Book Review: The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes NovelThe House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two points about THE HOUSE OF SILK (and the notion of writing a Sherlock Holmes story in general):

  1. Sherlock has been done so many times, especially recently, that the character is basically a cut-out. You prop it up, and substitute whoever you like, be it Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch.
  2. That said, the author (in this case, Anthony Horowitz) is in a slightly odd position. Because everyone is so familiar with Holmes, all his characterization feels like a retread. I almost skimmed over those parts … keen intellect, yeah yeah … stunning deductions … yeah, been there.

That said, Horowitz tells a good tale, weaving orphaned children, immigrants, a man apparently threatened by an Irish gangster, and the nefarious doings of well-to-do into a story with a bunch of twists and turns that he ties together in a way that is both surprising and satisfying.

He also writes well. It isn’t just good prose, but he adds period detail with his use of language, especially anachronistic terms.

It’s not the kind of book that I’d expect to see shortlisted for the Booker, but it’s a good story, a fun read, and moves along at a lively pace.

View all my reviews

I Must Be Crazy: I Signed up for NaNoWriMo

I signed up for NaNoWriMo. In case you haven’t seen it, that’s a mashup of National Novel Writing Month, and it’s a thing among some writers (usually the ambitious ones). The idea is to write like a maniac for 30 days. And you “win” if you get 50,000 words written.

But damn, that’s a lot of words. If you do the math — and this is one time when writers will — it works out to 1,667 words a day. That’s about seven pages a day, for 30 straight days.

I don’t expect to “win.” I’ve got a full-time job, as well as a part-time job as a dad/husband/dish-doer/errand-runner/math-homework-helper.

Also, I’ve tried not sleeping. It hasn’t worked out too well. I’d also like have my wife not divorce me.

So why go through all the trouble? Because it’s there! Also because I’ve been dipping my toe in a new project, and this gives me the institutional excuse to dive into the deep end. And because the things I regret are usually things I said no to.

Besides, writing is easy! As Gene Folwer (or someone else) once said, “All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

So, starting in 90 minutes, it’s November. And I’ll be cranking.

PS – You can see my progress on the widget on the right (because I know you have nothing better to do). And should it come to pass, I expect the widget will also show my lack of progress.

If you want to know more, check out their site. Or Nathan Bransford’s post about NaNoWriMo resources.

Book Review: How I Became a Famous Novelist

How I Became a Famous NovelistHow I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’re a writer, editor, agent, or work in some other capacity related to book-publishing, or are even fleetingly familiar with the books on the New York Times bestseller list, you’ll instantly realize that this is satire is spot-on. It’s also obscenely readable. I finished it in two days. The last book I read took me a week and a half.

The premise is simple: Pete Tarslaw is a 20-something who writes for an essay mill, and hasn’t recovered after being dumped by his college girlfriend. When he learns she is getting married, he decides to become a bestselling author so he can rub her nose in it at her wedding.

Once he has his quest, Pete starts analyzing bestsellers to figure out what makes them so popular. This “rags to riches” section is the first half of the book, and contains some of the funniest writing about books I’ve ever read. For example, he concocts his own bestseller list, with titles like “Cumin: The Spice That Changed the World,” “Indict to Unnerve,” “The Jane Austen Women’s Investigators Club” and “Sageknights of Darkhorn.”

I won’t outline second section, “decline and fall,” except to say that Tarslaw does write a bestseller, but things don’t go the way he thinks they will. The dictates of the character and the story allow Hely less satirical latitude in the second half of the book, and though it isn’t as funny, it’s still excellent.

In the New York Times, Janet Maslin argues that Hely “doesn’t know how to end this book,” but I disagree. It’s not a perfect ending, and there’s a character who appears in one scene for the sole purpose of getting on a soapbox to offer an opinion, but those are small quibbles. By the end, Tarslaw has grown as a character, and for all the scorched earth in the first half of the book, Hely leaves us with a bit a paean to good stories and good writing. And the whole way, the story is a hell of a fun ride.

By the way, this book is one of the finalists for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. I haven’t read the two other finalists yet, but Hely has set the bar pretty damn high.

View all my reviews | More reviews of How I Became a Famous Novelist at Powells.com

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood

The Blind AssassinThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s tempting to pick at the few imperfections I found in The Blind Assassin (and I do mean few), such as the thinness of one or two characters, but that would be kind of dumb. But the major characters, such as the narrator’s sister, Laura, are so expertly rendered, yet remain in an important sense mysterious — just as many great characters in literature do.

Besides, to fixate on that would be to overlook what Atwood has pulled off, a stunning technical accomplishment of weaving a science-fiction story told within a noirish novel about adultery, itself just one part of a sprawling historical narrative chronicling Ontario in the early part of the 20th century, and a family’s love and how it falls apart.

Note: this review originally appeared on Goodreads.com. View all my reviews >>

Walter Kirn’s “Up in the Air”

Up in the Air - Walter Kirn

Walter Kirn begins his clever, caustic novel Up in the Air with a little monologue:

“To know me you have to fly with me.” That’s Ryan Bingham, protagonist and veteran air traveler. “Sit down. I’m the aisle, you’re the window — trapped. You crack your paperback, last spring’s big legal thriller, convinced that what you want is solitude, though I know otherwise: you need to talk.”

Bingham is 35, a career-transition counselor for some vague Denver management company (his job is to travel around and fire people, and make them feel OK about it).

The plot, such it were, centers around Ryan’s monumentally trivial quest to reach the Holy Grail of one million frequent-flier miles. His obstacles: his disintegrating career, his ragged family (especially his sister’s impending marriage), the nagging paranoia that someone might be angling for his miles.

At times I found the plot a little confusing, and some of the dialogue — while awfully snappy — a tad bit too terse.

But the plot isn’t nearly as much fun as Kirn’s pitch-perfect anthropology:

I call it Airworld; the scene, the place, the style. My hometown papers are USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. The big-screen Panasonics in the club rooms broadcast all the news I need, with an emphasis on the markets and the weather. My literature — yours, too, I see — is the best seller or the near-best seller, heavy on themes of espionage, high finance and the goodness of common people in small towns. In Airworld, I’ve found, the passions and enthusiasms of the outlying society are concentrated and whisked to a stiff froth. When a new celebrity is minted in the movie theaters or ballparks, this is where the story breaks — on the vast magazine racks that form a sort of trading floor for public reputations and pretty faces. I find it possible here, as nowhere else, to think of myself as part of the collective that prices the long bond and governs necktie widths. Airworld is a nation within a nation, with its own language, architecture, mood and even its own currency — the token economy of airline bonus miles that I’ve come to value more than dollars. Inflation doesn’t degrade them. They’re not taxed. They’re private property in its purest form.

Despite his status as a damaged bit of luggage (divorced, accused of running from his family’s problems, lying to his mom about his location), Ryan is somehow engaging, despite being marinated in cynicism.

Besides, the real fun is in Airworld, where airport chapels are ”restful and perfect for catching up on paperwork,” and where interesting people share planes with him.

When General Norman Schwarzkopf goes to the lavatory, we get this: ”I feel a shift as all of us stop thinking about ourselves and wonder why that closed door is staying so closed. A hand-washer? Normal travelers’ diarrhea? It’s painful to picture the Big Guy so confined.”

I wanted to read this when it came out in mid-2001 … then had a thought that 9/11 must have been an odd thing to happen to this recently released book.

Then I forgot about the book for years and years, until I stumbled across Lost in the Meritocracy, a remarkable short memoir he published in the Atlantic (which is now a book).

That steered me back to Up in the Air. Good thing, too. As a satire of an odd little segment of Americana (airports and business travel), this book hits a bulls-eye.

“Publishers Weekly Shanks One”

If you’re coming in over the transom, I know you won’t know what the hell that means.

So, here ’tis: a month ago, I found out my novel, “Between Clubs,” was selected as a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. The contest is a way to pick the “best” novel from a bunch of unpublished ones.

The semi-finalists get a three-part reviewing process: customer reviews, an Amazon.com Top Reviewer, and a Publishers Weekly review. The top 100 from the semi-finalists move on … then the top 10, 3, and then they pick a winner.

The PW review of my book is a hatchet job. But it’s also riddled with errors, the kind that you’d only make if you’d skipped about 3/4 of the book. So I finally decided to write a counter-review and post it on my amazon page. The title of the blog post is the title of my review.

shank.jpgIf you’re still not getting it, my book is a golf novel, and a shank (see the pic) is the Lord Voldemort of golf shots, so bad some won’t even utter the word by name.

If you feel so inclined, go give the review and counter-review a read, and let me know what you think.

Meantime, I’ll be humming a few lines from a Billy Bragg song:

I said there is no justice
As they led me out the door
The judge said, “This isn’t a court of justice, son
This is a court of law.”

Crawlin’ from the Wreckage

great_car_wreck_5163.jpgSocial media and book publishing are starting to collide. Here’s the back-story: As you may know, my first novel, Between Clubs, made it to the semi-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. (muted hooray)

That means anyone can download a free 5,000-word excerpt and write a review. To judge who goes to the next round, Penguin Books is rating all 836 books on the basis of customer reviews and reviews by an Amazon Top Reviewer, and Publishers Weekly. (As Slate pointed out, the Amazon reviews have always been a murky, politicized issue.)

This week, Publishers Weekly trashed Between Clubs, probably killing its hopes of reaching the next round. (muted groans)

That hurt, though not because I naively thought everyone would love the book. I knew I’d get dinged, sooner or later (though I had a nice honeymoon, when all the customers who’ve written reviews gave me 5 stars).

It hurt because the PW reviewer got so many obvious things wrong about the review, that I know he or she skipped entire sections of the book. I also felt that the reviewer based some of the negative things s/he said on the basis of not reading. Nor am I the only one who feels wronged. There’s even a discussion thread going on Amazon, Factual Errors in PW Reviews – Do we try to get them fixed?

One writer said of the Publishers Weekly reviews that “quite a few read like 8th grade book reports, (read the first and last chapter then write it up.)”

My first instinct was to fight back, citing chapter and verse to prove that the reviewer didn’t read the book. I even wrote an angry blog post, then deleted it. (Though I did callowly leave it up as an anonymous rant on Craigslist, which was quite therapeutic.)

The writer Patricia Cornwell is fighting back against nasty Amazon reviews, but with limited success and support. According to Tess Gerritsen,

The general reaction in the blogosphere is that Cornwell is rich and famous so why does she bother to fight back? People in her position should be immune to hurt feelings. People with money and success should be able to shrug off any and all criticism.

I think that’s a sort of straw-man argument, much like the charges leveled against Stephen Fry when he complained about how taking photos was ruining book reading (here’s my blog post about that).

Writers like Cornwell get upset and fight back because they’re sensitive and vulnerable to criticism. Tess Gerritsen is, Patricia Cornwell is, I am, and so is everyone who took umbrage at a bad Publishers Weekly review.

What I find interesting about this process is that social media allows people to write whatever they want about a book — and allows the writer to respond.

I’m just not sure whether a writer should. In the Amazon contest FAQ, one of the questions is

Can I vote for my own entry?
Of course! Stay tuned – if you are selected as a semi-finalist in January, we will be providing tips for promoting your book to customers in the coming months.

I’m tempted to review my own book, both as an exercise and to correct the record, but there seems to be an invisible part of the social contract that says not to do it. Part of the reason is that once the work of art is out there, it’s on its own … and if people interpret it one way or another (even if they misunderstand), well, that’s something you can’t control. But maybe I’m wrong, and Cornwell’s right.

What do you think?

PS – The title of this post comes from Dave Edmund’s brilliant song of the same name. This week, the chorus fits:

Crawling from the wreckage,
Crawling from the wreckage.
Bits of me are scattered in the trees and in the hedges

Postscript (June 2008): Just in case you’re curious, I finally did write my own counter-review. I doubt it made any difference, but it did make me feel better.

The Semi-Semi-Finals

genlit.jpgI’ve spent the weekend spamming my friends and relatives, telling them that my novel, Between Clubs, is a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. (Like the lovely cover?)

In my original post about it, I missed one fact. According to the Penguin Blog (Penguin Books … not flightless birds), the current batch of 836 semi-finalists

will be narrowed down to 100 semi-finalists on February 19th , and Penguin editors will then select the top 10 contestants who will enter the final round, their decisions informed by the ratings and reviews conducted by Publishers Weekly and Amazon.com critics.

Two observations: First, the Penguin Blog is actually a Penguin Press Release Archive. That’s not social media, that’s PR! But hey, any promo is good promo.

Second, the Amazon contest home page makes no mention of the Feb 19th date:

From now until March 2, we’re inviting Amazon.com customers to download, read, and review excerpts from our semifinalists and help decide who will make it to the Top Ten. Penguin will select manuscripts to read from the semifinal round based on customers’ feedback and Publishers Weekly reviews.

But it sounds like if you’re going to write a review (maybe … for Between Clubs?), it would be most effective if you did it before Feb. 19th.

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

Though I haven’t mentioned this previously on my blog, it’s time to let the proverbial cat out of the bag. I’ve written a novel and I’m shopping it around with agents. I also entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest. The contest took nearly 5,000 novels in the first round, and from that initial pool, cut the field to 836 semifinalists. Last night I got the good news that my novel, Between Clubs, is a semi-finalist!

Pretty exciting, eh? Book authors spend countless hours alone in a room, slaving away over their work. (The novelist Jerzy Kosiński used to call telephone operators and solicit the reactions to passages from his book.) Thus and so, getting recognized once in a while is a nice thing.

From now until March 2, Amazon.com customers can download, read, and review novel excerpts to help decide who will make it to the finals (a.k.a. the Top Ten). Here’s the link to the excerpt of Between Clubs.

Penguin—the publisher sponsoring the contest—will select manuscripts from the semifinal round based on customers’ feedback and Publishers Weekly reviews. The 10 finalists selected from the semifinals will be announced on March 3. Customers will then vote to select the winner, to be announced April 7, 2008.

If you’re so inclined, please read my excerpt and write a review! Not only does it help me (hint hint), but Amazon’s giving away prizes to top reviewers (see the contest page for more info, and tips on writing a good review.)

Mr. Fussbudget Reads a Spy Novel

A while back I gave a copy of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale to my father-in-law. It was one of those “the movie’s coming out, I wonder how the book is?” kinda gifts. Besides, who doesn’t like spy novels? I’ve read most of John Le Carré’s stuff quite happily. And since the Bond movie franchise is based on the Fleming novels, I thought I’d try reading one. So I borrowed it after he’d finished.

I made it 40 pages in. Bond was in France, getting ready to gamble against Le Chiffre. He’d met his contact. And he’d just met Miss Lynd, with whom he’d be working.

Naturally, this being a Bond novel, Miss Lynd was wearing a dress “of grey soie sauvage with a square-cut bodice, lasciviously tight across her fine breasts.”After Fleming spills about a page of ink describing how ravishing and well-appointed Miss Lynd is, there’s some stage business. Mathis (the contact) leaves, and Lynd warms up to Bond, who is now optimistic he can work with her. But then, this:

“As a woman, he wanted to sleep with her but only when the job had been done.”

If you’re wondering if Bond is actually a woman, that’s because Mr. Fleming has blundered into a dangling modifier.

Sigh. Anyhow, I was all hyped for Bond to win at roulette, bandy the fisticuffs, kiss Miss Lynd with abrasive lust-and-disdain (this being the sexist 50s and all), and pump … umm, lead with his the Walther PPK.

But alas, if Fleming’s writing is so lazy as to make mistakes like that, how am I to trust him when Bond’s life is on the line — or Miss Lynd’s garters?

Yes, well, you can forgive the old man all you want, since after all, it’s just once sentence. But if I read writing that careless, I can’t help but wonder if that same carelessness holds true for the story … if, sooner or later, Bond is going to shove his Walther down the front of his pressed gabardine trousers and accidentally shoot one of his nuts off. (Which, come to think of it, would make that earlier sentence a bit of foreshadowing, wouldn’t it?)

casino_royale.jpg

As a woman, he wanted to sleep with her

He wanted her so badly, he was changing gender

His desire for her brought out his feminine urges

D’oh!