Saturday, August 30, 2008

Some Awful News

I just learned some awful news ~ HBO is coming out with a series based on the Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels by Charlaine Harris, and, from the trailer, it looks like it's going to be really good! Why is this terrible news, you ask? Why, because now I'm going to have to break down and get cable so I can get HBO so I can watch the show (which is going to be called "Trueblood," like the manufactured blood from the books that allowed vampires to "come out of the coffin" into mainstream America). Oh, yeah, and I'm also going to have to buy a new TV, since my old one is on its last legs, er, antennae. Last but probably worst, it's going to cut into my reading time something awful! I mean, even if it's only one hour a week, that's a lot of time over the course of a season that I won't be reading books.

All kidding aside, I can't wait to see this show, having read all the Sookie Stackhouse novels ever since falling in love with the first one, Dead Until Dark. They are pretty much my favorite light vampire reading (though the plots have gotten a bit darker lately).

I wonder who they're casting as Eric Northman, my favorite of Sookie's other-worldly "men." (And no, I never liked Bill, though the actor playing Bill is pretty yummy, actually.)

For anyone out there who hasn't heard of this series, it centers around Sookie Stackhouse, a bar waitress in rural Louisiana who can (unhappily for her own peace of mind) read other people's minds, making her sort of unpopular with most of the citizens of Bon Temps who would prefer to keep their innermost secrets to themselves. Four years earlier, vampires announced their existence to the world, and have been accepted in America (albeit somewhat reluctantly by some) as citizens, though they are not plentiful around . When Sookie meets the vampire Bill one night at Merlott's bar, she learns that she can't read his thoughts. Then, when she saves him from a couple of drainers who plan to drain him dry (vamp blood turns out to be worth a lot on the black market), she ends up, much to her surprise (and the disapproval of her friends and neighbors), dating him. Soon after that, other women who are into dating vampires begin to turn up dead, and Sookie's brother is a prime suspect.

I'm actually more excited about this new TV adaptation than when Dexter was made into a series.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Booking Through Thursday

Stories August 28, 2008
If you’re anything like me, one of your favorite reasons to read is for the story. Not for the character development and interaction. Not because of the descriptive, emotive powers of the writer. Not because of deep, literary meaning hidden beneath layers of metaphor. (Even though those are all good things.) No … it’s because you want to know what happens next?
Or, um, is it just me?

This kind of question is not one I usually think about. Perhaps I'm too shallow and too much the good-time girl, but I tend to read only books that "grab" me within the first 50 or so pages and make me want to keep on turning those pages.

Now that it has been brought to my attention though, I would have to admit that I do enjoy a good story, but it's also imperative that a novel have good characterizations, is believable (within itself ~ I like fantasy and sci-fi too), is well-written, and believes in itself.

Too many characters are one-dimensional, and that will ruin it for me no matter how exciting the story (think The DaVinci Code). If the protagonist has no faults, if he or she doesn't strive for some purpose and grow, or learn, by the end of the book, then what's the point? If the antagonist is evil with no redeeming virtues (unless it's horror, of course), then a storyline alone is not enough to hold my interest.
Oh, yeah, one more thing. I have to have at least some simpatico with at least one of the characters or, again, I'm probably not going to finish the book, no matter what the storyline is.

And speaking of that, a believable storyline does not use coincidence to excess. It doesn't allow the actions of one or more character to strain my credulity too much. Everything eventually ends up making sense within the world in which the characters and action exist. I can't tell you how many novels I've throw against a wall because one of the characters, out of the blue and without any foreshadowing or explicable driving force, does something so foreign to their nature that it is ludicrous. A timid woman begins to worry that life is passing her by and suddenly dresses like a slut and seduces a perfect stranger she meets in the first bar she goes into. Alone. A craven thief who's been on the grift for 20 years meets a gorgeous woman and suddenly turns honest, singlehandedly stopping a murderous gang from destroying the woman's business. A savvy kid knows there's something really really bad in the basement of the haunted house but goes down there anyway on the dare of a bully for whom he has no respect. A young girl is the only person in the City of Magicians who doesn't have magic though she's been tested eight ways from Sunday but saves the Master Magician against the Evil Necromancer by suddenly discovering her magic power. It doesn't rain in Regency London the entire Season, or at least not whenever the handsome rogue is trying to seduce the innocent but incredibly alluring debutante behind the bushes in the park of his Hampshire estate. One after another serial killer single-mindedly goes after the forensic pathologist in a procedural mystery. Yeah, right.

An interesting storyline is, of course, subjective, but for me, anyway, angsty maundering is anathema to a good story. One does not need to go on and on about the emotional trauma a character is suffering to tell a deep story: witness The Stranger by Camus.

Okay, decent writing. Cliches, too many metaphors (unless they are there for a purpose, which I suspect is the case with, for instance, Special Topics in Calamity Physics), too much exposition, i.e., a lot of setting up at the beginning of a book ~ Magyk by Angie Sage, which I recently read, comes to mind here (just get on with the story and let me figure it out as we go along), misspellings/misused punctuation (sorry, I know it's trite, but a comma used in the wrong place or a "to" when it should be "too" can throw me right out of a story) ~ all these things make for bad writing, but the lack of those things doesn't necessary mean the writing is good.

Good writing doesn't have to flow like honey (think Hemingway). It doesn't have to sing (think The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time). It doesn't have to use creative ~ or any ~ metaphors (again think Hemingway). It does have to speak to me of things that are important, at least to the characters in the story. It's nice if there are meanings within meanings, depending on the kind of novel, but it's not necessary. Twists are good too, but the story must fulfill its promise. If it's a murder mystery, the mystery should be solved by the end. (I think that may be why I was vaguely dissatisfied with Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, although I loved The Road, so that may not be completely accurate, or perhaps I'm mistaken and No Country is really a horror story.) If it's a romance, then happily-ever-after better be at least implied at the end. If it's a literary novel, of course, anything goes, but even there, a promise is a promise. To paraphrase Chekhov, "If there's a gun hanging over the mantle in Act 1, then it better have been fired before the end of the the last act."

A good book has a purpose and believes in that purpose, even if that purpose is only to entertain. The best, most memorable books have depth and meaning that come clear sometimes only long after they have been read and "digested."

Never Let Me Go is that kind of book. Another that fits the bill, both as entertainment and for the deep meaning that is perhaps partially masked by its form as science fiction, which in itself is a cleverly twisty device, is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. In fact, The Sparrow is a perfect example of a good book as delineated above: It has multi-dimensional characters with whom one can identify and care about, and these characters get caught up, very believably, in unexpectedly deadly situations and act (and react) in highly complicated yet totally understandable ways. It has a storyline that keeps you turning the pages to find out "what happens next" and has an ending that is anything but pedestrian. It has some of the best writing I've read recently ~ nothing high-flown or pretentious, just solid, from-the-gut, honest writing. And a deep, emotional impact whose even deeper philosophical meaning only became clear after the reverberations of the end faded.

Yeah, the story is important, and without a good story I don't usually feel much compulsion to go on reading, but I need all those other things too.

I know, I am so demanding!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

It's a Crime! Top 50 Crime Writers List.

I just love lists! The 3 best books of the past month. The 10 best books of the year. The top 25 favorite books of all time. Whether it's making up my own list of bests or seeing others' lists, I can't pass up a list.

On April 18, 2008, The Times Online published an article listing the"Top 50 Crime Writers" but I only just saw it. To say I was surprised not to see Michael Connelly and Rex Stout on the list is an understatement. To say I was disappointed that Cornwell and McCall Smith were on the list instead is similarly understated. But, as everyone knows, there's no accounting for taste in reading as well as everything else in life.

Anyway, turns out I've read (or tried to read) the work of 20 out of the 50: Paretsky, Tey, Coben, Crispin, Cornwell, Hill, Mosley, Allingham, Poe, Collins, Sayers, Rendell, Sjowall & Wahloo, James, Lehane, McBain, Doyle, Christie, and Simenon. McCall Smith was the one I tried but didn't enjoy. I'm particularly fond of the novels of Tey, Crispin, Mosley, Sayers, Sjowall & Wahloo, and Christie.

So, how many of these icons have you read? And who is/are your favorite(s)?:
From The Times Online
April 18, 2008

The 50 Greatest Crime Writers

1. Patricia Highsmith
Rule-breaking master of amorality
2. Georges Simenon
The Trojan horse of foreign crime-writing
3. Agatha Christie
The original Queen of Crime
4. Raymond Chandler
The most profound of pulp writers
5.Elmore Leonard
The Dickens of Detroit
6. Arthur Conan Doyle
Creator of the ultimate hero-and-sidekick team
7. Ed McBain
Thrilling writer of snap-and-crackle dialogue
8. James M. Cain
Godfather of Noir
9. Ian Rankin
Edinburgh’s gritty crime laureate
10. James Lee Burke
American spinner of bleakly lyrical tales
11. Dennis Lehane
A tender craftsman with a tough centre
12. P.D. James
Prolific and cerebral grand dame of British crime
13. Dashiell Hammett
The man who dragged murder back into the alley
14. Jim Thompson
Revered creator of corrupt cops and sociopaths
15. Sjowall and Wahloo
The mother and father of Nordic crime
16. John Dickson Carr
King of the “locked room mystery”
17. Cornell Woolrich
Tortured pulp novelist known for Rear Window
18. Ruth Rendell
Criminal mastermind of unparalleled breadth and depth
19. Ross Macdonald
Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled heir
20. James Ellroy
The most literary of American crime writers
21. Charles Willeford
Aficianados’ favourite who is ripe for a break-through
22. Dorothy Sayers
Lord Peter Wimsey’s witty creator
23. John Harvey
The man behind the jazz-loving Nottingham cop Resnick
24. Wilkie Collins
Godfather of the detective novel
25. Francis Iles
Pseudonymous writer of radical plots
26. Manuel Vasquez Montalban
Intellectual gourmand whose fiction mapped Barcelona
27. Karin Fossum
Norway’s foremost cold-climate crime writer
28. Val McDermid
Influential author of high-grade “Tartan Noir”
29. Edgar Allan Poe
Mould-setter for the modern sleuth
30. Derek Raymond
Hard-drinking, hard-writing British crime legend
31. George Pelecanos
Energetic, music-loving social crusader
32. Margery Allingham
Golden Age sophisticate who can chill or charm
33.Minette Walters
Unflinching chronicler of humankind’s dark side
34.Carl Hiaasen
Rapid-fire satirist of Miami vices
35.Walter Mosley
A bold American voice, not afraid to tackle race
36. Reginald Hill
Playful creator of British favourites Dalziel and Pascoe
37.Michael Dibdin
Late, great ironist who investigated Italy’s corruption
38. Patricia Cornwell
Shrewd pioneer of gruesome pathology
39. Scott Turow
Legal thriller-writer famous for Presumed Innocent
40. Dick Francis
Former jockey and king of equestrian intrigue
41. Edmund Crispin
Elegant and accomplished Oxford plotter
42. Alexander McCall Smith
Scottish Professor whose Mma Ramotswe has won
hearts and minds
43 Andrea Camilleri
Italy’s foremost crime export
44. Harlan Coben
Mature metroplitan stylist loved for his twisting plots
45. Donna Leon
American explorer of the Venetian underworld
46. Josephine Tey
Acute 1940s author whose books describe the danger of love
47. Colin Dexter
Former classics teacher who found fame with Morse
48. Nicholas Blake
C. Day Lewis’ crime-writing foil
49. Henning Mankell
Swedish novelist with a bleak take of modern life
50. Sara Paretsky
Spirited creator of feminist sleuth VI Warshawski

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Queen of the Road

A few weeks ago, I entered a contest on the blog of Devourer of Books for a copy of Queen of the Road and, amazingly enough, I scored it! I started reading it and am finding it very enjoyable. When I'm done, I'll post a review. Right now, I just wanted to say thanks to Devourer for sending it to me and encourage everyone to check out her blog, which has a lot of really cool stuff on it, the latest of which was a contest for the best start-of-story hook.

The one I found most compelling and voted for, 30 Million Dollars, was last in the voting, which I do not understand, except that, for my taste, the quirkier the better, and it was definitely quirky.

Shelf Awareness

I just found a new (to me) website for book lovers and those who work with or around books, including readers and writers. It's particularly interesting to me, because I wasn't quite sure where to begin to look for ARCs, other than Library Thing. I haven't had a chance to explore all it has to offer, but from my preliminary look-see, it's pretty darn exciting! Here's the website:

There are contests you can enter to win books, and also a place for bloggers to register to receive ARCs. Along with reviews and a book store, well, hard to resist.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

An Evening at the Hollywood Bowl

For my recent birthday, my boss gave me two box seat tickets to see Etta James in concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Now, going out after work on a midweek evening comes about fourth or fifth down on the list of ways I like to spend my time (the first being reading a good book, of course, followed closely by hanging around LibraryThing, posting to my blog, and sleeping). But, it being a gift, I had no choice but to go. I invited a dear friend to go along with me, and we made our plans.

They were good plans, too. We'd leave the office at about 5 p.m., walk over to my place (I live about 5 minutes from work), freshen up a bit, pack the cooler with the Mediterranean feast I'd picked up the night before from the Whole Foods deli, take the subway (the entrance is just across the street from my apartment) to Hollywood & Highland and the shuttle from there to the Bowl. We'd be there in plenty of time to enjoy our dinner and dessert before the show started at 8 p.m.

Know that little saying about "the best laid plans?" Well, these particular plans ended up going way astray. Like, think stratosphere.

At first, all seemed well. We got to my place, packed our food and utensils, I changed from my work clothes into something more comfy, grabbed my 70s-look fringed shawl to use as a tablecloth and in case it turned a cool later on, and out the door we went. While we were waiting at the elevators, I began listing what I had brought, in case I'd forgotten something. My friend broke in with a grin, "And the tickets?"

The tickets! Oh, no, I had left them in my desk at the office!

Leaving my friend to wait for me in the lobby, I hightailed it back to my apartment, grabbed my key card (since 9/11, we need one to get into the office), and hotfooted it to the office. On the way back, I realized I had forgotten the dessert in the refrigerator, so I went back up to my apartment, stuffed the dessert container into my purse, and hurried back down to the lobby. Now we were running about 30 minutes late, and sweat was dripping down my brow.

We caught the Redline with no further problems and in 20 mins. found ourselves at Hollywood & Highland. We began walking toward where I believed the shuttles would be waiting for us, when my friend pulled out a little map she'd printed off the internet and said she thought we were going the wrong way. We consulted the map and, sure enough, it looked like we were. So, we turned around and scurried back along Hollywood Blvd. through the massive traffic jam of sightseers and costumed freaks (lots of black capes and masks around, plus a Jack Sparrow or two and a mime all covered in silver paint ~ I kept wondering how his skin could breathe and whether he'd drop dead of oxygen starvation (like the golden girl in Goldfinger, remember?) right before our eyes) who pack the boulevard around the huge theater complex every evening, summer and winter.

We got to where the map indicated the shuttle parking lot should be and ~ surprise! surprise! ~ it wasn't there. We asked a passerby, who said it was in the direction we'd been headed originally before we turned around. My friend and I just looked at each other in horror and, without even discussing it, flagged a cab.

Now, I don't know how it is where you live, but in Los Angeles, cab drivers do not like to pick up anyone who is only going a short distance. We were within walking distance of the Bowl, but it was all uphill, and my friend and I had run out of stamina. The first cabbie looked at us like we were bugs and pretended he hadn't heard us, so we found another who said, sure, he'd be happy to take us to the Bowl. At least, I think that's what he said, since he spoke mostly in a language I took to be Iranian or Armenian or Greek. The drive to the Bowl, which should have taken 5 mins., ended up taking us nearly a half hour due to the heavy volume of cars headed for the Bowl, so our cabbie made out pretty well after all, but I was almost hyperventilating by the time he dropped us off, and my friend's face was an alarming puce color.

Anyway, we got to the Bowl just in time to find our seats, say hello to the young couple with whom we were sharing the box, and set the table up before the first act came on.

Born and raised in Paisley, Scotland, Paolo Nutini is a 22-year-old singer/songwriter who sings R&B with a voice "husky with longing, rasping with need." He reminded me a little of Van Morrison, Mick Jagger, and Otis Redding rolled into one. The music was soul with little bit of rock, jazz, country, and blues thrown in. He obviously had some fans in the audience ~ every song was prefaced by squeals and entreaties from young women for their favorite song. The best part of the whole show, for me, was the old bald dude who played harmonica and other wind instruments and looked like he'd been rockin' out since before the parents of the other guys in the band were even out of grammar school!

Second act was Solomon Burke, "the King of Rock and Soul." He came out on a revolving stage, sitting on a throne-like chair, with a regal red robe over his glittering black suit, flanked by a dozen musicians and singers and two huge vases of hundreds of long-stemmed red roses. A henchman loomed by his side ~ a tall man dressed in a white suit ~ who kept wiping his bald pate with a huge black handkerchief. Burke has a great deep voice ~ it sent shivers down my spine ~ and a wonderful stage presence, though he never rose from his throne. He was so immense, I think he couldn't easily have stood. His youngest daughter (out of 21 kids!) sang backup, and she soloed with "I Will Survive" at his request. During the show, he invited some of the women up on stage to dance, and a couple of them had this cool dance routine going with the guy in the white suit. Before the end of the performance, he had his son (another backup singer) and the guy in the white suit hand out all the roses to the ladies in the audience who came down to the stage area to get one. My friend and I didn't go down, but the sweet woman who was sharing our box went down and snagged three ~ one for each of us.

The legendary Etta James did not come on until 10 p.m., which was I thought rather late, but the reason was soon clear. After a musical tribute to Isaac Hayes, Etta walked onstage with the same painful shuffle I employ when I first get up in the morning, and for a minute I wondered if she would make it to the mike. Then she reached her chair and, holding onto the back, made a risque little hip movement that brought a surge of laughter and a few whistles from the audience.

For a woman of 70 years who had recently lost 200 pounds, seated in a chair, she put on quite a show! She sang a number of songs, including her signature tune, “At Last,” “Something’s Got A Hold On Me,” and my personal favorite, “Tell Mama,” all accompanied by the sort of physical movements that would have made me blush, except she did it with such joie de vivre and innocent fun that I couldn't help but grin and clap and hope that I'll be as hot a mama when I'm 70, though it isn't likely since I'm nowhere near as hot now and never have been. Her set was relatively short but full of great music, laughter, and her amazing voice. Everyone leaving the Bowl seemed to be in an uplifted mood, laughing and talking animatedly about the show, and even showing courtesy to others occasionally.

It was a good evening, and worth all the effort it took to get there!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

More Book Giveaways

It may sound strange coming from someone who blogs, but I never knew there were so many great blogs out there. In fact, I've been struggling with the question of whether the world needs one more blog (mine), and wondering whether I should just give up on The Anything Blog. But then it occured to me that the number of bloggers, when compared to the vast number of potential readers out there in the e-audience, is a mere drop in the ol' e-bucket.

So, I'll continue to blog here while, at the same time, adding to the list of other blogs I want to keep up with, though I've got a lot of keeping up to do already!

Here's one I checked out this morning: Paul's The Blood of the Muse, which has a number of book giveaways, including a SIGNED copy of Jim Butcher's White Knight.

Another cool blog I just discovered is Dawn's She Is Too Fond of Books. Now, I happen to know where she got the blog name and adore Alcott's quote ("She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain."), but I never thought of using it as a blog name. I envy Dawn her creativity! Anyway, check out her blog and enter her contest for a chance to win a copy of The Gargoyle.

Good reading!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Another Gargoyle Giveaway!!!

Man, I cannot wait to get my paws on Gargoyle ~ so many great reviews praising it to heaven! Well, Bookish Ruth is another blogger bud of mine who is giving a copy away. I better get with the program quick and get hold of a copy to give away here, or I'll lose out on the fun!

Stay tuned, boys and girls. I'm working on that.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

I Want to Go to Guernsey

Last month, I won an Advance Reading Copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow from LibraryThing. It was exciting to win an ARC, but then I began to worry. I'd heard such great things about it from others who'd already read it that I feared it would not live up to my expectations. On top of that, it turned out to be written entirely as a series of letters & journal entries (which is not one of my favorite forms of fiction). Even the title started to annoy me ~ what the heck does potato peel pie have to do with anything? And what is a potato peel pie anyway? ~ so I put the book aside and continued to read the other four books I had going.

Before long, my conscience began to bother me. I had asked for the book, after all, and receiving an ARC is a privilege that carries with it duties, two of which are to read the darn thing and write a review. So, seeing as the novel was relatively short (274 pages in the ARC version) and the review need be only 25 words long, I picked it up one night when I couldn't seem to get comfortable in bed, figuring it would at worst put me to sleep.

Oh! I couldn't put it down! From the first page, it hooked me. Listen to the first paragraph of the first letter:

"Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue. If all her literary luncheons are going to achieve these heights, I won't mind touring about the country. Do you suppose that a lavish bonus could spur her on to butter? Let's try it - you may deduct the money from my royalties."
(P. 1, ARC version.)

Three hours later (!), I made myself stop reading and turn out the light, but I picked it up again the next evening as soon as I got home from work and finished it before I went to sleep that night.

The novel is set in post-WWII London and on Guernsey, an island in the English Channel. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), Guernsey, which is part of Great Britain, was occupied by the Nazis during much of WWII, and there was apparently nothing the Allies could do about it. Beneath the deceptively easy-breezy writing style of the letter-writers, the main one of whom is the delightfully witty, spirited yet vulnerable author Juliet Ashton, the effects of the war (lack of such "luxuries" as eggs, sugar and butter, the bombings of London) and of the occupation and its effects on the residents and the island come to hideous life. What also comes to life is the way the hardships brought out the best (and sometimes the worst) in the islanders, and, most charming to me, the way books became a way to endure and even to transcend their fears and pain.

There were moments where I cried, moments when I laughed, but mostly I was charmed ~ by the people who live on Guernsey, Juliet and her friends from London, and even the deplorable Adelaide Addison and Juliet's suitor, all of whom I feel as if I know and wish I could spend more time with ~ and read the novel as if under an enchantment. Days later, I still find myself smiling at a remembered bit of the novel, or heartsore to think of the pain and suffering so many innocent people went through under the Nazis. It's that kind of novel ~ and that, in my book, is the very best!