Sunday, February 27, 2011

Young Adult Reading: VIRALS by Kathy Reichs; THIS THING CALLED THE FUTURE by J.L. Powers

Here's a contrast of approaches: a noted crime novelist slips away from her much-appreciated series to write a story for teens -- VIRALS, by Kathy Reichs -- and a story seeker pauses in her research to spin her second novel for young adults: THIS THING CALLED THE FUTURE, by J.L. Powers. Both rely on twists of language and on the contrast between believing the world will turn out okay, and finding out that the responsibility for that good stuff is on your own shoulders after all (ouch).

I grabbed VIRALS right away because I'm a huge fan of Reichs's Temperance Brennan series that features a forensic anthropologist based in Canada and sometimes in North Carolina. The series is also now a TV show, Bones. And I was hoping Brennan would appear in this South Carolina island adventure.

Scratch that one. Brennan gets mentioned a couple of times, and Tory Brennan, her niece, is glad to be compared with her risk-taking, brilliant aunt. But there isn't even a cameo for the seasoned investigator. Tory and her friends accidentally trip over an illicit science experiment when she and her three friends -- all boys -- decide to rescue a wolfdog pup that's been captured and turned into a lab project on the nearby island where their parents mostly work. And the pup is really, really sick:
I looked down at Coop, sleeping in his improvised burrow. "I'll take care of you," I whispered. "Just get well.'

Outside, thunder rolled.
For Tory, whose mother died in a car accident and who is now living with the father she didn't even know existed until this year, there's way too much to adjust to in her life. Rescuing a puppy evens the odds. What she and her friends don't know, though, is that the pup is infected with a virus that can leap to them, too. And its effects are transforming -- if I mention the Fantastic Four, only the oldtimers and the history-of-comics folks will get this, so ... let's say that the virus has the potential to change the DNA of people who host it. Uh-oh. Rescuing the puppy and dodging the violent criminals might be the easy parts.

Jumping into South African urban life with fourteen-year-old Khosi, whose father can't afford the bride-price to marry her mom, provides a shattering contrast -- so don't read these two books back to back! They're for entirely different parts of the psyche, anyway. Where Reichs proposes that military- or crime-fueled science could invade the lives of a group of bright teens, J.L. Powers instead follows a real virus: HIV, which is so dangerous that it's spoken of sideways as "the disease of these days." Not only can it kill you if you catch it, but Khosi has to deal with the threat of a "dirty old man" willing to rape her, in hopes that forced sex with a virgin might cure him (or at least entertain him; he's awful). Her mother comes home from work terribly ill; her far-away father may have a newer, younger girlfriend; and the person who keeps rescuing her, as well as befriending her little sister Zi, is a breathtakingly good-looking boy practically her own age, Little Man, whose dark eyes, strong muscles, and unexpected kindness are pushing Khosi off balance.

Plus she has choices to make between the powerful traditions of her people, complete with herbal healers and ancestral voices that speak to Khosi and nudge her along, and the modern science and medicine that her mother says make up the right route for South Africa's future.
Inkosikazi Dudu has gone inside. But if she were standing in front of me, would I say the words that are flooding my mind? I'll be watching you. And if you dare do anything to my family, if you dare try to curse us, I'll come after you. I don't know how but I have friends and they'll help me.

Looking at the quiet neighborhood, the warning seems really crazy.
Where Reichs experiments in her book with "teen language," Powers fills her conversations with Zulu words that cling to the fabric of community and heritage. Where Tory Brennan is running from what's left of her family, Khosi is desperate to find ways to save what's left of hers.

Get both books. Reichs's book came out in November; the one from Powers is due out in May but you can pre-order it, so you won't forget it for your summer reading stack. So take advantage of that time gap to enjoy these a couple of weeks or months apart. I think Khosi is a true hero; I think Tory is a starting place for a sci-fi (even graphic novel) sequence. Might as well enjoy each!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Not a Mystery -- But Adventure, Oh Yes -- Joe Sacco

Photo by Josh Kramer -- see end of post.
Dave and I booked it down to Dartmouth College yesterday to meet the author and cartoonist Joe Sacco and hear him talk. The event, sponsored by the Center for Cartoon Studies (, brought Sacco from Portland, Oregon, to give a half-hour lecture on "Comics as Journalism," with a nifty set of visuals from his books and illustrated journal, followed by half an hour of questions from students. Also salted into the crowd were long-time fans like us, and people whose interests clicked with the regions Sacco has visited and portrayed in his mix of black-and-white drawings and carefully authentic voices from the people he wants to promote: "people who are dispossessed, swept under the rug of history," he said.

Born on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean, Sacco grew up in Australia and on the American West Coast (Los Angeles, Portland). He provides a solid explanation for the power of his work. "Over time I realized this accidental bringing together of first-person narrative and journalism has real impact." Most important to him in his choices on the page is a determination to admit his own subjectiveness as an observer. But from the start of his journalistic portrayals, Sacco has given the page character who represent him "blanked out" eyes behind glasses, denying readers a look directly into Sacco and pushing them instead to examine the world he visits, whether in Palestine or Bosnia or, now in a work in progress, "post-industrial America."

Sacco's desire to "take the reader viscerally to a time and place" results in his use of comics to build up, through sequential images, an accumulating set of evidence that makes a point about what he witnesses. "Drawing is interpretive and I am a filter," he repeated. The inherent tension between his literal quotes (collected with the help of local interpreters) and his drawings is meant to dig up truth -- "It's more an interpretive truth than a literal truth," he adds. He dances between the effect of "being there" in person, and being a motivated observer who wants to take the words and situation to the bigger screens of the rest of the world. "You've got to keep some emotional distance," he admits, "otherwise there's no point in you being there. You'd just collapse."

Sacco's work takes two or three years from idea to pages, so he constantly tests his ideas, struggling for what will still be worthwhile by the time it comes to fruition. He won an American Book Award for his Palestine and shook readers with Safe Area Gorazde, introduced by political commentator Christopher Hitchens. See more of his titles at Fantagraphics Books. His current work on post-industrial America has already taken him and collaborator Chris Hedges to Camden, New Jersey, and to West Virginia mountaintop removal sites. Yes!

My thanks to Josh Kramer, a 2011 student at the Center for Cartoon Studies, for the photo of Joe Sacco here. Kramer's blog ( is well worth visiting; I like his use of color, and his B&W drawings are already provocative. Here's to seeing more of his work, like Joe Sacco's, in the years ahead.

Books to Look Forward To: Peter Lovesey, Cara Black, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Eliot Pattison ... and Jan Merete Weiss!

Thanks to the process of advance review copies, I've been "reading ahead" by several months. Great news: There are some really, really good mysteries and thrillers coming out this spring.

First on the list -- because it's being released next week -- is MURDER IN PASSY by Cara Black. This is book 11 in Black's series set in the various quarters of Paris, and it's packed with action and exotic moments to savor. Aimée Leduc's godfather, Morbier, pleads with her to intercede in his personal life. But that turns political almost immediately, and between murder, police corruption, and Basque terrorists, the intrepid investigator in black coat, high-heeled boots, and wispy hair, with her Gallic shoulder shrug, is on the run once again. This will be a huge treat for Leduc fans; and if you haven't yet dug into the series, it's a good moment to start, as there's little that depends on the other volumes.

Black's tour to meet with readers and promote the book begins on Monday February 28 at M Is for Mystery, one of our favorite shops (San Mateo, CA); although a lot of her tour is on the West Coast, I'm excited to see she'll be in Boston on May 4.

Women writing mysteries are clearly influencing each other to dig deeper, write more powerfully, and tackle the toughest topics. Canadian author Louise Penny has blurbed the phenomenal new book from Julia Spencer-Fleming, ONE WAS A SOLDIER. Yes, it's Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne -- but it's also major issues on PTSD and how we all handle (or don't handle) it. I'll give a full-length review in a few weeks, when we're closer to the April release. (Meanwhile, I keep humming the song each time I type or say the name of the book -- anyone else having that experience??)

Also coming in April, a new series from Edgar Award-winning author Eliot Pattison, opening with ASHES OF THE EARTH. A provocative look at "post-apocalyptic" America through the eyes of a grieving and lonely middle-aged man, it's a classic Pattison work in seeking both spiritual centering and human friendships across generations, while solving an intense sequence of brutal crimes. A must.

[I'm also eager for Clea Simon's DOGS DON'T LIE to his its April release; the author will be at Kingdom Books in June. And there's a new Michael Connelly in early April, THE FIFTH WITNESS, but even before that, Connelly's Lincoln Lawyer comes to the screen on March 18 -- good discussions with Connelly on the film here, and see the movie trailer here.]

I'm elated that Soho Crime is bringing another debut author to print whose work is fresh, edgy, and irresistible -- that's Jan Merete Weiss, who grew up in Puerto Rico and brings the (literal) underworld of Naples, Italy, to the pages of THESE DARK THINGS. Pub date is May; you'll hear more from me before then. Fingers crossed, we'd love to have this author come to Vermont to talk about her work.

And Peter Lovesey's STAGESTRUCK won't be available until June, but for this highly satisfying classic mystery -- British, and rich with stagecraft -- it's worth the wait.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mystery Authors on the Blogs: Two Intriguing Entries

There's a thought-provoking piece by Eric Stone on Murder by 4 this week:

And this interview with the son-and-mother team "Charles Todd" caught my eye: 

Great images in this interview with Anne Hillerman, daughter of the great Tony Hillerman, interviewed by Jean Henry Mead on "Writers of the West"

Agatha Award ("Traditional Mysteries") Nominees, "2010"

Here's the full list chosen from books published in 2010; voting happens at the Malice Domestic convention, and winners will be announced at the conference, on April 30, 2011:

Best Novel:
Stork Raving Mad by Donna Andrews (Minotaur)
Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard (Ballantine)
Drive Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Mira)
Truly, Madly by Heather Webber (St. Martin's Paperbacks)

Best First Novel:
The Long Quiche Goodbye by Avery Aames (Berkley)
Murder at the PTA by Laura Alden (Signet)
Maid of Murder by Amanda Flower (Five Star/Gale)
Full Mortality by Sasscer Hill (Wildside Press)
Diamonds for the Dead by Alan Orloff (Midnight Ink)

Best Non-fiction:
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (Penguin)
Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks: 50 Years of Mysteries in the Making by John Curran (Harper)
Sherlock Holmes for Dummies by Stephen Doyle & David A. Crowder (For Dummies)
Have Faith in Your Kitchen by Katherine Hall Page (Orchises Press)
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Best Short Story:
"Swing Shift" by Dana Cameron, Crimes by Moonlight (Berkley)
"Size Matters" by Sheila Connolly, Thin Ice (Level Best Books)
"Volunteer of the Year" by Barb Goffman, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had it Comin' (Wildside Press)
"So Much in Common" by Mary Jane Maffini, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine - Sept./Oct. 2010
"The Green Cross" by Liz Zelvin, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine - August 2010

Best Children's/Young Adult:
Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer by John Grisham (Dutton Children's)
Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus by R. L. LaFevers (Houghton Mifflin)
The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee (Candlewick)
Virals by Kathy Reichs (Razorbill)
The Other Side of Dark by Sarah Smith (Atheneum)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark, 1933-2008

News from Dave:

At Kingdom Books we fondly remember the visit a few years ago by the Grand Master of mystery Donald E. Westlake and his wife Abby.  The Westlakes spent the evening with our customers at a dinner that was hosted by Beth in our dining room. Then the Westlakes and our customers attended a book signing and question-and-answer session in our shop. Westlake answered every question with grace and precision and signed many books for the Kingdom Books shop that we had gathered over a period of months. Abby was a delight and was also the co-author with Donald of two books that we had available to customers, and the author, under the name of Abby Adams, of one of her own.

I have read many of Donald E. Westlake's books over the years and I am an enthusiastic reader and collector of his Richard Stark novels.  I especially enjoy his earliest works because they were more hard-boiled and "noir." Both Beth and I are huge fans of Westlake’s Tucker Coe series of five books written in the 1970s about a disgraced former New York City police officer. We devoured the five Tucker Coe novels in about five days and were longing for more titles in that series.

At the end of the evening Donald E. Westlake kindly signed all the books in my collection of his works, and at that time I believe I had over 100 titles. The only books in the collection that he wouldn’t sign were three “sleazy” novels that Westlake had written in the early years of his career in order to provide funds for his growing family. The “sleazy” novels were written under several pseudonyms, and that brings up another interesting facet of Donald E. Westlake’s career. Because he loved writing, he often produced several stories or books within a very short time, and the pen names allowed him to get most of them readily into print.

Some of the pseudonyms he used were the following:
Richard Stark
Tucker Coe
Alan Marshall
Alan Marsh
James Blue      
Ben Christopher
John Dexter     
Andrew Shaw
Edwin West     
John B. Allan   
Don Holliday   
Curt Clark
P. N. Castor
Timothy Culver
J. Morgan Cunningham
Samuel Holt
Judson Jack Carmichael
Over the years at Kingdom Books we have had the good fortune of providing our customers with many Richard Stark titles.  On one of our visits to the Bay Area a few years ago we purchased about 20 Stark titles for a collector in Vermont.

Just last week we purchased a large collection of Richard Stark paperbacks of 12 of the first titles in the series, and we will soon have them listed on ABE Books or for purchase directly from Kingdom Books. Many of these copies are not creased and are unread, which is very unusual for these titles.  (This is the Avon series.)
The Hunter
The Mourner
The Outfit
The Man With the Getaway Face
The Score       
The Jugger
The Handle
The Seventh
The Green Eagle Score
Plunder Squad (scarce title)
Butcher’s Moon (scarce title)
The Sour Lemon Score & Deadly Edge (omnibus) (uncommon title)
As a bookseller, we are proud to have these Richard Stark titles available for purchase.

Friday, February 18, 2011

William G. Tapply: The Brady Coyne Series

In November 2010, the 25th -- and final -- Brady Coyne novel from William G. Tapply was published, a little more than a year after the author's unexpected death. Sixty-nine is too young to go, when you're on a roll like this one. And what a roll it was: From the first Brady Coyne mystery in 1984. DEATH AT CHARITY'S POINT, to the polished gem of OUTWITTING TROLLS (at a guess, a working title, one that gives the spice of a very different point of view to the arc of the tale).

I haven't been a Tapply reader until recently. OUTWITTING TROLLS is a smooth, irresistible work of detective fiction, not quite dark enough to be noir, not quite sweet enough for cozy, but neatly plotted and full of heart. I can see why Kate Mattes, the noted bookseller of Kate's Mystery Books, compared Tapply and Robert Parker in Tapply's obituary; that sense of heart, of being willing to be fully human and determined and risk-taking but also honestly apologetic and willing to start over -- that's what Parker's protagonists and Boston-based lawyer Brady Coyne share, and I suspect the authors shared something similar.

As OUTWITTING TROLLS opens, Coyne is enjoying reconnecting with an old friend, from the days when he and his veterinarian neighbor Ken Nichols were both still married, with children around the same ages, and able to assist each other: Nichols for the Coyne pets, Coyne for the Nichols business legalities. And although their divorces shattered the pretty images, the two men still converse as the old, good friends they were -- and may be again.

When Nichols's ex-wife finds him murdered the next day, though, it's Brady Coyne she calls for help.

I didn't expect to be so caught up in the gentle pursuit that Coyne begins, but ... I was, and I didn't put the book down until it was done. It's a satisfying ending, with just the right number of clues to feel fair, and enough work to feel that Coyne earned the finale.

Then I pulled out Dave's copy of the first of Tapply's novels, also a Brady Coyne one: DEATH AT CHARITY'S POINT. You can feel the edginess in this one, the choppy sentences, the phrasings that derive from the pulps, the classic noir, the old-time detective stories. And it's good to see what a quarter century of attentive writing and joyful living did for the author, enriching his storytelling and making him able to say nice things without sounding saccharine. I like the online page where Tapply describes the choices he made for that first book, and for the series.

I'll be reading more of these. There's a good list of them on Tapply's website, of course, along with the handful of other detective novels and nonfiction books that he crafted. It's a good heritage; I have to guess, it's the work of a good person, working hard, long, and with hope.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Noir or Post-Modern? More on THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X

From the film "Suspect X"
Translator Alexander O. Smith and adaptation pro Elye J. Alexander visited Kingdom Books today, as part of the long follow-up conversation on the review we shared for the book they brought into English together, THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X by award-winning Japanese novelist Keigo Higashino. Process for this pair of seasoned collaborators involves multiple transitions among languages and "language." Smith, who is fluent in Japanese (lived in Japan, studied there, married there), does a rough translation with plenty of side notes adding dimension; then Elye Alexander, whose background is in English and American literature (as well as custom house building), transforms the material into a more finished text. Obviously there's a lot of back-and-forth, sometimes including a Japanese author's input, in this process -- the team, with more members (, has a number of novels, video games, and card-based role-playing games to its credit in transferring meaning from one culture and tongue to another.

Although I felt frustrated with Higashino's book, I'm seeing it from new angles as I learn more about this author's track record as well as the translation process. There's no question that THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X belongs in the "noir" category of crime fiction -- gritty, blunt, at times grim, suspenseful. But it's also probably best seen as part of the post-modern movement in fiction. Moreover, Smith pointed out that he retained many of the Japanese habits of exposition in this translation, habits that reaffirm the "we" aspect of being Japanese: confirming that people understand each other and are on the same page, so to speak.

Here's a Boston Globe review of the book that tackles it from yet another direction:

If you're in or near Vermont, you can meet Alex Smith and Elye Alexander on March 24 in St. Johnsbury, at what promises to be an exciting presentation -- here's the press release:
Secrets of translation and adaptation for a murder thriller, fantasy fiction, video games, and fantasy-based card-playing games come to St. Johnsbury Academy on Thursday March 24 at 3:30 p.m., as Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander present their work for students and the public, in the Grace Stuart Orcutt Library.

Often translation is a hidden art, but Smith and Alexander, both Vermont residents, found their work getting international attention this year as Macmillan/St. Martin's Press published their version of Keigo Higashino's award-winning detective mystery "The Devotion of Suspect X." How do they transform Japanese literature into "good reading" for English-speaking readers? What choices do they make around the author's original phrasing and pacing?

Through Kajiya Productions, Smith and Alexander also translate video and online games, as well as speculative fiction, poems, and even songs. Smith is an alum of Dartmouth with graduate work at Harvard, and Alexander is a Harvard alum, but the two men first met in grade school in Craftsbury, Vermont.

This event is co-sponsored by St. Johnsbury Academy faculty members in Creative Writing, English, Japanese, and Visual Arts, and hosted by the school's library, with support from Kingdom Books, who will make books available after the event.

The Grace Stuart Orcutt Library is handicap accessible. For more information, contact librarian Linda Wooster at 802-751-2100.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Stop Shoveling Snow, Take Time to Chuckle: Barbara Allan, ANTIQUES KNOCK-OFF

Dave and I were in New York City about ten days ago and marveled at how tough it's been for city dwellers to deal with snow. The main problem is, there's no place to push it there ... and who keeps snow shovels in their high-rise condo apartments, anyway? We saw heaps of bagged trash lingering on mounds of soiled snow, too. And it was more than a little shivery to read an AP news story yesterday about what's showing up now that the snow is melting: yes, at least three bodies were under it.

With that in mind, the new mystery from "Barbara Allan" -- the husband-and-wife team of Max Allan Collins and Barbara Collins -- is a fitting antidote to any seasonal blues, putting life into perspective as more than a little crazy, and worth laughing about. ANTIQUES KNOCK-OFF, the fifth in the madcap series featuring Brandy Borne, self-described as "thirty-one, bottle blonde, divorced, who came running home last year to live with her bipolar mother," poses one quandary after another. Brandy reveals all, with layers of parenthetical remarks (should we call this meta-fiction?), and plenty of understandable resentments of her unexpected family situation. Not only is she carrying a baby for a friend (yep, surrogate mom), but she has a newly discovered "birth mother" of her own, swimming in money and uninterested in having Brandy damage her social standing.

Add an antiques business to the mother-daughter antics, a bit of hanky-panky over some clocks, and reputations on the line, and the Barbara Allan team has a bubbling stew of mishaps, murders, and motherhood. Plan to shelve this one next to your string of Donald Westlake caper novels or just before Lawrence Block. Here's a short sample:
Mother and I exchanged sickened looks. This type of scam was one of the vilest, preying upon the sentiments of the bereaved at a vulnerable time. Usually, however, the merchandise -- often diamonds or other valuable jewelry -- was authentic, to keep the seller out of trouble. But the scam perpetrated on Mrs. Vancamp had taken another, nasty twist: the merchandise was fake. ...

Mother's manner softened. ... "Luckily, since her eyesight is so bad, I doubt she'll ever be the wiser."

"Unless she tries to sell it," I pointed out.

By the way, the book was scheduled for March release, but the big online retailer has it due out on February 22, and the authors say it's already available somehow. Visiting their website/blog is also a good way to lighten up in midwinter, whether you're watching the city snow melt, preparing to shovel more white wonder in the snowbelts, or thanking your lucky stars you only have a few weeks until it's time to plant your peas (that one's for you, Marsha). And what's the point of life without a generous splash of fun?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Get Thee to a Library: Catching up with Suzanne Arruda and Kerry Greenwood

Thank goodness, winter slows things down enough so I can duck into the library and survey the shelves. And here in northeastern Vermont, the library has a good assortment of mysteries. It's one of the great ways to check out an author's work when you don't yet know it -- and that's how I finally burrowed into books by Suzanne Arruda and Kerry Greenwood during the recent snowstorms.

Suzanne Arruda's series is in its sixth volume, THE CROCODILE'S LAST EMBRACE (2010). Set in 1920s Africa, it features adventurous Jade Del Cameron, whose family and close friends -- among them a cheeetah -- can't keep her out of trouble. After all, she's had nose for crime, and that, in turn, means she's on the revenge list for criminals from her past. In this smoothly written "good read," Jade worries she's going mad, literally: Apparitions, dreams, visions even when awake, haunt her and proclaim she'll never escape the claims of a dead lover. From basic aviation to the nasty habits of crocodiles, Jade has a lot to learn before she'll be able to turn her hunter into the hunted.

I picked up the 2010 Kerry Greenwood, DEAD MAN'S CHEST, when I noticed the cover blurb calling is "the best Australian import since Nicole Kidman." I've had so much pleasure in Australian mysteries by Garry Disher and the classics by Arthur Upfield that I couldn't resist trying another. Greenwood's "Phryne Fisher Mystery" series is in volume 16, polished, funny, poignant, and immaculately plotted. Although it's not especially scary, it gives another delicious take on the Roaring Twenties, with intriguing insight into class and social standing as well. Call it a sunnier version of the Dorothy Sayers series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane -- Phryne (pronounced to rhyme with "briny") has insight, tolerance, and an urge to see the silly side of neighbors, as well as their prejudices. I enjoyed it all, and will look for earlier volumes; the author's character website is also good fun.

Now, get thee to a library or bookshop. Why not?

Coming tomorrow: A look at the latest partner effort of Max Allan Collins and Barbara Collins under their joint writing name Barbara Collins: Antiques Knock-Off, a Trash 'n' Treasures mystery.
Yes, book lovers really do visit Kingdom Books in this season ... that's why we treasure the work of our "plow jockey" on that long driveway!