Category Archives: Books

Don’t Wait ‘Til It’s Too Late!

The last month or so has seen the passing of a couple of celebrity authors. Sue Grafton, writer of the “alphabet” mystery series, passed away on December 28, 2017. And then popular and influential sci-fi/fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin died January 22, 2018. Both had a long and strong body of work, and were in their senior years when they died. However, they were mourned by many, and their loss will be felt by fans for a long time.

As I watched people on Twitter share their appreciation and love for these authors and the books they had written, telling how much they had been impacted by their work, a thought crossed my mind:

Did they ever say these things to these authors when they were alive?

I’m not judging. It’s possible many did. Besides, I share the guilt of leaving it too late to tell an author or musician how much their work has inspired me. So I say this to myself as much as to anyone else: don’t wait. Especially today, when many authors have made themselves available on social media, even if they are mega-famous, and you’ll probably never get a reply, drop them an email or a Tweet. Leave a comment on their blog. In some way, communicate to them the things you would say at their passing, only do it while they can still read and be blessed by your words.

No writer is too famous or too popular for recognition. Indeed, for a writer, to know that their work is read and has made an impact on people’s lives, is better than the royalty checks. Whether it’s a celebrity author, or a first-time novelist, or perhaps even a short story writer, if you love their work, let them know!

Vinyl Audiobooks Making a Comeback?

Last week, Publisher’s Weekly posted an article announcing HarperAudio’s intention to release audiobooks on vinyl. Their vinyl series kicks off in April with the release of Joe Hill’s short story, “Wild Horses.” This will be followed by the first of Lemony Snicket’s A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS books, and Nikki Giovanni’s LOVE POEMS.

Given the recent resurgence of interest in vinyl, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised someone’s doing vinyl books. But it struck me as a strange marketing decision for a couple of reasons. First, it seems most people get into audiobooks because of their portability. In digital format, they can be played on your phone, or on CD in your car (if you have one of those old cars, like, ten years old or more, that has a CD player instead of an input for your digital device). If you’re really old school, you might have books on tape, and play them on your car’s cassette player, or on your Walkman. However you play them, the selling point is you can listen to books while driving to work, or taking the kids to ballet, or doing your taxes. Vinyl isn’t quite so portable. The discs are large, and you have to use a turntable with a stylus to play them. They did attempt to make in-car turntables in the 1950s and 1960s, but they played only 45s, and weren’t very successful.

Another reason I thought this odd has to do with the length of the books. Most novels run somewhere around 100,000 words, give or take 20-30,000, sometimes more. Gary Corby’s excellent book SACRED GAMES, a mystery set in ancient Athens, is about 350 pages long. The unabridged CD audiobook covers 10 discs, for a total running time of 12 hours and 30 minutes.

Each CD can hold around 78-80 mins of audio. As mp3s, you could put all ten discs on your phone and listen to them without having to change discs. You could even make one huge twelve-and-a-half hour mp3 out of them!

Vinyl’s a bit different. The physical limitations of vinyl are much more significant. If you know how vinyl works, you know that each side of a record has a continuous groove that spirals from the outside in. The stylus (or “needle”) travels down the groove, picking up sounds from indentations in that groove which represent the recorded music. Here’s a video explaining the process in more technical detail:

The spacing of the grooves makes a big difference to audio quality. The wider the grooves, the better the sound quality; the more tightly packed, the sound becomes quieter and noticeably degraded. With optimum groove spacing, you can get about 18-20 minutes of recording time on one side of a 12″ record. Packed as tightly as possible, the limit is about 30 mins of recording time on one side, though, as I said, the quality won’t be as good.

I dug this gem out of my wife’s record collection. It’s an abridged audiobook of THE HOBBIT from 1974:

As you can see, it comes in a box-set. There are four LPs, each an hour long (30 minutes per side). According to the accompanying booklet, the uncut version would have spanned 18 LPs, which was not an economically viable option. So they edited it down to six LPs, and then to four. I have yet to listen to it to find out how much of the story is left. Not a great deal, I imagine, though apparently Tolkien himself gave his consent to the edits.

This is why, I think, HarperAudio’s initial offerings are short stories and poems. It’ll be interesting to see if it catches on, or if it’s just a gimmick.

Your thoughts?

How NOT to Get a Literary Agent, by Stephen King

I’m coming to the end of my sixth annual read-through of King’s classic work ON WRITING. For any aspiring writer, I consider this book to be must-read material. There is much in this book I could quote, discuss, and speak about in glowing terms. But instead, I’m going to pick on its weakest point. In fact, worse than a weak point–it’s flat-out wrong, misleading, and will give today’s querying writer no end of trouble if he or she actually follows King’s advice.

To be fair to the maestro, ON WRITING was written in a different age. By that, I mean it is 18 years old, and 18 years ago, publishing was still very much a paper-and-ink affair. Most agents accepted queries by snail mail, and few accommodated email submissions. These days the reverse is true, and, the rules of the road have changed. Also, bear in mind that Stephen King hasn’t had to write a query letter in over 45 years.

The section in question, near the end of the book, asks how one goes about getting a literary agent. On more than one occasion, King states that one really ought to get an agent if one desires to be published. That advice is generally true today, though we would now make the distinction between traditional publishing and independent, or self-publishing. Self-publishing was a much shadier and riskier business back in 2000. These days, done properly (i.e., with a good editor and quality cover design), it’s a perfectly respectable approach to getting your work in print (paper or digital–an option that wouldn’t have crossed King’s mind back then).

Assuming, therefore, you want to be traditionally published, which means you want to have an agent represent your novel to publishers big and small, and for your publisher to handle seeing your work in print and in stores, here’s King’s advice, and why you shouldn’t follow it.

1, His fictional author, Frank, submits short stories to magazines so he can build a resume that would be attractive to an agent. This is not necessary. You don’t need a prior publishing history to get an agent. Of course, if you have a good publishing history, you will pique an agent’s interest. Three or four published short story credits will probably persuade an agent on the fence to take a look at your work. However, the agent’s ultimate concern is whether or not the novel you’re querying is any good. If the agent doesn’t like what you’re offering, or doesn’t think she can sell it, no amount of previous work will help you.

2. Frank’s short story submissions are made on a “good grade of white bond paper” with a cover letter on top. Again, most magazines take electronic submissions these days (though there are a few old-school hold outs that only want mail-in submissions).

3. Frank sends queries for his novel to agents before the novel is complete. This is a major no-no. When you query an agent, your novel had better be ready to go. And by “ready to go,” I mean complete, beta read, revised, revised again, and revised even more. If an agent asks to see your work, she will either ask for a partial (maybe the first fifty pages), or a full (the whole thing). You need to be ready to send the whole thing.

4. Frank’s query letter is a disaster. Let’s see if I can QueryShark it (apologies to Janet Reid):

Dear _____________ :

I am a young writer, twenty-eight years old, in search of an agent.

The agent doesn’t give a flying fig whether you’re eight, twenty-eight, or eighty-eight. Don’t even mention your age. This is only relevant when it comes to signing the contract. And she already knows you’re searching for an agent–that’s the point of the query letter. This is a waste of words.

I got your name in a Writer’s Digest article titled “Agents of the New Wave,” and thought we might fit each other.

This is actually good. Many agents like to know why you’re querying them. It elevates your query from a form letter to something more personal.

I have published six stories since getting serious about my craft. They are:….

As I mentioned, this is not necessary, but if you do have publishing credit, it’s good to provide it. Make sure you’re listing work that has been published by reputable magazines. They don’t have to be widely-known (e.g., The Atlantic, or The New Yorker), but she should be able to track them down and find your stories without too much difficulty. The line about “getting serious about my craft” is unnecessary and should be cut. And you don’t need to list how much the stories sold for. The agent doesn’t care. The value of the story is in the fact it was published, not how much you got paid.

I would be happy to send any of these stories (or any of the half dozen or so I’m currently flogging around) for you to look at, if you’d like. I’m particularly proud of “A Long Walk in These ‘Yere Woods,” which won the Minnesota Young Writers’ Award. The plaque looks good on our living room wall, and the prize money–$500–looked excellent for the week or so it was actually in our bank account (I have been married for four years; my wife, Marjorie, and I teach school).

King has now left query mode and is in story-telling mode, which is to say, most of this is a waste of space. The only useful piece of information is the fact that one of the stories won an award. That could be included with your listing of the story above. By now, if the agent is still reading the query and hasn’t hit “form reject,” she is yawning and wondering when we’re going to get to the story. You know, the novel. The whole point of the query letter.

The reason I’m seeking representation now is that I’m at work on a novel. It’s a suspense story about a man who gets arrested for a series of murders which occurred in his little town twenty years before.

At last! And… that’s it? The first sentence can be cut since, again, it states the obvious. Also, “I’m at work on a novel” means the novel is not finished. Automatic form rejection. If the novel is not finished, you are not ready to query. And how many suspense stories are there about a man arrested for past murders committed in his small town? Answer: lots. Where’s the conflict? Is the man innocent and needs to prove his innocence? What’s at stake? What entices the agent to read this novel over and above all the other murder-suspense stories in her slush pile?

The first eighty pages or so are in pretty good shape, and I’d also be delighted to show you these.

Again, don’t bother. No agent wants to consider an unfinished manuscript. Finish the novel and try again.

Please be in touch and tell me if you’d like to see some of my material. In the meantime, thank you for taking the time to read my letter.

I doubt any agent read this far. “Thank you for your time and consideration” is sufficient for those few who did.

If you’ve been following Stephen King’s querying advice, I hope I’ve persuaded you not to. I would like to think this portion of the book will receive a much-needed update sometime in the near future. But after 18 years, it’s unlikely.

My advice: if you want to query well, check out the websites/blogs of the people who read the queries–i.e., literary agents. They are your audience, and they know better than anyone what they’re looking for. I recommend, for starters, Janet Reid and BookEnds. A quick Google search will pull up many more.

Questions? Thoughts? Comments? Objections?

Book Review: FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS by Julie C. Dao

Xifeng lives the life of a peasant with her seamstress aunt, practicing the family trade. Though poor, she has her natural beauty, a place in her world, and the love of Wei, one of the local craftsmen. But the marks on her back betray the cruel beatings Xifeng receives at the hands of her aunt. And yet both she and her overbearing guardian sense Xifeng is destined for greater things. Indeed, her destiny, if she chooses to pursue it, will take her to the royal court, and even a position of power in the continent of Feng Lu. So says the darkness that writhes within her. A darkness born of magic. But to gain the world, Xifeng will have to give her soul to that darkness. She must choose between poverty and power, love and selfish ambition. A home with Wei, or a throne beside the Emperor. And the darkness within will not make the choice easy.

Julie and I used to frequent the same YA blogs, so we’ve been writing acquaintances for some years. I remember a thousand-word flash fiction contest we both entered, where we had to write stories based on a picture prompt. As I recall, Julie’s story was a re-telling of Rumpelstiltskin, and it involved a walking tree operated by levers. It was so creative, and so well-told, I knew when I read it Julie was destined to be published. And here we are! Her debut novel. And it’s wonderful to be able to say, “Told you so!” 🙂

Naturally, my expectations for FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS were high, and Julie doesn’t disappoint. She has created a rich fantasy, almost fairy-tale, world based in East Asian culture, with characters that pop out of the pages. Xifeng is an interesting protagonist, because, without giving too much away, she’s not your average heroine. Indeed, throughout the whole book, her motives are torn between self-interest and doing what’s right. As the story goes on, one side gradually dominates the other. But needless to say, she’s not always very likable, and it’s to Julie’s credit that you feel any sympathy for her, or root for her in any way.

There are twists to the story, and characters you need to keep an eye on. Things are not always as they seem. This is the first of a multi-novel series, so the book ends on a cliff-hanger, with loose ends that need to be resolved. And that’s probably as much as I can say without spoiling it for you!

I don’t usually read YA Fantasy [Side bar: Xifeng is 18 at the start of the novel, which is a little old for a YA protagonist. Yet the voice and style of the novel is definitely YA, which goes to show, age isn’t everything for YA.], but I looked forward to this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. There are a couple of s-words, and some gruesome images, so on the whole, I’d rate it a PG-15. But it’s elegantly written, and well deserving of your attention. I could see this being picked up by Studio Ghibli, so if you like their movies (think “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”), you’ll particularly enjoy this book. An easy 5 Goodreads stars.

Book Review: THE LAKE by Lotte and Søren Hammer

The skeleton of a young woman is discovered, tied to a stone, in a lake deep in the Danish countryside. The woman’s identity is a mystery; no one matching her description has been reported missing. After months of fruitless investigation by the local police force, a media scandal brings the case to nationwide attention and is quickly handed over to Konrad Simonsen and his team from the Copenhagen police force. It soon becomes clear that this unknown woman is the key to a sinister world of human trafficking, prostitution, and violence. A world where everything comes with a price and no mistake goes unpunished.

I was sent a copy of THE LAKE by a nice publicity person at Bloomsbury with the thought that I might review it. I don’t consider myself a book reviewer, though I review books… which I suppose makes me a book reviewer of sorts. But I certainly don’t review books simply because someone sent me the book asking me to review it. When people do that, there’s the assumption you’re going to love the book and write a glowing review, and if you don’t write a glowing review, feelings get hurt, you get nasty mail and defamatory Tweets and all that nonsense–I’d rather not go there. But if someone sends me a book, and I deem it worthy of a review, I’ll be glad to oblige.

In the case of THE LAKE, I have to say I didn’t fall in love with the book, but it was good, and had some features that made it worth reading, and of interest for a review. Let me start by saying that it is a translation from the original Danish. I have conflicting thoughts when it comes to books in translation. First, I know that when you translate, you never fully get across the author’s voice. It’s impossible, because you have to take their words and convey them in a language that doesn’t share the same idioms, cadence, grammatical structure, and so on, so aspects of the author’s style are bound to get lost. On the other hand, you don’t want the translator to simply render the whole novel as if it’s set in your culture, because then it becomes a different story “based on a novel by…” THE LAKE is translated by Charlotte Barslund, who is Danish by birth, but has lived in the UK for the past 33 years, so she is fluent in English. Her translation is a little stilted at times, but that was actually a good thing. The book is set in Denmark, and the characters are Danish, so it works that the English feels a bit ESL.

But there’s a twist! The English is actually British English, and the translator uses British idioms, even though this is the American edition of the book (published by Bloomsbury USA). “Of course!” you say. “Ms. Barslund has been living in the UK for the last 33 years.” But I find it interesting that Bloomsbury didn’t try to Americanize her work. Mathematics is “maths,” cell phones are “mobile phones,” colors are “colours,” and there are hundreds more little turns of phrase that reminded me of my homeland and made me smile. This is by no means a negative, but something for US readers to bear in mind.

But what about the story itself? This is the fourth novel to feature Konrad Simonsen, Detective Superintendent of the Copenhagen police. There are, in fact, seven novels in the series so far, but I think they’ve only got as far as translating the fourth, so this one is new to the English-speaking world (the original Danish title is PIGEN I SATANS MOSE, “The Girl in Satan’s Mose”–intriguing, huh?). I have not read any of the previous stories, so I came to this one not knowing any of the recurring characters–I presume the Countess, Arne Pederson, Pauline Berg, and Klavs Arnold have been in previous stories..? In any case, my lack of history with the series didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book. The Hammers (a brother and sister writing team) gave as much background as necessary without long “catch-up” passages for those, like me, late to the party. Though I have to say, it didn’t feel as if Det. Simonsen was really the star of the show here. He is the lead investigator, but I didn’t find him and his Copenhagen police team nearly as interesting as the bad guys.

The book starts like an episode of “Columbo,” showing us the crime, and identifying the perpetrators, so we know up-front who did it and how. But there’s more to these criminals than this one horrible act. There’s a whole family business lurking in the background, and all kinds of intrigues and deviousness going on there. The daughter of the family, Benedikte Lerche-Larson, is perhaps the most fascinating character of the whole story. She is both the dutiful daughter, and also the head-strong independent woman, pursuing her education, and making herself integral to the business. She appears cold and amoral, doing whatever it takes to keep things going. And yet she risks it all getting emotionally invested in someone.

All the acts of violence in the story have connections to the main puzzle: the murder of the woman in the lake. And as Simonsen and his team gradually put the pieces together, they uncover something much larger, much more horrific, and more far-reaching than they could have imagined possible. We, the reader, are always ahead of the police, since we are given front-row seats to each criminal act–at least for the most part. The Hammers plotted the story well so all the pieces fit at the end. However, I didn’t find it at all predictable; while the ending is satisfying, it didn’t tie together as neatly as I expected. There’s one major loose end the police weren’t able to knot… and I daresay that will come back to haunt them in future stories.

To sum up, this is a well-plotted detective thriller (though I use “thriller” very lightly–there aren’t any car chases, shoot-outs, or moments of life-or-death tension for the good guys one might normally associate with the genre). There are some sexual situations, but given that human trafficking and prostitution are part of the story, that’s only to be expected. There aren’t any graphic sex scenes. The acts of violence are a bit brutal. With few exceptions, the language is fairly PG-13. Overall, I’d rate the book an R, because of the subject matter and the violence. It’s a borderline 4-Goodreads-stars novel, but I would have liked to have had more sympathy and connection with the lead character, so to be fair I’ll have to give it 3 stars. Nevertheless, a good read, and one I’d recommend to fans of detective fiction.

THE LAKE will be released in the US on July 3, 2017. You can pre-order it now.

UPDATE: Here’s an interesting article on The Invisibility of the Translator by Stefan Kielbasiewicz from Asymptotejournal.com.

Book Review: THE LAST LETTER by Susan Pogorzelski

Fifteen-year-old Amelia (“Lia”) Lenelli writes letters that she keeps in a time capsule which resembles a My Little Pony lunchbox, buried two feet under the soil in her father’s flower garden, in a place marked by a turtle statue. The letters are addressed to “Whoever…” Whoever might one day read them. Some day far in the future, perhaps. Someone Lia will never know. So she pours out her heart, talking about the sessions with her doctor, trying to find out why she’s having trouble sleeping. Why she is suddenly doing badly in school. The fatigue, and other symptoms that seem to be robbing her of her life, her friends, and everything that she knew to be normal. They test for every kind of disease and disorder, but the results come back negative. Maybe she’s just making it up, trying to get out of school. But why would she want to feel this way? Perhaps if she can give it a name, she’ll have hope for a cure. Because right now, she’s just surviving. And as hope runs thin, even survival gets hard. If she can just write one last letter, one last way to make her life real, when it seems to be hanging by a thread…

Susan Pogorzelski’s first full-length novel is a semi-autobiographical account of her struggle with Lyme Disease, an affliction that is much more widespread that most people realize, and hard to diagnose since it often mimics the symptoms of other diseases. Part of Susan’s reason for writing is to raise awareness of Lyme Disease, but it’s also to help the rest of us understand what it’s like to live with it.

Amelia’s story unfolds in the form of the letters she writes to her unknown reader who, presumably, will one day unearth the time capsule. This letter format gives her the freedom to talk about her life, her hopes, her fears, and her feeling of helplessness as her world crumbles around her. Susan’s prose does an excellent job of conveying the emotional struggle of a high school girl who is forced to watch life from the sidelines, and whose closest relationships are shaken, all because of something outside her control, and seemingly beyond medical treatment.

I found it both sad and fascinating, as I was invited into this young girl’s life, to see through her eyes, and to experience something I hope I never have to go through. Perhaps the fact many of Lia’s experiences reflect Susan’s own is what gives her prose a resonance with reality. It’s hard to read and not feel at least sympathy, if not be affected by this girl’s struggle, and the bravery she shows battling though days when she hasn’t the energy to leave the couch, or when her friends turn their backs on her.

I don’t know how this is “officially” classified, but I would call it literary YA. The focus of the novel is not so much on a plot, but on a person, Lia, and her life over the six years covered by her letters. It’s particularly poignant that this time period covers the events of 9-11. Lia’s reflections on that tragic day, especially in light of her own personal sufferings, make for thoughtful reading as we’re challenged to consider bravery and survival in two very different contexts.

I’d say this book is for an older YA reader (and above, of course), given the emotional depth of the narrative. Susan’s novel is an excellent example of the power of fiction to draw the reader into a reality unlike their own. What she does in this book is more challenging and affecting than any medical description, or textbook definition. By reading Lia’s story, you get to live the disease with her. And it’s a credit to Susan’s skill as a writer that it works to that end. May it have a wide readership, and achieve the purpose for which it was written.

Book Review: THE ENGLISH AGENT by Phillip DePoy

Playwright and secret agent to Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe is back for another adventure. This time, his commission is to travel to Holland and prevent an assassination attempt upon William the Silent, an important ally to England against Spain, and one with insider knowledge of the Spanish court. Having just witnessed the tragic demise of his latest play in a seedy Cambridge pub, Marlowe is up for the job. But there’s more to this assignment, as he will soon discover. William is not the main target of the conspirators. Indeed, the very throne of England is in danger, and Marlowe may be the only thing between Good Queen Bess and the business end of a blade. If only he can figure out who, when, and how in time.

Disclaimer: My review is based on an Advance Uncorrected Proof of the novel sent to me by Phillip’s agent. It was sent for my enjoyment, and I was not placed under any obligation to review the book in return.

This is the second installment of Phillip DePoy’s new series of novels featuring Christopher Marlowe. In real life, Marlowe was a playwright and later friend of William Shakespeare. In this series, Phillip imagines Marlowe in the role of a secret agent, working On Her Majesty’s Secret Service–“Her Majesty” here being the first Queen Elizabeth. He brings an interesting skill set to the job: master swordsman, a quick mind, and an eye for plot. These combine to help him navigate the various obstacles he meets both in England and Holland, and try to figure out the main players in the plot, and the best way to outsmart them.

In my review of the first novel, A PRISONER IN MALTA, I noted the ease at which Phillip immerses the reader in the historical context of the book without turning the novel into a textbook on life in Elizabethan times. The same holds true here, where we get a glimpse of what the first performance of a play would have been like back then (a far cry from The Old Vic), and the theater culture of the day. Phillip also introduces us to some of the delightful cuisine of the period, including goose blood pudding, for which he even provides the recipe: goose blood, oats, warm milk, pepper, nutmeg, sugar, salt, rosewater, and coriander seeds. This was supposed to be a breakfast meal! (Urggh!)

I was pleasantly surprised to see John Bull, then organist of Hereford Cathedral, make a cameo appearance. Hereford is my home town, and I am a former student of Hereford Cathedral School. Needless to say, I’m quite familiar with the Cathedral, and have heard some virtuoso performances on the organ in my time.

As with the first novel, Phillip’s story is well plotted, and he keeps you guessing right up to the end. Phillip surrounds Marlowe with a wonderful cast of characters, including Leonora Beak, whose friendship, strength, and thoughtfulness is a great asset to Marlowe, and Ned Blank, a boy actor whose skill at playing female roles is threatened by the onset of puberty.

If you enjoyed A PRISONER IN MALTA, you will like THE ENGLISH AGENT. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, and especially historical mysteries, you should definitely read this series. Also, anyone with an interest in Elizabethan England will get a lot of pleasure from the way Phillip brings it to life with these stories. I give it an easy five Goodreads stars.

Now that some experts are giving Marlowe co-author credits on three Shakespeare plays, how about indulging in some speculation on what he might have got up to in his spare time…? 🙂

THE ENGLISH AGENT comes out on February 21st. You can pre-order it HERE.

Book Review: THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE by Donna Everhart

Eleven-year-old Dixie is the youngest child of Evie and Charles Dupree, who live in Perry County, Alabama. She and her brother AJ like to climb trees and do the normal things kids in rural towns during the late 1960s would do. But home is not sweet for Dixie. Her mother, a transplant from New Hampshire by marriage, is discontented with Southern living. She pines for her New England roots, and is not afraid to let her husband know. Charles responds to his brash, no-nonsense wife with swigs of Sneaky Pete, never for one moment believing she would actually leave. From a young age, Dixie has learned to lie, mostly to cover for the bruises, evidence of Mama’s temper. And then a fight between Mama and Daddy gets out of control, leading to Daddy’s sudden departure, and the arrival of Uncle Ray, Mama’s brother-in-law. Uncle Ray saves the family from the inevitable financial ruin that would come without a bread-winner in the house. He gladly drives Mama to the store and helps her buy groceries. Mama’s temper softens, and all seems well for the family. But things start to unravel for Dixie when Uncle Ray’s intentions come to light, and her history of lying comes back to haunt her…

I have to say upfront that Donna is a friend of mine, which may incline me to review her debut novel favorably no matter what I really think about it. I’m happy to say there are no mixed motives in this review because a) the book has already received high praise, including an Amazon Pick of the Month for November nod, and making the USA Today Bestsellers list, and b) it really is an excellent novel (which is a relief!–though knowing the quality of Donna’s flash fiction, I was sure she had it in her).

Another caveat to my review is that I’m not particularly well-read in Southern Literature. In fact, I think the only other book I’ve read that would be considered in the same category is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which I consider to be the best novel ever written. But to pit DIXIE DUPREE against MOCKINGBIRD would be unfair. Aside from the 1960s Alabama settings, the two novels have little in common either in terms of theme or voice. So my thoughts are strictly concerning the book on its own merits, not compared to similar titles.

With all that said, DIXIE DUPREE is an incredible debut. The novel starts with Dixie handing over her diary as evidence against Uncle Ray, so at the outset we know her diary is important, and Uncle Ray is a character we need to keep an eye on. But that’s really all we know. In the following chapters, Dixie’s story unfolds. It’s the story of a child learning how to lie, covering up for the adults in her life because, regardless how wrong their actions are, she is convinced life would be worse if they weren’t there. Only her diary knows the truth.

Dixie’s education is not pleasant, and it makes for tough reading at times. The saving grace, however, is Donna’s voice. Choosing to tell the story from Dixie’s point of view enables her to convey some very dark and graphic scenes with youthful innocence. This doesn’t at all detract from the seriousness of what’s happening, but it does soften some of the harsh edges that a more adult sensibility would add. Nevertheless, this isn’t a book for the overly sensitive.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest strength of the book is Dixie’s voice. It’s clear, distinct, and has the ring of authenticity–exactly how you might imagine a well-read eleven-year-old from Alabama would sound. The other characters are well-defined, with their own quirks and flaws. Brother AJ takes to Uncle Ray in a way only a boy could, oblivious to the things going on with his younger sister. Uncle Ray is charming and helpful, hiding well the dark side that threatens to consume him. Evie, her mother, is a complex mix of anger and devotion. She wants the best for her children, but too easily vents her frustrations on them with devastating results. Charles, her father, is devoted to his family, and doesn’t understand why Evie can’t love his hometown like he does. This leads to much of the conflict between them, and his drinking.

I would recommend DIXIE DUPREE, but, as I said, it’s not for those of a sensitive disposition, though I maintain that Donna deals with the issues in about as sensitive a way as one can. The main character is eleven, but it’s not a book for middle graders. I would rate it R for profanity, and the adult nature of some of the scenes. An easy five Goodreads stars.

Links and Stuff

It’s official! We’ve closed on our house, so it’s now ours. At last I feel comfortable to share a couple of pictures. Here’s the front of the house:

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And here’s the side of the house, but you can just see the Spanish Inquisition around the corner… just kidding. This is the room that will be my study:

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See the square archway? That’s going to become solid wall, starting today. I’m not doing it, since my skill with a hammer is non-existent. You know those commercials that run around this time of year showing “The Perfect Gift for Dad”–and it’s a toolkit? Sorry, I’m not that Dad. So I’m getting help with the wall. (Not from Mexico.) And once the wall is up, I’m going to have big bookcases running almost the whole length of it. It’ll be wonderful. My desk will go against that wall you see on the left.  I’ll share “after” pictures when it’s all done. Of course, I’m going to paint the walls too. I got some color choices:

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I’ll probably go with the one that’s second from bottom on the left-hand strip. I forget the name of the color. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but the wall is currently a beige-y color.

We’re hoping to be moved in a week from tomorrow, so we’re going to be busy for the next few days. As exciting as it is, we’ll be glad when it’s all over.

I just have a couple of links to share with you this week. The first is last month’s announcement that Dan Brown will be releasing a new novel next year. According to the announcement, the book will be called ORIGIN, and it explores “the dangerous intersection of humankind’s two most enduring questions, and the earth-shaking discovery that will answer them.” Since Dan Brown seems to have made it his life’s goal to annoy historians and Christians, one can only surmise that he’s delving into the area of Creation vs. Evolution. And if Brown’s super-sleuth cryptologist and conspiraciologst Robert Langdon’s track record is anything to go by, he’ll either be proving that “the Church” made up the Creation story to stir up animosity against snakes, or he’ll be proving scientists made up Evolution to make a monkey’s uncle out of us all. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to avoid this one, just as I’ve managed to avoid all his other novels.

Finally, this article in the New York Times announced that the latest edition of the New Oxford Shakespeare will, for the first time, credit playwright Christopher Marlowe as co-author of three Shakespeare plays, namely Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3. Shakespearean scholars and enthusiasts have debated the attribution of Shakespeare’s plays for centuries. The majority opinion still seems to be that William Shakespeare wrote all the plays he is traditionally thought to have written. However, it seems the naysayers are making inroads, which is why this edition of Shakespeare’s work is significant. It represents the first time a scholarly edition of Shakespeare has acknowledged doubt over the authorship of any of his plays. Of course, this is just one edition of Shakespeare, and doesn’t represent the views of all scholars. But it is a feather in Marlowe’s cap, to say the least. (By the way, Christopher Marlowe is an Elizabethan private detective in Phillip DePoy’s novel, A PRISONER IN MALTA–check it out!)

Have you any exciting news to share this week?

Links and Stuff

RioOlympicsWeek Two of the Rio Olympics and, aside from Michael Phelps winning a boatload more medals, perhaps the most notable thing (at least for me) is how well the UK is doing. As of this writing, they are third in total medal count (behind China), and second in gold medal count (behind the US). Here’s the NBC Olympic Medal Race chart so you can keep track for yourself. As an ex-pat Brit, now a US citizen, I always have conflicting feelings whenever the US and UK compete against each other. I probably tilt a little to the UK, simply because it’s a British trait to root for the underdog, and they are definitely the underdogs against the US. Though I stand by what I said to the Immigration Officer at my citizenship interview: if the US and the UK were to go to war, I’d be on the US side. Sorry Mum. And yes–they asked.

House Hunting Update: We looked at some more houses this week, and I made a list of all the houses we still want to look at, so we can start narrowing down our options. We’ve already crossed off four or five houses, and we have a couple that are the current favorites. But we still have a lot to look at. One house we liked is out in the countryside, but not too far from town. Unfortunately, it’s a little on the expensive side, and it’s still liable for city taxes, so money is a hindrance, even though we all liked it. Wifey grudgingly thinks we should strike it from the list. Call me ever the optimist, but I’m keeping it on there for now. Then there was the house we wanted to see but we couldn’t get in. The realtor’s key turned the deadbolt, but the door wouldn’t budge. We considered breaking the door down, but decided we’re not that desperate. Our realtor is going to contact the selling agent to let them know, so hopefully we can make a return visit. Note to house sellers: if you want to sell your house, make sure potential buyers can actually get into it. 🙂

I recently read my first Lisa Gardner novel, FEAR NOTHING. Lisa was on the cover of Writer’s Digest not long ago, and I bought FEAR NOTHING on the basis of that interview. I wasn’t at all disappointed. The novel is well-written and well-plotted, using two different POVs for the two main characters. One of these (third person POV), is a police detective injured in the line of duty. The other is her pain therapist (first person POV), who has a genetic condition that makes her incapable of feeling pain. The twist? The therapist’s father was a notorious serial killer, and her sister is currently in prison for murder. What’s more, the case under investigation involves someone who is murdering people in exactly the same style as the therapist’s father…! There’s profanity and some moderately gruesome scenes (depending on your tolerance for such things), but otherwise I recommend it.

Finally, the British Library has digitized and put online a 1,000 year old manuscript of the poem “Beowulf.” As you probably know, “Beowulf” was written in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), and is the oldest surviving poem in the English language. So this is quite a big deal for students of ancient literature. Of course, to fully appreciate this manuscript you need to be able to read Old English. But even if your linguistic repertoire does not extend to Anglo-Saxon, you can still have fun getting an up-close look at 1,000-year-old writing.

That’s all from me. How’s your week been? Read anything good?