Friday, November 28, 2014
Friday, November 21, 2014
My review of The Happiest People in the World first appeared as a Maximum Shelf issue for Shelf Awareness. (Woo hoo, my very first ever Maximum Shelf Issue) So, this review is longer than my typical Shelf reviews. You can also read my interview with Brock Clarke that accompanied the issue. I am re-posting the review here with their permission. Hope you enjoy!
First line: "The moose head was fixed to the wall, the microphone in its mouth was broken, but the camera in its left eye was working just fine, and as far as the moose head could see, this was just another Friday night in the Lumber Lodge!"
In a madcap, international adventure, Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, asks what would happen if one of the happiest people in the world—a Dane—was forced to flee Denmark and reinvent himself in a small town in upstate New York. Clarke’s answer will make readers laugh, scratch their heads and maybe even investigate their high school guidance counselors a wee bit closer.
Following the 2005 strife involving political cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad printed in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, cartoonist Jens Baedrup receives a task from his editor at the Optimist—a small weekly paper in Skagen, Denmark. “Draw a cartoon depicting in some way or other the controversy.” A naturally positive man with no personally strong feelings about the controversy, Jens isn’t sure if drawing this cartoon is such a good idea. But ultimately he decides it is his job and everything will be just fine. He is mistaken.
Two Danish-Muslim teenagers happen upon Jens’ cartoon in a discarded copy of the newspaper. They are angry about the cartoon and feel insulted by Jens and the Optimist. Their answer is to burn the newspaper office and Jens’ home. “Though their anger hadn’t made it clear to them that when burning down occupied buildings, killing someone [is] always a possibility.”
The Danish Security and Intelligence Service decides to make that possibility a reality, and the man known as Jens Baedrup is declared dead in the house fire. He bounces around Europe for a few years and then the agent assigned to him decides—contrary to her superior’s orders—to send Jens to Broomeville, New York. He will become Henrik “Henry” Larsen, a high school guidance counselor. What the agent doesn’t tell Jens is that Broomeville is the city she fled when her lover left her for his wife. Her former lover is the town’s high school principal and the one she calls on to give Jens the job.
As Henry settles into his role of school guidance counselor, he learns the idiosyncratic characteristics of American life like “…that American sports talk radio announcers liked to say about something, ‘There’s no doubt about it,’ before then expressing their many doubts about it; that American political commentators liked to preface their comments by saying, ‘No offense,’ before then saying something offensive…that Americans were very impatient people with very short attention spans; that Americans believed as long as they were inside their trucks they were invisible…and that in general Americans thought their trucks were magic.”
The new guidance counselor’s arrival in Broomeville is the first in a series of events that shake up the sleepy little backwoods town. Soon after his arrival, Henry’s predecessor dies from what the coroner is calling a self-inflicted gunshot wound even though her brother denies she was suicidal. Henry falls in love with the principal’s wife. And finally, a mysterious Dane shows up looking for Jens Baedrup. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to most of the town, a CIA training school is recruiting the young outcasts of Broomeville, meeting regularly at the town diner.
In Skagen, teenagers drop a literal match on the gasoline that ignites Jens’ home and destroys his life. In Broomeville Clarke flicks a figurative match at these accelerants—a questionable suicide, a volatile marriage, a stranger and spooks—coating the town. Not only has Clarke relocated his happy Dane, he’s given him flames to juggle but no juggling lessons. The result can only be spectacular.
The Happiest People in the World is a wacky spy novel full of ingenious commentary devices. Pithy statements throughout--“You miss a lot when you spent so much time looking through binoculars”--offer up insightful advice as well as thematic acumen. Clarke isn’t wasteful in words, imagery or plot devices. Down to the smile on Jens face and the clocks on Doc’s diner wall, every detail plays a significant role.
Cultural differences come into play when the Danes can’t fathom committing a murder with a gun or the Americans can’t easily buy one in Denmark, when the Danes won’t rent a car over taking mass transit because of wastefulness, and most especially when there are communication barriers. But Clarke illustrates just as clearly that communication is a problem even between people sharing the same language and culture. It can destroy families, friendships, businesses. If communication doesn’t work, nothing works.
The espionage format is the vehicle that provides an element of suspense and a swift plot pace, but readers are more likely to anticipate the characters’ next debacle rather than their next crime. In other words, think Maxwell Smart as opposed to James Bond.
The Happiest People in the World isn’t a book that easily fits into a nice marketing category but it does offer plenty to appreciate for many different readers—a little happiness for all kinds of readers in the world.
The Happiest People in the World is available in hardcover from Algonquin Books (ISBN: 978-616201111) and as an unabridged audiobook (ISBN: 978-1622315123), narrated by Adam Black, from Recorded Books.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
My review of Behind the Gates of Gomorrah: a Year with the Criminally Insane first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers. While this isn't a fiction work, I'm certain that any crime fiction fan would find this book fascinating. . . and disturbing. So I hope you enjoy the review.
First line: "Raymond Boudreaux and I sat at opposite ends of a rickety wooden table--with him nearest to the door."
“Regardless of a person’s crimes…if you live with them long enough, a relationship forms.” This is the first lesson psychiatrist Stephen Seager learns when he starts working in Unit C of the Napa State Hospital. Nicknamed Gomorrah, the forensic mental institution houses the criminally psychotic, and Unit C has the worst of the worst.
Seager details his initial year learning the procedures for dealing with violent outbreaks, receiving ten stitches in his head, being threatened with a shank and hearing about the death of his predecessor due to injuries sustained from a patient. He says, “These guys are like human IEDs, and you don’t want to be around when they explode.”
Yet Seager is around when they explode, and despite the terrifying anxiety each day creates for both the doctor and his family, he continues working with a determined outlook. For many of the patients he believes something can be done, they just need to discover what that something is.
In this non-fiction work that reads like a suspense novel, audiences will experience the doctor’s anxiety vicariously, but they will experience a seemingly comedic side to Gomorrah as well, like a visit from Santa Claus, played by one of the patients.
Seager provides background to help readers accurately comprehend the various workings--and limitations--of Napa State. To truly fathom how the staff continues working in such an environment, one may need to experience it personally, but Behind the Gates of Gomorrah gives the reader an insider’s peek that may very well be the next best thing.
Behind the Gates of Gomorrah is available in hardcover (ISBN: 9781476774497) from Gallery Books.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Most people who are regular readers here know that I'm not a big fan of book blurbs. I don't put any stock in them and think the whole business is a racket. Which is unfortunate for people who make considerable efforts to write legitimate blurbs, but overall I feel the majority are simply written for the wrong reasons. However, this post today is not about that. This post is about blurb/review wording I wish we could ban.
4. Any reference of a roller coaster that isn't literal --Personally, I'm not a fan of roller coasters, so I wouldn't want to submit myself to the torture of hours of this feeling, but even if I did, it's been so overused it's powerless now.
5. "will keep you turning pages to the end" -- I think I'm guilty of this one, but when you think about it, shouldn't the bare minimum a writer does with a book keep the reader turning pages to the end? Isn't that kind of like saying, "o.k. you pass, you get a D because we finished the book at least"?
6. "[fill in title or author name] is the next [fill in present hot title or author name]!" Or "[fill in title or author name] is [fill in different country name]'s [fill in present hot title or author name]!" -- because my generic version is a little confusing here, I will use a specific example I encountered not too long ago: "A European Gone Girl" was used to described Herman Koch's The Dinner. Personally, I enjoyed both of these books, but didn't see what connection the review writer was making. What I hear far too often is people who will love Gone Girl and then read The Dinner and hate it because they had expectations of what it should have been before they started reading it based on that blurb. Had the individuals read The Dinner without the benefit of that blurb, they would have evaluated the book differently...basically on its own merits, not Gone Girl's. Each individual has their own ideas of what makes a book or a writer great, when we assume everyone else has those same notions then we do the books and their writers a terrible disservice.
O.k. so those are my big irritants. Of course as soon as I hit "post" on this I'm sure I'll come up with some others, but this is definitely the biggies. Do you have some that really grate on your nerves? Share with us!
Posted by Jen Forbus at 12:36 PM
Friday, November 7, 2014
Happy Friday, everyone! Next weekend is Bouchercon at Long Beach and for the first time in five years I won't be attending. So I expect everyone there to have a little bit of extra fun for me and then if you all have a little bit, that should add up to enough to represent me, right? No, really, enjoy yourselves and celebrate the mystery genre!
I posted on Wednesday about participating in the Thankfully Reading weekend. I hope some of you will be joining in as well. I know it's a busy weekend for many, but if you're not overwhelmed with holiday obligations then kick back and enjoy the weekend with us.
I've also decided that I will be doing a holiday gift feature starting on Thanksgiving (fingers crossed). I am going to have one post each week on Thursday up through the December holidays that features either a special gift book or a gift idea for book lovers. If you have any suggestions or want to write one of these features yourself, please drop me a line and let me know.
I'm also freshening up the Five on Friday feature. I'm keeping all the present question options for participants, but I'm adding in some new question options as well. I've started doing this for some people who are scheduling for the new year but I'm still in mid-refresh, so if you have some creative questions you're dying for me to add to the mix, drop me a line. And if you have an author you'd love to see featured on here but haven't yet, let me know. I can't make any promises but I'm happy to take your requests and see what I can do.
O.k. a few quick highlights on giveaways.
First if you're a Goodreads user and you enter their giveaways, I highly encourage you to go put your name in the hopper for Lou Berney's upcoming novel The Long and Faraway Gone. It is outstanding. It's a departure from Berney's Shake Bouchon capers, but it's simply another layer to Berney's tremendous writing talent. Now quit listening to me blather and go enter.
Criminal Element has a slew of books in its "Watch What You Read" Sweepstakes, so be sure to check that one out.
Friday Reads has The Forgers in its giveaway this week.
And as always, don't forget to swing by and see what my friend Lesa is up to for her weekly giveaway.
O.k., enough already, right? Let's get on with the good stuff. Well this week's good stuff--and it is very good stuff--comes to us in the form of 2013's Tony Hillerman Prize winner. C.B. McKenzie's debut and already award-winning novel, BAD COUNTRY, came out on Tuesday. The novel introduces Rodeo Grace Garnet, a former rodeo cowboy turned private investigator in remote Arizona. I'm not going to tell you too much more because C.B. McKenzie has shared some great responses, so I'll let HIM tell you more...
The most bizarre place I ever found inspiration for a story was: A translation class I enrolled in (and quickly dropped) during my PhD. Program at the University of Arizona. I asked the Instructor if there was a translator who was famous for being “so bad she/he was good.” She thought this was the craziest questions a student had ever asked her….but it led me to write a postmodern novel called THE BAD TRANSLATOR which is the basis for my next mystery/thriller THE SAME, BUT WHITE.
The last books I recommended were Mike McGarrity’s HARD COUNTRY because it’s a great Western in the classical tradition, but with a modern sensibility; Jeff Parker’s new literary fiction, FULL MEASURE, because it is an important book and has a Ford Pick-up Truck on the cover as does my BAD COUNTRY; Michael Farris Smith’s apocalyptic road trip, RIVERS and; Mathew Guinn’s macabre historical thriller, RESURRECTIONIST.
My biggest pet peeves are: Mysteries that get “mushy plot” in the middle and then collapse in ridiculousness in the end or pull rabbits out of hats to extricate themselves from conundrums: all mystery/thrillers ought to exist within some realm of reasonable possibility and operate with some degree of Logic (Jurassic Park, for instance, does); endless descriptions in books of the preparation and consumption of food and drink when this exposition serves no plot or character development purpose, but mostly just serves as “filler” (pun intended).
A superstition or ritual I have to observe when I write is: Flop sweat: I don’t especially like to write, it makes me very nervous and gives me heart palpitations, so I sweat a lot when I write.
The #1 item on my bucket list right now is: I’ve led a pretty interesting and varied life which has included the types of things that are on most people’s Bucket List—through-hiked the Appalachian Trail, surfed in Costa Rica, ridden a bicycle across the Great State o’ Texas, run marathons, done a modeling campaign and many catwalk shows for Giorgio Armani, traveled, lived and worked all over Europe, Japan, roadtripped across the USA (even on the Hi-Line across North Dakota), lived in NYC, been a Californian, swum around the Statue of Liberty, lived in the woods of Vermont w/out electricity or running water, sung solo in the church choir, earned a PhD, won a writing prize… “Getting Published” was the one and only thing left on my bucket list…now that’s done, no more bucket list!
Well, let's hope C.B. still has plenty of years left even if he doesn't have any bucket list left! I'm psyched to read BAD COUNTRY and I'm thrilled that C.B. McKenzie had time during his book tour--which you can follow along with on his Facebook page--to hang out with us for a bit. Hope you enjoyed today's Five on Friday as well.
Have a lovely weekend, my reading friends!
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
I'll be hosting a challenge during the weekend and probably using some time to work on the blog as well. So many little items I've been wanting to do/update/improve, so some dedicated time will be good. But I'll also be reading, reading, reading.
I have two major goals for the weekend:
1.) finish the archive page with all reviews to date
2.) read at least one book that I don't HAVE to read--just one that I've been wanting to but haven't gotten to.
I typically stay away from the stores during this weekend because watching Americans shop on the weekend after Thanksgiving tends to damage the holiday spirit for me. Although, the Internet has changed that significantly since my younger years when you couldn't shop via computer. I still stay away, nonetheless.
So I'll be here. I'll be posting and I'll be reading. You can join in as well, there are no requirements and you can set your own goals for yourself or just be relaxed and read--or listen, audiobook listening is welcome, too.
Find more details at Jenn's blog. Hope to "see" you around Thanksgiving weekend! Happy Reading!
Posted by Jen Forbus at 9:49 AM
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
This year my friend George (from The Thirty Year Itch) and I got tickets to the Cuyahoga County Library's Writers Center Stage series. We have great seats--the middle of the third row. We're right in front of the speaker and we don't have to crane our necks to see him/her.
The October event featured Dennis Lehane and was this past Thursday. He gave an astounding presentation. If you follow the Criminal Element twitter feed, I live tweeted a lot of it, but want to share the event and some photos with you here.
For long-time blog readers, you may remember that Dennis participated in the Six-Word Memoir series and his memoir was "I owe it all to libraries." That memoir came screaming back as he began his presentation Thursday night. He said he was going to talk about the 20 reasons he is where he is today. "One through ten are...libraries," he proclaimed.
As a first grader, Dennis' teacher called his parents to tell them he liked to read. And with that motivation, his Irish-immigrant mother took him to the local branch of the Boston Public Library and got him a library card. The librarian told a young Dennis that he could borrow any of the books in the library, he just had to bring them back in two weeks. To a six-year-old boy from the wrong side of the tracks, being told that he was just as entitled to the books in his library as was the boy who was dropped off in the Bentley indicated to Dennis that he mattered.
One of the best lines of the night (and there were quite a few) was Dennis' jab at the Tea Party. He said, "By the way, Tea Partiers would consider this socialism, but we called it a library."
So after the huge importance of libraries, Lehane explained that he was not from a literary family. His parents were both Irish immigrants without a high school education. But he was from a storytelling family. His father was one of eighteen children, most of whom immigrated to the United States and all settled in the same geographic location. They were very insular, so before Dennis started school he was surrounded more by 1930s Irish culture than 1970s Boston culture. (Those Boston vowels do still pepper his dialogue, though.)
One of the characteristics of that Irish culture was that the families would all regularly get together and tell stories about Ireland. Dennis says he and his brother quickly learned that their family had a shaky relationship with "facts." The same story would be told at various times with tweaks to the events.
Unbeknownst to his mother, Dennis' father would take him to Vaughn's Tavern on Dot Avenue where everyone would sit around and tell stories as well. Here he learned three rules: #1 - TELL THE STORY! Don't go into long drawn out descriptions and set-up, just tell the story. #2 - Make it funny. Because Rule #3 is the point of the working class story is 'the man got screwed.'
So while Dennis Lehane didn't get a literary education through his youth, he did learn to tell stories. And he also learned to listen, which ultimately strengthened his gift with dialogue. His skills with the oral story tradition were evident as he entertained and awed the crowd.
Dennis Lehane says he has No. Other. Talents. None. He tried his hand at a few other things in college and failed miserably. Telling stories is what he knows how to do. And we benefit from that in many realms. He's a novelist, a screenwriter, a play write. When asked what he prefers he said that screenwriting is easier because you're part of a team. The whole project doesn't sit on your shoulders. But, "When you write a book, you're God...it's a pain in the ass being God, but at the end of the day it's the most rewarding."
The whole event was wonderful. Lehane's stories, his enthusiasm, his gift for story-telling, it was a fantastic time. I can't encourage you enough that if you have the chance to see him, take it. You'll feel like you're sitting in the bar listening to the story-telling and mentally watching the worlds form around you. This event was so great that now the rest of the series has a very high bar to live up to. I'll let you know how everyone does.
Monday, October 27, 2014
First line: "In the fall of 2013, I was in my first semester of school in a decade."
When Linda Tirado responded to an online forum question—“Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?”—she had no idea her explanation would go viral and result in her first book, Hand to Mouth. This frank, sarcastic depiction of life as a member of the working poor is a frightening reality from which many Americans are just one misfortune away.
Tirado says, “Being poor is something like always being followed around by violins making ‘tense’ movie music…and they’re playing the shower scene from Psycho.” Life is a constant source of exhaustion: working multiple low-wage jobs, taking care of children and a home, in Tirado’s case attending school. All the while, fighting to pay the bills and praying no disaster strikes.
In her intelligent, articulate narrative, Tirado addresses numerous stereotypes, illustrating their hypocrisy and irrationality. For example, she discusses service work. She says, “I think the sorts of people who honestly think that service workers should be more smiley and gracious just don’t get it. They don’t get it because they can take so much for granted in their own lives—things like respect, consideration, and basic fairness on the job. Benefits. Insurance.”
The idea that the poor are lazy and should just work harder to improve their station in life is an illusion. By telling her personal story, Tirado shows how futile that theory is and how desperately changes need to be made. If readers approach Hand to Mouth with an open mind, they’re sure to leave it compassionately richer humans.
Hand to Mouth is available in hardcover (ISBN: 9780399171987) from Putnam. There is also an unabridged audiobook (ISBN: 9781611763300 ) read by Tirado from Penguin Audio.