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January 2008

100 Books Every Child Should Read, UK-style

In mid-January, published a list of the "100 books every child should read." Like many must-read lists, it includes expected stalwarts such as Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte's Web, The Chronicles of Narnia, and To Kill a Mockingbird. But this Brit list focuses on stories that are exciting to read (vs. books that teach you things you ought to know) and it actually has some titles I haven't seen on American recommended book lists.

I'm adding a sampling here, but I recommend clicking through to the actual list for the thoughtful introduction by author Michael Morpurgo about kids and stories, as well as fun thumbnail reviews like "A stirring tale," "No reader remains untouched," and my favorite: "Runcible." 


Early and Middle Years

The Tiger Who Came To Tea, Judith Kerr
Quoting their blurb:
"[The BBC's] Newsnight's Emily Maitlis has a theory that this book is an allegory about sex. Most children understand it as the story of a tiger that eats its hosts out of house and home. Debate continues."
If you're unfamiliar with this book, you can enjoy a lovely reading here.

Roald Dahl has five books on the list: The Twits, Danny, the Champion of the World, George's Marvelous Medicine, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The BFG. (Notable exclusion: American favorite James and the Giant Peach.)

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, T.S. Eliot
I was surprised to find poetry on a general reading list. Maybe that's not so surprising in Britain, I don't know. I started reading these poems to my son based on a tip from my ex-hippie uncle who read them to his kids--and I love reading them aloud--but I have been afraid he might grow up unknowingly quoting lyrics from Cats. (Although, let's face it, quoting T.S. Eliot could be equally dorky.)

Comet in Moominland, Tove Jansson
A new discovery in our family, though very popular in Europe ("the Mickey Mouse of Finland.")

Early Teens

Frenchman's Creek, Daphne Du Maurier
"A swashbuckling love affair," chosen over her potentially more familiar titles, Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel.

Junk, Melvin Burgess
A "clear-eyed story of heroin addiction." This winner of the Guardian Fiction Award and the American Library Association's Carnegie Medal appears on a number of UK teen book review websites, though little seems to have been written about it in the U.S. (A more extensive review is available at

The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes
More poetry(!), recommended for the "higgledy-piggledy mix of glories within."

The American Library Association's website and Book Crush, by Nancy Pearl, contain similar lists focused for young American readers in case you want to compare. --Heidi

Getting Lost in Strange Museums

The Museum Vaults is the second in a series of four graphic novels published through an arrangement between the Louvre in Paris and New York-based publisher Nantier Beall Minoustchine. Written and illustrated by French artist, Marc-Antoine Mathieu, the graphic novel describes an art appraiser's descent into the depths of a strange, apparently limitless museum. Rendered in rich sepia tones, his journey takes on a Magritte-like quality, enhanced by several large panels, such as the one reproduced below the cut, that give a dizzying sense of space and perspective. According to the publisher, Mathieu has "managed to bite the hand that feeds him" with The Museum Vaults, by sending up "the pomposity of art history and of such museums as the Louvre...each chapter an additional exercise in the absurd aspects of organizing, showing, and critiquing art." This may or may not be true, but the overall effect shares more in common with the luminous sense of unease found in the work of Franz Kafka, combined with the spatial manipulation common to the stories of J.G. Ballard. As the reader descends into the museum along with the narrator, the sense of being plunged into a subtle and surreal adventure becomes ever more heightened until you find yourself almost literally lost in the book.

Museumcovsmall Glacial_2

The Museum Vaults is fully the equal of the first book in the series, the extremely talented Nicolas De Crecy's Glacial Period, which describes the efforts of archaeologists thousands of years from now to dig up the ruins of the Louvre. It's a brilliant mirroring concept, since they're digging up not only the ruins of the museum, but the ruins preserved within the museum.

Before I visited the Louvre late last year I would have thought a graphic novel collaboration to perhaps be out of keeping with the museum's image. But the Louvre, like any great museum, is really just an assortment of odd objects created by often eccentric craftspeople and geniuses organized by scientists in love with the past to look as if said objects are, in fact, quite normal. That is the charm and mystique of a museum, along with, especially in the most venerable institutions, their use of space and light--both of which are masterful in The Museum Vaults.

Continue reading "Getting Lost in Strange Museums" »

The Latest from Oprah

0452289963 Earlier today, talk show host and FOB (Friend of Books) Oprah Winfrey announced that Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose is her latest Oprah’s Book Club® pick. A #1 New York Times bestseller, A New Earth is a life-affirming look at how to achieve peace and purpose in your everyday life. "Being able to share this material with you is a gift and a part of the fulfillment of my life’s purpose,” she told her Oprah audience on Wednesday. "It was an awakening for me that I want for you, too."

Most notably, her enthusiasm has also spawned a new endeavor, as she and Tolle will host a weekly A New Earth online discussion with readers starting March 3.  Comprising ten sessions corresponding with each of the book's ten chapters, this free interactive classroom is a first for Oprah's Book Club® and a new way for members to connect. 

To pre-register for the class, log on to

Locus Online: The Best SF and Fantasy of 2007

Recently I contributed a year's best SF/Fantasy article to Locus Online that I think will interest book-hungry Amazon readers. If you're unfamiliar with Mark Kelly's Locus Online, it is perhaps the best internet source for all things genre, and the electronic presence of the hardcopy magazine.

My article includes several titles familiar to readers from the Amazon Best SF/Fantasy list posted last year. However, it also includes many book not on that list, all of which are linked to Amazon. You'll find novel, first novel, anthology, reprint, and graphic novel recommendations galore. And, for your immediate reading pleasure, I've turned the spotlight on four recommended titles below. (In addition to my article, also take a look at Claude Lalumiere's recommended reading.)

Locuswinterson Locusswanwick Locusbright Locuslog

Continue reading "Locus Online: The Best SF and Fantasy of 2007" »

Liar's Diary Blog Day

045228915701_mzzzzzzz_ In the space of just a few days, we've heard from many directions about a remarkable online organizing effort known as Liar's Diary Blog Day. Patry Francis is a debut author whose thriller, The Liar's Diary (apologies--I had this as "Liar's Day" yesterday), releases today in paperback. But after years of writing towards the day that every writer dreams about, she got hit by a ton of bricks. I'll let one of the organizers of LDBD, Susan Henderson at LitPark, explain:

What if you worked for years as a waitress and then went home at the end of the day to your husband and four kids, and in those rare minutes of free time, you dared to dream that one day you might write a book? This is the story of my friend, Patry - a story that leaves out years of false starts, revisions, and rejection slips. It's a story that writers know intimately, though the details are different. Every one of us is well acquainted with the struggle of getting a story on paper, of honing it and believing in it enough to send it out, only to receive rejection, or worse, silence for our efforts.

Imagine, after many years, you beat the odds. You finish that book. You find that agent who sells your manuscript. Your dream is about to become a reality. But just as your book is due to be released, you discover you have an aggressive form of cancer.

Since Patry has to focus on getting well and not getting out to introduce people to her book, a remarkable network of authors and other friends has formed to spread the word. Over 300 writers, including Khaled Hosseini, Jennifer Weiner, Neil Gaiman, and many more, have blogged yesterday and today about Patry Francis and The Liar's Diary, which Booklist has called "a disturbing portrait of a hollow family done in by secrets and lies," and we're happy to join them. See more details at organizer Laura Benedict's blog, and see a complete list of participating bloggers at LitPark. Here's Patry's own blog, Simply Wait, and here's a video trailer for the book created by another friend:


Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Geoffrey C. Ward on This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust: "'The work of death was Civil War America’s most fundamental and most demanding undertaking,' [Gilpin writes]. Her account of how that work was done, much of it gleaned from the letters of those who found themselves forced to do it, is too richly detailed and covers too much ground to be summarized easily. She overlooks nothing — from the unsettling enthusiasm some men showed for killing to the near-universal struggle for an answer to the question posed by the Confederate poet Sidney Lanier: 'How does God have the heart to allow it?'"
  • Ken Kalfus on All Shall Be Well; All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well by Tod Wodicka: "Although Wodicka turns up a provocative thought here and there, this musing, typical of Burt’s grief-laden vaporousness, serves also to illustrate the artless, wordy and underarticulated writing that makes 'All Shall Be Well' such a Black Death of a chore to read. Wodicka has chosen a narrative voice too depressive and portentous to manifest his ingenuity." On Thursday, though, Maslin called ASBWASBWAMTSBW "this tender, oddball book, one that performs a deft balancing act as it hides love, yearning and regret behind the mouthful of medieval incantation in its title."
  • Kakutani on The Reserve by Russell Banks: "The plot of 'The Reserve,' which takes place in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1936, moves not with the swift, sharklike momentum of his best fiction but in a hokey, herky-jerky fashion that never lets the reader forget that Mr. Banks is standing there behind the proscenium, pulling the characters’ strings. Even the language he uses is weirdly secondhand: a bizarre mélange of Hemingwayesque action prose and romance-novel clichés that manages to feel faux macho and sickly sweet at the same time."
  • Maslin on The Appeal by John Grisham: "Building a remarkable degree of suspense into the all too familiar ploys described here, Mr. Grisham delivers his savviest book in years. His extended vacation from hard-hitting fiction is over.... It barely matters that the characters in 'The Appeal' are essentially stick figures. What works for Mr. Grisham is his patient, lawyerly, inexorable way of dramatizing urgent moral issues."

Washington Post:

  • Mindy Aloff on The Mitfords: Letters Between Six SIsters, edited by Charlotte Mosley: "The Mitfords could have been an operatic group biography on an epic scale: Instead, thanks to its editor's taste and discretion, it is chamber music with symphonic longings. Ironically, as the sororal voices drop away owing to irreparable feuds or lost letters or death, the surviving sisters become more serious and open. Tragedy and aging lead them to wisdom, or something very like it."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Sven Birkerts on Banks's The Reserve: "Banks works with a vast palette and a sure stylistic command. 'The Reserve' gratifies page by page. But when the pages are gathered together, held in retrospect, there is the sense of an echo still awaited, some deeper gratification promised in the meditative pose of the mysterious, beautiful woman on the first page."
  • Richard Schickel on An Ordinary Spy by Joseph Weisberg: "At a certain point, the reader begins to wonder whether 'An Ordinary Spy' might possibly be an extraordinary act of disinformation. Might its author still be a CIA employee, charged with portraying the agency in a benign light -- not exactly bumbling, but incapable of, say, water-boarding or extraordinary rendition? To hear Weisberg tell it, an American secret agent's chief concern seems to be defending his retirement package."

Globe & Mail:

  • Catherine Bush on How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet: "It's hard, in fact, to convey how invigorating Millet's fiction is, how intelligent and thematically rich, how processes of thought are themselves made urgent and lively through the specificity of her observations and sentences that offer startlement, small and large. This isn't fiction that tells us how to live. Instead, it dramatizes the power of attentiveness to an expanded, if terribly flawed and potentially dying, world, attentiveness being a kind of tenderness, which is a kind of love."

The Guardian:

  • Christopher Taylor on The Second Plane by Martin Amis: "'If September 11 had to happen,' he says in the introduction to The Second Plane, 'then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime.' His fans might not feel the same way. To some extent, the heavily self-parodic aspects of the enterprise - at one point he reports on treating Tony Blair to a disquisition on the Shia, whom he compared to 'nut-rissole artists' - make the crazy-uncle outbursts less alarming."

The New Yorker:

  • Joan Acocella on God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis: "The Muslims came to Europe, he writes, as 'the forward wave of civilization that was, by comparison with that of its enemies, an organic marvel of coordinated kingdoms, cultures, and technologies in service of a politico-cultural agenda incomparably superior' to that of the primitive people they encountered there. They did Europe a favor by invading. This is not a new idea, but Lewis takes it further: he clearly regrets that the Arabs did not go on to conquer the rest of Europe. The halting of their advance was instrumental, he writes, in creating 'an economically retarded, balkanized, and fratricidal Europe that . . . made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism, and perpetual war.' It was 'one of the most significant losses in world history and certainly the most consequential since the fall of the Roman Empire.' This is a bold hypothesis."


It's Tom's Seattle... We Just Eat Here

James Beard Award-winning Seattle chef Tom Douglas is a man whose name is synonymous with Pacific Northwest cuisine. Through five of Seattle's most creative and exciting restaurants, Tom and his wife and business partner, Jackie Cross, have helped define the Seattle food scene. Tom is also the author of three cookbooks, including the award-winning Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen, and oversees a line of specialty food products sold nationwide. I've been lucky enough to get to know Tom since I moved to Seattle in '99 and his Palace Kitchen practically serves as a second home for me. Tom has been kind enough to have me as a regular guest on his weekly radio show to talk about cookbooks, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to interview him about about celebrity chefs, getting your kids involved in the kitchen, bloggers, his undying love of Seattle, and much more. Highlights from our talk are below. You can read the entire interview or listen to a podcast of the interview on Amazon Wire (gentle readers, please note: I was at the peak of a severe cold when we recorded this so I sound a bit like Lauren Bacall).

--BTP First of all, how would you define Pacific Northwest cuisine?

Douglas:   That's a cheap question. Too easy?

Douglas: [Laughs] Well, I've only been asked it for 25 years now and it's still a hard one to come by. I think it's in the context of a restaurant and for me restaurants are so much more than just their cuisine. I think the Seattle restaurant scene is a really fun--really up and down the Pacific Northwest coast. Portland's the same way... Vancouver. There's a certain sense of approachability. A certain sense of product. A celebration of the amazing bounty that we have here. Pacific Northwest cuisine is really about--kind of the same regionality that every other region has--things that come from here. I think the best way to explain to somebody from "the outside" is to use the salmon explanation.

When you are a chef in New York City or in Florida or in Dallas and you want salmon on your menu tonight you call your fish broker and you order salmon. You have some fresh salmon? Yeah? I'll take some salmon tonight. In Seattle, when you want salmon on your menu you call your fish guy and you say, What kind of salmon do you have tonight? Coho? King? Silvers? Keta? Where was it caught? What river? Campbell River? Yukon River? Copper River? Columbia River? Who caught it? Was it brought up right on the boat? Was it troll-caught? Gill-netted? Pursing caught? How was it bled? Did they bleed it right there on the boat or did they wait till they got to the dock and take it to the dockhouse and then take care of all the fish at one time? Or, as that fish was brought up, did somebody stop, bleed it, and pack its belly with ice and put it in the hold and go back three hours later to the shore and that afternoon put it on an Alaska Airlines jet down to Seattle? Oh, I'll take that one! I'll take that salmon that was King, troll-caught, boat-bled, caught this morning, on a plane this afternoon. That's the fish that I want!

Continue reading "It's Tom's Seattle... We Just Eat Here" »

Hunter's Run Explored: An Interview with Daniel Abraham, Gardner Dozois, and George R.R. Martin

Hunter1_3 Hunter3_4 Hunter2_4

(The US, special limited, and UK editions of Hunter's Run.)

What do you get when three stellar writers team up on a high-octane SF novel? You get Hunter's Run, which has been described as "Predator meets Camus' The Stranger". Out from Eos this month, it is the brainchild of NYT Bestseller George R.R. Martin, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning writer and editor Gardner Dozois, and critically acclaimed writer Daniel Abraham, one of the best of the next generation of fantasists. Hunter's Run mixes action and suspense with fascinating characters. Ramon Espejo comes up on the wrong side of the Enye, rulers of the planet of Sao Paulo. As Espejo tries to make sense of his fragmented memories, the stakes rise in a battle between powerful and ruthless species. Fans of all three writers should enjoy this well-crafted novel and, as with the best examples of synergy, it's difficult to tell who wrote what. (Completists may wish to check out the novella version still archived on Ellen Datlow's SciFiction.)

Now, collaborations between two writers are common. Collaborations between three writers are not. In part to satisfy my own curiosity, I recently conducted the following interview with Abraham, Dozois, and Martin, who talked about the process of creating the novel. Who came up with the idea for Hunter’s Run and how did the collaboration come to be?

George R.R. Martin: The story started with Gardner. The first time I read it, it was an untitled novella fragment that Gardner had submitted to a writer's workshop in Iowa in 1977. After a strong start, he had gotten stuck on it, and I suppose he was hoping that getting some comments and suggestions from other writers would help get him going again. I don't recall what suggestions I made, but I do remember liking the much so that a couple of years later, when Gardner asked me if I'd like to collaborate with him on the still-untitled, still-unfinished novella, I was glad to jump in. I can claim credit for being the first to suggest that the story should be a novel. It took a couple more decades and another collaborator to accomplish that, but the idea was sound. What was the process of collaboration like? Layering, taking separate sections as your own, or...? And how did you resolve any disagreements?

Gardner Dozois: There were a lot of layers here, since it consisted of George overwriting me, Daniel overwriting both of us, and then me overwriting everyone else for the final draft. The major problem was keeping the voice as consistent a possible from section to section, since we didn't want a particular section to stand out in a "Oh, this must be the part Dozois put in" kind of a way. This was occasionally difficult, since, as a good modernist, Daniel prefers things to be as stark and minimalistic as possible, where a lot of the effect of my work and George's depends on color and the richness of the detail and the emotionality of the prose (making it either "evocative" or "purple," depending on your tastes). I handled this by putting back in a lot of the color and detail work that Daniel had cut as unnecessary to the plot, and also by adding paragraphs rich with color and detail early on in the novel as well, so that there'd be a consistency of tone from beginning to end. As the one who was doing the smoothing draft, I got the final say most of the time, although, of course, I consulted George and Daniel on controversial points. Daniel, I assume when you were growing up, you always imagined you would be collaborating on a novel with Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin. Am I right?

Daniel Abraham: Of course, but I always imagined it more as a regency romance with overtones of William S. Burroughs. Seriously, it never entered my mind as a possibility until George made the proposal. But I read over the draft they had and the outlined notes for how to move forward with it, and it was a good looking project. Plus it was Gardner and George. All very Marlon Brando offer-you-can't-refuse.

Continue reading "Hunter's Run Explored: An Interview with Daniel Abraham, Gardner Dozois, and George R.R. Martin" »

Secret Knowledge the Whole World Knows: Questions for David Goldblatt

As I've burnt out (somewhat) on what was my full-blown youthful sports nutdom, trying to put a little distance between myself and the 24-7 coverage of the endless American sports calendar, international soccer has seemed to me like a breath of fresh air, a secret transmission that, until cable and the internet brought the Premiership and Serie A into immediate electronic reach, you could only access via 2 am viewings at English pubs and imported magazines. The irony, of course, is that for the rest of the world soccer, or rather football, _is_ the ever-hyped, multi-zillion-dollar story, and these secret heroes who would only surface on our screens every four years at World Cup time, the Ballacks and Henrys and Kluiverts and Batistutas, were household names to billions. But even now, with Beckham playing (or least being paid) in L.A. and the Fox Soccer Channel piped into my very own home, reading about soccer still feels like samizdat, like underground knowledge.

159448296901_mzzzzzzz_ Which is why I immediately grabbed David Goldblatt's The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer, and carved out enough time to read it, 992 pages and all. What I was hoping for was the vast backstory that I, steeped in no soccer culture beyond seeing Pele and the New York Cosmos play the Washington "Dips" in 1975 and playing years of youth soccer like every other suburban kid, had never gotten. But I got that and much more from The Ball Is Round, which is a global history as much as a soccer history, giving as much attention to the politics and culture surrounding the game as to the matches on the pitch (without ignoring those either), and teaching me, I'm embarrassed to admit, more about South American politics in the 20th century than I've ever picked up from any other source. With its style, its vastly informed ambition, and its balance between the political and the poetic, it's every bit the equivalent of Alex Ross's recent brainiac survey of 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise. And like The Rest Is Noise, it sent me to the 'net for examples of the artists that its pages evoked so well (for example, Brazil's tragic star from the 50s, Garrincha, or this half-field shot from Pele I couldn't believe until I had seen it for myself--at 0:24, but try not to watch the next 8 minutes too, especially the glorious last goal, at 6:50). I asked David Goldblatt, its well-traveled author, a few questions about his book (which was, of course, subtitled A Global History of Football in its original UK version):

Goldblatt_david_300 There's a sentence in the middle of The Ball Is Round that to me sums up a great deal of the culture of football. After noting that Pelé had scored nearly a goal a game in over 1,300 professional matches--the sort of stat that would be on every page in a history of one of the major American sports but that is very rare in this one--you write, "This of course tells us nothing about all the goals he made." What stories do football fans tell about their sport and their stars?

Goldblatt: Well, in America not only would you be banging on about Pele's goal to game ratio but you would have been collecting statistics in a rational organized manner about his assists--a concept that had only entered soccer statistics in the last few years. The state of Brazilian football statistics during Pelé's career would not pass muster in Cooperstown in can tell you. Bill James would have a nervous breakdown with hopeless state of the data base. Soccer fans tell a lot the same stories that Americans tell themselves, sagas, epics, heroic tasks, near misses, dramatic comebacks, tales of curious individualists and unshakeable teams, but they are told in a the idioms, genres, vocabulary, and head space of hundreds of different cultures. I have to ask the inevitable question: why hasn't football--rather, soccer--ever taken hold in the United States (despite generations now who grow up playing it)? (And does the rest of the world care if it ever does?) I was fascinated by your comment in the American foreword that you recovered from finishing the book by ignoring soccer for half a year and only watching American sports. What did you notice?

Goldblatt: Contrary to the received wisdom I would say that soccer has taken hold in the US, if we look at participation figures amongst women and the young, and while MLS isn't about to challenge the premiership or Serie A for money or glamour it looks like it is now established on a firm footing. If the game can just tap into the rising Latino communities of America it could be pushing hockey for fourth sport.

That said it would still be just number 4. Baseball, football, and basketball have now had over a century's head start on soccer and between them created a wider sports culture--of expectations, tastes, and pleasures--that I think sometimes finds soccer incomprehensible ( what's with the draws?) or distasteful (all that diving). Soccer had its chance in the USA in the 1920s and 30s when East Coast professional leagues were drawing big crowds but a combination of bureaucratic infighting, the Wall Street crash, and the lingering ethnic associations of the game killed it for two generations.

Continue reading "Secret Knowledge the Whole World Knows: Questions for David Goldblatt" »

The Three Potentially Offensive Pigs


I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow down your shoddily constructed...

Shoo-fly publishing's The Three Little Cowboy Builders is circulating the blogosphere as the latest casualty of eager political correctness. The digital pop-up book based on the classic story, The Three Little Pigs, was not shortlisted for the first annual (British government-backed) BETT Awards because, according to the panel of educator-judges, "the use of pigs raises cultural issues."

Today's BBC News report elaborated on the panel's judgment. Apparently, the use of pigs in the story was considered potentially offensive to Muslims. And Asians. And, well, construction workers:

The judges criticised the stereotyping in the story of the unfortunate pigs: "Is it true that all builders are cowboys, builders get their work blown down, and builders are like pigs?"

(Examples of judges' comments must have been released by someone associated with the book, because they are not reflected at all in this vague public statement, which essentially says that the book just wasn't good enough.)

Looking for some kind of response from any of the potentially offended communities, I found this Daily Mail article from March 2007, about a church school that renamed their Three Pigs musical "The Three Little Puppies." It includes a statement from Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Britain who said, "The vast majority of Muslims have no problem whatsoever with the Three Little Pigs. There's an issue about the eating of pork, which is forbidden, but there is no prohibition about reading stories about pigs."

No comment so far from the builders. Bob?

For the oft-maligned wolf's perspective, you can also check out children's laureate Jon Scieszka's The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! --Heidi