Monday, January 31, 2011

Skimming: A Crime Against Literature?

by Julia Buckley
I'm in the middle of THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST, the third of the Stieg Larsson trilogy. I realize that I am probably the last person in the mystery community to read these books, but as everyone promised, they are great reading. Yes, really compelling reading--except for every once in a while, when Larsson the narrator shines through and gives a sort of political rant. At that point, my eyes glaze over and I start looking for a lifeline that will lead me back to the plot I was enjoying oh, so much.

Yes, even I, a self-proclaimed purist of reading, am occasionally a skimmer. I have skimmed the likes of greats like Ian McEwan and J.K. Rowling as well as lesser-known writers who wander away from their own plots and leave me scrambling to get back to them.

Yet as I admit this to you it feels confessional. Is skimming a sin? And if I do it, am I missing out on something vastly important that the author wanted me to read?

I don't skim with every book. There are some works which are paced in such a way that I would never consider skipping ahead--in fact I linger on each sentence, savouring its construction and style. Other books absorb me to such an extent that skimming is not an option; I need each precious detail.

So what does skimming suggest? Am I, as a reader, just too impatient for some resolution? Or is it a sign that a writer may have spent too much time on something that he or she cares about more than does his or her reader?

Don't get me wrong. I think Stieg Larsson was a genius of plot and pacing. Except when he wasn't. :) In each book there was at least one portion that had me setting the book down, not that interested in picking it up again. And that was after a fair amount of skimming. But I would persist, and get to a large chunk that was so exciting I could barely contain myself. Once, while reading on the El, I actually wanted to turn to a stranger and start talking about the novel--a sure way to be branded insane. But Larsson's books have that magical effect. They are uplifting. And yet I skimmed in every one.

I guess I'm writing this in hopes that someone out there will forgive me my skimmery. Or perhaps they'll even admit to skimming themselves.

As an author I'd like to think that my readers savor every line. But as a reader I know that skimming is a reality of individual taste.

What's your take on skimming? Did you skim this post? If so, where did I lose you? :)

(art link here)

Saturday, January 29, 2011


By Lonnie Cruse

Okay, Christmas is now a fond memory (I hope) and we're deep into cold, probably even if we live waaay south, and a new decade is now in full swing. However, it appears that many avid readers received e-readers for Christmas, be it a Kindle, Nook, iPad, or whatever. (I know this because I check e-book discussion lists daily.) I've written about these e-reader beauties before, but given the amount of e-readers given as Christmas gifts, I think it's time to re-visit the issue and talk turkey, assuming you aren't sick of turkey by now.

The good news about e-readers is that both authors and publishers have begun to awaken to the fact that they ARE here to stay AND above all, this is a cheap and effective way to bring out-of-print books BACK into "print." Even better news, many of these books are FREE. Included in those freebies are MANY classics by Austen, Dickens, etc. Wow! And we can carry dozens of these books loaded on our units, in a purse or back pocket, without a huge bulge. Not to mention the weight of multiple print books.

Another plus, at least if you get e-books from Amazon, is the free first chapter, giving readers a chance to sample the book first. Doesn't work every single time because we authors do our very best to make the first chapter a hook that keeps the reader reading, and sometimes it's downhill from there, but at least it's better than not being able to check out a book at all. Meaning if you try to read an entire first chapter of a new book in a book store before buying, you are likely to get harsh stares from other customers, not to mention customer service.

The only downside I see to this e-book thing is paging backwards. Let's say I'm in the middle of a book and a character who hasn't appeared in the story for a few chapters suddenly re-appears. Who IS this person??? In a print book I simply go back to chapter one or two and find out. Being a bit lazy or maybe it's technophobic, I don't take the time to "page back" in an e-book to find out. I keep reading and hope my slow memory will kick in, as in, "Oh, yeah, she/he's . . . . And there are NO page numbers on my Kindle, so I have to judge where I am in the book by the little "slider" at the bottom and the percent of pages read. Not a big problem, but page numbers would have been nice.

Another downside is battery life. Rarely does my battery run down in the middle of a book because I keep it charged BUT it has happened and I'm forced to shut down and re-charge regardless of any cliff-hangers I just came to. Doesn't happen with a print book but it can be avoided by keeping a closer eye on batter charge. The charge generally lasts up to four days or better when reading frequently. Longer if the unit is not in frequent use. It's really my own fault for not watching more closely. And it happens more on my iTouch because I use it to read, listen to, play games, etc. so the battery has less chance of lasting. Sigh.

I've loaded so many freebies on my Kindle that there is nooooo way I'll live long enough to read them all. But it's fun trying. It's fun finding new books. IF you get books from Amazon, check the Kindle discussion area daily. there are a couple of kind folks there who post any new FREE books each day, and links to same, which is a HUGE help to getting new books. I rarely pay for a book, with all the freebies listed. Totally a "so many books, so little time" situation! Ahhh.

So, did you get an e-reader for Christmas? If so, what kind is it? What are you mostly downloading to it? What's your fave read so far? And if it's a Kindle and you are anywhere in the So. IL/W KY area, don't be surprised if I pounce on you when I spot your unit. I've accosted several strangers sporting Kindles. It's what I do.

And if you are a writer, are your books in e-format yet? Four of mine are, and selling pretty well, thankfully.

Happy January, everyone. Stay warm. Enjoy your reading time. Won't be long until warm weather arrives and less reading/downtime with it. Brrrrr. Hot chocolate, anyone???

Friday, January 28, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

Apparently nineteenth-century sleuths are enjoying a resurgence. The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes enjoys an unflagging popularity, and recently he has enjoyed renewed attention in the mystery writers' community. There are those among us who love the recent Robert Downey Jr. movie version, and who look forward to the coming sequel; there are those who think it is a travesty and a corruption of the canon.

Others have taken great glee in the recent BBC limited series, starring the delightful Benedict Cumberbatch, in which Holmes is thrust into modern times. Then there is the 2010 book The Sherlockian, an entertaining novel by Graham Moore, in which the author alternates chapters featuring a contemporary protagonist who has just been inducted into a society that reveres Holmes and finds himself applying Holmesian principles to solving a crime, with chapters tracing a fictionalized account of Arthur Conan Doyle's foray into detecting in 1900. Holmes lives on, in many incarnations.

So it was inevitable that the commercial television networks would sit up and take notice: now ABC has commissioned a series pilot starring the non-fictional Edgar Allan Poe as a detective in the 1840s in Boston. Titled simply Poe, the one-hour drama is described as "a crime procedural that transforms the famed author and poet into the world's first detective, who uses "unconventional methods to investigate dark mysteries in 1840s Boston."

As you may recall, we Daughters here recently celebrated Edgar's birthday, and I'm not sure any of us would envision him as a sleuth. Not only did he seldom sit still (he spent time in the military, he worked at a variety of jobs, and he changed residence frequently), but he rarely completed anything save poems and some significant short stories. In the 1840s–the period that ABC has chosen–he announced he would start his own journal in Philadelphia–which never happened. He sought a political appointment–which never happened. He went back to New York, where he worked for a time in journalism. Then he moved to the Bronx, where his wife died. When did he manage to spend any time in Boston, much less solve any crimes there?

While Poe may be labeled the inventor of the mystery story, he didn't do it in Boston–Philadelphia claims that honor. He may have been born in Boston, but he had a rather rocky relationship with its writers, to the extent that it has been called a literary war. Poe was quoted as saying of Boston, "Their hotels are bad. Their pumpkin pies are delicious. Their poetry is not so good." He simply didn't like Boston.

So one must wonder why ABC decided that Boston was a better place than Philadelphia, Baltimore or Richmond VA to set a mystery series. It's sure not the weather.  More "dark crimes" there?

Still, I suppose we Daughters should be pleased that our mentor is being inducted into the ranks of mystery writers who solve crimes, on the small screen (and at least he won't be scheduled opposite Castle).

Now the most important question is, who would you cast as Poe?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Best Reads of 2010, Part 3

Elizabeth Zelvin

Three more books that came out prior to 2010 made it onto my list of last year’s favorite reads. I read Sue Grafton’s U Is for Undertow (2009) last January, and I thought it was her best in years. I haven’t missed a Kinsey Millhone book since A Is for Alibi, and I deeply respect Grafton’s groundbreaking achievement in creating her and keeping her alive and solving crimes. But in recent years, there have been times when I found myself reading one of her adventures dutifully rather than with pleasure. I have grown impatient with Kinsey’s isolation, her lack of personal growth, and the series device of cramming all her cases into the 1980s instead of letting time pass and the world change. But I really enjoyed Undertow: the pace, the plot, the secondary characters, the fluency of Kinsey’s voice. The fact that I liked it in spite of a crucial plot element being one of my most intense pet peeves—the accusation of child abuse that turns out to be falsified—is probably a point in favor of the book’s strength. As a therapist, I have worked with many abuse survivors over the years, and I think focusing on the exceptional cases when it didn’t really happen sends a subtle and pernicious message. I feel the same about stories that feature a false accusation of rape.

The death of Donald Westlake in 2008 at what I consider the shockingly early age of 75 was a great loss to the mystery community and to the literary community at large. I read his final Dortmunder book, Get Real, with a kind of doubled consciousness. On one level, I was thoroughly absorbed in the story; on another, I had two thoughts over and over: “This is prime stuff; Westlake’s still at the height of his powers,” and “Damn! there aren’t going to be any more.” Westlake was one of the funniest writers ever, the kind of writer you could read passages from aloud and have someone who hadn’t even read one of his books howling with laughter. To me, his voice is one of the most distinct and inimitable in fiction. Authors as distinguished and distinctive as Charles Dickens and Dorothy L. Sayers have had posthumous works completed and additional works written by other writers. But I doubt anyone will tackle the book Westlake’s death left barely started. Who could imitate or fabricate that endlessly inventive sense of humor? Get Real was particularly satisfying to me because it skewered another of my pet peeves, reality TV. Someone has the bright idea of building a reality show around Dortmunder and his engaging band of professional crooks, and what ensues is delicious and hilarious.

Ariana Franklin is another of the small group of recent authors whose first mystery, Mistress of the Art of Death, left me eager for more. I loved the next two in this historical series with endearing characters, including a delightfully strong and clever protagonist, 12th-century forensic pathologist Adelia Aguilar. Unfortunately, I found this year’s fourth entry in the series disappointing. I saw through the plot devices hiding the murderer; worse, Adelia disregarded warnings and walked into danger throughout the book in the best tradition of TSTL heroines, what readers call “too stupid to live.” On the other hand, I read and loved Franklin’s standalone, City of Shadows (2006). Franklin took a less familiar aspect of a familiar setting—Nazi Germany during the rise of Hitler—and a well-known historical puzzle—the murder of the Romanov royal family and the possible survival of the Princess, sorry, Grand Duchess Anastasia—and not only gives them a twist but sends them spinning. It’s tremendously suspenseful; a happy ending is by no means assured. And the unlikely main characters gradually engage more and more of the reader’s sympathies as the story unfolds.

I woffled about adding Tana French’s Faithful Place (2010) to my list, but in the end decided the book deserved a place there. For the third time, this gifted writer has taken an idyllic relationship and shattered it to provide the foundation of the story. For some reason, flaws in French’s work seem to make readers angry at the author rather than at the characters. (No, I take that back. It depends: one friend whose judgment I respect disliked the protagonist of Faithful Place, while I did not.) My favorite bit was the character’s rant, delivered to his nine-year-old daughter, about people who are famous without having accomplished anything. My least favorite was a gratuitous attack on therapy and therapists, another of my pet peeves and one that’s appeared in all three of French’s books. But hey, if her characters had gone through treatment—good treatment with an experienced and ethical therapist like, say, me—where would her stories be?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Are you addicted to e-mail?

Sandra Parshall

A recent study in the UK found that office workers check their e-mail a minimum of 30 times every hour. With e-mail capability on cell phones, plenty of people check their mail around the clock, while they’re on vacation, while they’re on dates, while they’re attending weddings and funerals and parties and other events where they should be interacting with people who are 
present in the flesh.

Why? Are they all expecting earth-shaking news via e-mail? No, they’re just getting a dopamine fix every couple of minutes.

I’ve been hearing about e-mail addiction for a decade and never gave it much thought. I believed it was just another way that people, including myself, have found to goof off when we ought to be working. Then I read (in Esquire, of all places) that every time addicts check their e-mail their brains release a small dose of the “pleasure chemical” dopamine, which plays a key role in addictive behavior. The more you do it, the more you want that squirt of dopamine.

We have become, in short, lab rats mindlessly seeking rewards for repetitive behavior.

We know that 99.99% of e-mails will contain nothing of great importance. Yet we withdraw from the world around us to click click click on Get Mail or to slavishly obey the intrusive notice that mail is waiting. We act as if every message must be read and answered without delay.

How bad is your habit? Are you willing to answer these questions honestly?

1. How many times a day do you check your e-mail?

2. How many times have you checked for mail in the last hour?

3. Do you retrieve and answer business e-mail at night and on weekends?

4. Do you keep up with e-mail on vacation?

5. What’s the longest time you’ve gone without an e-mail fix?

6. Do you check e-mail while at social events?

7. Do you tend to reply to e-mail immediately? 

8. Do you feel a little uneasy when you enter a no-cellphones zone such as a hospital or theater?
9. Have you tried to control your e-mail habit? What worked? What didn’t?

10. Do you think you could live without e-mail? Would you want to?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

End of an Era

Sharon Wildwind

If you’ve ever cooked for a large group—say dinner for 125 people—you know that rather quickly food ceases to be food and becomes a combination of object and timed indoor event. By about the twentieth carrot I start wondering if it takes me fifty-eight seconds to peel one carrot, and I have to peel another twenty-five pounds of carrots, is dinner going to be ready by six o’clock?

The same thing happens at the end of writing a book. It happened to me last week. I was in the middle of about the gazillionth proofread and my whole world had narrowed into red lines and green lines, those helpful markers that Word uses to identify misspellings and grammar errors. Everything else — characters, plot, nice bits of dialog — had disappeared. I was in no shape to appreciate any of it.

Twelve pages without a correction. Fifteen. Oops, only three pages this time. Here’s a place where I can choose “Ignore all” for a name and get rid of eight red lines on the same page at once. Talk about power!

Somewhere in that mindless scroll, correct, scroll, correct, scroll, correct treadmill the thought sunk it that this was it. I was not only done with this book, but with the series. I’ve “known” that was coming for a long time, but this was the first time that I felt it. It was rather a strange feeling. Like the guy in the John Denver song, the characters have their bags packed and are ready to go. No amount of cajoling will get them to stay, and I wouldn’t even try to convince them to do that. They have a lot of living to get on with between 1975 and now.

The working title for this one is Loved Honor More, and it about — strangely enough — love, honor, and what happens when those two things collide. It’s gone winging its electronic way to the publisher, so keep your collective fingers and toes crossed that they want to buy it.

It’s been a great ride: five books in nine years. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this writing gig.

Another era ended on Sunday afternoon. Jack LaLanne, who was the first person to introduce me to the idea that exercise was good for me, died at the age of ninety-six. Rest in peace.

Life is an athletic event. You have to train for it.
~ Jack LaLanne, 1914 - 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

Seeking Slavic Literature

by Julia Buckley
I have taught Dostoevsky’s wonderful Crime and Punishment for many years. I love it; it might be my favorite novel in the world. However, we are considering replacing the book next year, simply because the students have a tight curriculum and have very little time to read this 500-page novel.

So I find myself in the position of having to come up with some other great work from the Slavic region. And I need help from readers!

I considered someone like Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina or War and Peace, but that would present the same problem that Crime and Punishment does: they are very long books.

I thought of Anton Chekov—maybe The Cherry Orchard—except in this world literature class they already read four plays, and five would make it more unbalanced than it already is.

I considered Alexandr Solzhenitsyn; he’s a Nobel Prize winner and his writing would certainly bring awareness of the rigors of the gulag. But perhaps, I thought, that might be too grim, since we’re already reading two existential novels that leave the students rather depressed.

Dostoevsky himself has shorter works—Notes From Underground is very manageable—but again there is a highly existential message that might make the class seem like an existential philosophy course.

Then I thought—what about a mystery? Something deep and interesting with far-reaching themes? Since I am not well-versed in foreign mysteries, I thought I’d ask for suggestions from the readers.

What are some great books (mystery or otherwise) from any of the Slavic regions? I’m including Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Croatia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovenia, and Republic of Macedonia.

I’d love to introduce them to something fresh which still had a strong sense of setting. And the value of a fairly obscure title is that students can’t immediately go onto a website to read summaries of what the story is about—-they would have to read and think about it for themselves.

So I'm asking for comments. What’s the best book with a Slavic setting that you ever read?

Thanks in advance for your help!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

My Date with Nancy

By Todd Ritter

Confession time: Until recently, I had never read a Nancy Drew book.

I suppose it’s not that shocking. After all, I’m a guy whose debut novel, Death Notice, features a serial killer, embalming and taxidermy. You’d be correct in thinking that my influences are a tad edgier than a teenage sleuth aiming a flashlight up a hidden staircase. But the main character of Death Notice and its forthcoming follow-up is a woman. A woman police chief, to be precise. And she most definitely has read Nancy Drew. So, in a very Actor’s Studio-like attempt to better understand my protagonist, I decided it was time to get to know that famous girl detective. The result was my date with Nancy.

Going in, you should know that this was pretty much a blind date. Sure, I knew who Nancy Drew was. Who doesn’t? I was familiar with some of the titles and a few of the more iconic book covers. But other than name recognition, I knew next to nothing about Nancy herself. That’s why I chose to read the first book in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock. I wanted to be introduced to Miss Drew the same way the world was. Let’s start at the very beginning, as Maria von Trapp used to sing.

The book’s first line — Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible — surprised me. For one thing, it’s pretty much timeless. Even though written more than eighty years ago, it could conceivably be the opening line of a teen detective novel published in 2011. Then there’s the description of Nancy herself. For some reason, I had always pictured her as being a little bit frumpy. You know, cable-knit sweaters, tweed skirts and sensible shoes. More Velma than Daphne, to use Scooby-Doo parlance. But this pretty girl in the cool car? Well, she’s totally a Daphne.

And, as we see on the second page, a woman of action. We’re barely into the seventh paragraph when Nancy leaps out of her car and rescues a little girl who has just fallen off a stone bridge into a ravine after almost getting run down by a moving van. Whew! This action sequence to kick things off was another surprise — Nancy Drew as Jack Reacher.

The rescued girl is named Judy. She lives with her great-aunts, who are kind but poor. A distant relative, Josiah Crowley, had promised to leave them money in his will. But when Josiah died, he left his fortune to other relatives, the shallow and scheming Tophams. Yet there’s a rumor that another, later will exists in which old Josiah gave others their rightful share. Nancy, of course, takes it upon herself to find the new will.

I’m not going to go into too much additional detail about the plot. It’s pretty simple: Josiah seemed to be related to half of River Heights and promised them all a bunch of money. The Tophams are bad. Everyone else is good, save for those shady men in the moving van who almost ran down Judy. And it takes a painfully long time for the book to reveal that the location of the second will is hidden in an old clock, which anyone who has read the title already knows.

So, did I like The Secret of the Old Clock? Yes and no.

I really didn’t care a whit about the plot, whose outcome could be predicted by even the youngest members of its target audience. I found it odd that none of the many, many relatives of Josiah Crowley gave much of a fuss over the missing will until Nancy got involved. And I thought that Nancy’s interactions with all of these scattered heirs were so sickly sweet that I cheered every time the mean Topham sisters appeared and added a much-needed bit of nastiness to the proceedings. Call me cynical, but after reading a scene in which Nancy spoon-feeds broth to an elderly shut-in, I need a little villainy.

Yet I can see why these books appeal to young girls. Who wouldn’t want to look for long-lost secrets in an old clock? Or discover a hidden staircase or search a haunted showboat? Reading the long list of Nancy Drew titles, one can’t help but feel tantalized by all the slightly spooky adventures on tap. Even I, a jaded 36-year-old, am curious about The Flying Saucer Mystery.

Then there’s the character of Nancy Drew herself. By the end of The Secret of the Old Clock, I realized something strange: Despite all of her do-gooding instincts, I genuinely liked Nancy. She was kind, honorable and honest, not to mention brave. I mean, the girl’s not afraid to confront furniture thieves or dive into a car chase. If the term plucky hadn’t been in use before Nancy Drew books were published, I’d think it was coined just to describe her. In times of trouble, you want someone like Nancy to have your back.

That simple fact is why Nancy still endures after all these years. Girls (and hopefully a few open-minded boys) read her and see the goodness in people. Not only do they want to know someone like Nancy Drew, but maybe they strive to be like her, too. And that’s all we can ask for from our literary heroines.

Now, will I be reading another Nancy Drew mystery anytime soon? Probably not. They weren’t written for guys like me, of course, and I have books to write and even more to read. Yet, if I one day find myself on a snowy Sunday afternoon with nothing good to read, I just might grab my Kindle and give Nancy a call. There is that hidden staircase to explore, after all. And the haunted showboat. And that flying saucer. Finding out the answers to those mysteries might be worth a few more dates with Nancy.

Todd Ritter is an author and editor. His first mystery, Death Notice, was released in October by St. Martin’s Minotaur. Visit him online at

Friday, January 21, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

Lately I've been thinking about schizophrenia, a medical illness that by conservative estimates affects about one percent of the world population, which translates to at least two million Americans. The World Health Organization has called schizophrenia one of the most debilitating human diseases. So why am I interested? I don't mean to poach on Liz Zelvin's territory, but as a writer, a lot of the symptoms sound awfully familiar to me.

–delusions: strange beliefs not based in reality
–hallucinations: perceiving sensations that aren't real, including hearing voices
–disorganization: talking in sentences that do not make sense
–writing excessively but without meaning

We as writers spend a lot of time alone, staring at a piece of paper or a computer monitor, trying to string words together in some meaningful and coherent way. A lot of writers joke to each other about listening to the voices in their head when they write. Are we hallucinating?

Or take delusions. Mystery writers kill people–on paper. We are required to make these murders feel as real as possible (all those nice gory details about blood spatter and the like) to convince our readers. Otherwise they will write nasty emails telling us what we got wrong. So in effect, we are deliberately inducing a schizophrenic state, creating convincing alternative realities in our heads.

What about disorganization? When confronted with that blank page/screen, a lot of writers just start setting down whatever comes to them. Nora Roberts famously has called this a "vomit draft" because it just spews out. No way that is going to be organized or even logical. And that "writing excessively without meaning"–that's why we cringe when we start editing. It's no fun looking at your own words and asking your cat, why did I say that? What the heck did I mean?

There are other troubling aspects of schizophrenia that may also apply to writers:

–withdrawal from family, friends, and social activities ("but I have a deadline! I don't have time to talk to you!")

–forgetting or losing things (why am I standing in the kitchen?)

–poor hygiene and grooming (hey, these yoga pants are really comfortable, and the UPS delivery guy isn't going to care whether I've brushed my hair today)

Even more disturbing is the fact that a person who is suffering from schizophrenia may not even know it. Isn't reality whatever we perceive it to be?

Is it worse if you know you're schizophrenic? Years ago I knew a graduate student who had been given that diagnosis. When he was on his medications, he was a really nice guy. When he decided he was just fine and didn't need the meds, he was arrested for smashing car windshields with a crowbar. Do you think he believed that smashing windows was normal and reasonable behavior? But how do you know when you've slipped over the line?

Which leads to the question, where do writers fit in this spectrum? We deliberately set out to create stand-alone realities in our imagination. We have to fully believe in those realities in order to make them convincing to other people. And we do this over and over, building little mini-universes where we create the population and the rules. Does this make us abnormal?

Or does the fact that we share these characteristics with other people, and can not only talk about them but can laugh at them–and at ourselves–mean that we're normal?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Best Reads of 2010, Part 2

Elizabeth Zelvin

Going down the list I started last week, here are more of my personal favorites and why.

I’ve admired and enjoyed SJ Rozan’s work since reading her Edgar winner, Winter and Night, which put her on the short list of writers whose work I went out and bought in toto after the first dose. Last year’s Shanghai Moon got a lot of praise and attention, and I enjoyed it, but the one I loved was the new one, On the Line (2010).

Rozan’s books alternate the first-person point of view of her two interconnected PI protagonists, Bill Smith and Lydia Chin. That’s alternating books, not alternating chapters. If you ask me which of the two is my favorite, I’d say Lydia Chin—spunky female protagonist, of course I love her. Rozan herself says she first created Bill Smith as the quintessential world-weary but honorable tough American PI, and that when she needed another one, she deliberately came up with his antithesis. Thinking of this, I was wondering what, if anything, made Bill special, why I wouldn’t find another tough-guy PI boring. On the Line reminded me.

Bill is tough, but it’s a purely functional toughness: he can turn on the violence when needed, but he doesn’t revel in it. He’s decent, sensitive, and very smart—a quality I prize in fictional characters when it’s accompanied by heart. The cleverness with which he unravels the villain’s clues is impressive. And his motive is impeccable: Lydia’s in trouble, and he really, really cares about her. I’ve been on Bill’s side all along in the potential romance between these two. Lydia has good cultural reasons for pushing him away: the parental pressure on Asian American young people not to diversify when it comes to love is authentic. But I’m a romantic, at least as a reader. I’ve been wanting Lydia, or rather, Rozan, to unbend and give poor Bill a break.

Rozan’s prose, which doesn’t waste a word or suffer a weak verb to live, has always been a delight. On the Line had this quality, and in addition, the writing struck me as less literary, more immediate, than in any of her previous work. This serves both the pace of the narrative and the tech aspect of the story, which I hardly know whether to call theme, setting, or texture. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say the requisite chase scene takes place on Twitter, a fresh and brilliant twist that I thoroughly enjoyed.

That’s the last of the 2010 novels that sank in deep enough to make my list. I love Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone, but I preferred Locked In (2009), which I read last January, to the more recent Coming Back. Like Lois McMaster Bujold in Cryoburn (see last week’s blog), Muller made sure longtime readers got a glimpse of all their favorite characters, but unlike Bujold, she didn’t pull it off in Coming Back. I found the new book slight, and I suspect readers new to Sharon and her family and friends wondered what all the fuss, ie Muller’s reputation, was about. Locked In, on the other hand, was a real mystery with a fresh plot device—McCone’s medical condition, in which she can think clearly but not move or speak—and plenty of opportunity to display this beloved character’s intelligence and determination.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A New Voice from England: Erin Kelly

 Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Erin Kelly’s first novel, a psychological thriller titled The Poison Tree, was released to rave reviews in Britain last summer and has just come out in the U.S. to a similarly positive reception. The tale of a strait-laced student named Karen, whose involvement with glamorous, bohemian Biba and her enigmatic brother culminates in murder, has been described as compelling, twisted, and wonderfully evocative. Erin is making several appearances in the U.S. this week. Visit her website at for a list of her bookstore stops.

Erin was born in London in 1976 and grew up in Essex. She has worked as a journalist since 1998, writing for newspapers including The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Express and various magazines. She lives in London with her husband and daughter.

Q. The Poison Tree has had an extraordinary reception from reviewers and readers. Were you prepared for this, or has all the attention taken you by surprise?

A. It would feel like tempting fate to prepare myself for anything! But it’s great to know the book is finding its way onto people’s shelves.

Q. An obvious question: What – or who – inspired the story? Can you tell us briefly how and when the story and characters took root in your imagination and how they evolved into the finished novel?

A. There’s no single inspiration behind the novel. Although I wrote it quickly, it had a very long gestation period. While I daydreamed characters, plots and locations, a few themes and ideas kept recurring. I love coming-of-age novels, especially when the narrative is from the perspective of middle age. And I wanted to write about the glorious irresponsibility of that time between college and real-life. I wanted to write a London novel, because that’s the city I know better than any other. When I decided to set the action in Highwater, a leafy, wealthy neighborhood in the north of the city, everything came together.
I’m often asked who Biba is based on. She’s actually a composite of various people I’ve met over the years, although in some of these cases I’ve actually toned her behavior down. That doesn’t stop my friends being convinced they ‘know who she is’, though.

Q. Was this an easy book to sell, or did you face a few rejections along the way?

A. The first time my British agent shared the book with publishers in London, there was some initial interest but nothing came of it; publishers were concerned that it was difficult to pigeonhole – was it women’s fiction, crime or commercial?- they were worried about how to sell it. A few of them expressed doubts about the original ending, which was quite ambiguous; they said that part of the appeal of mystery and suspense fiction is that you close the deal with the readers.

So I went away for a few months and polished the book, reworking the ending to make it more conclusive, and I’m so pleased that I did: the ‘new’ ending feels absolutely right for the novel. This time the straddling of different genres was seen as a positive and publishers called it crossover fiction. It went to a four-way auction, which was fantastic after the initial rejection. In the US, things were much more straightforward; I was picked up by my editor at Viking within a few days of her receiving the manuscript.

Q. Have you written other, unpublished novels? Have you always wanted to be a novelist or is this a recent ambition?

A. I don’t have any novels gathering dust in my desk drawer, no. But I have always wanted to write. I became a journalist largely because I heard that once you had a track record in print, it was easier to get a book deal. Then I got rather seduced and distracted by the job, and it wasn’t until I got pregnant in spring 2008 that I decided it was time to actually sit down and write the novel I’d been thinking and talking about for years.

Q. Daphne du Maurier, Ruth Rendell – does comparison to those legendary writers intimidate you at all? Do you feel your work fits the same mold as theirs?

A. Of course I’m hugely flattered. You don’t have to be a sleuth to spot that both Rendell and du Maurier have greatly influenced my own work. Both writers create a strong sense of place and deal with themes that appeal to me, such as the past intruding on the present. I’ve read Rebecca at least once a year since I was fourteen. I love the way du Maurier marries nail-biting suspense with unabashed romance.

Q. What other authors have influenced your writing, and in what way? Which current writers are on your must-read list?

A. I like beautifully-written page-turners and all of the following make me want to raise my game: Kate Atkinson and William Boyd both prove that suspense and plotting can co-exist alongside great writing. Tana French writes dialogue that’s second to none. I admire Kazuo Ishiguro and Josephine Hart for their restraint – I don’t know how they do it. Going further back, I love Patricia Highsmith, Jean Rhys, Graham Greene, Wilkie Collins, Dickens and – yes! – Edgar Allan Poe.

Q. Your next book, coming out in the UK later this year, is titled The Sick Rose. You seem to have something of a nasty horticultural theme going. Is that intentional – or had it even occurred to you before I asked you about it?

A. Both books take their titles from William Blake poems. The Poison Tree had a dozen working titles, while I knew what The Sick Rose was going to be called before I wrote a word. My friend and proofreader Helen suggested The Poison Tree as it was a good companion to The Sick Rose. Green places do inspire me: The Sick Rose is set in an ancient garden, while the city wood is central to The Poison Tree. I like the idea of using another Blake quote for my third book, but I think I’m done with nasty horticulture for now!

Q. What draws you to psychological suspense, as opposed to murder mysteries or conventional thrillers? What can you do in a psychological suspense novel that you might not be able to do in a different type of crime story?

A. The stories that have most inspired me are those of ordinary people out of their depth, which is a good definition of a psychological thriller. I’m interested in the other side of the traditional murder mystery – it’s what happens before the cops turn up that interests me. I love finding the dramatic and the gothic in the ostensibly mundane.

Besides, most conventional, or procedural, thrillers require a recurring protagonist, usually someone whose line of work means they repeatedly come into contact with crime. I shy away from this for two reasons: firstly, research is my least favourite part of the writing process as no matter how thoroughly I do it I’m always terrified I’ve omitted some vital detail, and it would be picked up! So many writers do this so well, and crime readers are so switched-on. Secondly, while I love to watch characters grow and develop over a series of novels – I’m thinking in particular of Kate Atkinson’s private eye Jackson Brodie, who’s a brilliant, real, compelling character – I don’t like the idea of committing to the same character book after book. I like to know that I can kill off whoever I want when I’m writing with no repercussions for future novels!

Q. Do you plan to continue working as a journalist, or do you want to concentrate on fiction full-time?

A. I’m enjoying concentrating on fiction now. I hope I’ll always be able to do both, but it’s hard to juggle the two professions as they require opposite mindsets. To work well as a journalist you have to be constantly switched-on, reading all the newspapers, on top of the trends, always checking your email and within arm’s reach of your phone. To write good fiction I find the opposite is necessary: the more disconnected and uninterrupted the better.

Q. In addition to your current appearances in the U.S., will we see you at any of the big mystery conventions, like Bouchercon?

A. No plans in place at the moment, but I do love meeting readers and other writers. They’re the best place to find out about new authors – I always come home with a long shopping list!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Become the Arrow

Sharon Wildwind

Scientists are watching brains in action while humans do all sorts of things, from playing chess to drinking through a straw. Here’s the setup for one experiment.

The test subject touches a wall with his or her finger. That’s the whole experiment: walk over and touch the wall. When the finger contacts the wall parts of the brain that have to do with proprioception (the spacial relationship of the the finger to the wall), temperature, pressure, and squishiness are activated. Squishiness isn’t a great scientific term but we can relate to the idea that touching a metal plate feels different than touching a marshmallow.

Have the person repeat the movement several times and the brain’s “got it.” It has figured out where fingertip ends and wall begins and is well on it’s way to building a memory of, “This is what it felt like to touch the lab wall with my fingertip.”

Now give the person a tool, something as simple as a stick, and ask them to touch the wall again using the end of the stick instead of their fingertip.

At first, things don’t feel right. Proprioception, pressure, and squishiness are different and temperature is completely absent. After practicing the task the brain figures out, “This is what it feels like to touch the lab wall with a stick instead of with my finger.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The end of the stick literally becomes an extension of the finger. With practice, the exact parts of the brain that activated when the finger touched the wall activate when the end of the stick touches the wall. The person’s boundaries, where finger end and the wall begins, has expanded to include the tool.

This goes a long way toward explaining why athletes and musicians develop a fondness for one particular tennis racket or instrument, and why pilots, jockeys, and NASCAR drivers can tell that their plane, horse, or car isn’t “right” on a given day.

If I were an archer, I’d imagine this extension of my fingers like my favorite ever (so far) movie special effect, the water tentacle in the 1989 film The Abyss. (“So raise your hand if you think that was a Russian water-tentacle.”)

That shimmery, watery liquid would flow from my fingertips and around the bow, but my question is, does it cover the arrow, too? If it did, would that coating travel all the way to the target or would the wind friction wear it off so that, by the time it reached the target, it was a plain arrow again?

Yeah, I know, that’s the kind of metaphysical question that makes people, including me, want to lie down in a dark room.

But wouldn’t it be neat if that shimmery, watery liquid flowed out of my fingertips, around my keyboard and mouse, up through the connecting cables, and gradually filled my computer from the bottom until the entire machine and saturated the work inside? It would be even neater if when I sent writing out into the world, there would be this shimmery coating all over the writing, which would flow off the page and into the readers’ fingertips and make them all shimmery, too. Maybe that’s what writing is in its finest form.
Quote for the week:
In the case of archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality.
~Eugen Herrigel (1884-1955), German philosopher and archer, in Zen in the Art of Archery

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Daughters Spend a Day with Poe

In honor of Edgar Allan Poe's birthday on Wednesday, we daughters thought we'd envision how we'd spend a day with the great man, were he to visit us in 2011.

Julia Buckley

I find, when I meet Poe, that I am needy for his approval (although I realize this need for approbation is rare among writers in general). :)

So after taking the poor thin man to a breakfast bistro and buying him some bacon and eggs to consume with his morning coffee, I hand him a little sheet of scribblings inspired by "The Raven."

"Once upon a keyboard dreary, while I slaved over a query
Which I’d send to many an agent in the hopes of being loved,
While I tried out various phrasings, paired with chocolate-peanut grazings,
And repeated small appraisings of the words upon my screen—
Suddenly there came a dawning, in a spurt of endless yawning
That my query sounded fawning—those damned words upon the screen—
“Sycophant,” I grumbled, giving up and feeling mean.

Oh, how clearly I’m recalling that sad query, most appalling
Of all queries fearless feckless fools had ever fawned before;
While I sat, bereft and quaking, all my soul within me aching—
Knowing I would not be staking my profession on a query such as this . . .
Then I came to my decision—this required vast revision,
And significant excision! So I grabbed my bowl of peanuts
And I sat upon the floor . . .
Eating fast and eating faster, nearing gluttonous disaster
I consumed my chocolate comrades and ignored the evil screen.

To this day you can still find me, with some Fannie Mae and Chablis
On the padded carpet under the computer in my room
And the words continue mocking, in an endless writer’s blocking
And my brain continues knocking in my head amidst the gloom—
And I never shall be freed
Unless—perhaps a nom de plume?"

"What do you think?" I ask Poe, who has gone right off his eggs and is staring at me with slightly bulging eyes.

"I think that, perhaps," he says gently, reaching out to touch my hand, "You should consider keeping your present employment."

"What? Keep my day job? Et tu, Poe?"

Poe continues to drink his coffee with a thoughtful air, but I notice that he pushes my notebook back toward me.

Lonnie Cruse

I'd take Poe to lunch at some lovely gothic-ie (hopefully haunted) vintage mansion-turned-restaurant where we'd have tea and scones and salad (he didn't get that lithe figure by eating double-burgers, folks) and discuss his "dark side." Why he wrote what he wrote, where did he get the ideas for, say, "The Telltale Heart" among other of his writings, stuff like that. I'd also want to know if he knows who leaves a rose on his grave every year. And I'd watch his face whenever others around us rudely chatted on their cell phones. I'd even consider taking him on a research trip to Wal-Mart, but no use causing him a second death . . . from shock. Speaking of which, I'd ask him what it's like where he resides now. In other words, I'd bug him with questions. LOTS of questions. Hey, I'm paying for lunch, I'm entitled.

Sandra Parshall
Like Lonnie, I would have a million questions for this maginificent writer. But first impulse would be to feed him a nutritious meal. A visit to the tiny, three-room Poe House in Baltimore made me realize what dire poverty he lived in for most of his adult life. This is the little garret room where he slept and composed some of his greatest works. (I hope he actually had a mattress on the bed!)

And these are the narrow stairs he used to reach it.

 As we said goodbye, I would thank him for persevering and producing timeless stories and poetry despite poverty, illness, and very little recognition and reward in his own lifetime.
Sharon Wildwind

I'd do something about that poor man's clothes. Some decent linen for a start, like a shirt and new neck cloth. Don't know if that rumpled black suit is salvageable. At least it needs a good cleaning and brushing, or maybe he just needs a whole new suit. And I would ask him what the dickens happened to his clothes and why was he wearing someone else's clothes when he was found on the street?

Sheila Connolly

Funny how everyone wants to take care of poor Edgar--feed him, get him to a doctor, clean up his wardrobe.  But what makes me most curious is why he spent his life moving around so much.  Certainly in his early years he had no control over that, but as an adult he kept it up.  Boston, Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York--and don't forget England and Scotland, plus the army.  All this in forty short years--and he never stopped writing.  You have to admire his focus.  But I'd love to ask him, are you running from something or toward something?

Elizabeth Zelvin

I start out by telling Poe how successful he became after his death, how greatly admired his work still is. I then explain how much we have learned since his time about alcoholism, that it is now considered a treatable disease rather than a form of depravity, and offer to help him get sober so he can live a longer, healthier life and write more effectively, as he will when his brain is no longer befuddled. Of course, he doesn’t believe me. Even today, denial is the hallmark symptom of the disease. So I take him to an AA meeting, which must be a real eye-opener for him. I offer to do a thorough professional assessment of his alcohol and drug use, and I hope he’ll agree.

Wikipedia claims that “it is now known he was not a drug addict,” but I would want to do my own evaluation. So if Poe had gotten clean and sober, would he still have died at 40? I don’t know. I might have to slip him a supply of modern antidepressants, and 19th century diseases still might kill him. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to read the work of an 80-year-old Poe?

From all your deadly daughters... 

Rest in peace, Eddie. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Canada Calling: Strange Canadian Crimes

Since a lot of us are stuck indoors this weekend due to winter weather, here's a short quiz about notorious Canadian crimes to wile away the time. Some of these are stranger than you can possibly imagine. As promised, I've added the answers.

Ezra Allen Miner, an American criminal, moved to British Columbia at the beginning of the 1900s. In 1904 he committed a crime that had been committed only once before in Canada. What was that crime?
A. Bank robbery
B. Train robbery
C. Forging a Canadian $20 bill
D. Blowing up a government building

Ezra was better known as Bill Miner. Reputed to be a very polite robber, he’s credited with the phrase, “Hands up.” The usual previous admonishment, at least by British highwaymen was, “Stand and deliver.” For a long time it was thought that Miner’s 1904 train robbery was the first in Canada. Recent scholarship has uncovered a previous train robbery thirty years earlier in Ontario. Miner escaped from jail in British Columbia and made it back across the U. S. border. He died in Georgia.

Between January 14 and February 17, 1932, a posse of Royal Canadian Mountain Police officers, Inuit and Gwich’in guides, and a World War I pilot name Wop May pursued a man named Albert Johnson through the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. News of the pursuit and Johnson’s eventual death went around the world by radio. What name did the media give Johnson?
A. The Angel of the North
B. The American Jessie James
C. The Snow Ghost
D. The Mad Trapper

Albert Johnson remains a mystery. No one knows if that was his real name or an alias and even recent DNA examination hasn’t shed any light on where he came from. Throughout the multiple confrontations with police and the extended manhunt, Johnson never spoke a word. He critically wounded two men and killed an R.C.M.P. constable before being fatally shot.

The Canadian play, Blood on the Moon by Ottawa actor/playwright Pierre Brault dramatizes what trial?
A. A civil lawsuit brought by Irish navvies against the Canadian Pacific Railroad for unsafe working conditions.
B. A class action suit, brought by the Chinese Friendship Society of Greater Vancouver to strike down the law that required Chinese men to pay a head tax in order to bring their wives to Canada.
C. Of Patrick J. Whelen, for the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a member of the Canadian parliament.
D. Of Paul Rose, for the murder of Minister Pierre LaPorte during the October 1970 FLQ crisis in Quebec.

McGee and Whelen were both Irish Catholics, but their views on Irish independence and the Fenians differed. McGee was shot by an unknown assailant on the night of April 7, 1868. Whelan was arrested; the evidence against him was circumstantial, centering around a hand gun that he owned, but he was convicted and hung. His was the last public hanging in Canada and was viewed by about 5,000 people.

What unfortunate incident happened to the writer Robert Service while he was composing The Shooting of Dan McGrew?
A. His entire manuscript, his notes, and his lunch was stolen. Service is quoted as saying he regretted the missing lunch most of all.
B. He was sued by a Whitehorse clergyman name D. N. McGrew, who felt that the poem was about him and that Service had impugned his character.
C. Since he had a habit of walking down the street and not paying attention while writing, he fell in a large hole and broke his arm.
D. He was shot at by the guard in the bank where he worked because the guard, hearing Service reciting under his breath about guns and shooting, thought he was robbing the bank.

Service would work on his poetry at the bank during his lunch break. A guard mistook Service reading aloud for a bank robbery in progress and fired a shot at Service. Fortunately he missed and Service went on to finish writing his poem.

Ferdinand W. Demara committed what crime involving the Canadian military?
A. He impersonated a military trauma surgeon on His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Cayuga, including performing successful operations.
B. He stole a tank from Canadian Forces Base Gagetown and attempted to run over his ex-brother-in-law.
C. He embezzled over a million dollars through fake government contracts supposedly awarded by the Department of National Defense.
D. He forged a Victoria Cross, supposedly awarded to his father during World War II, and sold the fake through Sotherby’s Auction House.

Ferdinand Demara was a man of many talents, at least in his own mind. He stepped into a new role at will, impersonating a civil engineer, a sheriff's deputy, an assistant prison warden, a doctor of applied psychology, a hospital orderly, a lawyer, a child-care expert, a Benedictine monk, a Trappist monk, an editor, a cancer researcher, and a teacher.

During the Korean War he impersonated Canadian surgeon Joseph C. Cyr. A speed reader with a photographic memory, Demara read through surgical texts immediately before he performed surgery. All of his patients lived.

His career as “Dr. Cyr” ended with Cyr’s mother read a newspaper article that mentioned her son. She knew that he had been working in New Brunswick at the time the article said he was on the Cayuga. She immediately contacted the Canadian Navy. Strangely enough, the Navy did not press charges and Demara went back to the U.S., where he continued other impersonations for years. He finally became a hospital chaplain with real credentials from an Oregon bible college. In his role as chaplain he administered last rites to his friend, the actor Steve McQueen.

Thomas Scott’s death (March 4, 1870) prompted what response by the government of Canada?
A. Private police officers for the Canadian Pacific Railway were authorized to carry guns for the first time.
B. Prime Minister John A. MacDonald dispatched the Wolseley Expedition to quell the Red River Rebellion.
C. The Northwest Mounted Police were founded.
D. The Ottawa City Police were required to fire any constabulary officer who came to work intoxicated.

Louis Riel was Métis (a person of mixed First Nations and European parentage) from the Red River Settlement (now Manitoba). He opposed the influx of Anglophone Protestants into the Red River, which had historically belonged to First Nations people and French-speaking, Catholic Métis. Riel created a provisional government with equal representation from both French and English communities.

Thomas Scott was a Protestant Orangeman who opposed that government. Scott threatened to kill Riel. For that Riel’s provisional government tried him. Riel gave the order for him to be executed by firing squad.

In response the government of Canada sent Colonel Garnet Wolseley with a military force to put down the Red River Rebellion. Fifteen years after Scott died, Riel was arrested, tried, and hung for treason. Many contended that his death was payback for having given the order to execute Scott.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Working Hours

by Sheila Connolly

Like many areas of the country, Massachusetts is digging out from another blizzard or nor'easter or whatever we're calling it this week, the second within a month. Save your pity for all those other states which are totally unprepared to deal with more than an inch of snow. We Yankees are used to it.

Cats nap, naps?
But blizzards make me glad I'm a writer. I can sit at home in my grubbies and labor over the Work in Progress (or these days, more often two WIPs). If the power goes out? I've got edits to do–on paper. I can outline the next book–on paper. Or (gasp!) I could read a book. I have plenty of flashlights, plus a 1900 oil lamp that works, so I won't be left in the dark, and there are plenty of books waiting for me.

But... Over the past few years, when my days have been my own, my daily activities not dictated by bosses or train schedules, I have learned a lot about how my brain works–or doesn't work.

My father was a morning person, up early and out of the house by the time I got up (and I finished his pot of tea and read the paper he left). My mother? No way. She was a night owl, and prying her out of bed in the morning was a monumental effort, one which I often abandoned as hopeless. I ended up walking to school in the rain a lot.
My mother's mother was a morning person. She would be up, showered, fully dressed and sitting in the kitchen with a cup of tea before anyone else in the household stumbled down the stairs. My mother's second husband was also a morning person. He was involved in building power plants for a time, so he followed construction schedules (and he also liked to go out for breakfast and hang out with the other morning people, while my mother slept on...).

All in all, I was very aware of diurnal or circadian rhythms from an early age. If there's a genetic component to daily patterns, the odds were good that I would be a morning person, and so it happened. Once I wake up (thank you, hungry cats), my brain starts churning, and I write mental lists of all the things I'm supposed to be doing during the day, and all the things I've put off, and all the things that will need to be done in the next week or month or year. Forget about going back to sleep–it's not happening.

But over the last few years, I've learned more about how my brain works. First and foremost, I know I'm most creative in the morning, so that's when I write (after I've cleared emails and read my favorite blogs and all that stuff). Ideas comes, details click, words flow. I take a short lunch break, then I'm back at it, until...sometime in the afternoon something shuts down. My brain turns to sludge, the flow dries up. Nothing is happening upstairs.

It's like a mini-episode of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Decreased energy and concentration; carbohydrate cravings (those cookies are calling to me); increased sleep (I've started taking naps, which I never used to do). But it's gone the next morning. Maybe I need a new word for it, like ADD (Afternoon Affective Disorder).

Of course, sometimes the outside world doesn't allow me the luxury of slipping into a zombie state. There are edits and copyedits, and they come with deadlines. The publisher wants that manuscript by a fixed date, because there's this whole production queue waiting for it, even if the pub date is still over a year away. As a result, I jealously hoard that precious early-day time, saving it for the new book, the short story, the emails about important details for which I have to communicate coherently to other people. By late afternoon, I read the incoming emails but usually put them aside for more intelligent thought. And I read.

I know there are writers who are reluctant to read other people's work while they're working on something of their own, for fear that their style will be compromised. Not me. There are writers whose work I love, and I dearly wish some of their style would rub off on me, but so far no luck. There are other books that I read and say, I'd never do that. But maybe I need to clear my head of my own words in order to focus on someone else's, because late afternoon is my best reading time. Maybe I'm less analytical then, and more easily drawn into a story.

What about you? When do you work best? When can't you string together a coherent sentence for love or money?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Best Reads of 2010

Elizabeth Zelvin

This is the time when we get to tally up and share with others our favorite reads of the preceding year. This year, I started making my list way back in January 2010, when I was still reading a few of the highly praised mysteries of 2009. I’ve been adding to it and winnowing it throughout 2010, and I think I’ve distilled it to the handful of books I absolutely loved reading. In one case, I got the hardcover by a favorite author the day it was published, read it straight through, then turned back to the beginning and read the whole thing again with equal relish. In another, a book and author I came upon by chance, I thought it was so exceptional that I devoted a whole blog to it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about readers in my years in the mystery community, it’s that every individual’s taste is different. You may hate the books I love, and vice versa. My own husband and I are yin and yang in this regard. Even with the narrow range of books that we may both pick up—a certain kind of high-quality historical and fantasy fiction—I get bored if the battles go on too long, while he gets bored if the relationships and feelings go on too long. (Same with movies, but that’s another story.) But my list is my list, and I want to write about why I think these particular books are so wonderful.

As I said, I wrote a whole blog about Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows (2007), so I’ll repeat here only that it had all three elements of great novel writing: storytelling, writing, and characterization.

The same can be said of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn (2010), the long-awaited new volume of the Vorkosigan saga, which I insist in including on my mystery list because one aspect of Bujold’s genius is the deft mixing of genres. Cryoburn is science fiction, mystery, galactic political thriller, and immensely satisfying character-driven novel all at once. Miles Vorkosigan and his family and friends are the kind of people readers like me fall in love with, wish they could meet and befriend, and hunger to hear more about. They are endearing, smart, and funny—intensely real, achingly delicious. I can read about characters like these till the cows come home, over and over.

Margaret Maron’s Christmas Mourning (2010), and her Judge Deborah Knott series in general, shares that characteristic, at a less intense and charismatic level, of endearing characters, of a world of family and friends that the reader would be delighted to belong to. Every time the Knotts sit around playing music, I wish I had been born into a family that did that. In this one, the mystery is neatly done and the personal elements enough to satisfy someone like me who (dare I admit this?) is really reading the book primarily for the relationships.

Also on my list is Sara Paretsky’s latest, Body Work (2010). Paretsky, just named a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America and the chief founding mother of Sisters in Crime, writes a protagonist, V.I. Warshawski, who is a different kind of smart from either Miles Vorkosigan or Judge Deborah and a more abrasive kind of endearing. I have to reread Paretsky’s books just to make sure I can follow the more brainy aspects of the plot, which often have to do with business or politics. I don’t exactly long to know V.I. personally, but I care about her and the circle of friends and supporters she’s gathered around herself. I admire her doggedness—she’s as persistent as, hmm, Rocky, in coming back after a knockout—I like the way she cares about her mother’s memory (and those last ruby glasses, or are we down to one?), and I adore her overt feminism. In the case of this new book, after reading the beginning, I settled into this meaty read with a sigh of satisfaction. Yes! Paretsky is still at the height of her powers; neither the tight plotting nor the development of this installment of the series character arc is going to let me down.

That’s not the whole list—more another time. What’s on your Best of 2010 list, and why?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What makes you a "real" writer?

Sandra Parshall

This is a dangerous period, when I’ve just finished and turned in one novel, haven’t started another yet, and have far too much time to think.

One thought is inevitable: Do I really want to do this again? Do I want to spend another year of my life with people who exist only in my head?

And that leads to: Is this work, or just an extraordinarily time-consuming hobby? There’s no shortage of people who will say that because I don’t make enough money to fully support myself by writing, it’s a hobby, not a career. Never mind the starred reviews. Never mind the Agatha Award. Never mind the books on library shelves. To some people, only money counts, and I don’t make enough money from writing to be considered a real writer. I’m not working; I’m just amusing myself.

The thing is, when I’m sitting here tearing my hair out because I can’t get a scene to go the way I want it, or writing madly to meet a deadline, it sure does feel like work.

The knowledge that I won’t make a ton of money and see my name on the New York Times bestseller list doesn’t lessen my desire to write the absolute best book I can. I’ve published three books that received fabulous reviews I will always treasure, and I don’t want to produce one that will be dismissed as weak and boring. The relatively few people who buy my books, and the far greater number who borrow them from libraries, deserve the best I can give them.

I’m hardly alone. Only a small percentage of writers earn enough to live on. Those with families to support often work at other jobs and write in their off-hours. It’s a foolish writer who quits his day job when his first book sells reasonably well. The second book might tank, and it’s best to hold on to a steady source of non-writing income. Midlist writers are losing their contracts and moving to small presses or being offered far smaller advances than they’ve received in the past. Is writing no more than a hobby to these people?

Publishing is a scary world these days. The profession of gentlemen has become the enterprise of cutthroats. If you’re published by a major imprint and don’t sell as many copies as they expect, you’ll be dumped long before you have a chance to build an audience. If you’re with a small press, you’ll have much more security because small publishers, while they want and need to make money, aren’t driven by the quest for blockbusters. They want to publish good books that will earn some money for both author and publisher. But it will never be a lot. You may have to cope with people (including other writers) who don’t consider you a “real” author because your big advance wasn’t announced in the press.

And you may reach the point I reach after finishing a book, the “Is this work, or just a hobby?” point. Knowing the mental labor that’s involved, knowing how little respect some people have for your efforts, you may ask yourself if it’s worthwhile to do it all again.

You might feel a bit like Tinkerbell, losing your sparkle as you fade away. I hope you – and I – will find people willing to clap if they believe in us, and keep on clapping until we’re swinging through the air again, high above the doubts and fears.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Stand Up and Pay Attention

Sharon Wildwind

Here’s a short quiz for you.

Thirty minutes of vigorous physical activity offsets the effects of how many minutes sitting at a computer?
A. Five minutes
B. Thirty minutes
C. One hour
D. None at all

Which is healthier?
A. Watching a movie on DVD
B. Watching the same movie on commercial television
C. There is no difference

Allowing for an 8-hour sleep at night (a lot of people get lots less), how much of the remaining 16 hours out of each 24 does the average North Americans spend sitting?
A. 70%
B. 50%
C. 30%
D. 25%

Taking a lazy afternoon to lie down and read a book has what affect on health?
A. None at all
B. Contributes to worse health
C. Contributes to better health
D. Is so individual that no general statement can be made

I didn’t like the answers. You may not either. The bottom line: sitting kills.

Studies done both in Canada and Australia and summarized in a recent Scientific American showed a link between sitting and increased death rate. Even when factors such as age, gender, smoking, physical activity, alcohol intake, waist circumference, and body weight were taken into consideration, sitting raised the death rate in each category by somewhere between 11 and 50%. If you are sitting for long periods every day, being physically active for the recommended 60 minutes a day may do other good things for your body, but it does not reverse the effects of sitting. So the answer to the first question is D, no amount of physical activity offsets the effects of sitting.

You think sitting it bad? Try sitting and food, and I’m not talking about having a bag of chips during the football game or a bowl of ice cream while watching a movie. One of the unhealthiest activities appears to be watching food commercials. Six hours a day of commercial television (with commercials) increased children's calorie intake almost 200 calories a day. Children who watched the same amount of television, but all of it non-commercial stations or DVDs did not have the increased calorie intake. So the answer to the second question is that watching a DVD is apparently healthier than commercial television.

The answer to the third question is a walloping 50%. Eight hours allotted out of every twenty-four for sleep, eight hours spent sitting, and eight hours for everything else in life. I don’t suspect, I know that I spend more than eight hours most days sitting, mostly at the computer, but also in my car, or at a desk. And what about those nice relaxing afternoons when I take a book to bed and read? It’s research after all; I’m learning how other authors write.

Six hours of sedentary behavior (one day at the computer or one afternoon in bed), in both lean and not-so-lean individuals, increases blood triglycerides, decreases healthy cholesterol, and increases insulin resistance, even if you’re getting that recommended 60 minutes of physical exercise a day. So taking a lazy afternoon to read a book might be great for the mind, but it’s lousy for the body.

There is some good news in all of this. Undoing the negative effects of sitting or lying down can be reversed by walking for a few minutes at a leisurely pace, as long as you take frequent, short breaks, say 5 to 10 minutes out of each hour. And no, it’s not cumulative. Working for 4 hours and then taking a 20 minute break doesn’t produce the same benefits as working for 55 minutes, taking a five-minute break, and repeating this pattern three more times.

As writers, we are world-class sitters. We owe it to ourselves to set a timer and get up for 5 or 10 minutes every hour. And we owe it to other writers to make sure that every time we teach, we give people 5 or 10 minutes per hour to get up and move around. Starting tomorrow morning, I’m setting my timer.

Quote for the week
Keep on going, and the chances are that you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it. I never heard of anyone ever stumbling on something sitting down.
~Charles F. Kettering (1876-1958), American engineer

Monday, January 10, 2011

Oh, What Kindle Can Do!

by Julia Buckley
Kindle reads a lively David Copperfield to my cat.

There’s been some debate in mystery circles lately about online books versus paper books. I am in the group of people who believe that there is room in the world for books in any form, and that the important thing is that people are reading and processing text, a complex activity that is good for the brain.

I am currently reading paper books and Kindle books. Yes, I got a Kindle for Christmas—the cheapest kind, yet a miracle in its own right. Every book is a wonder, when you think about it, no matter what the format—-birthed by the creative efforts of many people, but first by an author with a grand idea.

I am reading two print books now. Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale, the latter of which reminds me why print books can be such a joy—the book is beautiful, with glowing title letters and artistic papers that are a feast for the eyes before one even begins reading. (I also recently finished the new Elly Griffiths book, The Janus Stone, which was wonderful. I was sad to see it end).

On Kindle, I had to first download my own book, Madeline Mann, just to check out how it looks. :) But then I got Great Expectations and David Copperfield, which were free and 95 cents, respectively. I got a Dave Barry book called The Complete Guide to Guys, which I found extremely funny, living as I do in a house full of men. I read the first Dexter novel to see what everyone’s been raving about.

The result: look how much I’ve read since Christmas!

So why, exactly, are some people so resistant to Kindle? It’s just another way of processing words, and a fun way, at that. But its uses are endless. Here are some of the Kindle’s amazing powers:

Recently the Kindle saved my dinner party by standing up and reciting a poem by Dylan Thomas. It energized the crowd and brought a literary sensibility to my gathering.

My cat has been sort of depressed in the winter weather; the Kindle has been talking to him about fun options for indoor play. It seems to have made a difference (see photo at top).

The Kindle babysat for my grade-school aged son on Saturday, during which time the Kindle modestly encouraged my son to read a traditionally-printed book above his reading level; my son claims to have understood it quite well.

This afternoon while I was working, the Kindle made sandwiches.

The Kindle has been encouraging me to work out by hanging around near my walking shoes. A subtle yet realistic indictment of my sloth: well-played, Kindle!

I'm looking forward to learning more about all the things the Kindle can do--it really is a versatile machine. So open your minds! We can all get along in book world; and if moderation is needed, I recently found out that the Kindle is a licensed therapist.