Saturday, July 31, 2010

When Kids Turn Detective: L M Preston, THE PACK (Science Fiction/Detection)

L M (Lanita) Preston has been touring quite a bit already this year, but August 1 is the official online release party for her book THE PACK -- see her web site for details of the fun. I devoured this book a couple of months ago, and I'm glad more people will now have a chance to grab a copy. (There's even an excerpt to download from the web site.)

It's a paradox of a book -- more or less self-published. "PhenomenalOne Press" announces the intention of adding other authors' titles, but so far it's just providing two books by Preston -- this one and Explorer X — Alpha. And it has an occasional awkwardness to the writing that suggests outsider status. Yet it's a great work of science fiction, laying out clearly and cleverly the adaptations that might make Mars habitable, as well as the social structure that could result from exporting specific Earth population segments.

Shamira is blind, a condition that has enhanced many of her other talents and skills. Daughter of two of the members of the Security Force Elite on Mars, she's learned well from both parents, and is skilled in martial arts, tough thinking, and planning ahead. As the novel opens, she's stalking a predator -- and is accidentally foiled in a move to capture someone she thinks may know why and how other kids have disappeared from the planet's urbanized areas. Her struggles with friendship and trust complicate her efforts, as solving the mystery depends on her ability to work with, even lead, other bright, tough kids. Here's a typical Shamira solo effort, before she's started grappling with a possible team, with a great example of Preston's technical creation:
She grinned at him, anger building, and with lightning speed she gripped his neck. He gulped when she tightened her grip on his neck and her knee jabbed into his groin with great force.

"Don't try to sweet talk me. I want information. You know where the kids are being held, don't yo? Tell me, and I'll let you go with memories of Earth," she said. Switching hands, she held his neck with her clawed glove. Using her other hand, she reached into her pocket to pull out a truth tick that she pierced into his neck. She waited for the flat mini computerized bug to do its job. Its sharp legs sunk into Lenny's skin and the biological replica of many species inserted a poison into Lenny that forced him to tell the truth.
In fact, I had such a good time with this book that I ended up regretting that it hadn't been pushed through the levels of revision that a conventional publisher might have demanded. This one could have climbed close to what The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins became, with more time and that pressure that eventually creates gems.

But who knows -- maybe pressure would have forced out the original ideas and lively movement of the plot? Join me in thinking more about this one. I've got a list of people I already want to loan my copy to, so ... get your own through

Eliot Pattison at Kingdom Books, Sunday August 1, 7 p.m.

Eliot Pattison's Edgar Award is for the first book of his Inspector Shan series, The Skull Mantra. I don't expect to reach Tibet in person -- so I treasure the chance to sample the paradoxes of this Chinese-occupied land that was once autonomous, and that still represents the original spiritual and physical home of the Dalai Lama and other great Buddhist leaders.

The Shan series continues (and I wouldn't miss a one of these!). Meanwhile, Pattison created a second series, the Bone Rattler sequence, set in colonial America and pinned to the haunting and loss-riddled friendship of an exiled Scotsman and an Iroquois shaman. With this year's release of Eye of the Raven, we follow Conawago and Duncan McCallum as their differences become acutely apparent, even though both are members of tribes/clans threatened with extinction under the hand of the land-hungry English. Murder, suicide, political maneuvering? McCallum's efforts to understand the people and landscape that he's desperately adopting enrich this crime novel in unexpected directions.

Pattison's visit to Kingdom Books on August 1 will include him reading from Eye of the Raven and also discussion of his other work. Come if you can -- and for those who can't be there, I'll post some notes afterward. Signed copies are of course available.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Taste of Snow Island: Katherine Towler's Trilogy Concludes

I rarely take time to slow down for a literary novel that's not dominated by a crime or suspense plot. So reading ISLAND LIGHT, the third and last of Katherine Towler's Snow Island novels that track a community on an island off New Hampshire's coast, marked my summer in a different way. Lush, slow, detailed, Towler's prose tastes of New England the way salt air tastes of ocean.

The book was held up for quite a while at MacAdam Cage, but is now available for online or bookshop ordering. And we've asked Katie to step in for a guest blog piece later this summer. If, like me, you enjoyed Snow Island and Evening Ferry, here's your chance for a quietly satisfying conclusion to the set of interlocked family and personal stories that Towler has woven.

Dangerous Commitments: Jodi Compton, HAILEY'S WAR

In 2004, Jodi Compton's first suspense novel, The 37th Hour, seized critical attention for the way its plot peeled back the secret histories of its characters, with constantly maintained tension. Her second novel was Sympathy Between Humans, a sequel featuring the same detective, Sarah Pribek.

There is no sense of series or connection to her third novel, HAILEY'S WAR. In this remarkable new work, the sense of a masterful hand maintaining suspense never fails. And it all starts with twenty-four-year-old Hailey Cain, recently ejected from West Point before graduating -- and thoroughly equipped for battle. Whether it's escorting a fragile young Mexican woman across the border to her relatives, following through on an old friendship with a woman who's now a gang leader, or keeping the secrets of her friends, Hailey keeps her commitments.

But when those commitments are to dangerous people, or even to nice ones in dangerous situations, this young almost-cadet has to fight repeatedly with body, mind, and soul to stay alive.

Hailey's deepest secrets aren't revealed until the book's stunning finale. It's worth every twist and passageway, every step and fumble, every ounce of her determination and honor, to get there.

[N.B. - to the right, the UK cover design. Also, check the author's web site for an interesting self-interview, "The Road to 'War.'"]

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Joe Gunther's 21st Appearance: RED HERRING by Archer Mayor

Readers of this Vermont-based police procedural series often develop favorites among the characters who support Joe Gunther, now head of the (imagined) Vermont Bureau of Investigation, or VBI. There's spunky Sammie Martens, who proves over and over that a woman can shoulder her share of tough investigations. And Willy Kunkle, Joe's most difficult officer and enduring complication, with his withered arm and bitter soul. Here's Joe's description of him from RED HERRING, coming out in October:
Willy was the unit wild card. Committed and tenacious, he was also a recovering alcoholic, a crippled ex-military sniper, and a PTSD survivor who saw every rule as a suggestion. They had never lost a case because of his unorthodox methods, but most observers felt that was merely a matter of time.

His results were his saving grace. No matter how he did what he did -- or how many people he pissed off in the process -- Willy Kunkle brought home the goods, and he did it cleanly; or maybe just without ever being caught.
Then there's Lester Spinney, a sensible investigator who helps balance the team. And there are familiar characters from Joe's personal life: his aging mother (now in a wheelchair), his former long-time girlfriend Gail Zigman, and his current flame, bar owner Lyn Silva. After so many books, they feel like family.

RED HERRING opens with a shocking, violent death of an apparently nice and responsible administrative assistant to a trucking firm, Doreen Ferenc. Investigating the scene and Ferenc's past are routine for Joe and his group. What's not routine, though, is the attention they're getting: Gail Zigman's political hunger has blossomed in her current campaign for governor. And since the rape she endured while living with Joe is being openly discussed, along with her long connection with him, the public scrutiny that the campaign commands keeps spotlighting Joe. Whether Doreen has been raped or not, there's plenty of connection for the press in seeing Joe on the case.

Then it gets worse: Two more deaths, staged as artfully as Doreen's, begin to look like murders by the same criminal. Can Joe make enough progress on all three cases at once, to be able to look effective when the news media inevitably find out what's at stake? And will Gail have to take a stand against him? Where does all this media circus leave Lyn, as she questions what it would mean for Gail to be governor -- and Joe's boss?

If you caught any of Archer Mayor's book tour for the 20th Joe Gunther, The Price of Malice, you already know from the author that for number 21, the VBI will borrow some high-tech investigative procedures from the Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island. (That's not meant as a spoiler -- you'll see it in the book blurbs.) But going high-tech also has its risks for the value of the evidence, since it may not be admissible in a courtroom -- it's too new, too complex. Mayor uses some nice devices to explain the process, from Joe's bafflement to the kindness of various scientists -- but in the long run, it's almost a distraction from the critical interactions going on among Joe's co-workers and friends. This is a truly character-driven novel, with a plot that pushes and pulls the people involved. Part of the ramping tension in the book comes from the niceness of Lyn Silva, for instance, because it seems so unfair that her relationship with Joe keeps on costing her so much. As Joe says,
She knew when to ask questions and when to just let him think. She was a pragmatist generally, having handled her share of turmoil while still just shy of middle age. Divorced, she had an adult daughter, one marginally functioning brother with a criminal record, and a mother who sat all day watching TV. Another brother and her father had been murdered by smugglers back in Maine. Lyn Silva had earned her survivor merit badge.
Eventually the high-tech data and Willy and Sam's dogged pursuit of interviews and background will lead Joe's team to the probably killer. But then the game changes, because if someone is willing to murder, they've got a share of control of the events, as long as the people around them aren't as violent or crazy as they are. Ghastly results follow -- with a shocking sequence of final events in the book.

As with all good narratives, it's the way the conclusion erupts from all the groundwork ahead of time that decides the merit of the book. And in this one, Archer Mayor has a winner. Check his tour schedule at (where you can also read the first chapter of RED HERRING). You may want to connect in person for this one.

Killer Thrillers: NPR's Top 100 -- VOTE TODAY

Sorry, we just learned about this. If you're a thriller reader, do cast your vote for 10 selections, as NPR offers its top 100 "killer thrillers" of all time. There's quite a range, going back to Wilkie Collins and forward to Lee Child. Here's the link:

From the NPR web site, a good quote for discussion:
Which raises the question, what defines a thriller? Clearly it's not setting or subject matter.

For the purposes of this contest, we'll stick with the answer James Patterson once gave, which is that thrillers are defined by the "intensity of emotions they create ... of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness. ... By definition, if a thriller doesn't thrill, it's not doing its job." If the closely related mystery genre is about discovery, then thrillers are more oriented towards action and suspense. The villain may be known from the start; the fun comes from finding out how the hero will foil whatever evil plans are afoot.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My Reading List: Coming Soon ...

I still have a few titles released this summer to catch up with: James Lee Burke, The Glass Rainbow (a Dave Robicheaux novel); Tana French, Faithful Place; Jeffrey Deaver, The Burning Wire (a Lincoln Rhyme sequel); and John Verdun, Think of a Number. Today is also the release date for the Overlook Press reprint of David Carkeet's The Full Catastrophe, putting this sequel to Double Negative back into print at last, in softcover.

Next week, Nevada Barr's new Anna Pigeon crime novel comes out: Burn. And later in August I'm looking forward to Peter Robinson, Bad Boy; Charles Todd, An Impartial Witness; and Donna Leon, Willful Behavior. Notice how a good series can keep a reader hooked for years?

September brings two books I'm very eager to have and hold: the new Billy Boyle World War II novel from James Benn, Rag and Bone; and Louise Penny's formidable Bury Your Dead.

And in October, there will be Robert B. Parker (posthumously) with Painted Ladies; Lee Child, Worth Dying For; and Archer Mayor's new Joe Gunther offering, Red Herring. Tomorrow I'll write about Red Herring and how it fits into this long-running Vermont series.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lisa Brackmann: Guest Post

[Apologies for the delay of about 12 hours ... thunderstorms ... technology meets global climate force!]

ROCK PAPER TIGER, Lisa Brackmann's terrific 2010 crime and gaming novel of today's China (with an ex-pat [American in China] protagonist), has us wanting more. Here's the author; thank you, Lisa!

Like Ellie, the narrator of ROCK PAPER TIGER, I was first in China when I was young—actually, I was younger, about the same age as her character was during the Iraq sequences in the book.

China back then was very different than the China depicted in ROCK PAPER TIGER. I was there shortly after the Cultural Revolution, and Beijing at the time struck me as being in the grip of a profound emotional hangover, the country emerging from a national trauma that was only the latest in a series of national traumas. People talked to me about their sometimes horrific experiences because I was safe to talk to: young, American, not involved in what had happened to them. I spent far more time observing and listening than I did judging or acting.

China was also extremely isolated. This was before the Internet. Before cell phones. Communication to and from home was handwritten letters on tissue-thin paper. Very few foreigners lived in China, and of those, hardly any were Americans. China at that time is the only place I’ve ever been, before or since, where there was no evidence of the American pop culture that has so colonized the rest of the planet.

I was an observer wide-open to constant waves of intense experience in an environment that was nothing like what I knew (which was mostly San Diego, California), and at the same time, an odd sort of ad-hoc celebrity. There were very few places I could go in China where I did not attract ridiculous, outsized amounts of attention. I wasn’t just a young American, I was, as far as most of the Chinese people I met, the young American, the first of the peculiar breed they’d ever encountered.

It was in many ways a profoundly unsettling experience, and one that completely changed me and the course of my life. So, though I’m not a vet, and haven’t lived through the kinds of traumas that Ellie did in Iraq, I could relate to the adjustment problems that being in a very strange place at a young age can cause. You just don’t fit in to your old world the way that you used to—mostly because you’ve changed so much, and it hasn’t changed at all.

Ellie’s Beijing is very different from the Beijing I knew when I was her age. There are places for young, disaffected foreigners like her, weird little niches where the fit might not be precisely comfortable, but the niches are there. She can have Chinese friends, participate, up to a point, in their communities, something that just wasn’t possible before. My first time in China, it was very much an authoritarian, if not a totalitarian state. Travel was restricted, and you were monitored, all the time. A simple act of friendship required permission if you were Chinese, and could carry unintended consequences, if you were American.

I wasn’t harassed by Men in Suits of various nationalities, but I did experience a sort of ambient paranoia that no doubt carries over into ROCK PAPER TIGER.

Ironically, I feel very comfortable when I travel in China nowadays. It’s a relatively safe place for a single female traveler, and I have a pretty good sense of how to get around. Most of the places that Ellie visits are places that I’ve been to (or in the case of the Daoist mountain, based on a real place), that I could describe with the precision based on first-hand knowledge.

I was particularly nervous about the Iraq sequences, because I haven’t been there. I compensated for that the way I do whenever I need to depict something I haven’t experienced—I immerse myself in research. Books, documentaries, countless articles. I learned way more about private contractors, prisoner abuse and PTSD than I wish I had to have known. But knowing any less would have been a disservice to the importance of these issues, and I still worry that I didn’t know enough.

Your characters come from you, but they’re not you. Ellie has more reasons to be angry than I ever did. Her reactions are more extreme than mine, her coping ability less; she’s more confrontational, more lost. She’s also tougher than I am, and a braver, more honorable person. She doesn’t know how to compromise. We share some experiences, but Ellie’s are like viewing mine through a kind of hallucinogenic kaleidoscope.

What we do have in common is a love of China, and if at times our affection is somewhat exasperated, it is deeply held.

Oh, and though Ellie’s Chinese is better than mine, we both speak Mandarin with a Beijing accent.

      *    *    *

For those curious about my first time in China, here’s an essay I wrote for Amazon’s Kindle blog:
And please visit me at my website,

Friday, July 23, 2010

And in Place of Signed Books We Will Soon Have ...

Well, that's one of the burning questions for e-books, isn't it? One author who recently visited us said people had asked her to literally sign their reading devices. Instantly I pictured one of those plaster casts that someone gets for a broken arm or leg, and how teens and other social beings ask their friends to sign them, draw on them, use colored inks. And then -- ah, it's a curse to have a novelist's brain! -- I saw the same cast a week later, smudged with chocolate, drippings from hamburgers, you name it. Alas.

So I don't think signing the plastic casings is going to be the route for e-books. Will there be an "app" that allows you to have an author sign the e-file? Will there be different versions for "in person" or "via e-mail"? What will this signify -- since at the moment you can't share or pass along an e-book, so a signature can't add "value" because there's no transaction for the item. SO many questions.

Dave's had an agonizing couple of weeks, with shipments of books arriving damaged, some of them clearly packed that way, so he's spending large chunks of each day doing "returns." It's especially pertinent right now as we prepare for Eliot Pattison's visit, scheduled for Sunday August 1 at 7 p.m. (my phrasing is careful because Pattison is an attorney whose schedule sometimes changes abruptly). Several of Pattison's Shan novels are now in short supply in hardcover; Soho Press authors tell us that Soho deliberately keeps the hardcover print runs tight, with the intention of selling out of them. Makes sense. However, both The Lord of Death and Prayer of the Dragon are becoming tough to find as fine-condition hardcovers. And the first volume of Pattison's other series, Bone Rattler, through Counterpoint, is also short in that condition.

But we're stacking up what we can, anticipating a good gathering of fans here and a list of people who want signed books shipped to them the next morning. Please do let us know what you'd like to reserve.

And meanwhile ... have you asked anyone to sign your "reader" yet?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Real Vermont: Poems That Bare the Stones

We've slipped past mid-week, rattled by rain so often that "global climate change" seems an understatement. I don't know whether the July totals will reflect the way the storms have splashed and battered lately -- the big purple bush of flowers on the back deck droops from "overwatering" and this morning's sunny walk in town turned out to be a wet shirt hike. I've planted a fresh crop of radishes and almost cleaned out the spinach from the vegetable patch; the cucumber vines are threatening to engulf the house, thriving on all the moisture.

Yesterday, sitting at the back of the room of Advanced Placement teachers for a presentation by poet and poetry teacher Alice B. Fogel, I was caught by her phrasing: "Poems come from stories -- things that happen in your life." Even more intriguing was this declaration, which continued a point from the introduction given by Tim Averill: "One of the main purposes of my book Strange Terrain is to bring back an allowance for mystery." Good -- I knew there was some connection in my rain-soaked brain between poetry and mysteries. That will do for trying to wring it out, today.

Fogel actually lives across the line in Acworth, New Hampshire, but teaches often in Vermont. I like this opening stanza of "Disturbance" from her collection Be That Empty:
I will be the rock, igneous, fast to the place
where the river rips around it
if these blurted waves are its song
Another regional poet whose work pokes up stones out of the current to seize my attention is Tim Mayo of Brattleboro, Vermont, whose collection The Kingdom of Possibilities is published by Mayapple Press. Browsing the pages last night, I found this in "The Frog and the Snake":
When I was young I came to a garden pool
and watched a snake swallow a frog.

I have mediated long on this
not wishing to leap to the freedom
of just any conclusion as the frog
must have wanted to do,
how I saw death's
turbulence reach out touching many around me:
teachers and a woman who pretended to be
my mother, and then not long after the snake
swallowed its prey, my own mother also died.
From the stories of his life, Mayo names some of the shadows that trouble his meditative poems. His language includes much of Zen, and of koans.

Also from Mayapple Press ("is a small literary press [in Michigan!] founded in 1978 by poet and editor Judith Kerman. We focus on literature not often celebrated by either the mainstream or the avant-garde. This includes poetry which is both challenging and accessible; women’s writing; the rustbelt/rural culture that stretches from the Hudson Valley to the Great Lakes; the recent immigrant experience; poetry in translation; science fiction poetry") comes a new book by Geof Hewitt, Vermont's leading facilitator of poetry slams and a long-time favorite teacher among both teens and their school staffs. Hewitt seizes the opportunity in THE PERFECT HEART to lay out work in mostly decades, working from 1965 to now. This provides a great survey of how his forms and topics have changed -- and in the most recent, new poems, a window into the fun he has with slam poetry and its practice. I giggled at a poem called "I'm Back" in which he claims to have participated at the latest "Chick Slam" wearing glasses, a wig, and flaunting a pot-belly, ready to sail forward -- "To cast our wishes upon the earth, / To put out each desire like a picnic."

And I groaned at the quick glimpses of loss that he allows, like the teachers' conference room suddenly shaken by a phone call conveying the death of someone's son:
Yet you should try coming up with some words
that haven't been said,
some conglomeration of syllables
perhaps with grunts and strange inflection

that haven't been uttered in shock
countless times each day across the world
the marble settled at the center of the spin,
words tumbling out in search of new order.
Last but not least in this sequence of the real Vermont with its stories and mystery is the amazing presence of poetry in the JetBlue terminal at the Burlington airport. I'm borrowing a photo that was taken by Elizabeth Billings and Andrea Wasserman, to show how the words are woven into the wall. They are poetry by Cora Vail Brooks. I have a slightly battered copy of her 1979 volume A COW IS A WOMAN (Acorn Press), from which I offer now the finale of "Irreverence":
I want to tell you
while I have the choice
I would fold a length of stillness
to make these words

I would unhinge a moon
to set it loose
in the black drafty universe
a darkness that would mingle
us back to itself

I would loosen the questions themselves
from the lost throats of birds
You can tell there's more rain coming today, because none of the songbirds are letting loose outside my window. But the crickets persist in their chant, which will lead us from summer rains toward autumn torrents. Coming soon: the meteor shower of the Perseids, our August night-time guest that binds the hills, the humans, and the newly chilled night air.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Who's Your Hero? Vote for Dr. Siri Paiboun ...

Colin Cotterill's seventh Laotian crime novel featuring unwilling coroner Siri Paiboun, LOVE SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE (2010), opens with three challenges at once: (1) Should Siri allow the ministry where he works to nominate him as "hero of the Revolution," for the sake of the prestige it could bring to his justice-oriented co-workers? (2) Who could have committed the murder that his friend Police Inspector Phosy needs to solve -- one involving a fencing sword thrust into a woman's heart? (3) Is Dr. Siri really writing (or thinking) a narrative of his own torture and imprisonment in a foreign land?

Readers of the earlier Dr. Siri books know that the generous and hard-working coroner (he was a doctor, but received the new assignment without being asked in advance, thanks to the Revolution...) has an odd affinity for ghosts of the dead. He's even been inhabited by a shaman. And because the dead talk to him, his treatment of their bodies and his attempts to help solve their murders are informed in strange ways. It's going to take some reading, though, to figure out why Siri is writing about his captivity -- is this too a haunting like the ghosts, or are we getting a taste of something about to happen in reality?

As always, Dr. Siri's life is complicated by his concern for his friends: how to reunite Crazy Rajid with his only remaining family member; how to find a girlfriend for Mr. Geung, who suffers from Down syndrome; whether Phosy is losing his marriage because he's got a girlfriend on the side. Moreover, Siri's other close friend, Civilai, who ought to have retired but is still being used by the government, has just been awarded (condemned to?) a free trip to Cambodia -- and Dr. Siri is required to go along. Will his late-life beloved wife Madame Daeng handle this well? What about Phosy's distraught wife Dtui, who is also the morgue nurse, working for Dr. Siri?

Disturbing crime scenes continue to distract Dr. Siri from these vital labors of friendship:
Chief Phoumi grabbed the flashlight from [Major] Dung and grimaced as he did so. A bandage protruded from beneath the cuff of the man's shirt. Phoumi used his other hand to pull the wooden handle. An overpowering stench appeared to push the door open from the inside. Siri felt a wave of warm air escape with it. Inside, the box was dark, lit feeblu by what light could squeeze through a small air vent high in one wall. But it created only eerie black shapes. Phoumi turned on the flashlight, and he and Siri stepped up to the doorway. The beam immediately picked out the naked body of a woman seated on a wooden bench. At first glance, she appeared to be skewered to the backrest by a thin metal pole that entered her body through the left breast. A trail of blood snaked down her lap to the floor.

But even with all this evidence in front of him, Siri has a feeling that the government men around him are weaving lies. And chasing down the truth here, as elsewhere, may be risky.

In many ways this is a langorous crime novel, attentive to details of family and friends and weather, as much as to murders and corpses. But it picks up speed as Siri and Civilai board an airplane for what turns out to be a frightening interlude -- and in the long run, the kind of hero that Dr. Siri may or may not be is very much the point of the book.

Since Siri's life exists on multiple planes, the suspense about whether he'll survive these events in a form that his wife can still hug haunts the book -- even though author Colin Cotterill has revealed in a recent Q&A (with crime author J. Sydney Jones) that there will be an eighth volume, Spook City. On the other hand, it's not clear whether the noted Soho Crime imprint will carry the next volume. I hope so -- Cotterill laid some of the groundwork for the welcome that novels like Lisa Brackmann's Rock Paper Tiger are receiving, and he's a great human being, too; see his web site,,  for ways he's channeling assistance toward books for Laos. Long live Dr. Siri Paiboun and his friends!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

English Country House Mysteries Rise Again: Dolores Gordon-Smith, A HUNDRED THOUSAND DRAGONS

If you haven't yet seen the film "Lawrence of Arabia" in the Peter O'Toole incarnation, don't read this yet -- go rent the film first.

Because Dolores Gordon-Smith's take on postwar England and its wounded heroes does much more than bring Lord Peter Wimsey out of the closet and into the person of aviator Jack Haldean. In this fourth Haldean mystery, A HUNDRED THOUSAND DRAGONS, Gordon-Smith also re-writes the poignant and magnificent historical myth of Lawrence that O'Toole portrayed so brilliantly.

Haldean isn't crippled by Lawrence's inability to bond with the people he was born among. His good friend Arthur Stanton, about to marry Jack's cousin Isabelle, knows something of what the Great War has broken in Jack. And as the three friends attempt to untangle a murder in an English country house, they find that there are good reasons to mistrust visitors with German accents, if they happen to also be unscrupulous, violent, and manipulative. And when the criminal types decide to manipulate the Arabs as well, Jack is caught in the midst of exactly the sort of situation a man with his internal scars ought to avoid.

Meticulous and logical, you can't say Jack rushes in where angels fear to tread. Even when invited to theorize by police Superintendent (and Jack's friend) Ashley, Haldean stays calm and measured:
Jack paused to arrange his thoughts. "I think there was a murder," he said eventually. "I think the murderer concealed the body under a rug [blanket] and drive to the Hammer Valley. I think the murderer positioned the car against a tree and subsequently set fire to it."
And when Ashley invites him to go further and put a name to the criminal, Jack makes it clear that the evidence only supports a guess at this point. He's an ideal sleuth because he doesn't get ahead of the facts of the case.

Yet the trembling of Jack's hands betrays his agitation, and for him to take on the challenges of flying a small plane and confronting well-armed evil will cost him dearly.

Gordon-Smith spins a good tale that's perfect vacation reading: drenched in period costume and language, authentically exotic at times, and very, very English in its pacing and heroism. Well done, indeed; here's a series to gather and set on the shelf for those long winter afternoons, as well as during this milder season's rainy interruptions to outdoor adventures.

Oh yes, wondering about those "hundred thousand dragons"? Well, Jack's thinking poetry; after all, the mastermind he's after is self-styled "Ozymandias," that dreaded "king of kings" of the "antique lands." And in fact, it's through poetry of a sort that he figures out the most significant clues.

PS: Here is my favorite photo of Dolores Gordon-Smith. And I really like her blog!

Interlude: Some Poetry for This Summer

1. Many thanks to poet Michael Rattee for a review copy of FALLING OFF THE BICYCLE FOREVER (Adastra Press 2010). Rattee creates a form that suits his storytelling gift: Each poem is an extended sentence without closing punctuation, a window into a person or situation or way to understand both words and being human. I found each one to be an invitation that I explored with quiet pleasure. The opening poem "Somewhere with Your Name" is a good example, as it starts:
Somewhere there's a dog
with your name
roaming the streets hungry
somewhere there's a child
running away with your name
The stream of possibilities keeps flowing until, at the end, "somewhere there's a star / with your name / falling toward you" -- and I felt as though I had been sitting out under the night sky listening to an incantation of love from a grandparent, an older brother, a mentor.

Rattee holds the form, although he gives it varied attire, and takes it especially into the lives of children and into their existence within us, as well as in front of us. "Everyone wants to be someone else / if only occasionally" he writes; and in another piece, "My roof has a hole in it / last week it rained / my lover got her toe wet" -- each sequence declares its own measure of unpredictability, teasing and turning and encouraging the unfolding of unexpected blossoms.

Adastra ( is one of my favorite small presses, and this 64-page volume of poems is simply laid out, allowing the words to provide their own "a-ha" and "a-ah" moments. I found myself longing for a second form, though: a set of cards with one poem on each, so I could place them in the corners of my rooms and workspaces. I'll be quoting bits of these for years to come.

[NB: Rattee's other titles include two more from Adastra: Mentioning Dreams (1985) and Enough Said: A Poetry Dialigue Between Father & Son (2002).  His Everything Green Everything White came out from Apropos Press in 2008.]

2. Pamela Alexander's fourth collection, SLOW FIRE (Ausable, 2007) , is two books in one: The first section summons up the fragile moments that follow a death, in this case of the poet's mother, but they are so precisely nailed, so delicately laid out, that I think they will ring a true note for many such fragrant wounds. We grow from our losses; we discover often what's most real through its absence.  The conclusion of "Aries" struck me as a tender portrait:
I woke one spring to find my mother dying

gently. One by one she put her words
down, too hard to lift them. And then she loosed
the years, which flew away, light as light.
And then there's the moment in "Hard Light" that gave me a new image to savor: "We found a nest with eggs once / in the pocket of a scarecrow. Shall I / look for you there?"

After this section the collection takes a far different turn, playing with language that presses together stone with heart with fire; teasing; pondering. In "Woods That Won't," Alexander introduces us to a house that has overeaten and is depressed -- so she takes a walk to set a good example, roaming where deer, fox, and porcupine refuse to appear, and in the process, "Peering at tracks, I see / even my present is past. // Only a dropped hat crouches / in the path. The hat says / Go home, furless one." Finally, "I gather my wits in a heap / on the ground. They are / few. Under them I light a match."

Long walks, collections of absurd love-tokens, playful lines that play with the lines of play -- Alexander spreads them in a delicious feast. This might be better than beach reading: It's ideal for a deck chair on a shaded porch, an iced glass of sparkling chill at one's side.

3. I would read almost any poetry recommended by Jean Valentine. And when the credits include Ellen Bryant Voigt and Elizabeth Alexander, as well as the great leaders of Cave Canem, how can I resist? SHAHID READS HIS OWN PALM by Reginald Dwayne Betts won the 2009 Beatrice Hawley Award, which makes it a 2010 volume from Alice James Books. More than palm-reading, it reminds me of the Illustrated Man created by Ray Bradbury (1951) in the form of 18 stories that explore being human. That's what Betts does in these pages through the voice and moments of a jailed prisoner, Shahid. There's a ghazal of prison life "in the hole" that unexpectedly calls out at the end, "Shahid's fingers were left in a cotton field -- / now he forever cornrows the sky above." There's a fiercely questioning witness to suicide, "The Day Carlos Jumped from the Top Tier." At the center of the volume are delicately choreographed wrestling matches like "Tell This to the People You Love" -- "stray cats that ran wild here / & still cry at night, all / straining against what's thrown at them."

I found my heart especially snagged by the gruff lines and twists of "Winter Hunger," laying out the bitter conflict and longings between son and father, between life and prison. The phrasing "love's austere // and lonely offices" catches me unexpectedly, and for a moment I "get" some of the cost that this poet has paid. But oh my, to write like this is a very good gift to draw out of the lost years.

Here is one of my favorite openings from the collection, the start of "The Spanish Word for Solitude":
Soledad is a mouth
full of dust, the taste
of Guinness & one night

a trigger tucked under
my index like a
spliff. It is a man

awakened by a .380's
muzzle, or
my heart folded

into a cell.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

When Global Gets Dangerous: Lisa Brackmann, ROCK PAPER TIGER

A thunderstorm blew through here about an hour ago. It was fierce and wild, and I would have liked to just stand on the hill (under some trees taller than I am, so they could take any lightning strikes) and get drenched and savor the wind. But -- you know how it is. Instead, I ran around the house with Dave, cranking closed the windows and mopping dry the sills. When you have thousands of books depending on you for their good looks and fine condition, you've got to be mature and keep everything dry.

Which brings me to ROCK PAPER TIGER, by Lisa Brackmann. Run-don't-walk to wherever you get your books, and get two: one to keep, one to give to the person you talk with late at night about big ideas that you're not sure you've got fully fleshed out yet. You'll be moving in parallel with Ellie Cooper, better known in China as Yili, a more pronounceable set of sounds there. Ellie has rage -- understandable rage, considering what she's been through with her husband Trey, both in Iraq ("the sandbox") and afterward. Limping, getting through constant pain with a handful of Percocet and a steady alcohol diet, and unwilling to give way, give up, or anything else tame and soft, she's running so hard already that when the security forces from at least two countries -- China and America -- start chasing her, she barely has room to accelerate.

Already, you can see this isn't a "typical" mystery or crime book or espionage effort. It's a compelling and exciting adventure, one that tangles the cyber possibilities of William Gibson's Neuromancer with the gaming ones of Orson Scott Card's Ender series, along with a strong female version of what John Le Carré summoned up about the two sides of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, the cost of loyalty. Only this time, the wall is the Great Wall of China, the war is for information, and the cost -- oh yes, it's still the cost of loyalty: to your friends, if you can figure out who they are. Here's a morsel of how Ellie's facing this:
"Yili," John says. "I think you are feeling better now?"

I have two equally strong reactions: I want to run like hell away from this freak, and I want to claw his eyes out, punch him in the jaw, kick him in the nuts. Which isn't really realistic. But neither is running, because I don't run that well, and this section of the Great Wall is so steep I'd probably break my neck trying.

So I don't do anything. I just stand there.

"You look much better now," John continues. "I was worried about you that night."

I have to give the guy credit for his brass balls, because he's wearing his most innocent expression, and I'm sure if I accuse him of anything, he'll do that squinty-eyed, puzzled look he has down to a Kabuki act.
(Don't let her fool you -- Yili might still manage to follow through on some of those ideas of hers.)

By now, if you've been reading Asian-themed mysteries, you're thinking about Martin Limón's Korean DMZ, gendered the other way; and maybe also about S. J. Rozan's Lydia Chin. Good thoughts. It will come as no surprise that the publisher for Brackmann's book (her first, by the way) is Soho, where the team seems especially alert to adventure that pulls together vastly differing cultures, as well as fast-moving plots and memorable characters. Way to go, team!

Yili's messed-up marriage, her guilt from Iraq, her saccharinely Christian mom, and her politically vocal arts-world acquaintances make a heady mix ready to explode. The spark is an evening when her cell phone runs out of minutes, so she fails to warn her artist friend Lao Zhang that she's about to arrive at his place. As a result, she meets someone who may be a subversive. And within hours, she's in too deep to get out -- now, fighting for her life and discovering what she believes in are really the only choices left for her.

Brackmann's next thriller, still in progress, is set in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Consider me a fan already.

And the difference between men who are thriller writers and women who are thriller writers is ...

From Carla Neggers, who just enjoyed Thrillerfest very much, and was the lone woman on a panel of great thriller authors last week: "In OUR books, the women get to live!"

Great event here, and we have just four signed first-edition copies of THE WHISPER left for those of you who didn't make it. (One dedicated reader drove from Rangeley Lake, Maine!) Our thanks to Carla Neggers for coming to the Northeast Kingdom today.

Next up for her books: the third Vermont "Black Falls" suspense novel comes out in November: Cold Dawn. I can hardly wait!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Honest, Vivid, and Worth It: Lea Banks and Her Poetry, ALL OF ME

Word arrived this week that Lea Banks is stepping down from her three years of labor with the Shelburne Falls (MA) poetry series, Collected Poets -- and although I'm sure the series folks will miss her, it's a good thing too, because it's sure to mean more poems from Banks herself.

Her collection ALL OF ME proves that writing the wild side of life can be provocative on multiple levels: How do we get ourselves into the turmoil of sexuality, romance, breakups, heartbreak, and those unforgettable laughter-filled moments that come between kisses? Banks declares she's "not the goddess or goodness / I wish to be" as she inks her longings, lusts, and loves. If only we knew, at age 16 or 20, that heartbreak is the rototiller of the garden that will later bring lush blossoms and fruit!  In "St. George's Waltz," Banks writes:
 ... She was a tavern, a dance
hall of heartbeats spun around
his loving. A girl grown dizzy
with desire a loss, her limits
an abrasion of incapacity.

She knocks about in sweaty sleep.
Feverish with wakefulness,
she tracks his city stones of night.
Dragging the streets wailing
awake the strike of her heart.

In a distinct body, an ambulance of grief.
Sometimes Banks reveals that these griefs and losses abruptly let go, after so much pain. In "Snow Angel," a short pair of stanzas perfectly tuned, she says of making those arm/leg swirls in the white landscape, "I think of you sometimes / as I make them. / I'm faring quite well." And the hidden "farewell" in the verse has lost its freight of loss and teases us instead with recovery.

When Banks dips into "God" and "god," her taste for whimsy keeps the quest light-hearted and vivid. She declares in "Stillness Like This,"
I am a hymn of birds released,
clench-free hands of flickering
flight; the very sweetest note.
And rolling through a tumble with a young man, she brings the poem back to the "thrill of possibility. / God's fierce whimsy / explodes in the air above us."

The most powerful poem in the 30-page collection is the title piece, "All of Me," salted with lines from Ovid's Metamorphoses in which the nymph Daphne, daughter of the river, has "closets weeping with clothes / never worn," and the body can sicken with envy, revenge, shame, craving. To fly into love has its costs, but who wants to be turned into a tree instead, rooted, unable to fly again? Banks says, "It's a spontaneous belief in sadness: / the charred life we live." There's the phrase that haunts me, that charred, rather than charmed, life -- the constant effort to confront the ashes, recall the glory of the fire, and say it was worth the burning.

It's rare that the delights and costs of passion are spelled out as vividly as they are in this collection. In one of the last pieces, "It Was Nothing," reminding me of the snapping string in performances of "The Cherry Orchard," Banks demonstrates that our losses have as much meaning as our loves: "like the garden of Eden after the gate had closed."

Copies of ALL OF ME can be ordered directly from Banks; visit her web site,

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Celtic Knot of a Tale: Suspense and Romance -- Carla Neggers, THE WHISPER

Follow the threads of this latest suspense novel from Carla Neggers, but expect them to twist together into an increasingly complex pattern. In THE WHISPER, Neggers picks up the strands of art theft, Irish heritage, and heroes in the Boston Police Department that wove through her preceding novel in this series, The Mist. Allowing the delicious Lizzie Rush to step toward the background, she brings forward red-haired Sophie Malone, a newly degreed archaelogist who tramps up to a rustic cottage on the Beara Peninsula of Ireland, meeting Scoop Wisdom there -- one of the three BPD officers recovering from the dangers and disasters created by a serial killer in the last book. And there's instant chemistry between the two of them.

But Scoop is on his way back to Boston to sort out who, in his own police department, might have been crooked enough to take a bribe and bomb Scoop's home. And Sophie can't settle down, either, because she's haunted by an attack that happened in Ireland to her, but that just might connect to the Boston fiasco. No big surprise that the two of them take the same flight toward the States after all!

Meanwhile, chasing leads and hunting for missing persons on the Irish side of the ocean are Josie Goodwin -- tough-talking assistant to Lizzie's beloved, Will -- and Josie's way too challenging heart-throb, double agent Myles Fletcher, as wounded emotionally and internally as Scoop is physically from the Boston bombing.

Neggers balances the tensions of these with her expert hands, lifting a mirror to the risks of relationships while following Sophie into the dangers of high-stakes crime. Sophie's used to asking questions -- any good archaeologist has more questions than answers! -- but this time, her questions keep opening up more risks. And Scoop's not happy about walking into a crime scene with her:
Sophie gulped in the afternoon air, taking in the crush of cars out on the street, the feel of the sun on her face.

Scoop didn't say a word until they reached the Mini. Then he caught her by the shoulders and turned her to him. "You're all right?"

"Yes, why, do I look --"

"Because I'm going to yell at you. You're Professor Malone or Doctor Malone or Miss Malone. You're not Detective Malone. You got that? It's not just what you said in there. It's your body language. I had the same sense back in the ruin in Ireland."

"What sense?"

"That you've got a bit in your teeth and you're running."

He had a point, but she argued with him anyway.
Trust and betrayal, longing and self-discipline, a touch of recklessness -- Sophie's life includes them all, and it makes her a good investigator, an increasingly significant partner for Scoop. And the threads they're both following are suddenly leading further into both of their past lives than either one had anticipated.

Rich with Irish and Celtic art and myths as well as the beauty of both Boston and the Emerald Isle, THE WHISPER spins a tale that's as lovely as it is complex. And as the suspense builds, it's Sophie who'll take the most important risks of all.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Calendar Alert: Poet Adam Halbur, and the Frost Place

I'm looking forward to tomorrow's reading (Sun. July 11) by Adam Halbur, resident poet this summer at The Frost Place (Robert Frost's Franconia, NH, home), as he joins Pam Bernard and Rob Farnsworth at 3:15. (Actually all three of them write poetry that interests me very much!)

What I'm especially curious about is how the New England mountainside farm, with Frost's spirit creaking through the old barn and rustling around the white farmhouse and through the apple orchard and woods, will creep into this global poet's work. A Midwesterner by birth, Halbur also has lived in Tokyo with his wife. The poems in his collection POOR MANNERS hint at the movement from American rural landscape into Japanese language and culture; there should be much more to discover as Halbur turns these strands for us to see in fresh ways.

Halbur will also read, with Ron Padgett, at the St. Johnsbury (VT) Athenaeum on August 4.

Links to pursue: The Frost Place; the St. J. Athenaeum. Driving directions on their sites, along with dates of more readings to come.

Extraordinary Book of Poems: J. Michael Martinez, HEREDITIES

When Juan Felipe Herrera selected this manuscript from the many competing for the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, I bet he jumped, danced, hollered, and phoned or e-mailed his best friends. At least, that's what I did -- because J. Michael Martinez has done so much more than write good poems here. HEREDITIES plunges into both myth and history of Meso-America, presenting Quetzalcoatl through Toltec myths; "conqueror" Hernan Cortez through his own letters to the Spanish king; the instructions given by Bishop Torquemada for the Inquisition; and modern Hispanic/Chicano/a questions of identity and language.

Using "the page" in multiple dimensions, Martinez lights each strand of language and belief on fire, by rubbing it against the others. There aren't just alternating voices -- pages contain trains of poetry crafted from stretches of Cortez's words, accented by marginal columns of the Inquisition; and throughout, the beauty and glory of the Toltec landscape and people erupt. Surprising (and perhaps highly personal) blocks of prose commentary stand in figurative corners, giving stage directions. Here's one I especially like:
In 1519 Hernan Cortez sent five letters to
Emperor Charles V of Spain. Its paper a species of
wing without feather. The letter arrives as a
paper Christ extending cursive hands onto an
unspoken Lazarus, the past incarnated as word.
Cortex speaks of his "discovery" of New Eden.
And that is perhaps the most prosaic of the language -- from there, it rises in glory and wonder. The page that follows this interruption (and for which I can't do justice, because blog pages don't format the way poetry does), begins this way: "ii / We gathered language // rendered in honey and beeswax / from the beaks // of peacocks, / lined integrity with masonry // and mortar, gold and stone mosaic. /// At the hour of Mass, //// we grazed on justice, / lips pierced with two needles of jade."

I hope you're catching from this what Martinez has marvelously done: extracted "found poetry" that paints the Meso-American world in magically illuminated text, mysteriously drawn from the very language of the invader. More again, he links sections and poems to each other through repeated phrases that demand attention in their newness. At the opening of the book, he makes it clear that this is conversation as well: "Margin is the whiteness of our silence. [...] Your irises, close, black flowers folding toward / the silence of their beginning. I place a cup of coffee before you. I / said, The noun never sutures to the named body."

The center section of the book, from which the Cortez/Torquemada passages come, is without doubt its center of power. Along with these mingled tongues, it includes anatomical drawings of "Articulations of Quetzalcoatl's Spine" in which the "Ligaments Connecting the God's Spine to Creation" are described, like this one:
The Two Capsular Ligaments (fig. 155) surround the condyles of the occipital bone and connect them with the articular processes of the atlas; they consist of wept ashes, reeds of cane and water grasses; these enclose the narrow silence all hours become.
Those reeds and water grasses appear in many places in the volume, evoking the massive interior lakes that the Toltecs lived among and on. But again, Martinez presses beyond the expected, to place beside this spine of the Toltec god, "The Sternum of Our Lady of Guadalupe" -- a Catholic image who becomes grounded in the same place in turn, bound to "a hymn of praise above and of marigold below" and "of piñon and continuity, ... a union of fire, water, earth, and sky."

Martinez's poetry strikes me especially strongly this week because in this particular Vermont summer, amid the wet green hills and the rocky rivers, I've heard Spanish repeatedly within the grocery stores and at the lakeshore. To a New York or Los Angeles resident, that's probably part of life -- here in northern New England, however, it is new and amazing. The wave of immigration from south of the U.S. border is finally splashing on the granite hills. And there is surely not enough time to light all the minds around us with respect, admiration, and enjoyment for and of the heritage that this wave brings with it.

But this finely crafted drama of languages and images is one way for those of us whose heritage is not Meso-American to catch a glimpse of wonder and to turn us into curious welcome committees, eager to discover this new/old heredity of the Equatorial lands and people. Would that poetry might spread in flames among all our readers, that this book could become the signal fire of a new amazement and delight.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Louise Penny's Sixth Inspector Gamache Tour-de-Force: BURY YOUR DEAD (Available Sept. 28)

Why do you want to know about this book now, when you won't be able to get it until the end of September?

Simple: It's time to re-read all five earlier volumes. Yes, Louise Penny's fall release, BURY YOUR DEAD, will be best if you've read all the others first. That includes the relatively slow start to Still Life, and the somewhat quiet beginning of A Fatal Grace, as well as the increasingly powerful The Cruelest Month and A Rule Against Murder.

And if you can't make time to do all that, at least pick up the fifth book, The Brutal Telling. Because BURY YOUR DEAD is part two to that book, and although Penny gives deft recaps periodically in the new book, the flavor is much richer if you read the entire fifth book first. There are crime series where you can pick up the tale at any point; this is not one of them. Personally, I have no regrets about that, because Penny's work has intensified with each new book, unfolding with the inevitability and ache that a truly good storyteller can command.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache runs the homicide division of the Sureté du Québec with firmness, imagination, and a deep humane kindness that creates a nurturing relationship between him and his recruits, like Inspector Beauvoir and Agent Isabelle Lacoste. Readers of the earlier books know that his team has repeatedly worked under great stress -- and with good results -- in the obscure little town of Three Pines, a village that people only seem to find when they truly need its community and its hard-earned comforts. At the end of The Brutal Telling, Gamache and his team left the village after making a painful arrest for murder. (See why you should read that one first?) And at the start of BURY YOUR DEAD, Gamache is attempting to recover from something terrible that happened after leaving Three Pines.

In fact, the events that have devastated Gamache are so awful that they can only be slowly revealed, as Gamache gradually lets himself relive their horror. His hand trembles; he can't sleep at night; his dog and his old mentor Emile Comeau, each trying to warm Gamache in the subzero frigidity of Quebec City, fall short of what's needed to bring the Chief Inspector out of his self-doubt and despair.
But now it was time to rest from murder. No more killing, no more deaths. Armand had seen too much of that lately. No, better to bury himself in history, in lives long past. An intellectual pursuit, nothing more.
Meanwhile, what about that team of his? Must they return to the failures of their bitter departure from Three Pines, as well as managing without Armand Gamache's leadership? Sorrow and shame wrap them all.

The pain has even extended to the Three Pines poet Ruth and her pet duck.

And there, I'm afraid, I've got to stop: other than to say that Gamache will become entangled in the search for the burial place of Samuel de Champlain, as well as unending conflicts between those of French and of English origin; that Three Pines may teach his team better in the Chief Inspector's absence; and that all the doubts and cruelties from The Brutal Telling are present here, too -- that's all I can say without spoiling things.

And that's a marvel. How many authors embed in their earliest books the characteristics and twists that will drive the plot in their newest ones? (I am not counting the Harry Potter books here -- which really are volumes of one long saga.) Even John Le Carré with his Smiley trilogy, pitting the shoved-aside espionage leader against the years-long evil of Karla and the Russians, hasn't done what Louise Penny has in this series.

So get out the earlier books, place a pre-order for BURY YOUR DEAD, and know how fortunate you are to live in a time when this kind of writing can come to you. If a person combining the strengths of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Conan Doyle had lived during the most threatening years of this global culture we now endure, she might have finally written something with the deep and disturbing darkness that Louise Penny commands -- with the cost of redemption resolutely figured into the consequences.

[A note about the cover: I've placed the US version here; to see the Canadian/British one, visit Penny's web site.]

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

HHH (Hazy, Hot, and Humid) but Still Reading

It's been hot by Vermont terms -- in the eighties to low nineties each day, and night-time temperatures around 73 (we're used to plunging down to 50 at night, which cools the place off). Dave and I each have a fan close to the desk, and we've got one room air-conditioned for occasional breathing spells.

In those breathing spells over the past couple of days, I enjoyed Laurie R. King's new page-turner, GOD OF THE HIVE -- it takes all the threads left hanging from the preceding book, The Language of Bees, and weaves the rest of the tapestry of Mary Russell and her aging but still adept husband Sherlock Holmes, as each one grapples with what it means to have "family" members. For Holmes, it's his son Damian (via Irene Adler; remember her, always "The Woman" to Holmes?) and Damian's child; for Mary, it's taking responsibility for protecting that child and an extraordinary new acquaintance, for whose sake the book was nearly named "The Green Man" (actually that was its name in manuscript, but things change when publishers get involved, don't they?). I won't spell out the plot here, but the book offers Mary a chance to display all of her own most profound character traits (courage, analysis, speed of decisions, loyalty) EXCEPT the one that may be most familiar: There is no time at all for her bookish studies.

Now I'm working on the notices to the press for our July 17 guest of honor here at Kingdom Books: Carla Neggers (that's her photo above). As I do, I've been reflecting on her immense list of work (more than 50 novels), as well as on the genre in which she shines: romantic suspense. Neggers blogs at "Running With Quills," with several other authors -- among them Jayne Ann Krentz, who offered this insight recently:
How does one define romantic-suspense? I think the best definition I ever heard comes from our own Elizabeth Lowell. She once said that in a novel of romantic-suspense the relationship between the hero and heroine must move in lockstep with the development of the mystery/suspense plot. Every twist in the mystery should create a twist in the relationship and vice-versa.

And why is romantic-suspense so popular? Because the relationship between the hero and heroine raises the stakes of the danger and makes the outcome very, very personal. We're not just risking our necks to save the innocent from the bad guys. We're forging an enduring bond of love that will be strong enough to establish a family. It may be a family of two or it may be the foundation of a dynasty or it may be a non-traditional family. But family is family. It is the basic building block of civilization. Without the unique connections of family bonds of one kind or another, there is no future, nothing worth fighting for, no hope.
Watch for a review later this week of the newest Neggers suspense novel: THE WHISPER.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Peter Abrahams/Spencer Quinn: So Many Good Books!

It's no secret that Cape Cod resident Peter Abrahams is also Spencer Quinn, the author -- or perhaps scribe is the better term, since the series is narrated by Chet the dog -- of an award-winning series that begins with Dog On It, goes on to Thereby Hangs a Tail, and this September will also include To Fetch a Thief. And Chet provides regular comments and excerpts at

This weekend, one of my picks was an earlier Peter Abrahams crime novel: DELUSION, from 2008. It was his seventeenth crime novel. I find the number even more startling because not only is Abrahams writing his Chet series too, but he's moved into "young adult" (YA) fiction with his Echo Falls series (Down the Rabbit Hole, 2005; Behind the Curtain, 2006; Into the Dark, 2008), and his newest teen protagonist takes on crime in Bullet Point, which came out in May of this year. (See his website,

Where and whose are the delusions in DELUSION? The novel's opening makes it clear that Pirate, a murderer serving life in prison, has more than a few, including his intimate connection with Job in the Bible -- a story he believes is his own. He's there in large part because of the eyewitness testimony of Nell Jarreau, who 20 years ago saw her boyfriend get killed. The violence took place literally next to her, and there was little room for doubt about the identification.

But new evidence has just been unearthed due to the recent hurricane in the Gulf Coast town of Belle Ville. And either it's a really skilled fake, or it proves that Pirate -- that is, Alvin Du Pree -- didn't commit the murder. Making things even worse for Nell as the prisoner's release is announced is the fact that this case made the stellar reputation of the detective on it. And she's now married to him, in a warmly collaborative relationship that embraces their shared passion for snorkeling in the Bahamas, their daughter Norah, their home and town.

Making things even harder is Lee Ann Bonner, an old friend of Nell's. Lee Ann is now a journalist, and she's got the scent of the chase. When she drags Nell into the violence and brutality that underlie what looked like the perfect life, Nell's marriage starts looking shaky as well.
Lee Ann started in on a complicated answer Nell had trouble processing, all about something called the Justice Project, Hurricane Bernardine, FEMA, video cameras. Only the last sentence stuck in her mind, stuck like a fact sharpened at one end.

"He didn't do it."
I enjoyed this book's pace and plot very much. Sometimes I got frustrated with the changes of point of view -- Pirate is far from likeable, and I didn't want to see things through his eyes after a bit -- but that's more a sign of me, I suspect, than of any flaw in the narrative. And the final spinning together of crime, punishment, consequnces, and marital hurricane gave a deeply satisfying conclusion.

A couple of small things stayed on my mind afterward, hints and perhaps red herrings about Nell that I noted as a mystery reader and expected to learn more about. Maybe there's another Nell novel yet to come, which would explain why Abrahams left them dangling in this one. I hope so.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Catching up with Tess Gerritsen: Rizzoli & Isles

Dave and I have office down the hall from each other. We just had one of those notable "people who live and work together" conversations, calling back and forth -- I discovered that the TV show premiering July 12, Rizzoli & Isles, is from Tess Gerritsen's books, and that was news to Dave; then he told me other background to Gerritsen and her work that came as news back to me. I won't do details just now ... it's too nice a day to hang with this ... but here's a link to a short interview with Gerritsen about the new show. Guess you know what we'll be doing on July 12 (TNT, 10 pm Eastern).

Thursday, July 01, 2010

New U.S. Poet Laureate: W. S. Merwin

[Here is the National Book Award announcement:]

W. S. Merwin, an influential poet and translator and Winner of the National Book Award for Poetry, has been chosen to succeed Kay Ryan as the Poet Laureate of the United States. The Poet Laureate, who is appointed annually by the Librarian of Congress, serves from October to May and receives a $35,000 stipend.

Merwin was born in 1927 in New York City and was raised in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He received a scholarship to attend Princeton University, where he studied under R. P. Blackmur and John Berryman, and graduated in 1948. While traveling in Europe and studying Romance languages as a graduate student, Merwin began translating poetry and working as a tutor, one of his clients being the son of the poet Robert Graves.

In 1952, W. H. Auden selected Merwin's first book of poetry, A Mask for Janus, for publication in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Merwin has since written more than two dozen volumes of poetry with themes ranging from the Vietnam War to deep ecology and a style that has run the gamut from classical to experimental. Merwin was a National Book Award Poetry Finalist five times before he finally won the Award in 2005 for Migration: New and Selected Poems. He also received the Tanning Prize from the Academy of American Poets (1994) and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (in 1971 and 2009).

For more information on W.S. Merwin's life and work, visit:

The National Book Foundation:
The Library of Congress:
The Poetry Foundation:


And here's today's New York Times exploration of Merwin's work: