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.

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Textual Interventions

Last week the Toronto Star announced it was going to sack about 100 in-house editors, and replace them with editors from somewhere else.

Today the Torontoist blog is running  an internal memo to Star staffers from the publisher. What’s interesting about it is that a Star editor took a none-too-kind red pen to the letter, showing all the big and little ways the memo falls short as a piece of writing.

Toronto Star publisher memoI love this bit of contested narrative, especially the beginning of paragraph three, where the text says “we are today launching a Voluntary Separation Program, to provide staff with additional choices.” The editor’s comment: “additional to what? haven’t named any others. please explain.”

On the very same day, a blog called she is too fond of books (yes, the hed is written downstyle) invited its readers to write a collaborative story: “I’ll start with a sentence, and everyone who comments will grow the story by adding a sentence of their own.”

The blogger started it like this:

“Ugh, Monday again!” I thought, as I rolled over and hit, literally hit, the snooze button on the clock-radio.

(Starting a story with a character waking up is a cliché, but whatever, no one is pinning their hopes on this group of monkeys writing a masterpiece.) It continues:

Why was I feeling so aggressive this morning? Then the gut-wrenching horrors of yesterday came flooding back.

Not even wishful thinking could make the sight of my husband in the arms of my best friend a dream. Losing both of my best friends in one fell swoop was simply not a good way to start a week.

But, hey, it’s not like I didn’t know it was coming; I’ve been fooling myself for quite some time.

What interesting creatures we humans are, able to see so much, or so little, depending on our psychological needs.

I’d convinced myself the perfume I smelt on his shirts was just the cheap kind counter girls attacked shoppers with, to be fair it probably was, Sandra had a cheap streak.

(We could quibble about so much interior monologue so early in the story, but no matter. Besides, infidelity and a cheap tart named Sandra? Things are looking up!)

Forget about the snooze button – I reached out again and turned off the alarm. The last thing I wanted to do was get out of bed, but it was pretty unlikely that I’d fall asleep again now…although that was the ONLY thing I wanted to do.

Well, not the only thing, but castration was frowned upon in my small town.

Hmm. Funny line, but a little troubling if you’re a man. I figured was time for me to play along. Besides, as a guy, I thought the story needed more action, and less tiresome ruminating about how lovely it was to stay in bed. So I added something along the lines of…

My husband tottered to a stop at the side of the bed, his ankles wobbling on high heel shoes, his chest hair billowing out of the bodice of a dress — Sandra’s dress.

A new character! AND a plot point! That, I figured, would propel the story in a really interesting direction.

I figured wrong.

And then it hit me, glue was what I needed — the horrible once-it-comes-in-contact-with-the-skin kind that’s impossible to remove without surgery. I closed my eyes and smiled.

OK, well, maybe glue was an interesting direction, especially if we got into huffing, or affixing wigs to the cross-dressing husband. But no, the glue was just non sequitur foreshadowing for this:

I listened as my husband turned on the shower in our newly renovated, completely decadent bath/spa/suite, a project which had gone well beyond our original budget by far, and which we had just started to enjoy last week. This room had become an all consuming project in the last year. The shower was amazing, with multiple-positioned shower heads and a marble bench, a japanese soaking tub (which was well worth the $8000 we had spent on it), heated floors, towel racks and a sauna. This room had a majestic view of the Malibu coastline, with floor to ceiling windows which had to be installed via an enormous construction crane. Our neighbors would probably not be speaking to us any time soon. Not that we cared.

WTF? It was supposed to be one sentence, not six, and more important, we’re adding digressive back-story about a “completely decadent bath/spa/suite” that includes an $8,000 Japanese soaking tub and a snarky bit about how the couple was so selfish they had alienated their neighbors?

Ever faithful to the plot, I bent the rules and added a second post, wherein the husband returns and admonishes the wife for wasting everyone’s time and good will on her embarrassing and long-winded home-porn back-story.

… and then it fell apart.

The blogger deleted my two comments, and added an update that said, “I reserve the right to edit anything that I wouldn’t write (anything I wouldn’t want my kids to read), and to delete attempts to shanghai the storyline for a personal agenda.”

That caveat wasn’t in the original instructions. (Though the shanghai the storyline for a personal agenda phrase is rich with irony, since we all got soaked by that motherfucking $8,000 Japanese tub.)

Plus, the castration comment made it in, so what was wrong with a cross-dressing husband who bickers with his wife for spending obscene amounts of money on soaking tubs, multiple-positioned shower heads and marble benches, and then blathering on about them ad nauseam?

I mean … cross-dressing? Come on. A UK psychotherapist and general practicioner wrote this in an article about it:

Men who cross-dress are not mentally ill. Indeed, psychologists in the USA have decided that cross-dressing comes within the normal range of male sexuality unless it becomes a compulsive obsession.

The husband is a benefit! He’s colorful! He’s out of bed and dressed before his deadbeat wife! He even speeds up the action in an otherwise sluggish story! In my humble opinion, he’s a much more compelling character than his irritating, bourgeois wife.

Plus, would you want to implicitly condone the behavior of a wife who is selfish and narcissistic, and probably a gold-digger to boot? No, I’d keep my kids miles away from that nasty piece of work, and her construction crane to boot.

Anyhow. Someone wrapped up the story with “I sat up and realized it had been a dream,” and then a little stage business, which the blogger cleaned up a bit for the end of the story.

It was all a dream. Another cliché. How fitting.

So the lesson to learn today, kids, is that you can be as grotesque as you want to your bathroom or your neighbors, but don’t ever ever ever cross-dress. Because in this family-friendly culture, that kind of shit just doesn’t fly.

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 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 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.