January 14, 2014

Books of the Week:

 

  • The Last Minute, Jeff Abbott
  • Fiend, Peter Stenson
  • Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell

I went on a Barbara Pym reading binge right around New Year’s Day. I’ve talked about her books here before, so I won’t now at any length: but I read “No Fond Return of Love,” “Crampton Hodnet,” “Less than Angels,” “Excellent Women,” and “A Glass of Blessings.” It is always wonderful to revisit this much underrated English novelist. Her people are still waters who run very deep, and I love watching how Pym reveals them. And she’s funny, smiling-to-yourself funny.

 

Jeff Abbott’s The Last Minute is very much a thriller. It’s the second Sam Capra book. The first, Adrenaline, was aptly named and a great bestseller. I’m afraid you really need to read Adrenaline  to get the most out of The Last Minute, but that’s not a bad thing. They’re both excellent, heart-pounding thrillers with engaging characters, an international cast, and plenty of action. Sam is a great protagonist; he’s driven to the most extreme edges of his character when his pregnant wife vanishes in the first book, and in the second, he’s searching for his baby. In this search, he’s yoked himself with the most dubious of allies, a ferocious woman with no qualms at killing.

 

I got a strong recommendation on Fiend, or I don’t think I would have picked it up. Peter Stenson’s book is about addiction, in the guise of a zombie novel. I believe for the first time I understand the irresistible compulsion that drives drug addicts, since I’ve read the dreadful and despicable things Chase Daniel will do when the world falls apart around him. Chase has good impulses: he is loyal to his friend, Typewriter, and he still loves his former girlfriend, KK. He retains some beautiful memories of his childhood. But nothing can stand in the way of his need for crank.  This is an adventure and an education AND a zombie novel.

 

Daniel Woodrell is a great writer. Winter’s Bone is a great book. And to top off the accolade, Winter’s Bone was also a great movie. Woodrell’s novel was treated with reverence and intelligence in its screen adaptation; fortunately, it is a slim novel, so nothing was left out and not much added in the amazing movie. The novel, set in the Ozarks, is about Ree Dolly, a teenager who must take care of her two younger brothers and her mother, who has retreated into a mental haze and cannot be reached. Ree’s immediate crisis (as opposed to the permanent crisis of how to keep this family fed) is that her father has not appeared in court, and the bail bond company can seize the house and land – all the Dollys own – if he is not found. No one wants Jessup Dolly to be found, including some very nasty people involved in the meth business; but Ree must search for him nonetheless. It’s not surprising that this book is “taught” in many writing classes, because it’s simply excellent.

 

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Sharing good news is one of the purest pleasures we can experience. There’s a certain guilty pleasure to sharing bad tidings; the hushed voice, the “can you believe it” overtone, the shocked expression. But good news? Passing that long just elevates your spirits. It’s easy to believe human beings are mostly all right, when we take joy in sharing happiness. I’ve had two experiences with that lately.

 

This past year, I was president of Mystery Writers of America. Each year, the board votes on who will be named as Grand Master, which (in my opinion) is the ultimate accolade a writer in the mystery/suspense field can achieve. Some years, no one is nominated. Some years, three or more people are. This year, two Grand Masters were elected: Carolyn Hart, my long-time friend, and Robert Crais, whom I know slightly, a writer I’ve admired for years with an almost embarrassing fervor.

 

The executive vice president, my buddy Dan Hale, told Carolyn, for whom I am very, very stoked, that she’d been chosen. When Dan was about to call Robert Crais, he asked if I’d like to be in on the call. Ohhhhh . . . yes, I would! Nothing’s lovelier than to tell someone you revere that he’s getting an honor that he fully appreciates. Far from being blasé about the news, Bob was truly stunned. Really, I glided along for days on the happiness.

 

This week, my daughter (a volunteer for the Make-A-Wish Foundation) got to tell a family that their child’s wish had been granted. Since this is confidential, I will not give any details, but the child’s mother and the child were beyond happy; they were in some stratosphere of giddiness I can only imagine.

 

So with my faith in humanity all geared up, I hope I will refrain (at least for a while) from relaying bad news, and instead stick with the positive.

 

It makes me feel so good.

 

Charlaine Harris

January 7, 2014: Cemetery Girl Signing Event in Houston

Charlaine will be appearing with Christopher Golden at Murder by the Book in Houston. They will be having an 11:30 lunch event (held at the Junior League, reservations required) to talk about and sign CEMETERY GIRL, and a signing event at 6:30 that night at the store with other contributors to the DARK DUETS anthology. Customers should call the store (2342 Bissonnet Houston, TX 77005 / 713-524-8597 / 888-424-2842) for information.

December 27, 2013

BOOKS OF THE WEEK:

 

  • Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick
  • The Last Minute, Jeff Abbott
  • Curtsies and Conspiracies, Gail Carriger
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith
  • Daughter of the Empire, Lady Pamela Hicks
  • Written in Blood, Anne Bishop

Since David Sedaris was generous enough to tout Barbara Demick’s book, I was glad to buy it. It’s everything he said it was, and amore. Demick’s account, built from many interviews of people who’d escaped from North Korea to South, is a unique book about a country that prides itself on keeping secrets. Under Communist rule, North Korea has ground to a halt, the economy so depressed that factories don’t run, so people don’t work, so . . . they starve to death. Nothing to Envy is shocking and touching and unforgettable.

 

The Last Minute is a Sam Capra suspense thriller from my friend Jeff Abbott. If you read the first one, you’re sure to enjoy the second book about this government operative, who is searching for his stolen son with some very dubious help. This is a turn-the-pages-fast book full of plot twists and adventures.

 

The finishing school in Gail Carriger’s Curtsies and Conspiracies is the kind of school all of us would like to attend if we couldn’t get into Hogwarts. Sophronia, a proper young lady, is more adventurous than most, and going to a school that meets in a dirigible, a school that will teach her to be a spy, suits Sophronia down to the ground. If you read the first book in Carriger’s series, you’ll definitely want to continue with this one.

 

Famously, The Cuckoo’s Calling turned out to be written by J.K. Rowling. I think I would have enjoyed it anyway, but I’ll never know for sure. “Robert Galbraith” has written a private eye novel featuring Cormorant Strike, who is down to his last pound when he gets a lucrative case and a temporary secretary, Robin Ellacott. He is luckier than he knows. He’s hired to investigate the death of Lula Landry, a model, a high profile case that may change his fortune for good, and Robin Ellacott turns down a much better job because she develops a taste for detective work. This is really a good book, no matter who wrote it.

 

Lady Pamela Hicks was a Mountbatten, and her memoir, Daughter of the Empire, is a fascinating account of growing up in an unconventional household. Both her parents were extremely good-looking, and they both had numerous lovers, but despite that Lady Pamela has an upbringing of privilege, if not opulence. Her mother would forget to send money for new clothes for Pamela and her sister, and they would appear very poorly dressed. And once her mother forgot at what obscure town she’d left them with their nanny, and they’d run out of money by the time their mother tracked them down. But she also became a friend of Gandi and received 11 proposals before she found the man she eventually married.

 

Last but hardly least is one of my favorite books of the year, a book I have inexplicably not mentioned until now. Anne Bishop’s Written in Blood is a fabulous piece of imagination. There are certainly supernatural creatures in Bishop’s world, but they live in compounds to keep themselves to themselves, and when humans intrude there are problems that range from aggravating to severe. But desperate young woman begs for a job in that compound, because she’s fleeing from the unspeakable. When her pursuers try to snatch her from the compound, all hell breaks loose, almost literally. Though there’s an element of Mary Sue-ism in the attachment most of the supernaturals feel for her very quickly, there’s also some amazing story-telling. Don’t miss this book.

 

NEW EXPERIENCES, NEW CHALLENGES

 

Before I actually began getting older, I was comfortable in a rut. The everyday uproar of bringing up three children and trying to keep a career on track, a house running, and definitely took up all my time and energy. Learning something new seemed impossible; in fact, undesirable. I was too occupied with maintaining some friendships; in fact, running in place.

 

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I kept putting off a lot of things until my life settled down. Then my kids were out of the house, but by then I was busier than ever since my career was in an upturn.

 

I turned down some opportunities I shouldn’t have, because I felt I didn’t have the time to learn anything new. But all that came to a halt. . . not abruptly, but gradually. I realized that there never would be a time to sample a new experience if I didn’t make it. If I didn’t say “Yes!” to some of the open doors that were in front of me.

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So I sat on a bar stool in an episode of “True Blood.” I went to a premiere. I began editing anthologies with Leigh Perry, aka Toni L.P. Kelner. I wrote a graphic novel (out this January!) with Christopher Golden. I switched my Hollywood representation. I did pitches (unsuccessful) for other books of mine I thought might make great movies. I was a guest judge on “Halloween Wars.”

 

Most of these ventures turned out just fine, and no one told me I was too old to do them. And every new attempt energized me. What’s the worst that could happen? Someone would say “no.” Is that so awful? Not if you keep trying to get someone else to say “Yes.”

 

Charlaine Harris

November 24, 2013

(no book recommendations this week)

Remembrance and Gratitude

The two months of recollection and reflection leading up to the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – and the subsequent assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy – have been a trip into times past for many of us, including me. In those times, when America was in such upheaval socially and politically, it seemed to many of us that America might not last as a country. Many citizens wondered if the United States were so united after all, or were perhaps divided with no solution in sight.

 

And it also seemed particularly horrible that our own president, the most powerful man on earth, could be shot in the midst of his fellow countrymen, in broad daylight, in a large city, by a man who was arguably an American citizen. (Oswald renounced his citizenship once, but took it back . . . something I doubt would happen today.)

 

Those three murders, which in retrospect seemed to have happened in quick succession (though Robert Kennedy and Dr. King were both killed five years after JFK) have a lot to do with the way foreigners regard Americans. In hindsight, it does seem strange that we didn’t learn any more about personal security in the interim. Maybe the death of the president was so singular and tragic that we believed such an event would never be repeated.

 

We’ve learned a lot since then, and most of it hasn’t been pleasant. Personal security is an issue to millions of Americans who are far from the presidential level.

 

Though the lives of the Kennedy brothers was cut short, as was Dr. King’s, we have to be thankful for the courage of these men, who lived out their lives in the public scrutiny. None of the three were saints. They were all flawed in various ways. But they had the moral conviction to stand up for what they believed, regardless of the consequences. In their cases, the consequences were tragic. Children grew up without their fathers and went on to make the best or worst of their lives. Widows grieved and were strong.

 

And I don’t know that American society changed as much as it should have after all this tragedy. That’s something to reflect on, during this week when we celebrate the plenty of this country, the plenty achieved by independence and cooperation.

 

Charlaine Harris

November 11, 2013

Books of the Week:

  • Parasite, Mira Grant
  • Longbourn, Jo Baker

The two books I read this week ended up taking me quite a while. Parasite andLongbourn are both well worth reading, and I didn’t want to skip over anything important. The books couldn’t be more different.

 

As anyone who’s followed this column know, I’m a huge fan of Seanan McGuire, who is also Mira Grant. Under any name, she’s an excellent writer and a very, very smart woman. Parasite is a scientific thriller that also succeeds as a human story. Sally Mitchell is on life-support and is about to be unplugged when she wakens with no memory of her past or her character. You may not be very fond of Sally, or Sal as she prefers to be called, but her parents are somewhat relieved to find out that the old devil-may-care wild child has become a completely different person. Not that Sal’s not emotional – she is. She cries and screams her way through the book, but under circumstances that are totally understandable. The corporation that saved her life with their parasite transplant is Up To No Good, as any reader will expect; and there are secrets to uncover and villains to foil. I don’t want to ruin any of the surprises of this excellent novel.

 

After the recent flood of novels and books centered on Jane Austen’s world, Longbourn was a quiet pleasure. It’s the story of “Pride and Prejudice” told from the servants’ point of view. To the elderly couple, the young maid, and the child who helps out, the arrival of a new young manservant is a matter of wonder and upheaval – especially to the maid, Sarah, an orphan. The servants have to make the lovely surface of Austen’s heroines’ world happen: they’re working from before sunup to after sundown to draw the baths, iron the garments, launder the garments, curl the hair, cook the meals, polish the brass, curry the horses for the carriage, wait outside in the cold for the girls of the house to be ready to leave the ball . . . a never-ending round of drudgery. But Sarah won’t have it. Having finally found a little happiness, she will not let it slip from her grasp. Longbourn is set belowstairs, but it’s full of the commonality of the human spirit.

 

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I went to see David Sedaris recently, and I had an excellent time. Those of you who are interested in modern essays will surely have read something of Sedaris’s, who writes often for The New Yorker and has published many bestselling books of essays and other pieces, mostly dealing with his (funny, painful, bitter, loving) upbringing as one of six children of a mother who became an alcoholic and father who was, to put it mildly, challenging. Sedaris himself cannot have been an easy child to raise, as he points out gleefully, since he had obsessive-compulsive disorder and gradually came to realize that he was gay.

 

“Me Talk Pretty One Day” is the first book of Sedaris’s I’d read, and it remains one of my favorites, while “When You are Engulfed in Flames” is perhaps even better. But I believe I’ve read almost everything he’s written, and even in his “off” books, there is something screamingly funny and screamingly painful.

 

Sedaris started signing before the event and he signed more after the event, so it must have been a very long evening for him – this was a tour with 40 events! – but he seemed to keep his balance throughout the whole hour “performance,” which consisted of reading a couple of essays and other pieces, plus tying them together with some reminiscences. It was as funny as you can possibly imagine. I laughed myself sick. His reading was followed by a brief Q &A segment. To my pleasure and relief, some of the questions he got asked are just as repetitive as the questions I get asked. It felt strange to be on the other side of the lights, but it was a real relief, too.Here’s my point – besides urging you, if you ever have a chance to see David Sedaris live, do it! – is that he spent a goodly portion of the evening touting someone else’s book. And this book was not at all humorous. It was “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” by Barbara Demick, which explores the extreme difficulty and stress of trying to live in modern North Korea, under a regime as totalitarian as any ever devised. With grace and admiration, Sedaris said it was better than any book he would ever write, and urged all of us to buy it. In fact, he had it with his books in the lobby, to sell. I didn’t buy a copy in the lobby, but I have purchased one since.I consider Sedaris a fine, fine writer, maybe a great one, though since his field is self-deprecating humor – sometimes so scathing that he seems to be flaying himself in front of us – he may never get as much respect as he deserves. And now I admire him for his ardent advocacy of someone else’s book. It’s really satisfying to like both the writer and the man.

 

Charlaine Harris