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Friday, December 14, 2012

On shootings and pain and judgement

I heard about the shooting a few hours after it happened. I was at work, I was busy. Very busy. As so, at first, I was fine. I was chatting with customers, most of whom hadn't heard anything about it. I was running internet orders, I was pricing books.

But we slowed down around lunchtime, and then I got to reading and I got to thinking. I read about the prayers of my friends with children who were still in school. I read the quotes on Twitter from various political pundits about the need for a national conversation on gun control. I read commentary and then scrolled to the top of the news site to watch the death count rising. I saw the first announcements that many, many children were dead.  I felt pain. And then customers and more orders flowed in and again, I was more or less fine.

And again, as dinner time rolled in and business slowed I got back to reading. More prayers, more news, a death far away from the school in the same incident, more calls for gun control. The President cried as he spoke and Mike Huckabee explained that this was the fault of those who took God from school. As if God wasn't everywhere in everything. As if we humans could just "take him out" of a place. As if God wasn't there with every single person who walked away from the horrific scene today. The media was offering interviews with 8 year-olds who had been inside the school. I was revolted.

My work for the day was, by now, completely done. Clean store, priced books, no mail to answer. So I started really digging into the social sites I frequent. I wanted to say something to express my horror. I wanted to talk about how gun violence inside schools has killed a stunning number of children since the 1800's (you can research this at Wikipedia by typing school shootings into the search bar, but I really don't recommend you do it today). I wanted to ask my friends who love their guns so much if it's worth it to be able to shoot at animals and cans in exchange for this. I wanted to express my profound rage at Gov. Huckabee's shameful comments. But I sat there typing long, angry screeds and erasing them over and over.
Because as I was reading and typing and researching and thinking I started to notice this OTHER type of post coming up: the kind where a person would complain about how others were responding on social media to this tragedy and then criticize that response. And of everything wrong with today, this is the one thing I feel completely qualified to speak to. Everything else has overwhelmed me utterly, but this one thing, I can talk about. So I erased my comments on gun control and my comments on Mike Huckabee (well, some of those got un-erased later) and I just posted this:

Having written and erased about ten posts here, I'm just going to keep the majority of my thoughts inside and go with this:

Process your pain in the way you need to but don't judge how anyone else processes theirs. Some people need to talk a lot and loudly. Some people need to rage angrily and say things they don't mean. Some people will cry silently and hold their loved ones close. Some will curl up under a blanket and stay as still as possible. Some will celebrate their own life by being outrageously loud and happy at their own survival. Some people will simply act as if nothing is happening. They will go about their day and not say a word, not behave a hair differently than they would any other day. This is not only a normal response, it is a healthy way to process something of this scope. Sometimes the brain needs time to absorb what has happened. But please don't shame people for not acting the way you think they should. Our entire country just suffered a violent, shocking, un-endurable loss. And we are all trying to figure out how exactly we can endure that. And we're all going to do that differently.

I'm not talking about the media, shaking their microphones in the faces of 8 year old victims, and I'm definitely not talking about Mike Huckabee who is simply an appalling, opportunistic jackass masquerading as a man of God. I'm talking about all the people here and everywhere else on the internet and in our daily lives. On top of all my pain at seeing the behavior of the media and the politicians, my pain in the thought that a very troubled person killed members of his family and at least 20 children and my rage at the thought that this is what it takes for people to start yelling about gun control, I can't take seeing another post on Twitter/ tumblr/ Facebook that criticizes the way another person is behaving today. As if there is a right response, as if we all get a little card that says "in case of the mass shooting of babies, do XXX". Just let each other be, hold each other close, whatever each of us needs, let's just be that for each other today and let all the rest of it fall away for a bit.

And whatever knee-jerk reaction I have to every person who is blithely posting pictures of their cats and promoting their self-published books, I'm going to go try to follow my own advice now. For anyone reading, I'm glad you are safe. I hope your families and your friends are safe. Stay safe, stay sane and grieve in your own way. I hope we all find peace in one way or another.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lunatic Heroes by C Anthony Martignetti

It was a strange road that led me to this book. An author I very much admire married a musician I'd never heard of. Upon listening to her music I found out that (1) I had wasted years of my life not listening to her (her music is a part of my daily life now) and that (2) she was an excellent source of suggestions for really good art of all kinds. So when admired author and beloved musician both said "you should check this book out" I decided it was probably a good idea.

I don't like memoirs. I've been known to read the odd memoir from a Hollywood writer/actor I enjoy, but really only the funny ones. (So I've read memoirs by Alan Alda, Bob Newhart, Charles Grodin and the sort-of memoir from Tina Fey and that's about it) If there's soul searching, pain, truth or anything approaching real feelings (I'm looking at you Alda, how dare you make me cry about your dog???) I move on. And since most memoirs have a heaping dose of adversity and life-pain, I skip the whole genre.

My opinion on memoirs hasn't changed, but Lunatic Heroes was worth the bending of my personal reading policy.  Instead of the more traditional format of vignettes that work together to form a cohesive timeline, Martignetti is simply telling you some stories. They feature some of the same characters and a few recurring themes, but this is really a collection of stories that also just happen to be true, and happen to be about Martignetti's childhood and family.

I loved this book. I loved that it's very intimately written, as if the author was sitting across from you in a bar, fiddling with his beer and saying "...that reminds me of this time...". I love that Martignetti is able to share these stories full of love and fear and pain (often all three at once) without a shred of judgement. Not that the child whose eyes took all these people and stories in didn't have an opinion on the world around him, but that he, the adult, isn't trying to force the reader to draw a final conclusion on any of it. Martignetti's stories, his childhood, and life in general is messy. Sloppy and complicated and smelly and sometimes very, very unpleasant  But every single story in the book is suffused with love: love of family, love of books, love of life. Fair warning, it's at minimum, a 3-hanky book. The pain, and the fear sensitive children go through is so present, so close to the surface in this book, it's hard not to look away. But it's gorgeous, messy life, and in that aspect, this book is perfect.

If you like memoirs, you'll absolutely have to check this one out, and if you don't like memoirs, I think you'll be doing yourself a favor to check it out anyway.

You can also head over to Anthony's Facebook page to leave him comments when you're done reading: https://www.facebook.com/camstories?fref=ts

As always, thanks for reading and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Jon Clinch's The Thief of Auschwitz

If you know me in real life you know I'm a huge fan of Jon Clinch's books. If you've never read him before, do yourself a favor and pick up Finn and Kings of The Earth, both fantastic, dark and atmospheric reads.

The Thief of Auschwitz is another success for Clinch. The story of a husband, wife and son all barely living in the Auschwitz camp moves back and forth from the stories of all three during the war to the more contemporary voice of the son as he prepares to launch a retrospective of his paintings in New York.  Their stories will not teach you anything new about the horrors of concentrations camp life (unless you've never read a Holocaust account of any kind) but Clinch's special gift of showing the humanity of even the most inhuman of people is once again the strongest part of his work. It's easy to sympathize with the prisoners (and indeed Clinch writes some lines for these characters that will utterly break your heart, I cried my way through several chapters) but Clinch also shows the humanity of the guards and the capos. You won't like these people but there's certainly a sense of "there but for the grace of God..." that will leave readers wondering what they would really do if beating and terrorizing fellow prisoners would save their own loved ones or themselves from the gas chamber.

There's a trick to reviewing Jon Clinch's books that I have never been able to master, and so I don't think my reviews ever do justice to his writing. Of course the plot is strong. Of course the characters feel so real, the danger immediate. Jon Clinch's technical ability to write a story is not in question ever. But that's not why you should read this book.  The beauty of his work is hard to express in a book review, because it's that almost ineffable quality some books have, resisting trite commentary on good plot mechanics and filled-out characters. You read the last page and then you just sit quietly, lest you break their spell. They change you inside, and make you more aware of the humanity around you, all of it, good and bad. And then you want to buy copies for every person you know and make them read the book too.

Just take my word for it and get yourself a copy when the book comes out on 1/15/13. In the meantime, read the other two titles, and enjoy them.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reviews, Review Copies and Integrity or Jeremy Duns, I've got your back.

There's a lot of ground to cover here, you might want to get yourself a cup of tea before you dig in...before I start hashing out these issues, I want all 4 of my readers to understand how these issues mesh with my own life.

I used to run a new bookstore. I was given HUNDREDS of book in my 5 years managing that store, and since I felt it was unethical to sell my promotional copies (regardless of the fact that many, many people do sell them) and so when I was done with books I didn't want to keep, I gave them to friends and donated them to non-profits that could use them.

While I'm certain that when publishers gave me those books they hoped I'd give them an enthusiastically positive review, I think they were mostly disappointed. (I'm a picky reader) Several times my reviews made the back of the book in it's ARC form (advanced reader's copies for other booksellers) and a few of my comments made it to the big screens at sales conferences for all the sales reps to see. I landed some great authors for my store because I was such a passionate fan of their books. I mention this so you know I was no slouch when it came to writing a good review for a book that inspired me.

Now I own a used bookstore, and I have this blog here. I have a policy (which I share with every single author and publisher that chooses to send me promotional copies of books):
1) I will NEVER sell the books they send me in my store, even finished copies.
2) I will read the books they send me (or read as much as I can if I hate it)
3) I will send feedback to the person who sent me the book, good or bad
4) I will post positive reviews to my blog. (Because I don't have time to write up a review saying "I didn't like this" unless I REALLY didn't like something)

In a stunning twist, I'm not completely unable to get promo books from the big publishers any more. (One came right out and told me "you'd probably sell them"). Because I run a store with used stock. A few smaller publishers have been wonderful about sending review copies of books, which brings me to the next point:

I love free books. I mean, I love that there are sources for free books, because I'm not exactly living large as a bookseller. I know that many people feel that price is the driving factor in their reading. I see tons of posts on Amazon and elsewhere stating that free e-books are great and people shouldn't waste money on paying for books. The devaluation of our authors is a topic for another post (but it's on my radar and it makes me angry) but I can see how for some people the dollar amount factors into their enjoyment of a title. This doesn't work for me, personally. How much I paid for something doesn't add or subtract from the quality of the writing and the story, though. So while I do think that some reviewers are biased by the gift of a free book, I'm really not.

Now here are the various issues that prompted me to write about all of this. First there was a huge internet conversation about an author who admitted that not only had he created fake online personas to write glowing reviews of his own work, he'd created accounts under fake names and under names of real authors who were unaware to stir up controversies and back and forth conversations to create more media buzz. Many authors were appalled, some made similar admissions. Enter Jeremy Duns, who is my favorite person in the world today. CLICK HERE to read the Huffpost article about his "outing" of RJ Ellory, another fake review poster. Then other stories started to leak out...like the one about the people who paid a "publicist" to write positive reviews of their books and post them on Amazon. Or THIS where a woman has been exposed for accepting thousands of books each year, reviewing as many as ten books on Amazon in a single day (all favorably, by the way) and then turning the books over to a family member to sell on half.com. And everything I talked about in the whole first part of this post is there so I don't have to tell you why I find all of this disgusting and insulting. Amazon, by the way, throws their hands up in the air and points helplessly to their "hands off" review policy. If you want to read more about ANY of this, you can follow links within these articles I linked to, you can Google "Sockpuppet reviews". But I have plenty more to say about this so I'm not wasting any more time laying out the basics.

I have no use for authors who pay people to write reviews, write their own book reviews (seriously, how drunk or egotistical do you have to be to think this is a good idea?) or for reviewers who aren't reading a book carefully and then speaking from their heart about how that book made them feel. As a poor bookseller, I'm enraged to see that some reviewers are selling their promo copies for money. I've been just sitting around, having all these feelings by myself for a week now. And then today two things happened that flipped my switch over to "sharing my anger with the world". First, Jeremy Duns tweeted that he wondered why he was talking about all these issues when it seemed that the people in power weren't listening. Second, in reviewing Mr Duns past tweets to link to some of these articles I saw a back and forth between him and a woman who took huge issue with his "outing" of fake Amazon reviewers. A lot of it bugged me, but the winning quote came from the woman who said to him: "Where does it say on Amazon that you have to read the book to review it?"

So, Jeremy Duns, I've got your back, for whatever that's worth. There's no way to fight the machine of Amazon, nor the machine of the big 6 publishers and their massive marketing. There's no way to argue with the morally bankrupt author who refuses to call out a fraudulent reviewer, she's probably hoping some of the fraud makes it over to her neck of the woods. But we can all refuse to let a faulty review system guide our purchasing. We can all keep loudly telling everyone within earshot how appalling this entire extended situation is and we can refuse to purchase books by authors who have been caught padding their own reviews. And all of you can go read these articles, educate yourselves (try THIS) about how to spot fake reviews and when you see them on Amazon, flag them as "unhelpful". I sent Mr Duns a message earlier today via his website, and I ended it with "You will still have your integrity and I'll still have mine" and at this point, that feels an awful lot like winning.

Cinnamon Roll Murder by Joanne Fluke

The Cinnamon Roll Six are the hottest touring jazz band around, and Hannah Swenson is the baker providing sweets for their local gig. When the driver of the tour bus dies behind the wheel and the band ends up in the hospital, everyone thinks that the keyboard player's sprained wrist is the worst thing that could have happened. It's not. Meanwhile, Hannah's ex-boyfriend is about to marry a woman who claims to be the mother of his child, but his friends are suspicious and Hannah is downright miserable about it.

I'd always wanted to read one of Joanne Fluke's books, but hadn't gotten around to it. Kensington Press was a prize donor for the Eljay's Books 2012 Read-A-Thon (it's over but you can check out the prize page and some info HERE) and along with all the great prizes they sent, I got my very own copy of Fluke's March release.

Now there has been a lot of talk about how much reviewers might be influenced by free copies of books. I'm going to get into that in my next blog post, but for now I'm just going to promise you that my enjoyment of this book had nothing to do with it being a free copy. (And if you'd like to discuss this with me I'd be happy to, just wait until I get the next post up and you can look at my whole argument before you respond please)

So, on to the book under review.

I'm a sucker for cooking cozies but until I read this book I never considered for a second that I'd make something from a cozy I was reading. The Chocolate Avocado cookies sound so good, I think I'm going to try making them. And probably the Hamburger Bake too. And maybe the German Pancakes. And while none of this really has that much bearing on how much I liked the book, I'm impressed that the recipes got my attention.

The plot is strong, the mystery is good (although I did figure out who the killer was before the reveal) and the writing is solid. One of the things that always jars me in reading cozies about cooks and bakers is that time seems to magically expand to allow them to make absurd amounts of food while eschewing sleep and mundane things like grocery shopping. Fluke neatly avoids this by making Hannah part of a multi-person business, and her interactions with the people she works with (and her clients) is realistic, as are the characters responses to the events around them. The posturing of the jerky keyboard player and the behavior of the "groupie" type girls touring with the band rang true enough to move away from just being stock characters.

Even the obligatory romantic element wasn't annoying (I have such a sore spot for reading romance, sorry). I have missed the first 14 books in the series, but at the point I started, Hannah's boyfriend has broken up with her because his ex claims to have given birth to their daughter and refuses to let him be part of the child's life unless they get married. Of course the ex is suspect (as is the child's paternity), and Hannah isn't just investigating a murder, she's also trying to find out what is up with this woman. Again, Fluke's writing makes what could be very flat characters in stock situations seem fuller, more real.

My only complaint was that the final reveal may have solved a few too many problems too easily. But honestly, if the last few pages were a little "pat" for my taste, but the rest of the story was so compulsively readable, I can live with it. I will absolutely be reading the rest of this series enthusiastically.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


It's official!!

I'll post a link to the article tomorrow, but for now I'd like to mention that I'm quoted as saying "It's still hard to find people weirder than us."

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Writing what we do not know

In my internet wanderings this week I came across two controversies regarding artists creating characters fairly well-removed from their own daily reality. In both cases these authors faced the wrath of hugely offended groups of readers. Here are the basic scenarios:

In the first situation, an author (white) wrote a book about a mixed-race character. The character lies compulsively, about her race, her gender (when mistaken for a boy she simply doesn't correct the other person) and all kinds of other things. She's also the main character in the book. Many characters in the book are not white, by the way. Objections from some readers ranged from the fact that the author didn't stick to white characters to the perception that the main character's unsavory activities are a statement on non-white people in general. The lies about her gender led to accusations of trans-phobia.  CLICK HERE to read the authors blog on the controversy. After that, you can CLICK HERE to read her update on the fight to change the cover image on the book to one that properly represents the character.

In the second situation a musician I like had problems a few years ago because she and a friend wrote an album. It was a concept album (based completely in fiction) about conjoined twin girls. Saved from death at the hands of a mad surgeon they are almost immediately kidnapped and forced to (among other things) travel with a freak show. Eventually they decide to escape their horrible life and form a band, writing sad songs about their lives and selling CDs over the internet. It's a strange (but good) CD. It's definitely not for everyone, especially with the extremely dark themes and imagery that run almost the length of the album. And in this case people were upset that the protagonists were female and conjoined twins. The breadth of angry blogs, artist responses, angry retorts, etc are far to great for me to give you a list, but The album in question is Evelyn Evelyn, if you want to go googling.

And after spending a few days reading and thinking about these two situations I came up with this:

Artists should always be responsible about researching their characters. Another recent internet explosion was related to an author (white) who wrote a book in which the white characters (referred to as "Pearls") wore blackface to blend in with black people ("Coals"). This, and a variety of other racially charged stereotypes were used in the book in the most offensive ways possibly because the author didn't research the topics she was writing about. But once the artist knows their territory it's really up to them what they do with it. An individual character isn't representative of the REAL people who are in the same social, economic, racial etc. group. It's unfair to judge an artists work in that way unless they say "I mean this white, bisexual, incontinent redhead to represent the attitudes and abilities of all white, bisexual, incontinent redheads everywhere." then you can go ahead and judge. It's also unfair to attack an author as racist, size-ist, whatever-ist because they made a character you don't personally like. If you don't like the art, don't condemn it, just don't consume it.

I asked my very smart business partner and author Frank Oreto about all of this a few days ago. I never write these things down when I need to but I want to close by paraphrasing what he said in response to all of this. "Writing books is like ESP. I put words on paper to represent what's in my head and then you pick those words up and they create a story for you and hopefully you get what I wanted you to. But I'm also writing from my own experience and knowledge, and your experience and knowledge is different. So what are the chances you won't read something differently than I meant it?"

Smart guy.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Things not to do when writing a cozy mystery...

I normally don't bother to finish, let alone review books I don't like. I don't like to give bad books the time and energy it takes to write a blog post and I don't want to give those books the exposure (limited as it is) either. So last night, when I read a cozy with a great plot, a strong mystery and fairly good characters but a few GLARING issues, I decided that I'd vent my frustration is a more positive way.

If you have ever contemplated writing a cozy, here are a few things I think you should avoid.

1) Mentioning race to show that you are "tolerant". It's a plain old fact that most of your readers will see your characters in their own imagination as their own race, gender, etc until you tell them exactly what is in your own head. But when you point out that one pair of people (who appear for exactly two sentences) are black, you pretty much imply that EVERYONE else in the story is white, otherwise why would you make a big show of letting us know someone wasn't white? Sure the attempt at inclusion is probably coming from a good place, but it doesn't end up that way. Especially when the dishwasher in the restaurant is the only Mexican, the lawyers are the only Jewish people and when the main character imagines her sister in jail she also imagines a black person standing in line for the phones behind her. We get it, we get it, you are white and sometimes you let people who are not white enter your world (except the last example I mentioned which I think was just racist).

2) Mocking androgyny.  Oh, this is absolutely my pet peeve right now. For the record, if you can't tell what gender a person is, that may be their deliberate choice, it may be their genetics. But either way. if that makes you uneasy the problem is yours. Just like small children need to be reminded not to stare at people who look different for one reason or another, apparently today's adults need to be reminded not to mock people that make them uncomfortable. So when you're talking to someone about a transgendered person, or just a very androgynous one, please remember that using terms like "he/she", "it" or just saying "oh, I just can't tell if you're a boy or a girl" is dehumanizing and hurtful (not ever cute, not ever!). Much like you don't know why that guy on the bus has one leg, you don't know why the person in front of you is registering on your radar as gender-neutral and frankly, it's not going to affect your life in any meaningful way. Keep your ignorance to yourself and deal with the human being. Also, if it actually interferes with your interaction to not know if the person identifies as male or female, simply introduce yourself and then refer to them by their name.

3) Goth hate. I identify as a Goth. Before you, as an author, make "goths drink each other's blood and worship Satan jokes" remember that you're perpetuating a harmful and completely inaccurate stereotype about a fairly large sub-culture. Also, like the last item in my list, you're mocking something that is different from your own experience, so aren't you just mocking your own ignorance? (Hint: Yes.) By the way, us Goths have terms for blood-drinkers and worshipers of Satanic forces...we call them crazies and Satan worshipers. Nothing to do with Goth, please move on.

4) Women don't always notice each other's clothing. I could not tell you what I wore yesterday, let alone what any other person I saw wore. Yet in many cozies, like dogs sniffing each others' butts, women not only describe every piece of clothing they are wearing, we have to sit through an explanation, often complete with designer label names, of what ever woman they encounter is wearing. Also, this technique is often used when gay men appear, proving that most cozy mystery authors know very different (and far better dressed) gay men than I do.

5) People who cook professionally do not actually use food metaphors to express themselves all the time. I know this for a fact. You can not make your book's foodie character more authentic by having them compare the sunrise to a pile of eggs and bacon, or by calling a traffic pile up "a bad hash".

Needless to say, I won't be reading anything else by this author.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Finally, a new review!! The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye

I have a bit of a burr under my saddle about the new publishing world lately...as I've mentioned here in the past, the largest publishing houses used to fall all over themselves offering me advance reading copies of books they wanted me to review (and this was pre-blog, so I was really just reviewing them for my own customers). It turns out that they were far more interested in my title as the GM of a big indie store, not so much in my opinion as a small indie bookstore owner (or as a blogger.)

Enter Unbridled Books, a wonderful indie publisher. I first found them reading Emily St. John Mandel's Last Night in Montreal and The Singer's Gun. Since those two great titles (go check them out!!) I've been a fan of Unbridled's darker literary fiction style. Having recently reconnected with my contacts there, I'm thrilled to be able to review a few of their new titles for you. I'm still reading one of the titles I picked up, so you'll have to be context with one review today, but more coming soon!

Safe from the Sea

Peter Geye's debut novel, Safe From the Sea was a great father-son tale with a shipwreck story woven in (I read it long enough ago that I can tell you to go read it, but I can't offer a very detailed review...still, it was good enough to bear mentioning here!) So I was eager to pick up The Lighthouse Road.

The Lighthouse Road

The Lighthouse Road follows some familiar themes from Safe in that the father-son relationship is examined (albeit in a very different form) but I think in many ways, Geye goes deeper into his Norwegian heritage and into the ideas he first explored in his other book, and the result is wonderful.

Odd Eide is born to a mother who dies young, adopted by a man who is, in turns, a father-figure, a dissolute and a sharp but morally questionable business man. Hosea Grimm lives by a strict moral code, but one of his own devising, and as a self-appointed guardian of Odd he teaches the boy his various trades including bootleg whiskey running. Hosea's "daughter", while many year's Odd's senior, has been carrying on with the young man behind Hosea's back, leading to some unsurprising problems between the two men. Odd's story moved back in forth on time from the late 1800s, just before and after his birth, to the 1820s as he begins to find his way as an adult.

This is literary historical fiction at it's best, well-crafted, carefully researched, and still completely readable without ever being dragged into what I think of as "researching author disease". (This is, by the way, the tendency of some historical fiction authors to feel the need to fit in every single fact they ever learned on the time period they are writing in regardless of level of interest to the reader) Geye's ability to create a sense of the desolation of wintertime Minnesota logging camps, the cultural isolation of Odd's Norwegian -speaking immigrant mother, the morally bereft yet rigid Hosea's character, is exceptional. Odd's whiskey-running bravado, mixed with his far more unsure internal voice show a protagonist that is believable and never pitiable. Odd's love Rebekah is never quite the victim but never quite the hero either, a tricky bit of characterization to pull off convincingly. (there is so much more I'd like to say about the complex and compelling woman, but I refuse to give anything away at all!!) Geye continually walks the fine line of showing us tragedy and hardship without jerking on heartstrings in a maudlin way. As with Safe From the Sea, Geye is the master illusionist, showing his readers the bits of the story he wants us to see first and then pulling back just a bit more of the curtain, then a bit more, until finally the entire magical whole is visible and we can see how it all fits together.

The trick to reviewing books like this one is that most of the glowingly enthusiastic things I could tell you about the book would also give away plot points, and as I've mentioned, the "reveal" is part of the magic. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed The Lighthouse Road very much, and I think you should read it. And when you have read it, please drop a line in the comments to let me know what you thought! I'd also highly recommend this title to book groups, the number of interesting discussion points here are staggering.

Happy Reading!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Eva Gabrielsson's There Are Things I Want You To Know

The full title of the book is "There Are Things I want You To Know About Stieg Larsson and Me" and if you've not followed the huge controversy related to the Millennium Trilogy I'll fill you in...

From his 20s until his death, Stieg Larsson was a journalist and the organizer behind Sweden's magazine Expo, dedicated to exposing White Supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups operating in Sweden and elsewhere. He and his partner, Eva Gabrielsson, spent much of their adult lives protecting themselves and being protected by the police against death threats from these groups. Expo's originally publisher dropped the magazine after (I think) 3 issues because of the threats leveled against their offices and staff. The point being, Stieg Larsson was as committed as a person can be to exposing and fighting White Supremacy groups and the people who privately funded their campaigns of hate and murder in and around Sweden.

Stieg Larsson's books know in America as "The Millenium Trilogy" and in their original language as "Men Who Hate Women" grew out of Larsson's own concern for the high rate (sadly, very close to America's own) of unreported or unresolved man on woman violence in Sweden. He created his own avenging angel in Lizbeth Salander, and set her free to wreak havok on a system that oppressed her, her mother and friends like the other hero of the books, Mikail Bloomkvist.  The Millenium Trilogy was meant to be a 10 book series, and at the time of Larsson's death (a heart attack around the age of 53, the same approximate age and cause of death as his mother and his maternal grandfather) a fourth book was being written. 

I want to talk just a bit about the books, only because I have such strong feelings about the series and I know there are still some people out there who haven't read them. First, I want to acknowledge that the violence in these books is extreme and some (but not actually very much of it) is graphic sexual violence. This series is not for someone who can't read about such things, mostly because I think Larsson is utterly successful in removing any sense that rape could be anything other than a violent, hateful violation. The reading of it certainly scars the reader. I think it's extreme enough that people who really can't bring themselves to read this sort of thing should just stay away from it (or skip that part, with the help of another reader who could just mark off the relevant pages to be skipped over). That's also some of the power of Larsson's writing...he accurately and with out glamorizing anything depicts violence as a bad thing that leaves no heroes, no "badasses". Even the mighty Lizbeth is felled for the entire second book by a single bullet and some rough fighting. No heroes, just survivors. At the same time, Larsson wrote some compelling mystery/ thriller/ political espionage (each book has it's own sub-genre nod) that will engage readers to the point of forgoing food and sleep to keep going. While Lizbeth is not (and is never portrayed as) a role-model, neither is the anti-hero Batman, a tortured, emotionally fractured, extremely violent man dressed as a bat with a utility belt. Nonetheless, it's hugely satisfying to watch the Caped Crusader take justice and vengeance into his own hands. So it is with Ms. Salander. She's the terrifying tale oppressors, corrupt government officials, rapists and racists whisper in each other's ears. It's not real, as a matter of fact, never in human history has it been more clear that we as a world-wide culture have no boogey man to send after the powerful, abusive rich. But the vicarious thrill of watching Lizbeth and Mikail set the world right is so satisfying, it almost makes watching the nightly news bearable. 

So on to the book I'm actually reviewing...Product Details

At the time of Steig Larsson's death he had been Eva Gabrielsson's life partner for 30 plus years. The books were entering publication, but no one had any idea what the scope of the series would become. Steig Larsson had not have much, if any contact with his living relations, a brother and father, and he was not legally married to Gabrielsson (interestingly, if they'd had a child together this detail would be irrelevant). The fourth book was more than halfway outlined and partially written and is (still) on a laptop owned by Expo magazine along with Larsson's political writings and his list of informants and sources (which are protected from seizure by laws that protect journalist sources) Everything that I'm going to mention going forward is entirely in dispute and entirely taken from Gabrielsson's version of events.

Gabrielsson's book covers her own childhood and what little Larsson shared with her (both had abandonment issues and chose to focus more on the future than the past) and then focuses on their 30 years together. The final chapters cover the immense legal issues surrounding Larsson's property and the rights to the Millenium books. Here's the basic dispute: Gabrielsson and Larsson, unmarried, have no legal rights to each other's property. By the letter of the law that's pretty much it. Gabrielsson contends that they had planned to get married but between their busy lives, the threat of more danger to Eva if she was connected via paperwork to Stieg, and the hassle of required paperwork made this something they simply put off, always thinking they had more time. At the time of Steig's death, Eva says that he was planning to set up a company they would share in equally that all book royalties would be paid to and all rights to future books assigned to as well, so if one of them was to die the other would take over all money and rights as co-owner of the company. The company, like the official marriage, was something never gotten around to.

Several friends of Larsson's, as well as his father and brother had insisted that Gabrielsson was simply a mistress, and on-again-off again lover with an interest in the massive payday associated with the books. Gabrielsson has always insisted that the money is not at all the issue (and has in fact refused a number of huge payoffs from the family to drop her fight for rights to the works) but the integrity of Larsson's work is her concern. She also refuses to release the fourth book in it's unfinished format to the family, stating her concern that it would not be finished in a way that Larsson would approve (by the way, the working title of book four is The Vengeance of God).

I don't normally follow these legal things, I like books enough to not ruin them with real life...but in this case I had a chance to pick up a copy of Gabrielsson's version of events (signed by her!) and I was just too curious to find out what she would say to miss it. Readers will either believe her or not, but I was compelled by her arguments and I'm going to go so far as to explain why:

1) She's not a good writer. She could be simply the best and most manipulative writer EVER but since she's an architect by trade, I doubt it. She is plain spoken, she is blunt. There is simply no artifice and a rather painful earnestness to her words. Her passion for her work and for Steig's work and for him as a person is plain on every page.

2) She's never made a money grab (that I can find). For two years, unsure of her ownership of the house she and Steig co-owned at his death, she lived out of boxes. Her legal defense fund was set up fairly recently by a third party. She never went to the tabloids or the media for a paid interview. Even the book, which obviously she will profit from, isn't about how wronged she is or how bad other people are, it's about how fervently she wants to guard the legacy of her life partner from being used for financial gain. Of course there is anger, but also forgiveness and sadness.

3) She won't release the fourth book for any amount of money, but she has repeatedly said she will release it if she can finish it herself, following what she knew to be Steig's explicit wishes and values.

The book was a short, but affecting read. I cried when Gabrielsson discussed the last days of her relationship and the pain she felt at Larsson's death. I was stirred when she talked about their commitment to human rights causes, and I just started to re-read the Trilogy at the heart of the whole issue just because reading this book reminded my why the series is so compelling. I recommend this book heartily, and while I feel strongly about the veracity of Eva Gabrielsson's claims I encourage readers to draw their own conclusions and share their thoughts with my in the comments below.

in which I continue to buck the trend by reviewing more books that have been out for a long time

Well, maybe you like those fancy schmanzy book review pages with their "this just in" cutting edge new book reviews. But I own a used bookstore, so most publishers don't grant me the honor of pre-release copies anymore. I do, however, keep right on reading the thousands of millions of books that are already available to the public (often for several years) so in case you are as behind the curve as I am, or you just like to hear my opinion on things (I'm betting on #1) here are reviews for:
Jim Butcher's Dresden Files Ghost Story

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Interestingly, when I pulled the image for this book onto the blog I also spotted this pic of Ms. Fey looking utterly fantastic:

Seriously, this is a really fantastic picture right?
So let's talk about her book first. Bossypants is a series of essay style chapters that are part memoir, part stand up riff. Think of it as Fey performing Weekend Update on the topics of her personal and professional life. Fey's writing is always fresh and funny, her humor is dry and sarcastic and self-deprecating. There's not a lot to pull apart and look at with this book, if you like her, you'll love it. If you don't like her, this book isn't going to change your mind. I happen to think she's one of the funniest people on the planet, so I laughed out loud repeatedly and had a great time reading it. It's also not a deeply confessional book, although there are some juicy behind-the-scenes moments from Fey's TV shows I never really felt like I got to know the author better. I was very impressed that  one of the final chapters each of the 30 Rock writers gets a mention as well as a bit of what the author considers their best writing. (One writer penned the line "Never follow a hippie you just met to a secondary location"...truer words were never spoken) It was both classy and unexpected...like Tina Fey herself.

Jim Butcher's Ghost Story is up next...normally, I'd quickly catch up the reader who doesn't know the series on where we are in the story line but in this case, it's pointless. The series is now thirteen books in. While some books are more directly tied into the core plot than others, this one is entirely predicated on past titles, past alliances between supernatural factions and character development based on incidents that happened many books ago. I can't even explain enough to make a basic plot summary make sense. So here's what I can tell you: Harry Dresden is dead (this happened at the end of the last book, aptly titled Changes) and he is now responsible for finding his own killer so he can move on to some kind of afterlife. Everything else? Well, you'll just have to go read ALL the books. 

If you are a fan of Laurel Hamilton or Charlaine Harris, you could think of The Dresden Files as the male counterpart to their supernatural investigation series. Butcher writes a better magic-users world, in my opinion. His magic follows what could be recognized as some kind of logical, physical laws and also would be more palatable to the real, human breed of magic user than some of the aforementioned authors. Like Hamilton's Anita Blake books, the writing cries out for a continuity editor, but unlike Hamilton, Harry Dresden's storyline never descends into soft-core porn, so points for that. In short, if you haven't started the series and you are the least bit curious about it, I think you should run out to Eljay's (or call us) and get the series.

**If you have not read the series and you want to, please stop reading now (and come back to this after you read books 12), spoilers ahead***

For those of you who have already read the preceding books,  I'd rate this one slightly below the average quality. A lot happens, which is always good in a plot-driven book. Molly gets a major character-angst upgrade and so does long-suffering Murphy. Having wiped out the Red Court, Dresden has closed-out a huge number of storylines from earlier books...Susan, their daughter, Mab's pursuit of Dresden as the Winter Knight, all resolved. 

***end spoilers***

This combined with Dresden's lack of physical presence give the whole book a bit of "nowhere to go" feeling. Dresden has always been a bit neurotically-stuck-in-his-own-head for me, but when all he is amounts to his thoughts (and most of his thoughts amount to "oh no, I have no body!"), it's downright annoying. While the end of the book is satisfying and opens a whole new set of problems and character paths for Dresden, Molly and Murphy, I can't help feeling like this would have made a great short story or even a novella rather than a full length book. Still, I'm happy to hear that a contract for many more book was just signed, especially since rumors abounded a few years ago that Ghost Story would be the series finale. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The seven things I wish every customer knew

1) If you want a bookseller to find a book for you give them any or all of the following: The author, the title, the ISBN (a 10 or 13 digit number usually printed on the back or copyright page of the book). If you don't have one of those three things, it will be extremely hard to find your book (contrary to long standing myth, books can not be located solely by color.)

2) If a book is in a place you can get to it, it's for sale, even if it's the last one or located in a window display.

3) If you use books as a place to lean, set your purse, pad the charge slip you are signing, or set your beverage on a bookseller may burst into tears. Don't make the bookseller cry.

4) Booksellers thrive on conversations about books, and we learn a LOT from our customers. If you are browsing and you spot something you love, see if your bookseller has read it yet. Tell them why it is awesome.

5) There's an unwritten code among booksellers and librarians. We don't judge you by what you read. Just ask us for the books you want and let us help you read what you want to read. Believe me, we're a widely read bunch and you're not going to shock us with your reading choices.

6) If a store doesn't have the book or author you are looking for they most can likely order you a copy. When a shop doesn't have what you are looking for, give them a chance to compete with Amazon for your affection.

7) Booksellers do not get to read all day (we get this question a lot) and if we did it would indeed be really cool.

"She Makes Me Smile" Makes Me Smile and Then, Shiver a Bit

So the last time we chatted I mentioned a situation with a certain writer and a certain publisher. Today Mandy DeGeit's She Makes Me Smile went on sale on Amazon (in its original form) for 99 cents. GO BUY IT HERE!!!

It's a great short story! Short stories are so hard to write...in my opinion, much harder than long fiction. And this one's very short but it works really well; it's very tightly packed. It's also pretty disturbing (like short form fiction, pulling off a genuinely disturbing tale in today's jaded world is harder than it looks). I consider myself a fairly wimpy reader, and I squirmed a whole bunch...and kept right on reading. I can't really tell you what it's about or why it's so nice and creepy, there's really no way not to spoil it for the readers. All I can tell you it that I enjoyed it.

Mandy is using proceeds from this short story to hire a lawyer to help other writers regain control of their stories currently held by the unpleasant publisher. It's a noble and worthy cause, and I'm happy to support it. However, having read this story I now know that I can NEVER nap with this woman in the same room as I am.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Publishers To Watch Out For!

Full disclosure before I start this: I am a freelance editor and I also work for a publisher who focuses on zombie and horror fiction. None of that has anything to do with this, but I don't want anyone to think I am sneakily slamming the competition. I am openly slamming someone who happens to be in the same business as I am.

Now the details:

An author named Mandy DeGeit wrote a short story that was picked up by Undead Press, an imprint of Library of the Dead. There were some problems with the printed version of her short story, and now I will ask you to please CLICK HERE for an eloquent explanation straight from the author of what went wrong (and then, what went even wrong-er).

Having now read the author's explanation (you didn't read it? GO READ IT) of what happened, and the disturbing response from the publisher, you are probably pretty much where I am emotionally. The changes made by the editor are not only ethically questionable, the ones cited by DeGeit are poor editorial choices. Now I just found THIS which contains an interview with the editor (who, it turns out is not the same guy who put in the lurking errant apostrophe, so props to him...but who also has a kind of "sorry but I was just following orders" mentality I can't get behind)

There's nothing else to say that hasn't been said by others, notably Nelson W Pyles. (Go read his blog. Now.) But I do want to take a moment to remind my readers to be EXTREMELY careful when choosing a publisher, signing a contract, etc. Your words (and your money) are too valuable to be wasted on lousy editing or publishing.

I can now sleep soundly knowing that all four of my readers are aware of a horrible wrong that was done to a fellow book person. As GI Joe teaches us, knowing is half the battle. The other half, it seems, is apostrophe placement.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Thoughts on the headline: Is 50 too old to go bare "down there"?

I originally posted this on Facebook as it really has nothing to do with books, but in the end I decided that here was better than on my crafting blog. I certainly review books with a feminist slant, so here is my commentary on a news website I follow.

So a few weeks ago, I was a little bothered to see that the usual stream of "look at this celebrity in a great/ bad/ unintentionally privates-exposing photo" type articles (yeah, unfortunately there's a lot of that mixed into the news) begin to morph into something a little more sinister. One article asked me to sound off on whether or not a certain celebrity was wearing an outfit I liked. Okay, I'll pass. Then, a few days later, a headline asked me to share my feelings on whether or not a young actress was wearing an inappropriately mature outfit. Then, a few days further on I spotted an article asking the readers to comment on whether or not a particular celebrity, an adult this time, was showing too much skin. ("Too much skin for *what*?" I asked myself..."are we suddenly imposing a moral code on the women we constantly strip down in movies and magazines?")

I started to get annoyed. Obviously celebrity news gets hits, and hits are what Huffpost survives on. So it makes sense that soliciting the opinion of the readers makes more people click on that headline. But why is the message so consistently one of sitting in judgement of *females*? It seems to me that one of the best ways to perpetuate the idea that unlike men, women are answerable to society for their personal choices (fashion, sexuality & reproduction to name just a few) is to give them a vote on it on a regular basis. Today, Huffpost is featuring a blog post from a writer who thinks that she needs the world's opinions on whether or not a 50 year old woman can keep "it" shaved without horrifying others. That bugged me on a deeper level. I get that the discussion (between the blogger and a friend) on the respectability of a shaved hoo-ha later in life was amusing and a good blog topic. Why is she soliciting opinions from random strangers on whether or not it's "okay". Will she be sharing it with them? Will she be applying for some high level public service position where the grooming habits of her boudoir will be a qualifying matter? I don't get it.

So here's my point. All of this, the question of what we wear, what we shave (or don't), who we sleep with and how we get down is completely personal. It's no one's business unless we want to share it. It's no one's (except our partner's) business to comment on it. It *really* doesn't matter what anyone (except our partner) thinks. Really, really, really doesn't matter. As women, if we want to stop being subjected to a war over who controls our bodies we need to start denying the premise that there's a battle to be fought.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Oh look, I own a bookstore!

So it's possible that my two readers (you know who you are) may not BOTH have heard that I am now the  co-owner of Eljay's Books in Pittsburgh's South Hills.  You can bet I'll be plugging the store here all the time, and I'm going to start by posting my March Events calendars here for you to read...

Sorry it's not bigger, I'm working on creating a link to a full-page calendar. You can also visit my store HERE. And if you're in Pittsburgh, you can visit us anytime you want! We're having a big party to kick off my partnership on March 16th at 6pm. We'll have food and drinks and possibly some live entertainment...I hope to see you there!!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Jonathan Frazen vs the Ameircan Female

When I read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (to be accurate I read half and then gave up in disgust.) I was put off by the subtle anti-female tone of the whole thing. The tone of the writing is sympathetic to Patty, (the protagonist) but her actions, thoughts and words belong to a lesser being who exists nowhere but in relation to a man, and is helplessly bound by her womanhood  to a certain destiny. Allow me to be the next of many, many women to call bullshit on that entire line of thinking.

Interestingly, this is not the first time Franzen has run afoul of females, the last time being at the release of this same book a few years ago (and to be fair, this one was not his fault, it just sort of sprung up around him). At the time, Franzen's book was hailed as a literary masterpiece by many, and one of the major points of discussion was his ability to write a female so "well". His work is, in theme and characters, very similar to the works of countless female authors writing about the world from a woman's perspective. A huge media-fueled firestorm swirled for a few weeks around Franzen and authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner. Franzen became the poster boy for a problem many see in the publishing world: say something as a female and be branded a "female-interest writer", but say the same exact thing as a male and be "important". Did Franzen deserve more attention for his work than Picoult and Weiner have received for their own (considerable) talents? I certainly didn't think so. So Picoult and Weiner both had something to say on the topic, and ultimately, they gave THIS INTERVIEW on the topic which you can now read if you want to hear their thoughts.

So now you have some background to explain why I was so interested when this article: Jonathan Franzen's Female Problem popped up in my web browsing this morning. After reading Freedom, I was not prepared to brand Franzen anti-female, I just thought the critical response to the book was horribly overblown and that he wasn't my kind of writer. Maybe, I told myself, he had some sort of weird ideas about what goes on inside the female brain, but that didn't make him a bad guy. After all, the huge conversation about female vs male writing in the media wasn't exactly his fault...and then I read the article I linked above. Now I suspect he might actually just be kind of a jerk. I don't think I really need to explain to anyone reading this blog why this article was so troublesome (go read it, it's short), but I do want to say this.

Mr Franzen, I was among those "forced" to read Ethan Frome in high school and the first time I read it I thought it was crap. So boring! Such stilted writing! Then, tragically, two years later I was forced to read it again, in another class. The funny thing is, I had grown up a bit by then and I discovered that while Wharton might not have been a keen crafter of lyrical phrase, they story itself is compelling and resonant. I tried to read Freedom and found that while each line was its own carefully built work of art, there was nothing underneath of value to me. I vastly prefer the substance to the style. (And for heaven's sake, who cares what she looked like you big jerk?!?!?!)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

JK Rowling announces a new book!

I just finished a late breakfast and headed up the stairs to my trusty internet machine to find this article waiting for me...


I'm going back to work now (It's a big crochet project day).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Women in Horror Recognition Month...Recognize!!

Being a Woman in Horror all the time myself, I have a soft spot for this particular celebratory month, so we're going to chat with some great female Horror authors today about the state of the female in the genre.

You can join two of the three authors below (Rhiannon lives very far away and sadly, can't join us for the discussion) on February 25th from 1 to 3pm at Eljay's Books in Dormont when they join local female writers and filmmakers for a round table discussion celebrating the month. One of my favorite things about the Horror fan base is the amount of charity fundraising that goes on in the community, and this event is no exception. A portion every book sale in the store between noon and 4pm the day of the event will be donated to Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. Sandy Stuhlfire, co-founder of Horror Realm set the entire event up and was also kind enough to help me get these three authors together (electronically) for our chat.

Chris: I think that from outside the fan base there is a perception that horror is a "man's world," what do you think?

Christine: As far as being on the outside, actually creating those horror works, oh yeah, I definitely believe most people think that. Oftentimes, from the fan base aspect of it, I will ask my female friends about horror and they will say that don’t watch it because it frightens them. I have to admit at this point, I truly have very few female friends who like horror. So that means if I want to go to the theater and see the new Resident Evil flick or especially if it were a more grotesque film, I would have to take a male friend with me. I actually went to see The Collector by myself because no one and I mean no one would go. Strangely, there was also no one else in the theater at first, which made it all the more creepy. However, despite it seeming like a man’s world, women as actresses in horror flicks have always added beauty to the darkness of those films. The essential man of macabre mixes with the maiden in distress. Recently, I have seen an influx of horror ladies coming on board with the creative side and in production aspects. I truly hope that this influx proliferates at a very rapid pace. I work with guys mostly on any horror-themed projects at the moment so it would be nice to co-create projects with ladies as well.

Kim: The genre of horror has been both a man's and woman's world. Men have dominated the monster and hero roles, while women have dominated the victim and supporting roles in the past and present. But, I've noticed female characters now are taking center stage as heroes in many movies and literature.

Rhiannon: That is very much the perspective of a lot of people. I definitely feel that at times my work is judged on a different scale because there is a belief that women cannot write horror. Robert Kirkman can have sex, love triangles, and explore the emotional fallout of the zombocalypse in his THE WALKING DEAD comic series without anyone batting an eye. Yet as a woman, if I include those elements in my zombie trilogy AS THE WORLD DIES, people are a lot more critical. I get accused of writing Harlequin books with zombies. I hope as more women enter the genre that sort of gender based bias will go away.

Chris: 2) As a writer, how do you work with the "scream queen/ victim" stereotype of female characters? Is is something you avoid, embrace or completely ignore?

Christine: I’d say I have embraced it. Oftentimes, we yell at the screen once we see this “dull” young lady who is oblivious to her surroundings preparing to be butchered. It irritates the masses but at the same time, the crowd is, sickly, happy to see her end so they don’t have to watch her anymore. If an actress who portrayed a smart, intelligent woman were to be butchered, it would have a different effect, a less favorable one on the audience- they might think, “Man, that sucks,” rather than, “Yes, get her!” The whole mood tends to change in those moments. So I understand it, of course, but when I did my first acting experience, I thought, “How do I play this stereotypical woman?” It worked out, but I personally tend to relate better to stronger female characters (but I sure don’t want to see them killed!) I am not offended by it at all though.

Kim:I choose to put my females in dominant villain or hero roles. Stereotypes really do not affect my placement of characters.

Rhiannon: I am surrounded by very strong women. For example, my step-mother in law is a veteran of both Iraq wars and Afghanistan. She is an amazingly strong and capable woman with a beautiful heart. I attempt to write realistic characters and though I am sure both men and women might act like “victims” in a situation like those faced in horror novels, they won’t end up the central character in the story. I try to avoid genre cliché’s and write about more realistic people, both male and female. You won’t see alpha males and scream queens in my stories. You’ll see Regular Joes and Janes.

Chris:Can you talk a little about the social significance of the horror genre? (Feel free to take this from a women's perspective or a writer's or both...or neither)

Christine: Horror gives you excitement, whether you’re male, female or even just the objective writer in the middle. You have the power of the outcome of any tale and can make it as vicious or as tasteful as you choose. If you’ve been watching horror for a very long time, it is absolutely never going to scare you. Instead, most horror buffs watch for the creative aspects and the thrill. In regards to the outward aspects of it, in Pittsburgh especially, you will see people come together in a social manner, just the same way you might see a bunch of people at the gym, smacking each other’s butts. It’s a bonding experience, getting bloody together n’at. I am amazed, surprised and elated that Pittsburgh has such a huge horror scene. I mean, really, Who knows more about zombies than we do?

Kim:The horror genre is built on excitement, mystery, a terrifying and yet compelling story while utilizing the audiences own vivid imagination. We all need a good scare every now and again to get the blood pumping.

Rhiannon: Well, right now I feel like horror is a fading genre. Rare few book stores keep “horror” sections anymore. Most books that I would consider horror are now shelved in urban fantasy, science fiction, or even paranormal romance. Novels with horror themes that are written by women are more likely to be shelved in a different genre. My novels are tagged a lot of times as something other than horror. My vampire novels are horrific tales with plenty of gore and blood, but also have elements of humor, action adventure, and romance. Therefore, they get tagged as paranormal romance or urban fantasy. A few readers of my Gothic horror series were quite upset with THE TALE OF THE VAMPIRE BRIDE because the tropes of romance are not in it and it’s really violent and gory, yet it was listed under paranormal romance.

Horror is supposed to reflect our inner fears in the guise of monsters or apocalyptic situations, but I suspect that there is an unconscious aversion to allowing female writers to explore the darker genre.

Chris: Can you recommend some horror books for our readers that feature strong and memorable female characters?

ChristineThis one requires a bit of thought, truly and now, that saddens me. I grew up on Anne Rice, so I might want to point out Queen of the Damned, but I admit that I liked the first books in the series best, such as, “The Vampire Lestat.” I know Dean Koontz was pretty good at having a few strong female characters, perhaps Carrie from Stephen King (but that blurs the line of strong with powerful/insane). How about some more Stephen King, we all know of that devilish car named Christine. 
Kim: A Degree of Wickedness by me, of course.

Rhiannon: Two recent books that I recently read come to mind. Jenny Pox by JL Bryan has a wonderful lead character that just ripped my heart out but was still a strong and nuanced character. I definitely consider the novel horror, but because Jenny Pox is a teenager people tend to mark it as young adult. There is violence, sex, drug use, and gore, so I would not classify this as YA at all. Neither did the author, but once the book was tagged that way he couldn’t fight it. I also enjoyed the character in Amanda Hocking’s zombie series. Remy in Hollowland and Hollowmen is not easy to like at times, but she was an interesting character.

Chris: 5) Can you recommend some horror books for our readers that are written by female authors?

Christine: I can recommend some of Anne Rice and my own! Final Moon is just one of the ones I have written, which displays some pretty wild horror scenes horror. I would actually like to be exposed to more female horror authors. Like many others, I truly did grow up on male horror genre authors (back to that first question again). In addition, horror goes beyond the bloody physical aspects of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the like- I am quite fond of psychological horror as well.

Kim: Teresa Klay's and Reflections of Death. Teressa.

Rhiannon: Honestly, no. Well, there is always the old standby of Anne Rice, but someone said recently that Interview with the Vampire is paranormal romance. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro also comes to mind, but she’s shelved in fantasy even when her books take on a horror slant. We’re shoved into other genres constantly. If you’re female and you write about vampires, chances are your books are going to end up somewhere other than the horror section.

But, thankfully, women are breaking into the zombie genre more and more. We’re having a much greater impact there. Madeleine Roux, Eloise Knapp, Amanda Hocking, Carrie Ryan, Ann Aguirre, Jessica Meigs, Sophie Littlefield, Mira Grant, Cherie Priest, Sue Edge, and many more are writing stories in the genre with unique takes on the shambling undead. But most of those books are shelved in places other than horror. My own zombie books are often shelved in general fiction.

There are definitely women in horror and we’re starting to make a much bigger impact, we’re just not always classified in the horror section.
 Chris: Thank you all for your time! I want to remind our readers that Eljay's Books stocks Kim and Christine's books and Rhiannon's books can be purchased from Amazon in both paper and ebook formats. One of the best ways to make sure that women keep getting into horror writing and film making is to support the female artists in your area!
Christine M. Soltis was born and raised in Washington, Pennsylvania. Her deepest passion is in fiction writing and has been for the past eight years. She has written 18 books, many of which can be accessed via Amazon.com. In addition, she is co-writer on several film scripts and creates her own book cover photos and promotional videos.

Christine is lead writer for travel sites EscapeWizard.com and WhatsCheaper.com. She also contributes to the horror site Ravenous Monster. In the past, she has written for the Yahoo Network, Verdure Magazine and The Front Weekly. In 2011, she was an exhibitor at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. In addition to her writing, she made her acting debut in A Chemical Skyline, which was an Amazon best-seller for monster horror. She attended Point Park College for Broadcasting and has worked in news radio since 2002. Currently, she is pursuing a Masters of Science in Environmental Studies.

Rhiannon Frater is the award-winning author of the As the World Dies trilogy(The First Days, Fighting to Survive, Siege,) and the author of three other books: the vampire novels Pretty When She Dies and The Tale of the Vampire Bride and the young-adult zombie novel The Living Dead Boy and the Zombie Hunters. Inspired to independently produce her work from the urging of her fans, she published The First Days in late 2008 and quickly gathered a cult following. She won the Dead Letter Award back-to-back for both The First Days and Fighting to Survive, the former of which the Harrisburg Book Examiner called ‘one of the best zombie books of the decade.’
Kimberly Bennett is an independent author whose main goal is to provide readers of fiction a thrilling and memorable experience when they pick up one of her books and begin to read.

Kimberly has been a lifelong resident of Northeast Ohio and currently resides in Williamsfield. Kimberly attended and graduated from Kent State University where she earned a degree in Computer Technology.

Kimberly has published two thrilling short story collections, Twisted Delights & A Degree of Wickedness. She is currently working on a novella that is first in a series titled, Evil, Under the Microscope: Unholy Union. Kimberly plans on publishing Unholy Union by fall 2012.

Monday, January 30, 2012

In Defense of E Books

E books. A lot of people are wound up, some because of the possibilities provided by a weightless, almost production cost-free book format. Others are concerned about a host of other things: tactual, aesthetic, olfactory, financial etc. Jonathan Franzen makes a few points HERE along with some other excellent writers. I am 100% behind every single statement there (so please go read them!)

I love books. I surround myself with them daily, their very existence feeds my soul. I love their smell, the weight a shelf of them adds to a room, the sound of paper moving under my fingers, all magic. I’ve been a bookseller for seven years and I plan to be one for the rest of my life, regardless of the seeming irrationality of that career path in this day and age (thanks to e books, according to some). I own an e reader and I use it daily, unashamedly. Here’s why:

1) You can’t tear, liquid mark, crease or generally “mess up” an e reader. If you do, it’s a machine you can replace. It’s not your first printing, signed whatever. If I broke a $150 machine, I could live with that. Not so much if I “broke” my signed Peter Beagle first editions.

2) Some books get re-read to death so many times it’s the “green” thing to do to get an e copy. Maybe this doesn’t apply to those who shun epic fantasy, but the third time I replaced my entire set of Wheel of Time, I started to feel like a treekiller (sadly, only the Robert Jordan fans got that).

3) E readers are bus friendly. Turn them on, turn them off, flip pages without moving more than a finger...which is all you generally have room to move.

4) Your local library probably lends books for e readers. If your objection is feeding the companies that sell the e books just go borrow them! You don’t even have to go into the library to pick them up, and even better, no late fees!

5) It is possible to make purchasing choices that reflect your love of paper books. My policy is to only purchase e books I own already in paper form. I have both respect and love for the publishing industry and there is truly no substitute for a paper book. The books on my e reader represent my “trapped on a desert island” list of favorites. Like many e reader users, I’m looking forward to the day publishers start to offer digital copies with the purchase of the paper copy.

E books are clearly a technology with traction and the entire book industry will eventually have to adjust to include electronic media strategies in their business models, like it or not. As a bookseller I can tell you this is a scary idea. However, as a reader, I recognize that e books are a great tool for me to read more books, more often. And even the scared bookseller in me can see that what is good for readers is, ultimately, good for the world of books.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Review: Books Can Be Deceiving by Jenn McKinlay

Books Can Be Deceiving is (yet another) cozy I picked up over the holidays. This one is set in a library, and is written by Jenn McKinlay who also writes the Cupcake Bakery Mystery series.

Lindsay Norris is recently single and recently relocated to the coastal town of Briar Creek where she has been hired to run the local library. As if juggling schedules (and egos) at the library wasn't enough, Lindsay's friend Beth has a problem. Beth has been working on ideas for a children's book for years, and she thinks she's finally ready to share her work. Her boyfriend Rick, a very successful children's author himself, thinks it's a very bad idea- so bad that when Beth insists that it's time to show her work to a publisher, Rick dumps her. When Rick is found dead the next day, the police are sure Beth is guilty and Lindsay knows she's going to have to do some sleuthing to protect her best friend.

Characters: A McKinlay does a great job of offering simple but realistic characters to inhabit her cozy mystery world. Lindsay is likeable, smart and independent. Lindsay's friends are quirky without ever being over-the-top. The library has a staff member who disapproves of everything new and everyone young (we've all worked with that person somewhere in our lives!) and still, she becomes a real and sympathetic character as the story concludes. Of course the bad guys are a little hand-wringingly wicked and the New York City publisher is a big stereotypical snob, but their characters manage to be entertaining rather than annoying. Most importantly, Lindsay, Beth and Lindsay's love interest make a charming trio of main characters.

Plot: B+ I'd love to give the plot an A, since I was so involved in the storyline that I read the entire thing in one sitting, but there are some conceits to over used plots (Sorry, but I can't say more without spoilers) that were a bit stale. Still, it's been said that there are no new ideas, and I often think one of the marks of a really good author is that they make you forget you've read a particular plot device a thousand times.

Romance: A It's sweet, it's understated and he's a complete hunk. There are no uncomfortably descriptive scenes and in a break from many of the books I've read in this genre the main character doesn't spend half the book in a tortured internal dialogue over whether or not all men are un-dateable scum.

Accuracy: A- Overall, I know little to nothing about costal living (there's a sweet subplot about a lost love at sea and a lot of moving from island to mainland in the main plot) and I don't know a ton about Library work, but both areas of the book rang true from my limited perspective. The only misses, in my opinion, were in the  book publishing issues (again, without giving away plot I can't be more specific) where I think some liberty was taken to make Rick a man clearly deserving of a bad end. I really wish I could explain this fully, so if you read the book email me and we can chat about it!

As always, thanks for reading. I just received the latest story collection from Lawrence Connolly in the mail, this one a collection of horror. I hope to post a review some time in the next week so stay tuned!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: Mind Over Murder by Allison Kingsley

Mind Over Murder by Allison Kingsley is the first in the Raven's Nest Bookstore Mystery series. I have to admit that I didn't read the synopsis carefully before purchasing the book, I saw the word "bookstore" and added it to my stack. What I missed was that this is a paranormal cozy, featuring a main character that can read minds. I feel that it's only fair to point out that I'm generally not a fan of paranormal mixed into my cozies, and that probably had an impact on my enjoyment of the book as much as the writing did.

Clara Quinn and her cousin grew up together in Finn's Harbor, knowing that one or both of them would inherit the family "sense" and be able to read minds. While Clara moved away and tried to ignore her mind-reading ability, her cousin Stephanie (who did not inherit the family trait) embraced her dream of owning a bookstore. Now Clara is back in town, resolutely avoiding any discussion about her abilities, or why she has returned after years in New York City. When Stephanie and her store run afoul of the local busybody, and then the busybody is found dead in the back of the bookstore, Stephanie convinces Clara to use her powers to hunt down the killer before someone on her own staff is arrested for the murder.

Characters: B  The characters in Mind over Murder are your basic cozy-stock: Nice people, a few really nasty people (one of whom is of course the victim), a rebellious young shop employee and some very aggressive cops. One of the most important jobs for a cozy writer is to create a cast of characters who have motives to kill, and while it's easy to do, it's not easy to do well. This is definitely one of the strongest points I can make in favor of this book. The nice people are nice without being one-dimensional. The nasty ones have some level of complexity to their awful-ness. The real key to a good cozy is usually the main sleuth character. Unfortunately the entire book is written in third person and Clara's personality simply doesn't ever come across, making her an un-compelling character.  And we'll talk about the "Quinn Sense" in a minute here...

Plot: C Overall the plot was fairly straightforward and readable, but two things stuck out in my mind as very distracting from what was going on. As I mentioned above, the main female "baddie" is an aggressive, successful businesswoman. She's been making increasingly tempting offers on a local business and finally sweeps into town hours after the owner is murdered to announce she's taking over the store. This makes her a great potential murderer, especially when she gains an instant reputation in town for being rude and generally unlikable. As much as I hate to see the "she's a bitch because she's a successful single woman" stereotype playing out yet again, it's a popular stock character in cozies. However, the character intimates to Clara that she has made all her decisions simply so she could work in a store across the street from a handsome hardware store owner. Not only is that a pretty extreme thing to do (even in a cozy), no successful business woman would make their decisions based on possible future romance with a stranger. Since the majority of the plot hinges on this character's arrival and her reasons for being in town, I felt like this reveal somewhat deflated the tension prematurely.

The "Quinn Sense" was the most negative aspect of the book, and again, a lot of plot hinges on Clara's mind-reading so I found this to be a fairly large detractor from the storyline. The "sense" seems to have about the same power as some good body-language reading or a 101 course in psychology. Quinn senses that people are hiding things. She has feelings that she should look further into certain comments. She can tell (sometimes) when someone is lying. She has the exact same amount of perception that your average cozy sleuth has, except hers is apparently paranormal. I'm sure this is not the actual case, but reading the book I kept wondering if the "sense" was simply some very lazy writing. (ie "I don't know how Clara would know this guy was lying to her about having a girlfriend. I'll just make her psychic!"). Clara also doesn't want the "sense" and spend half the book trying to ignore, suppress or down-play the very ability that is eluded to in the TITLE OF THE BOOK!

Romance: A Much like many of the characterizations in the book, the romance was surprisingly satisfying. (On a side note, I read this book immediately after watching one of the GOP primary debates, and could not stop the love-interest Rick from looking like Rick Perry in my head. Very confusing.) Against my normal inclination I not only rooted for the poor guy to get Clara's attention, I looked forward to watching this sub-plot develop.

Accuracy: D Sigh. I know I'm very tough on books that take place in bookstores, because I work in bookstores myself. I'm sure that often bookstores just make a great staging area for  murder and the intricacies of a bookseller's life are irrelevant to most readers. In this case, I'm betting even the most non-retail enabled reader saw a few glaring problems. Clara doesn't actually work at any point. She is in the store, she is sometimes dusting or straightening. Clara doesn't put books away, she doesn't seem to interact with customers unless they are potential suspects, and most importantly, she spends the majority of her time sitting in a little coffee nook in the store snacking, caffeinating, reading and thinking. There is also a disturbing moment (disturbing for me, not for normal people) when Stephanie tells Clara to grab the new occult bestseller from the stock room because people have been asking for it. As the plot develops it becomes clear that this stack of books sat in the backroom for a period of time, even though people had been eagerly awaiting it. Again, I think the point of this little sub-sub-sub plot was to place certain people in certain areas at certain times. But all I could think was "There isn't a bookseller in the world who would keep a stack of books in their backroom when they could be selling them."

Overall, I wouldn't recommend this book to others, but I have to admit that I'll probably read the second book in the series when it comes out, to see if Clara's character (and her "sense") develop into something more readable. I believe that this is the author's first book, so while I found it lacking in some key areas, I think the strong writing in others could point to much better offerings in the future.