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November 2009

Omni Daily Crush: "La's Orchestra Saves the World"

During the holiday weekend, I managed to stave off the food coma long enough to read a few upcoming December releases.  At the top of the short stack was Alexander McCall Smith's new novel, La's Orchestra Saves the World (available December 8).  I must confess that I'm a bit of a late-comer to McCall Smith's impressive bibliography of more than 50 works. I got hooked on the beloved Scottish author's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series last spring while prepping for our podcast interview, and more recently was intrigued when I heard about La's Orchestra--a stand-alone novel (rare for McCall Smith) that's set in the small town of Suffolk in the English countryside during the Second World War.  Fans of McCall Smith's female sleuths Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie will find just a few mysteries punctuating the story line. The book is mainly concerned with the day-to-day life and concerns of a young widow named Lavender ("La") Stone, a promising Cambridge student who, like many women of her class and generation, finished school, married well, and led a comfortable and respectable life.  In La's case, things take a wrong turn when her philandering husband unexpectedly leaves her, and dies shortly thereafter from an injury incurred during a freak accident.  Just before the start of the war in 1939, she retreats to her in-law's country house to sort out the emotional wreckage of her failed marriage and premature widowhood.  In this self-imposed exile at the age of 28, she begins to finds solace by helping the war effort in this very quiet corner of civilization.  La tends to the hens on a neighbor's farm, starts a victory garden, and conducts an orchestra composed of local amateur musicians. The atmosphere of fear and anxiety of the war years permeates the mood of the novel, and Nazi atrocities and wartime mayhem are certainly referenced and discussed within the story, but like a Shakespearean drama, the physical violence occurs off stage. 

Fans will certainly recognize and appreciate McCall Smith's consistently subtle and quiet prose. The writing is smooth and a pleasure to read. The reader feels as if s/he is sitting right beside the characters as they converse across the table and over a strong pot of tea and biscuits.  A co-worker told me that this is just the kind of book that she intends to give to her great grandmother as a holiday gift. That sounds like a fine idea, however, but I'd suggest that McCall Smith's story merits a broad audience.  La Stone and her rural life in the context of WWII might seem inconsequential or perhaps even quaint.  But the book's literary merits don't obscure the gravity of the protagonist's predicament and her pathos.  Her daily battles represent generational and social struggles to lead an independent, ethical, and dignified life in the face of hardship, pressing social expectations and conventions, moral ambiguity, and isolation.  La Stone may be rendered with softer lines and contours, yet she shares the same qualities of fortitude, wisdom, and grace as McCall Smith's well-known heroines.    --Lauren

Recommended for fans of Alexander McCall Smith, Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs WWII novels, and the recent breakout bestseller The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.

Omni Daily News

Twilight trendspotting: The Daily Beast forecasts which new series are poised for mega-popularity now that Twilight is over. Among them are Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy, Fallen by Lauren Kate, and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, but we think they missed a major contender: Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's Beautiful Creatures. (Vampires are so last year).

Moody tweets: Jacket Copy reports on Rick Moody's Twitter experiment: a short story called "Some Contemporary Characters," conducted in collaboration with Electric Literature, that follows a man (older) and a woman (younger) getting to know each other after meeting online. JC is mildly critical of the process, since the story is getting fed out simultaneously by multiple Twitter accounts (and I agree this could be kind of confusing), but so far I like where it's going. About 2 hours ago: "I think he wore an earring at some point, you could see the little divot in his earlobe—how long ago and why?"

For fans of Confederates in the Attic and The Guinea Pig Diaries: NPR contributor Charlie Schroeder has signed with Penguin to write Re-Enactor: Learning About History One Bloodless Battle at a Time. This sounds like a good History Channel special.

Judging books by their (new) covers: You may have noticed we're a little jacket-obsessed lately, so this piece of news on a new look for Margaret Atwood caught my eye. These covers do seem poised for a younger audience (a la Penguin Classics new "couture" editions), but something about the photo-illustration mashup jars me a little. What do you think?

Moving & shaking: Greg Kincaid's A Dog Named Christmas trots up our daily list, thanks to yesterday's Hallmark Hall of Fame special. (I didn't watch this, but have it on good authority that it is a major tear-jerker.) --Anne

History, Fantasy, and the Blurry Lines of Literature (Guest Blogger Jesse Bullington)

The best thing about writing historical fiction, for me, is the history. There is no substitute for hitting on some obscure fact or figure and realizing in this crackling flash that all the problems I was having with Chapter 17 are banished, and better still, the novel will be more fun for history buffs in the bargain. Considering the vast expanse of the historical record, passing up the real world for a completely fictional creation is a somewhat baffling choice to me.

The worst thing about writing historical fiction, for me, is the history (if you didn’t see that one coming you need to get out more). There is nothing more frustrating than realizing the fine plot threads I meticulously wove together into a tapestry of wit in Chapter 18 need to be completely unraveled because I skimped on researching the finer points of 14th century fishing boat schematics or confused Pope Urban V with that chump Urban IV. Looking at the teetering stack of library books I have to get through to make Chapter 18 work again, I am somewhat baffled by my decision to work with real history instead of a wholly fictional, “second world” counterpart.

Not that I think creating a believable, nuanced world from scratch is easy. On the contrary, I have enough problems rendering a believable, nuanced facsimile of our own world with all of human history and learning at my disposal, so forget about my trying to invent a world any more than I already do. By which I mean that recreating a historical setting in a work of fiction does involve a great deal of invention, at least to render your world in such a way that is accurate and unobtrusive but still detailed enough for the casual reader who hasn’t spent far too much time reading up on Medieval fashion and politics.

The main reason I write fiction set in our historical past is that it appeals to me. Not a very illuminating answer, I know, but it’s the simplest one I’ve got. Writing fiction set in a fictional world wholly removed from ours, or a contemporary, parallel universe, or our species’ theoretical future, doesn’t get my brain humming the way inventing stories set in our past does, although I’ve read and loved many a work of second world fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, or whatever we’re labeling any given text at any given time. So no hating on so-called genre titles or non-genre speculative fiction titles, if there really is a difference between them—don’t ask me to define the fundamental distinctions between Margaret Atwood’s fictional futures and Ray Bradbury’s other than the usual differences you find between disparate authors; on my shelf she’s under A, he’s under B, and that’s about it.

In talking about historical fiction as opposed to other genres, and genre in general, I seem to have left out a rather important aspect of my own writing, which is that while at present I’m describing what I do as historical fiction not everyone would agree with me. The reason is that my work contains fantastical elements, and rather strong ones at that. Part of my motivation for incorporating the supernatural in my historical-set work is that many of the individuals living in said eras believed in monsters and witches, but that is far from the only reason I include patently impossible characters and creatures. A short answer would be similar to my reasoning for writing historical fiction in the first place, that I simply enjoy fantasy and horror and thus use both fairly heavily in my work, but even that doesn’t completely cover it.

Without getting bogged down with why we invent monsters and what they might symbolize to different cultures at different times, I would say that part of my desire to include fantastical elements stems from a desire to restore the magic that went out of the world when we realized witches were just midwives, madwomen, and charlatans, seamonsters simply whales and seals, dragons and griffins and countless other beasts nothing more than old dinosaur bones mixed with legend and the imagination of whoever stumbled over them. By telling stories set in a past that is as close to ours as I am capable of rendering, and by keeping the supernatural elements to the hinterlands instead of the civic centers, I’m trying to bend history but not break it, to recreate a world where the impossible was real, as opposed to creating a new world with its own realities.

Whether the reader thinks this means I’m a writer of fantasy or a writer of historical fiction doesn’t concern me so long as I get to keep blending the unbelievable with the everyday, the horrors of a hard life with the presumed horrors lurking just beyond the firelight, the real with the never-was. Just because we’ve lost our sense of wonder doesn’t mean we should inflict our mundane reality on our ancestors.

Guest Blogger: Jesse Bullington

This week, in the midst of looking back on the year, and the decade, that are coming to a close, we're also offering you something fresh: a debut novelist, Jesse Bullington, who will be guest-blogging at Omni all week. Jesse's debut, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, was released this month by Orbit (with a gorgeous cover, designed by Keith Hayes and Lauren Panepinto with an illustration by Istvan Orosz, that could easily have been a contender in our Best Covers of the Year competition). Set in the plague-wracked Europe of 1364, it's been described already as "violent, nasty, and filled with unpleasant people" (by a 5-star customer reviewer) and "Darkly funny, profane, erudite, bawdy, and wickedly original" (by our own Jeff VanderMeer, who, full disclosure, has been a fan and supporter of Mr. Bullington for a long time and first turned us on to his work). The Forbidden Planet International Blog Log calls it "one of the most original fantasy novels I’ve read in years" and finds it "immensely refreshing when someone comes along and kicks the genre up its leather britches-covered behind like this."

Perhaps the best introduction to The Sad Tale, and to its fraternal heroes, are its own opening paragraphs (following a short and spurious preface), which remind me of nothing so much (and I mean this as high praise) as the gleefully nasty openings of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Twits:

To claim that the Brothers Grossbart were cruel and selfish brigands is to slander even the nastiest highwaymen, and to say that they were murderous swine is an insult to even the filthiest boar. They were Grossbarts through and true, and in many lands such a title still carries serious weight. While not as repugnant as their father nor as cunning as his, horrible though both men were, the Brothers proved worse. Blood can go bad in a single generation or it can be distilled down through the ages into something truly wicked, which was the case with those abominable twins, Hegel and Manfried.

Both were average of height but scrawny of trunk. Manfried possessed disproportionately large ears, while Hegel's nose dwarfed many a turnip in size and knobbiness. Hegel's copper hair and bushy eyebrows contrasted the matted silver of his brother's crown, and both were pockmarked and gaunt of cheek. They had each seen only twenty-five years but possessed beards of such noteworthy length that from even a short distance they were often mistaken for old men. Whose was longest proved a constant bone of contention between the two.

Does that catch your fancy? Stay tuned all week to see if Jesse himself will be cunning, repugnant, or as pleasant as he has been in his emails with me. --Tom

3 x 100: Comparing the NYT 100 Notables to Amazon and PW

The New York Times announced their 100 Notable Books on Thanksgiving Eve (they'll appear in the print edition of the Book Review on Sunday), which completes the annual triumvirate of US top 100s, including PW's list and ours. I won't go to the cut & paste lengths of linking to all 100 of the NYT's picks, but you can find them all in this list on Amazon. What I will do, as I have done in the past two years, is pick out the books we all three agree on. The three lists don't all cover the same territory (the NYT and PW don't include kids' books, and the NYT also leaves art books, cookbooks, kids' books, and other specialty titles for other year-end lists, while PW also doesn't include kids' books and shows a much heavier interest in comics, religion, and genre fiction than we or the NYT do in our main lists), but our common picks do give a sort of consensus on the most-admired fiction and nonfiction of the year.

Eleven books appear on all three lists, the same number as in 2007 (last year we agreed on 13), although I'm also going to list two books that we and PW agreed on that also appeared in the NYT's other year-end lists:

Only two novels pleased everybody, along with a graphic novel. And what else do you notice about these shared picks? Yes, just like the much-debated PW top 10, no women (but four Davids and a Dave!)...

Is this list a hint of what to expect from the NYT's 10 Best, coming next Wednesday? Last year half of that list came from the consensus picks, but in 2007 only two did. My money's on The Age of Wonder, The Good Soldiers, Lost City of Z, and Cheever to be on that list, along with the big award winners Wolf Hall and Let the Great World Spin, which were in our overall top three but didn't make the PW list. But we'll see... --Tom

P.S. One further clarification: for those readers who don't read the NYT tea leaves as closely as many in the industry do, the Sunday Book Review and the daily book reviews are entirely separate, and so while the 100 Notable and 10 Best lists are put together by the Sunday Book Review staff, the regular daily reviewers--Kakutani, Maslin, and Garner--have each chosen their own 2009 top 10s. Those looking for further consensus will note that four of the books above (The Good Soldiers and Lost City of Z for Kakutani and Await Your Reply and The Age of Wonder for Maslin) also appeared on those lists.

Graphic Novel Friday: "Batman: Battle for the Cowl"

This year was a morbid one for Batman fans. February kicked off the funeral proceedings with Grant Morrison's Batman: R.I.P., which led directly into Final Crisis (also by Morrison), where the Dark Knight finally met his match. The eulogy remained to be continued, however, as Neil Gaiman offered a few words in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader, a dream-like send-off to years and years of crime-fighting stories.

But Alfred barely had enough time to check the tires on the Bat-hearse before the Battle for the Cowl began. Writer and artist Tony Daniel presents post-Batman Gotham as a city under siege, no matter how extended the Bat-family has grown in an attempt to contain the threats. There are not one, but four Robins (OK, the original, Dick Grayson, has matured into "Nightwing," and the second, Jason Todd, was murdered), a Batwoman, a Batgirl (two Batgirls, actually, if we're counting the original, Barbara Gordon, who now goes by "Oracle"), a Man-Bat, and a Catwoman. The city is once again rife with crime, and even the heroes are beginning to doubt whether Gotham can survive without its guardian.

This leads us, naturally, to a mysterious vigilante swinging from the rooftops in a bat-eared cowl. It would seem that while Nightwing and the two remaining Robins (Robin III: Tim Drake; Robin IV: Damian, Batman's bratty, illegitimate son) were speculating about who should take over the mantle, someone else swept in and beat them to the Biff! Pow! Bam! When they finally meet the usurper, he comes complete with sidearms, what looks like a cheese-grater over the usual mouth portion of the Bat-mask, and an attitude straight out of 1990s anti-heroism. Crime will pay! (Given the eventual reveal, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this character is a few years behind the times, so I suppose his costume can be forgiven.)

Aside from the overzealous impostor, Battle for the Cowl is an easy breather from the more heady Batman stories that preceded it in 2009. Daniel's Gotham City looks reminiscent of Jim Lee's Hush, and includes several nods to other Batman stories: Tim Drake decides to do some sleuthing, and he dons the Neal Adams/Jim Aparo yellow oval Bat-suit, to which Catwoman quips, "I wondered whatever happened to the Caped Crusader." Daniel shifts his style somewhat in these sections, giving the action a throw-back touch. Fans should also watch out for a crowbar scene recalling A Death in the Family, and a wink-wink mention of The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Daniel's storytelling only lost me once-- in a confusing panel sequence involving Gordon and a particularly gruesome henchman (still not sure how/why Gordon was attacked, or what the spoken threat meant)--but the rest was breezy fare with eye-catching visuals, wrapping up as adventure stories have for years: with a big fight on a speeding train.

As a bonus to the collection, DC added a chapter called "Gotham Gazette," hightlighting peripheral characters (Vicki Vale, Harvey Bullock) as they cope in a city run amok. Kudos to writer Fabian Nicieza, who named one of the streets "Breyfogle Way" in a tip of the hat to one of the most criminally unsung artists in the Bat-mythos, Norm Breyfogle. This story isn't padding at all, but a solid epilogue to the book.

For readers craving more Bat-periphery, there is also a Battle for the Cowl Companion, collecting five stories occurring around the edges of the main book. Watch out for the "Arkham Asylum" chapter, which gave me the creeps, as well as "The Underground" chapter, which sets the stage for the forthcoming Gotham City Sirens.


Omni Daily News

Here's Danny: During an onstage interview in Toronto with fellow dark-side auteur David Cronenberg, Stephen King reveals that his next project may be a sequel to The Shining, following the childhood survivor Danny Torrance into adulthood, where he uses his paranormal powers in a hospice to guide patients to the other side (and plays the horses too). (Via the Guardian)

Dissertations of My Mother: Duke University Press is publishing this month Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, a revised edition of the anthropology dissertation of S. Ann Dunham, also known as Barack Obama's mom. Duke UP editorial director Ken Wissoker calls the work "a forerunner of much of today’s work on using direct micro-credits and small loans."

Costa nominees: The Costa Book Award shortlists were announced yesterday in the UK. Among the five categories, the fiction list of four nominees includes two of our own top four books of 2009, Wolf Hall and Brooklyn, as well as Booker winner Penelope Lively's latest, Family Album, and the wild card, Christopher Nicholson's The Elephant Keeper.

Moving & shaking: Bruce Feiler's America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story jumps to #23 on our site (and #2 on Movers & Shakers): was it thanks to his Fox News essay today on the real story behind Thanksgiving?

Keeping a Cover Under Wraps: Questions for Lost Symbol Designer Michael J. Windsor

If you think Peter Mendelsund went through a lot to get to the final version of the cover for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, just imagine what Michael J. Windsor's work life was like past year. Windsor was the designer of one of the most iconic and ubiquitous book covers of the decade, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which not only seemed to be held in front of the face of every third person on my bus in the mid-'00s, but which set off a small industry of speculation with its clues about the subject of Brown's next book. So when that book, The Lost Symbol, arrived this year, Windsor was tapped again to translate Brown's symbological vision onto glossy paper (and, not trivially, to create a cover enticing enough to protect Doubleday's multimillion-dollar investment in their most popular author). Do you think a few people had opinions about how that cover should look?

Windsor took a more traditional path to book designing than Mendelsund: he studied graphic design in art school, and then worked at Simon & Schuster before joining Doubleday around a decade ago. Aside from being Brown's regular cover designer, he mentions a few other favorites from his work, some of which we've highlighted here and some below. (You can read more about him, and see examples of his book and non-book work, on his own site.) We asked him a few questions about the experience (the first time, I believe, that he's discussed working on the cover) and being the Mary GrandPré to Dan Brown's J.K. Rowling:

Were you one of the first people to read the manuscript of The Lost Symbol?

Windsor: Yes, I was one of the few who got to read it early ... locked in my office under the watchful eye of armed security! There were secret knocks and handshakes that I had to be presented with before I could let anyone into my workspace while I had the manuscript. It was all very cloak-and-dagger of course.

Continue reading "Keeping a Cover Under Wraps: Questions for Lost Symbol Designer Michael J. Windsor" »

Omni Daily Crush: "Pop. 1280"

Once again, I had a Crush all planned, only to be drawn onto another path by the events of the day. Well, such is the way of crushes... This time, it was a conversation between the cubicles with my colleagues Daphne and Anne that diverted me. Daphne was sifting through a heap of books, trying to decide on her next read after being stuck on a few false starts with books that didn't click right away. Anne's diagnosis: "You need something that grabs you from the first page." Somehow Jim Thompson's name came up, and while Daphne tried to remember the Thompsons she's loved (which turned out to be A Hell of a Woman and After Dark, My Sweet), I started gushing about my own favorite, Pop. 1280, and pretty soon, it sounded to me like a Crush.

I first started hearing about Jim Thompson 20 years ago--about the time there was a little boomlet of adaptations of his books into movies (The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet, and, a few years later, the Baldwin/Basinger remake of The Getaway), and the first book of his I picked up was Pop. 1280. (I'm a sucker for a novel with a number in the title: 2666, 361, ...) It didn't take more than a page or two to reel me in. Here we go:

Well, sir, I should have been sitting pretty, just about as pretty as a man could sit. Here I was, the high sheriff of Potts County, and I was drawing almost two thousand dollars a year--not to mention what I could pick up on the side. On top of that, I had free living quarters on the second floor of the courthouse, just as nice a place as a man could ask for; and it even had a bathroom so I didn't have to bathe in a washtub or tramp outside to a privy, like most folks in town did. I guess you could say that Kingdom Come was really here as far as I was concerned. I had it made, and it looked like I could go on having it made--being high sheriff of Potts County--as long as I minded my own business and didn't arrest no one unless I just couldn't get out of it and they didn't amount to nothin'.

And yet I was worried. I had so many troubles that I was worried plumb sick.

I'd sit down to a meal of maybe a half dozen pork chops and a few fried eggs and a pan of hot biscuits with grits and gravy, and I couldn't eat it. Not all of it. I'd start worrying about those problems of mine, and the next thing you knew I was getting up from the table with food still on my plate.

Sheriff Nick Corey is one of the all-time unreliable narrators: you know he's playing dumb--"who wants a smart sheriff?" he says--but it's not quite clear just how dumb he's playing it, or whether he's being played himself, and that of course is the giddy pleasure of it all. It's a dark and filthy little tale, and pretty much unbeatable fun. Thompson himself comes across, here and elsewhere, as the hardest of the hard-boiled, painting a world filled with nothing but schemers and self-dealers. There are times when that brutally unsentimental view seems the most refreshing and moral of all. --Tom

Recommended for fans of Elmore Leonard, Red Rock West, and James M. Cain's Double Indemnity.

Omni Daily News

The Writing Life: The New York Times' Paper Cuts blog catches up with Jennifer Gilmore, author of Golden Country and the upcoming spring 2010 novel, Something Red.

"One of the Films of the Year": New York magazine's Vulture blog gives the embargo-breaking film blogger Harry Knowles the business for his gushing review of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lovely Bones.

Hang on to those Uncle John's Bathroom Readers: A first edition of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, found on a "bathroom bookcase," went for $171,000 at auction.

Moving & Shaking: Dilbert 2.0: 20 Years of Dilbert, marked down to 69% off for a limited time as part of Amazon's Black Friday Deals Week, lands on our Movers & Shakers and Top 100 lists.