particularly Bag of Bones. You may find that you have to reassess an opinion or two. When I first gave in and tried him, I certainly had to. Because there’s far more to King than horror. He may have written mountains of novels, and not all are brilliant, but among them there are several real gems.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Hail, Hail, the Shortlist's Here

After weeks of back-stabbing, moaning, grumbling, and controversy (if authors knowing one another can be called that), the Booker shortlist was announced today.

The lucky devils are:

Achmat Dangor - Bitter Fruit
Sarah Hall - The Electric Michaelangelo
Allan Hollinghurst - The Line of Beauty
David Mitchell - Cloud Atlas
Colm Toibin - The Master
Gerard Woodward - I'll Go to Bed At Noon

Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (my [massive] copy of which I picked up today, incidentally) doesn't make it, but after the revelation that not all of the judges were very happy with it being "called in", that's no surprise. It's probably a shame. Though I must say that Strange and Norrell does sound more like a Whitbread kind of novel than a Booker one...

The three favourites make it through unscathed, and the other three, well, I wasn't expecting them at all. Largely because no one's been saying anything much about them. I have to say, I don't think they pose much of a serious risk to the three favourites, but we shall have to wait and see. I don't think it's as strong or interesting as it could have been, but they've done pretty well to whittle their very conservative longlist down to a relatively promising six. I can't say I'm champing at the bit to read any of them (I'm discounting Mitchell's book, having alredy read it after succumbing to the hype it got when it was published), though The Master looks relatively interesting and I might make time for the Woodward book at some stage.

Who do I think will win? Haven't a clue. It's a bit of a three-horse race, but of those front-runners I couldn't, with much validity pick one over any other. With a gun to my head, I would now say Mitchell, rather than Hollinghurst, but I wouldn't put any money on it.

As I say, we'll have to wait and see. And by the time we've waited long enough, I shall be at University.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

La Donna Mobile

Just as Verdi's women are free to change their minds, so too with book reviewers.

When a discussion of Greg Rucka's new thriller A Gentleman’s Game came up recently on Lee Child's message board, I wrote the book off, expressing my disappointment in it. I thought it was dull and uneventful; another stinker from the formerly reliable writer.

After a friend (publicity maven-extraordinaire Maggie Griffin) prevailed upon me, however, extolling the book's virtues, I picked it up to give it another try.

To my surprise -- and pleasure! -- I'm enjoying the book much more the second time around, finding it to be generally well written and interesting.

I still have some definite quibbles with it...Rucka has a tendency to overwrite, giving more details that are necessary, which tends to slow the story's pace down. The book is also a little low on action for a thriller (at the halfway point not much has happened).

The plot, though, is nicely done, filled with a great deal of information about Islam and the Middle East, and a lot of nice touches. (Rucka obviously did his homework before writing this.)

The characters could have been a little juicier -- perhaps that's the point he's making, à la Le Carré -- but they're interesting enough to keep me interested.

This is a very difficult type of book to write well. Most of those who try, fail. Rucka, though, has done a good job and deserves credit.

(Look for my complete review after I finish it.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Truth in Fiction

Montgomery's Law # 7:
"Everyone is dissatisfied when the subject is their own area of expertise. But no one else cares."

The topic of discussion is "truth" in fiction and what responsibility the author has to get it "right."

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Lawyers get upset about legal inaccuracies on Law & Order.
  • Nurses & doctors get peeved by ER.
  • Cops laugh at NYPD Blue.

  • As for the rest of the audience, they neither know, nor do they care.

    Writers should be slaves to the plot, not to the "facts." (That's almost important enough to rate a Montgomery Law all of its own.)

    Unless the viewer/reader is an expert, they will never know. And thus they won't care. (Assuming the creator isn't a lousy writer -- and if they are, the story will be bad for other reasons.)

    Authors make up stuff all the time and as long as they do it reasonably well, it's not a problem. Whether or not what they write is strictly "true" isn't really relevant. Certainly it has to be at least plausible, but that's all it has to be.

    For the dissenters in the audience, please note: there is a big different between "errors" and the invention of convenient "facts" to drive the plot. Errors should always be avoided, but making stuff up is always fair game.

    999 out of 1000 viewers (or readers) won't know the specific legal procedure, nor will they know the proper treatment for an obscure (or made-up) disease, nor the proper investigative method for a homicide.

    That 1 out of 1000 who does know will still watch because they will enjoy spotting your mistakes and feeling superior.

    So why should a writer sweat the "facts," at the expense of the plot? They shouldn't, of course. A writer's first and most important obligation is to create an interesting and entertaining story. Getting it "right" must be secondary -- or else you'd be better off writing non-fiction.

    Tuesday, September 14, 2004

    CSI: NIH?

    Among the crop of new television shows debuting this fall is NBC's entry in the "CSI" Sweepstakes, the unimaginatively named "Medical Investigation" (airing 10pm on Fridays).

    The series follows a special team from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who are dispatced around the country to cure outbreaks of unknown or unexplained diseases. They do so using their encylopedic knowledge of medicine, investigative savy, and big brass balls.

    Not a bad premise, on the surface anyway. The execution, though, is second-rate at best. The first two episodes were both pumped so full of phony emotion, faux tension and vomitous bravado that their fairly inventive plots were buried under the bull.

    The series stars the near-albino Neal McDonough (formerly of "Boomtown") and the uber-bland Kelli Williams (of "The Practice"), two adequate actors floundering in over-written, under-nuanced, stereotypical roles.

    Even worse, though, is Anna Belknap (late of "The Handler") in the role of press liason, an annoying, pointless character who seems like she's acting on an entirely different show.

    The fact that this is a blatant ripoff of better shows already on TV is bad enough. That the producers and writers hardly even tried to make it better is unforgiveable.

    If the early episodes are any indication, "Medical Investigation" is nothing more than a road show "CSI," a poor imitator that will be lucky to make it to sweeps month.

    Sunday, September 12, 2004

    "I'm not bald - my head is just a solar panel for a sex machine" - Telly Savalas

    (Not a proper title, I know, but I do love it.)

    Anyway, sorry about that. I wasn't planning to go off on one about the Booker, but I started and couldn't stop. I get rather caught up in it all, and it's made all the worse that I really know very little about it and that I'm finding it impossible to second-guess this year's panel. (Last year I did quite well. Until the final revelation.)

    Though I haven't really anything to say, news-wise, I thought a new post was probably in order, and that I'd have a little chat about my recent reading.

    First: At last something of interest is happening on theUK Bestseller Lists. For almost a month, they've been full of Danielle Steele, Chick Lit and Dan Brown. Very, very little in terms of crime fiction. Minette Walters popped her head up for week or so with her paperback of Disordered Minds, but, aside from that, nothing. Ruth Rendell's The Rottweiler didn't even make it above number 15, which disappointed me. Though the Wexfords always do better.

    But now Karin Slaughter's here. Indelible went straight to three for hardbacks, and the paperback of A Faint Cold Fear rocketed to position number 2, which is her highest so far, I think. With these two books, she deserves it. They've come on in leaps and bounds from the first two, in terms of plotting (mainly in getting the balance right between levels of graphicism and moving the story along) and writing as well. The first two were a tad choppy in those areas. I read Indelible about a month ago and was very impressed again. She held the two parallel plots very well, and the detour into Jeffery's past was very well done indeed. I admit, she needs a few lessons in writing hostage scenes from Jeffery Deaver, because there were a few minor problems there. Number 1, the hostage-takers were too prepared to kill people. Hostage scenes always work to their greatest potential when there's some doubt about whether the takers are prepared to kill or not. Number 2, I just don't think she researched it enough. There wasn't the level of detail that made Deaver's A Maiden's Grave such a terrific thriller, and she seemed almost to be skirting around the scenes, hoping people wouldn't notice. But as I say they were only minor problems and the book was very good.

    Dan Brown has three paperbacks on the list, which annoys me. The Curious Incident... is still there, but that's a given. Jeffery's Deaver's Garden of Beasts makes number 7 for hardbacks, and Alexander McCall Smith appears on both.

    Now, onto other matters. Right now, I am reading Peter Robinson's short story collection, Not Safe After Dark. It was originally published in 1998, but has now made its way over here with some new stories and an Inspector Banks novella. So far, it's a great collection. The reason I like reading short stories is the reason I (and others) like writing them: the quick payoff. Not only that, but the distillation of words, themes, and character. There's something particularly visceral about a brilliant short story. The best deliver a breathless punch to the gut. People always say they're harder to write than novels, but I can't say I agree. Well, agree is the wrong word. It's only harder if you come from a background of writing novels, I suspect. As far as I am concerned, the novel is the far more daunting prospect. The short story is all I have known, so I've not been forced to adapt, to shift down from the large canvas. The 200-page piece of trash I wrote when I was 13 was far harder, to me. The second time I tried I gave up. And the third. I simply haven't the time right now. Plus, I have too many ideas. Inspiriationn and ideas come from everywhere. From every line of every book, from every sentence a person speaks. So short stories suit me perfectly.

    I digress.

    Short stories are also excellent to read in a spare half-hour. Not time for a novel? Well, read a short story. The short story has the potential to be quite commercially popular (rather than William-Trevor-style critically popular) among people who "simply don't have the time to read novels". If publishers would only back them more. I've long thought that Robinson should branch out from his Banks series, as I think he is an even better writer than his Banks series allows him to be. Not that I mean to disparage the Banks series, because it is very good indeed. Especially of late. But I get the impression that, if allowed free rein, Robinson could be stunning. I don’t like saying it, but I think the genre confines him. Some writers it doesn’t and never could, because it suits their talents absolutely perfectly. But I think if Robinson moved outside the procedural, we may really see something special.

    I think, in terms of the short story at least, this collection proves me right. The three Banks short stories are good, but the weakest of the collection so far. They’re nothing like the quality of Innocence or April in Paris, which I loved. Admittedly, even with Ian Rankin I always find his Rebus short stories weaker. I’m just not at all sure that police procedural mysteries “fit” into the short story. (I’d love to know anyone else’s thoughts on this matter, by the way.) I always find short stories better when they spring from the psychology of the character, rather than a puzzle that has to be presented and solved within a few pages.

    So, yes, so far it’s very pleasing, with the occasional glimpse of how good Robinson could be if he tried something different. The same kind of glimpses I saw when I read his standalone Caedmon’s Song, a kind of Rendellesque mystery, which is just about be released in the US under the title “The First Cut.” It wasn’t perfect, but it was superior to the Banks mysteries he was writing at the same time. If he wrote a standalone now, maybe it would be similarly superior to his current Banks mysteries. Which really would be something.

    Today, The Sunday Times reviews the latest novels of Frances Fyfield and Patricia Cornwell. I've read the Cornwell but I'll go on about that some other time; I've already outstayed my welcome.

    One final note: read Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. If you’ve still got this on your pile, slap it right up to the top. It languished on my own 150+ TBR for about two years before I read it recently, and it was absolutely brilliant! Gothic and Byzantine they said it was, and they were right. I enjoyed it SO much. Utterly deserving of its Booker nomination and its winning of the Historical Dagger. Read it immediately.
    As the author says: "500 pages of fraud, insanity, sex, violence, laughter and tears, for round about a tenner? You'd be a fool NOT to buy this book!"

    Apologies for my verbosity. I can't do concise.

    Ah, Booker...

    Is anyone else sick and tired of this year's Booker Prize, even before the shortlist? Or is it just me? It's awful to watch people who really should know better embarrassing themselves like petulant children. I cringed when I read Justin Cartwright first moaning about not being longlisted, then going on to say how he thought the longlist was pointless anyway. I know his overall point (among other things) was that the longlist shouldn't be publicised in order that, essentially, established authors such as himself shouldn't get "humiliated" so that judges can do a favour for friends, but everyone would retain a lot more dignity if they just stopped all the whinging. And why the heck is there such an outcry about Rowan Pelling knowing Matt Thorne and Susanna Clarke? People within the literary community do generally mix, you know. I would be far more shocked if it turned out that not a single judge knew one of the longlisted authors.

    I won't even start on Tibor Fischer. He's best forgotten, in my opinion. I'm certainly not going to reward his continual controversy by purchasing one of his books, so tough luck Tibor.

    I must finally note that I quite agree with Suzy Feay when she says that hidden in the longlist (that is technically okay, has quite a nice range, and rather conservatively ticks all the boxes), there is potentially a very good shortlist. What would I like to see there? Well, if it was made up of a selection of the following it could be excellent: Cloud Atlas; The Line of Beauty; The Master; Havoc, In It's Third Year; Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (whose literary quality I think I at first underestimated); Maps For Lost Lovers; Cherry, and Nicola Barker's Clear. The latter two probably won't get there, but they both look to me like pretty interesting books. Besides, what with all the griping about the judges knowing Thorne, it'll be incredibly hard for them to put it there now, which is another reason why this griping should stop right now. I'll also say that I'm starting to get a little suspicious (although only a very little) that one of the three front-runners will fall at the next hurdle (Toibin?). With the judging as it has been, the panel doesn't seem the sort to allow all three favourites onto the shortlist...Although I'm probably very wrong. They are favourites for a reason, after all, and Smith and his cohorts would get a lot of stick for neglecting Toibin. No, they probably won't ignore one of the three.

    And, yup, despite the fact that people are going David Mitchell crazy my money's still on The Line of Beauty right now. Though I'm not half as confident as I was before. This may not make much sense, but I have a feeling that Cloud Atlas may just be a little too Booker.

    To close, I'm pretty confused by it all and don't really know what I think. You can probably tell. Almost anything could happen, which is why I think this year's actually pretty exciting (you must forget that in the first sentence I said I was sick and tired of it). The Booker is, like those aforementioned grumpy cast-asides, similar to a petulant child: sometimes it throws all of its toys out of the cot (Vernon God Little), sometimes it behaves perfectly (The Blind Assassin), and sometimes it gives us something inspiring (Life of Pi).

    Thursday, September 02, 2004

    Part of the geography

    Woohoo...not only am I being spoilt for choice crime-fiction-wise this week (new books from Henning Mankell, Robert Wilson, Peter Robinson, and Jose Carlos Somoza; who do I choose? who do I choose??? (Mankell, of course)) but today I discover that Ruth Rendell's next Barbara Vine novel is officially due next April.


    Last week, Jane Jakeman reviewed the latest novel from the excellent Stephen Booth, One Last Breath. (The reason why America isn't getting its yearly dose of Booth is down to a change of publisher, so you'll probably see it next spring.) I had wanted to link to the review from The Sunday Telegraph as well, but I can't for the life of me find it. Anywhere.

    The Washington Post review Denise Mina's first standalone, Deception. (It's UK title was Sanctum. Why did they change it? Why??? Is America not familiar with the word? Of course it is. In America, does "Sanctum" conjour connotations of things vastly divergent from a crime fiction novel? I highly doubt it. Stupid. Just stupid.)

    The Sunday Herald talks to Patricia Cornwell, discussing, among other things, Jack the Ripper, her new novel, and her growing boredom with Scarpetta's niece Lucy. This last, I am absolutely sure won't surprise many readers at all.

    Speaking of Henning Mankell, Australia's The Age recently gave Before the Frost a thumbs up. Speaking of Mr Somoza, as well...if anyone was wondering whether Abacus would be translating any further titles from the Spanish, the answer is: no. In the near future, anyway. I've been told that currently there are no plans to publish any more, although, dependent upon sucess, they might reconsider. Though, I would say that winning a Gold Dagger pretty much counted as significant success, both in critical and thus, very probably, commercial terms as well...

    Lastly (and here's where the title actually become relevant)...it was going to happen sometime: Ian Rankin has had a street named after him.

    *Oh, and at last Orion are getting themselves a decent website.

    Myron Bolitar on the big screen?

    I just finished the 6th book in this series (The Final Detail) last night and was wondering about the film rights. Then today, I see this...

    From Publishers Marketplace:
    Film rights to Harlan Coben's Bolitar series -- DEAL BREAKER, DROP SHOT, FADE AWAY, BACK SPIN, ONE FALSE MOVE, THE FINAL DETAIL, DARKEST FEAR -- featuring Myron Bolitar, a former basketball star and Harvard Law School grad who runs his own sports agency and dabbles in the private investigation business, to Columbia Pictures for producer John Calley, in a major deal, by Joel Gotler at Intellectual Property Group, on behalf of Lisa Vance at the Aaron Priest Literary Agency.
    If handled properly, this could be a terrific franchise. Myron and Win are two of the best characters in an ongoing series.

    Now I just hope that Coben returns to writing about them!

    New Reviews on Mystery Ink

    A handful of new reviews went up on Mystery Ink this morning, including my take on the terrific new book from Robert Ferrigno, The Wake-Up.

    Yvette Banek writes about Martha Grimes' latest, Winds of Change, finding it to be "moody" and "compelling."

    Bob Walch finds that finds that Perri O'Shaughnessy has returned to form with Unlucky in Law.

    Wednesday, September 01, 2004

    California Girl -- the Best of 2004?

    Finished the latest book from T. Jefferson Parker recently. I believe that Jeff is one of the best of the "lesser-known" crime fiction writers so I was interested to see what did with this.

    In a word... WOW!

    California Girl is probably the best thing I've read all year. Incredible, mutli-dimensional characters, a fascinating, sweeping plot, wonderful historical and period details -- not to mention some of the finest writing you'll ever find, inside the genre or out. Reading this was pure delight.

    California Girl is everything that Mystic River tried to be, but wasn't. You know how publishers like to blurb books saying stuff like "If you read one mystery novel this year, [insert title here] should be it!"? Well, in the case of California Girl, it's absolutely true.

    Read this book!