Monday, February 28, 2005

Why your self-published book won't get reviewed

Frank Wilson, my editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, explains why the Inkie doesn't review self-published, POD or electronic books:

This is not out of snobbery. If a publisher like Farrar Straus & Giroux decides to publish somebody’s manuscript, they assume the costs of printing and publicity. They are betting on that manuscript and putting their money up accordingly. In all the other cases, it is the author who is putting up the money and betting on himself or herself and his or her work. It is the fact that someone besides the author is willing to assume the risk of publishing that makes all the difference.


The policy is the same at the Chicago Sun-Times, USA Today and all the other newspapers I review for. It's hard to imagine any major publication deciding otherwise.

Wading through all the books published by legitimate trade publishers is difficult enough. Including the self-published stuff, most of which is crap, would be madness.

The books I get, pt. 3

I was away from home for 4 days while I attended Left Coast Crime in El Paso (see my post about it below). Keep in mind, one of those days was Saturday (no UPS) and one was Sunday (no packages at all).

I came home to find waiting for me:

7 hardbacks (two of which I've already read and reviewed)
6 advanced galleys (ARCs)
2 paperbacks (both advance copies)

At the convention, I was given a half-dozen or so ARCs and PBs to read.

While I was writing this, the UPS man dropped off 3 more books: 1 ARC, 1 trade pb and 1 mass market pb.

For those of you keeping score at home, my review queue currently consists of:

31 hardbacks
61 advanced galleys
22 paperbacks

Left Coast Crime

I got home just before midnight yesterday from four days in El Paso where I attended the Left Coast Crime mystery writers convention.

El Paso is something of a depressing city, with an old and empty downtown with no one on the streets except for the homeless, and little in the buildings other than dollar stores and cheap Chinese take-out places.

The organizers of the convention, though, did a wonderful job of putting everything together, and the city’s hospitality couldn’t be questioned. I had a terrific time, although I’m utterly exhausted now. (Is it possible to overdose on Tecate?)

Just about everyone at the convention, it seemed, was a writer, with only a handful of fans. That was fine for me, since I go mostly to talk to other writers, but for the authors there that might have been something of a problem.

I participated on two panels, both of which went quite well and I think were very interesting for those in attendance.

The first discussed the process of reviewing, and included Carl Brookins, Betty Webb, N.S. Wikarski, with Steve Brewer as moderator. For the most part, we agreed on the main points, which is that reviewers are inundated with books and writers have to do something to make themselves standout.

The best way to do that seems to be to write something fresh, even if it’s just a new take on a familiar story. It’s also essential to have a strong opening, as everyone agreed that a book that stinks in the first few pages is unlikely to be read any further.

My other panel was on the Must-Read Thriller Novel, and included David Morrell, Lewis Perdue and Christopher Rice, with Barbara Peters (of Poisoned Pen) as moderator. We spent about half the time discussing what a thriller novel is and what makes for a good one (and a bad one).

The discussion then turned to specific authors, including many who are currently included on the International Thriller Writer’s (ITW) list of Must-Read Thrillers, which was the inspiration for the panel.

I was also fortunate to attend several other panels, including some interesting ones. I won’t give any more details, though, as my head hurts.

Name drop, did you say? Why certainly!

I had a chance to meet several writers whom I didn’t know, including Nathan Walpow, Joel Goldman, Harry Hunsicker, Lewis Perdue, Christopher Rice, Reed Coleman and S.J. Rozan. (Nathan, in fact, gave me the ARC of his terrific new book, which I finished on the plane ride home.)

I also was able to catch up with people I only knew somewhat from before, like Lee Goldberg, Victor Gischler, Jim Fusilli, Gary Phillips, Bill Fitzhugh and Steve Brewer.

There were also several old friends it was great to see…Barry Eisler, Joe Konrath, David Ellis, Denise Hamilton, David Morrell, Harley Jane Kozak and Jim Born.

Those are the ones I remember off the top of my head. There were dozens more.

That is really the cool thing about these conferences: you can meet and talk to so many great writers all in one place. You don’t have to be a reviewer or a writer either to join in the fun. Any of these people would love to have the chance to talk to fans and readers – that’s one of the main reasons they are there.

So for anyone who has an interest in reading mystery novels, I strongly encourage you to attend one of these conferences if you ever have the chance. I assure you, you won’t be disappointed.

The next big one coming up in Bouchercon, to be held this September in Chicago. If any fans who read this blog choose to attend, make sure you say hello and I promise to introduce you to your favorite writer in attendance. They'll be glad to meet you.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A Tale of Two Detectives

When I first starting reading mystery novels, it was detective fiction that got me hooked and it still remains one of my favorite corners of the genre.

Two of the masters of the P.I. novel have books out this week: Lawrence Block and Robert Crais. Both have produced favorites of mine in the past and their latest books were high on my anticipation list.

My joint review of the two ran recently in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, my first review for that newspaper. (It will also be showing up a couple other places soon.)

For the record, I loved All the Flowers Are Dying (Block), but was disappointed by The Forgotten Man (Crais).

Monday, February 14, 2005

Interview with Kent Harrington

I recently conducted an interview with Kent Harrington, author of the wonderful new novel Red Jungle. You can see what Kent had to say over on Mystery Ink. Very interesting stuff.

Here's a sample:

Q. Was it frustrating for you not to get one of the big publishers to take on Red Jungle?

A. Yes it was, very much so. Because, being stubborn, I believed in the book, especially after people said, "Hey Kent, this is a pretty good novel."

Now it's a little easier, because the response to the book has been more than I could have hoped for; readers seem to be embracing it, and that's very heartening. You can't ask for more than that -- to have someone come up to you and say they enjoyed something you wrote. It's a wonderful feeling, the best.


He has some insightful things to say about the state of publishing and the nature of genre, in particular. I think you'll enjoy it.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

A.J. Jacobs vs. Joe Queenan

A.J. Jacobs, author of the humorous memoir The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, has a piece in tomorrow's New York Times rebutting the review he received from Joe Queenan in the same pages a few weeks back.

Jacobs takes exception to Queenan's venomous pseudo-critique, which seemed to either miss the tongue-in-cheek point of the book entirely, or else have been motivated by something approaching sociopathic loathing.

Queenan described Jacobs as "criminally stupid," "a poor man's Dave Barry; no, a bag person's Dave Barry" who has written a book that is "misguided...mesmerizing uninformative...idiotic." Ultimately, he dismisses Jacbos as a "pedigreed simpleton."

Jacobs responds that he was shocked that Queenan "seemed genuinely angry with me, as if I had transported his niece across state lines...He referred to me as a 'jackass.' A jackass. In the New York Times Book Review. I flipped around to the other reviews. Did they call Philip Roth a doofus? Did they call Gish Jen a nitwit? No, just me. A jackass."

Eventually, Jacobs goes on to take a rather philosophical approach to the whole matter. After finally putting his anger behind him, he accepts that "as a writer, I have to accept the lack of control. Publishing a book is like having a child. You can do everything right -- feed him, clothe him, show him Baby Kierkegaard videos -- but a bully at kindergarten can still make him eat clumps of dirt. You have to come to terms with that."

Jacobs’ attitude is a healthy one, and probably the only one to take if you want to maintain your sanity.

This episode is emblematic, though, of something that is very wrong with the state of reviewing today. The problem with too many reviewers, especially those writing in publications like the New York Times, is that they have ulterior motives which prevent them from doing a conscientious job.

In this case, for example, it seems clear that Queenan either was on a bizarre, manic tirade for some unknown (and irrelevant) reason or else he was trying to be funny and thus promote himself. In either case, he seemed to have little interest in actually reviewing the book. What's the use of that? (Especially considering that the piece was nasty, but not particularly humorous.)

A bitchy review can be funny and even insightful (think of Chris Buckley a few years back, touching off a shitstorm by describing Tom Clancy as "the James Fenimore Cooper of his day, which is to say the most successful bad writer of his generation."). The piece, though, still has to offer some truth and reasoned analysis, along with the humor. Otherwise, it’s not a book review.

All too many critics see their allotted review space as their chance to demonstrate their wittiness, put forth their opinions, promote their own work, or otherwise fill the page with nothing having to do with the book supposedly under review.

Writing a conscientious and useful review takes thought and skill and care, and that, unfortunately, is more than many critics are willing to do.

There are some good reviewers out there. But it takes time to find them and follow their writing to see what they're up to. That is more effort than most readers are willing to put out, though, so instead this is what we end up with.

Off again, on again

This doesn't exactly surprise me, but still...

Despite it, I still doubt I'll ever read the book in question. It ensures a constant round of publicity for him, though. Every cloud, people, every cloud.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Wit & Wisdom of Robert Ferrigno

Got an email last night from Mr. Ferrigno, tipping me to a terrific interview he did with Bob Cornwell that's now up on Tangled Web. I was going to offer some commentary, but the inestimable Sarah Weinman beat me to it.

I will single out one excerpt, though, that I loved:

The political upheavals of the late 60s left the young Ferrigno with an abiding distrust of politicians, a fact that perhaps explains the lack of overt politics in his novels. He cites the Chappaquidick incident in which a young Edward Kennedy "while probably drunk" left his date, Mary Jo Kopechne, to drown whilst he swam free, "He got a wrist slap. Last week he was on television haranguing a Republican nominee for attorney general who had written a memo suggesting that terrorists don't warrant coverage by the Geneva convention. What Kennedy seemed most upset about was the nominee allowing the use of 'water boards' which simulated the fear of drowning in the terrorists. I found Kennedy's outrage hilarious. I hate all politicians but I hate the ones who drown their date the most."
Great stuff. And Ferrigno is a great writer. If you haven't read his books, you're really missing out.

Try his latest, The Wake-Up, a recent nominee for the Gumshoe Award for Best Thriller. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The books I get -- updated

I made a post recently on how I decide "What to read next" which has generated some discussion elsewhere.

For the record, in today's mail (and via courier service) I received:

9 Advanced galleys
5 Hardbacks
1 Paperback original

This is a larger total than most days, but it gives you an idea of what I'm trying to keep up with.

My immediate sort produced 3 ARCs and 1 hardback that I might read, plus 1 hardback and the paperback, which I've already read. The rest went into the "not likely" pile.

My "waiting to be read" stacks of new titles now consists of 83 books.

Go ahead and put it on my tombstone: "I'm reading as fast as I can."

"Arrogant bitch" or just misguided?

"Paperback Writer," a blogger who apparently writes paperback novels under 5 different names no one’s ever heard of, hates reviewers. Loathes 'em. With a passion! (Thanks to Tod Goldberg for the link.)

She writes:

I accept that I am a public figure, subject to public opinion. Goes with the job. Certainly you reviewers are entitled to your opinions, and free speech -- something I dearly love -- protects your right to air them. Air them. But expect me to read it? Think I'm going to learn something from you? Based on what? Have you written sixty-two novels? I have. How many of yours are published? My #27 and #28 will be out next month. Let's put some credentials on the table here.

Right, forgot. You don't have any. You just have your opinion.

I'm not going to kiss your ass. I'm not afraid of you. Mostly I feel nothing but contempt for you.

She claims not to read reviews, but it sounds like she must -- and she must be reading some really negative ones of her work to be so pissed off.

As a reviewer, I've never expected any writer to be afraid of me, and certainly never wanted any of them to kiss my ass. (Have you seen my ass? Not pretty.) I also don't expect writers to read the reviews I write. I would understand if they preferred not to.

The belief, though, that an author couldn't learn anything from a review I write, though, seems shortsighted, at best.

I read a lot of crime fiction (over 100 books last year alone), and I do so with a knowledgeable and critical eye. I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to call myself an "expert" on the subject, but I certainly know a thing or two about it.

Over the years I've gotten a good grasp of what works and what doesn't. If my review says the pacing drags, or the plot is clichéd, or the characters are poorly developed, there's a damn good chance that I'm right. My comments would certainly be worth considering, even if ultimately they were discarded.

Paperback Writer claims to listen to what her editor has to say and benefit from her comments. What makes her editor worth listening to? I doubt she'd fit P.W.'s litmus test of having written 62 novels.

As far as that goes, I suppose, oh I don't know...Harper Lee, for example, would have nothing to teach P.W., since that dilettante only ever published one book.

(Interestingly, Paperback Writer claims to care what her fans think, presumably because they only ever offer praise. That seems to be the only feedback she's looking for.)

Sure, they're all judgment calls, but the judgment of a good reviewer is worth something. A conscientious reviewer (of which I am one) typically reads voraciously, critically and insightfully. That's the kind of reader whose feedback might mean something to a writer who is trying to improve her craft.

While it's true that many reviews might not be worth reading, and might not teach a writer anything, dismissing them all out of hand is myopic and petulant.

I can't help but think that if P.W. were more open to criticism, and more committed to improving her writing, she might break out of the pseudonymous paperback world and start writing something people actually want to read.

But what do I know...I'm just a reviewer.

[Note: the quote about "arrogant bitch" is from the blogger's original post: "Before everyone writes me off as an arrogant bitch..."]

Daily Chuckles

For me, amusing moment of the day came from this article from the BBC about jury selection for Michael Jackson's trial:
Almost nine in 10 potential jurors said they had read or watched a lot or a little news about the case.

Such a short sentence, but so rich.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Left Coast Crime

The schedule for the upcoming Left Coast Crime mystery conference came out today. It looks like it's going to be a lot of fun, and informative as well.

I'm participating in two panels:

Reviewing Mysteries: How? Why? Where?
Friday, February 25
9:00am

Steve Brewer, Moderator
Carl Brookins
David Montgomery
Betty Webb
N.S. Wikarski

The Must-Read Thrillers
Saturday, February 26
10:30am

Barbara Peters, Moderator
David Montgomery
David Morrell
Lewis Perdue
Christopher Rice

I'm looking forward to being a panelist this time around and not having to moderate. (I think this will be more fun, plus I can talk more.)

If any of you are planning to be there, I hope you'll stop by and say hello at some point.

More on Kent Harrington

In case you missed my review of Kent Harrington's terrific new book (Red Jungle) in the Chicago Sun-Times over the weekend, I have just posted the full-length version on Mystery Ink.

This is an entertaining and powerful story that deserves to be read. I promise, you won't be disappointed.

Check back soon to see my interview with Kent!

The Flood

Good news for Ian Rankin fans... This September Orion will re-publish his early, out-of-print novel The Flood. So at least we won't have to pay £600 just to read this rarity...

Monday, February 07, 2005

World's Worst Interview, Pt. Quatre

Victor Gischler, the world's worst blogger, and author of a few far-from-worst novels (including the forthcoming Suicide Squeeze), contines his string of wretched interviews with his latest victim, Christopher Moore, author of the humorous novels Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal and Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings.

A sample exchange:

VG: Do you have any special, useless talents? (Like burping the alphabet, etc?)

CM: I'm pretty good at knife-throwing. Really.

I've never read Moore, but Gischler is one funny guy.

2005 Edgar Award Nominees Announced

The nominees for the 2005 Edgar awards were announced yesterday. There are several places to quibble (e.g., the soft best first novel picks, the TV category dominated by just one show), but it's a nice list overall.

The Best Novel category, in particular, is very strong, with 4 of my favorite books of the year making the shortlist. (I haven't read the other, although I've heard good things about it.)

I also see that 2 of the picks for Best Novel (Parker and Lippman) were also shortlisted for the Gumshoe Award. I would be very pleased to see either of those books win.

Here's the MWA's announcement:

Mystery Writers of America is proud to announce its Nominees for the Edgar Allan Poe Awards 2005, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television and film published or produced in 2004. The Edgar Awards will be presented to the winners at our 59th Gala Banquet, April 28, 2005 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City.

BEST NOVEL

Evan's Gate by Rhys Bowen (St. Martin's Minotaur)
By a Spider's Thread by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)
Remembering Sarah by Chris Mooney (Atria Books)
California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker (William Morrow)
Out of the Deep I Cry by Julia Spencer-Fleming (St. Martin's Minotaur)

BEST FIRST NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN AUTHOR

Little Girl Lost by Richard Aleas (Hard Case Crime)
Relative Danger by Charles Benoit (Poisoned Pen Press)
Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan (Delacorte Press)
Tonight I Said Goodbye by Michael Koryta (St. Martin's Minotaur)
Country of Origin by Don Lee (W.W. Norton & Company)
Bahamarama by Bob Morris (St. Martin's Minotaur)

BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINAL

The Librarian by Larry Beinhart (Nation Books)
Into the Web by Thomas H. Cook (Bantam)
Dead Men Rise Up Never by Ron Faust (Dell)
Twelve-Step Fandango by Chris Haslam (Dark Alley)
The Confession by Domenic Stansberry (Hard Case Crime)

BEST CRITICAL/BIOGRAPHICAL

The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories
edited by Leslie S. Klinger (W.W. Norton)
Latin American Mystery Writers: An A-to-Z Guide by Daniel B. Lockhart (Greenwood Press)
Booze and the Private Eye: Alcohol in the Hard-Boiled Novel
by Rita Elizabeth Rippetoe (McFarland & Co.)
The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. 3: 1956-1991 by Norman Sherry (Viking Books)

BEST FACT CRIME

Ready for the People: My Most Chilling Cases as Prosecutor by Marissa N. Batt (Arcade Publishing)
Conviction: Solving the Moxley Murder: A Reporter and a Detective's Twenty-Year Search for Justice by Leonard Levitt (Regan Books)
Forensics for Dummies by D.P. Lyle, MD (Wiley Publishing - For Dummies)
Are You There Alone?: The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates by Suzanne O'Malley (Simon & Schuster)
Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts by Julian Rubinstein (Little, Brown)
Green River, Running Red: The Real Story of the Green River Killer - America's Deadliest Serial Murderer by Ann Rule (Free Press)

BEST SHORT STORY

"Something About a Scar" - Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You by Laurie Lynn Drummond (HarperCollins)
"The Widow of Slane" by Terence Faherty (EQMM - March/April 2004)
"The Book Signing" - Brooklyn Noir by Pete Hamill (Akashic Books)
"Adventure of the Missing Detective" - Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Years by Gary Lovisi (St. Martin's Minotaur)
"Imitate the Sun" by Luke Sholer (EQMM - November 2004)

BEST YOUNG ADULT

Story Time by Edward Bloor (Harcourt Children's Books)
In Darkness, Death by Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler (Philomel Books)
Jude by Kate Morgenroth (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing)
The Book of Dead Days by Marcus Sedgwick (Wendy Lamb Books)
Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly (David Fickling Books)

BEST JUVENILE

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett (Scholastic Press)
Assassin: The Lady Grace Mysteries by Patricia Finney (Delacorte Books for Young Readers)
Abduction! by Peg Kehret (Dutton Children's Books)
Looking for Bobowicz by Daniel Pinkwater (HarperCollins Children's Books)
The Unseen by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (Delacorte Books for Young Readers)

BEST PLAY

Spatter Pattern (Or, How I Got Away With It) by Neal Bell (Playwrights Horizons)
Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life by Max Allan Collins (The Art House)
An Evening of Murder and the Like by Edward Musto (Barrow Group Studio Theatre)

BEST TELEVISION EPISODE TELEPLAY

Law & Order: Criminal Intent - "Want", Teleplay by Elizabeth Benjamin. Story by René Balcer & Elizabeth Benjamin
Law & Order: Criminal Intent - "Conscience", Teleplay by Gerry Conway. Story by René Balcer & Gerry Conway
Law & Order: Criminal Intent - "Consumed", Teleplay by Warren Leight. Story by René Balcer & Warren Leight
Law & Order: Criminal Intent - "Pas De Deux", Teleplay by Warren Leight. Story by René Balcer & Warren Leight
Monk - "Mr. Monk and the Girl Who Cried Wolf", Teleplay by Hy Conrad

BEST TELEVISION FEATURE OR MINI-SERIES TELEPLAY

State of Play by Paul Abbott (BBC America)
Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness by Peter Berry (Granada TV & WGBH Boston)
Death in Holy Orders by Robert Jones, based on the novel by P.D. James (BBC Worldwide)
Amnesia by Chris Lang (BBC America)
"The Darkness of Light" - Wire in the Blood by Alan Whiting (Coastal Productions)

BEST MOTION PICTURE SCREENPLAY

A Very Long Engagement - Screenplay by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, based on the Novel by Sebastien Japrisot (2003 Productions)
The Bourne Supremacy - Screenplay by Tony Gilroy, based on the Novel by Robert Ludlam. (The Kennedy/Marshall Company, Universal Pictures, Hypnotic)
Collateral by Stuart Beattie (DreamWorks SKG)
I'm Not Scared - Screenplay by Francesca Marciano, based on the Novel by Niccolo Ammaniti. (Miramax Films)
Maria Full of Grace - Screenplay by Joshua Marston (HBO Films)

ROBERT L. FISH MEMORIAL AWARD

Thomas Morrissey
"Can't Catch Me" - Brooklyn Noir (Akashic Books)

GRAND MASTER

Marcia Muller

ELLERY QUEEN AWARD

Carolyn Marino, Vice President/Executive Editor, HarperCollins

RAVEN AWARDS

Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theatre (founded by Steve Oney)
DorothyL listserv (founded by Diane Kovacs and Kara Robinson
Murder by the Book, Houston, TX (Martha Farrington, Owner)

SPECIAL EDGAR AWARDS

David Chase (writer/producer - The Sopranos, The Rockford Files,
Kolchak: The Night Stalker and many other breakthrough TV shows)
Tom Fontana (writer/producer - Homicide: Life on the Street, Oz, and The Jury and many other breakthrough TV shows)

THE SIMON & SCHUSTER-MARY HIGGINS CLARK AWARD

Perfect Sax by Jerrilyn Farmer (William Morrow/Avon)
The Drowning Tree by Carol Goodman (Ballantine Books)
Scent of a Killer by Christiane Heggan (MIRA Books)
Grave Endings by Rochelle Krich (Ballantine Books)
Murder in a Mill Town by P.B. Ryan (Berkley Prime Crime)

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Latest Chicago Sun-Times Column

My latest column ran in the Chicago Sun-Times this morning, containing reviews of 5 excellent books, including one that might just be a masterpiece:

  • Kent Harrington - Red Jungle (Dennis McMillan, $30)
  • John Donohue - Deshi (St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95)
  • Neil McMahon - Revolution No. 9 (HarperCollins, $15.95)
  • Michael Robotham - Suspect (Doubleday, $24.95)
  • Duane Swierczynski - Secret Dead Men (Point Blank, $15.95)

If you have a chance, please take a look. I think you'll enjoy it.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Next James Bond film

This is quite interesting news, I think. The next James Bond film will be an adaptation of Ian Fleming's first book, Casino Royale. This is quite a nice move and it is, after all, one of the best of the books (not that that necessarily means that'll translate into what they put on the screen). A new start, almost, for a new actor - not that Pierce Brosnan should have been removed from the role. If none of the potentials are better than the one you've already got, simply don't change. Here's hoping it's Hugh Jackman or Clive Owen...


Thursday, February 03, 2005

What to read next?

Gregg Hurwitz, author of last year’s terrific thriller The Program, brings up an interesting question on his blog: how do we decide which books we’re going to read?

I have to make this decision every couple of days. (I try to read 3 books a week, plus whatever false starts I suffer through.) On rare occasions, the selection is made for me, as when I'm reviewing a book on assignment, or am appearing on a panel with someone and need to read their book first.

Usually, though, the decision is up to me. I’m never wanting for choices, as I have more books than any ordinary person could read in a lifetime. However, that doesn’t mean the selection is always an easy one. In addition to finding something entertaining, I have the added pressure of not just reading for myself, but for potential review as well.

Sometimes the choice is obvious. If a new book by Lawrence Block or Michael Connelly or some other author who is a favorite of mine comes in, I will usually read it as soon as I can. I’m not very good at delaying gratification. (Christmas mornings were always a bitch for me.)

Most of the time, though, it’s harder than that. I usually have a vague idea of what I want to read in the future, whether it’s something I’m already considering for my next column, or the next book in a series I’ve enjoyed; a new author I’ve heard good things about, or just something that caught my eye.

On the shelves next to my desk, I currently have 62 advanced galleys and 29 finished hardbacks that passed my initial sort. When I receive books (I don’t keep count but it must be at least 100 or so every month), I immediately sort them into two categories: “might read” and “won’t read.” All of the books on these shelves are in the “might read” category. (The rest are stacked in teetering piles on the other side of my office.)

(And, yes, I realize that this is the scariest part for authors – basically, your book has one chance to make the cut and, after that, probably won’t be considered again. I know it sounds harsh, but, considering the huge volume of submissions I receive, there’s really no way around it.)

Many of the books in the “might read” category never make it out of that pile to actually be read. I try my best to read as many as I can, but things like my day job and my beautiful wife keep getting in the way.

So which one to pick next?

I try to read new writers whenever possible, especially debut novels. There’s nothing as exciting as discovering a fresh new voice, so I’m always on the hunt. I’m also drawn to books that seem to be trying something new or different. So many of the books that get published are simply variations on a theme (alcoholic PI battles his demons while doggedly solving a case, idealistic young lawyer takes on the system to prove a person’s innocence, etc.). If an author is trying to do something fresh, I like to give them a chance.

I also like to read series, so if a book is the third or fourth entry in a series that’s supposed to be good, that’s something I would look at. On the other hand, I’m just as likely to insist upon reading the series from the beginning, in order, which means I might have to hunt down book number one. That also mean I’m reluctant to start a new series if there are already 10 books out. I just don’t have to time to catch up.

I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the mystery community, including reviewers, publicists, writers and fans, so I get a lot of recommendations from friends. A lot of what I read is influenced by what they say. (Something I can’t stress enough to fledgling mystery writers is that word of mouth is crucial in this business.)

A much as anything else, I think, it depends on mood. What kind of book do I feel like reading? If I feel like some suspense, I’ll select the latest “pulse-pounding thriller” from the “next Robert Ludlum.” Or if I feel like a little mystery, I’ll pick up a detective novel that looks good, especially if the investigator is not another broken-down loser or psychic cat.

If I need a good laugh, I’ll choose something that’s supposed to be funny (and almost inevitably be disappointed, as funny mysteries are usually anything but). Or if I feel like a trip around the world, I’ll grab an international thriller set in Berlin, Bangkok or Bangladesh.

It’s hardly a scientific process, or even a particularly structured one. Ultimately, it comes down to what catches my eye. Maybe it’s the brief description of the plot, or the setting; maybe it’s an interesting day job for the protagonist, or a blurb from another writer whose recommendation I respect. Hell, maybe it’s a cool title or interesting book design.

Or occasionally, when all else fails, I will fall back on the tried and true, burying myself in the comfortable confines of a book I already know that I’ll like. Maybe a Ross Thomas, Thomas Perry or Robert Ferrigno. Maybe an old Spenser novel or early Matt Scudder. As much as I feel pressured to read new stuff, and the pressure is definitely there, the lure of the “good old stuff” is always very strong.

The nice thing about books is, if you don’t like the one you’re reading, there’s always a dozen more waiting in the wings. Remember Montgomery’s Law: Life is too short to read bad books!

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Kent Harrington's Red Jungle

Kent Harrington's Red Jungle leads off my Chicago Sun-Times column this coming Sunday. Here's a sneak peek of what I wrote:

There are certain highly-talented authors who ply their trade in obscurity, regularly turning out quality books that amazingly going unheralded and largely unnoticed. If there were any justice in the publishing world, these would be the writers receiving the million-dollar advances and mammoth publicity budgets. Kent Harrington is just such an author.

It continues on from there in an unqualified rave. (I'll also be posting the full-length version of my review on Mystery Ink soon.) Red Jungle is a novel of uncommon beauty and grace and is destined to be one of the best books of 2005.

The fact that Harrington was unable to convince any major New York publisher to take on this wonderful book is a clear sign that the lunatics are in charge of the asylum.