What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Mystery Monday: "There are people who should die...."

I don't know why there aren't more mysteries set in Southeast Asia. That said, most of the ones I've sampled, I haven't been able to really get excited about. Which is why I've decided to devote an entire blog post to two mystery series that I think should be on every fan's shelf and that I strongly suspect still remain too obscure. My reasons for these suspicions? Well, one series is an old favorite, discovered several years ago -- the witty, delightful, suspenseful and utterly charming mysteries set in Laos of the mid to late 1970s and featuring the country's reluctant coroner, the septugenerian Dr. Siri Paiboun. Whenever I shove these books into the hands of a friend, there is a better than 75% chance that he or she has never heard of them or their creator, Colin Cotterill, and a 90% chance that the friend in question has never tried reading them. (I don't allow that state of affairs to last for long, and my success rate in getting people to share my fan-dom is fairly high.) Alas, I'm less enamored of Cotterill's newer series, set in Thailand, where he makes his home. But now -- cue drum roll and, yes, why not, some trumpets, too -- I can get very, very excited about another series of mysteries set in Thailand. This one is published by Soho Press (a fave publisher of mine) and is written by Timothy Hallinan, who not only spends a chunk of his time in Bangkok, but clearly been using that time very, very well.

Part of what appealed to me most about A Nail Through the Heart is that Hallinan doesn't even try to make his chief character Thai. Poke Rafferty, in many ways, is a quintessential North American, one of the many male expatriates who wash up in Bangkok and simply never leave, floating around the fringes of its bar culture. But Poke is different in many ways. First of all, he's half Filipino; as one of the Thai characters notes consolingly in the book, this makes him look almost normal, and not like one of those ugly farang with their big noses. And while he ended up in Thailand in order to write a guide book to the city for restless young guys looking for the hottest bars and clubs -- along with tips for how to identify a ladyboy -- his own life has long since moved on. He has fallen in love with Rose, a tall, thoughtful and drop-dead gorgeous former bar dancer trying to build a cleaning business that will help get some of her former co-workers out of the bar trade before they end up in the blowjob bars -- the lowest ranks of the sex trade. He has taken in an 8-year-old street girl named Miaow, whom he met while she was peddling pencils, and who now is at school herself. He wants to adopt Miaow, and to marry Rose: the former may, just, be feasible, but Rose isn't sure he understands Thai culture or what it means to earn merit or be reborn. She wants him to understand what it would mean to mesh not only their lives but their souls.

But before any of that can happen, Poke succumbs to Miaow's pleas to give her friend, a street urchin named "Superman", a place to stay. He agrees to do a favor for his closest Thai friend, a policeman named Arthit (and just as compelling a character as Poke, Rose and Miaow, the main players in the drama.) And that lands him in a whole mess of trouble, looking for a vanished Australian who, he rapidly discovers, was involved in a particularly nasty child pornography ring, even as he ends up entangled with Madame Wing, a reclusive, wheelchair bound woman who has one of the most evil auras that Poke has ever encountered -- but who will pay him enough to find someone who stole from her to finance Miaow's adoption. There are some truly nasty folks out there, and as Rose tries to make him understand, maybe some victims aren't innocent simply because they are victims, and perhaps not all killers, just because they commit murder, are guilty. Watching Poke wrestle with the competing claims on his conscience, as he discovers stuff about his clients -- who have one claim on his loyalty -- and as he understands the motivations of the perpetrators, is fascinating, especially as it's all interwoven with his ongoing struggle to understand Rose and Thai culture.

From corrupt cops to the legacy of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, this novel covers a tremendous amount of ground, but Hallinan has a command of his material and, more importantly, does an amazing job of capturing the ambiance of Bangkok, from the flower warehouses to the crowded sois, or alleyways off the main roads. At one point, Poke is on the back of one of Bangkok's motorbike taxis, dodging through the inevitable traffic jams, at risk to life and limb, and I was literally there. (Well, I've done that -- though not, thank heavens, at high speeds!) Hallinan doesn't exaggerate to give us a picture of Bangkok, but instead relies on a host of small details, from the humidity to the body language of people on the streets.

I think after one encounter with Poke Rafferty and his motley assortment of fellow characters, and my introduction to his attempts to build a family of some kind in unpromising circumstances, I'm hooked. I'm moving straight on to the second book in the series, and the third, and the fourth... Thankfully, I think there are enough to keep me going until at least Christmas...

For audiobook fans: I can wholeheartedly recommend the audio version of these novels, as narrated by Victor Bevine.


Now, if only the same were true of Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri mysteries, and I had another unread book sitting here demanding my attention immediately!! The next in this much-loved series, Six and a Half Deadly Sins (is it a coincidence that both authors are published by Soho? It can't be...) won't be out until May. Grrrrr. By which point my nerves will be shredded. So I'll just have to spend time forcing the series onto more people. Including anyone reading this blog post.

Why? Because Dr. Siri is simply one of the most intriguing and unique sleuths ever to stalk the pages of a mystery novel -- and yes, I include Sherlock Holmes in that category. The Pathet Lao have taken over power in Laos -- it's 1976 -- and Dr. Siri, a French-educated doctor who spent many of the best years of his life in the struggle for some kind of just, humane regime, just wants some peace and quiet. (He's also coming to realize that the new regime is just as foolish as the old one, albeit in entirely different ways.) He's a classic humanist; a believer in people. But dead people? Siri isn't keen on serving as Laos's only official coroner but when the last doctor with any experience zooms across the Mekong to Thailand in an inner tube, he's lumbered with the job: there is no way to say "no" to the Politburo. Worse still, his first jobs have unpleasantly political aspects: why on earth do the bodies of dead Vietnamese soldiers keep popping to the surface of a Laotian lake? and what happened to the wife of a powerful Laotian leader?

Siri's morgue may be short of anything that a typical coroner might want or need. But it turns out that Siri isn't a typical coroner. As well as being a reluctant coroner, he's a reluctant link to spirits and ghosts. He also has unusual resources, in the shape of Dtui, the nurse who hopes to be sent to Russia for medical training, and Geung, who, in spite of his Down's Syndrome, is loyal and eerily wise. They do amazing things with very little, even when they have to take samples off to local school teacher on the back of a motorbike to be tested. And even when the Laotian version of justice may be just as eccentric as some of Siri's methods.

As the series progresses, the stories simply get richer and more intriguing, taking Siri to the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang (one of my own favorite places in Laos) and even to Phnom Penh in the final days of Khmer Rouge rule. His sidekicks include a Politburo member, a transvestite fortuneteller, Vientiane's best noodle chef, and Yeh Ming, the shaman who inhabits him. And while the tone is far lighter and more whimsical, Cotterill, like Hallinan, knows the region, its people and its culture. That becomes part of the story, neither window dressing nor exaggerated for effect.

And I may just have talked myself into re-reading the entire series before the release of the newest book in May. But not until I have finished reading all of the Poke Rafferty novels. Now, when will I find time to read anything else??

Tudormania Lives -- Part Deux

Picking up -- briefly -- on an earlier post about the latest influx of Tudor-focused historical novels: it's not over yet!

The latest news is that historian and novelist Alison Weir has signed a contract to produce a series of six novels featuring, yes, you guessed it, each of the six wives of Henry VIII, for British publisher Headline, the first of which will see the light of day in 2016.

The news sparked quite a kerfuffle over on the Historical Novel Society's Facebook page, of which I'm a member. Reading between the lines, there are a handful of aspiring novelists out there interested in writing about other eras who seem to feel that the combination of the proven market clout of the Tudors and Alison Weir's ability to bridge the gap between popular history and popular fiction better than most writers, may do what lesser-known luminary of the historical crime writing world Lynn Shepherd alleged that JK Rowling was doing with her shift to adult fiction: using her celebrity to suck the oxygen out of the atmosphere and making it tougher for other writers to breathe.

Not that Weir is JK Rowling; she's just one of dozens of writers, ranging from those with household names (the ubiquitous Philippa Gregory) who have long made the Tudors her bread and butter, and to whom readers have gravitated as a result. (She's also earned a reputation for being far more generous than many of her peers with many of those aspiring writers, so kudos to her.)

That said: is there anything left to say about these six women?? To be blunt, they wore the crown matrimonial and weren't reigning queens. Arguably, Catherine of Aragon was significant for her heritage and the longevity of the marriage, but how many times is it entertaining to read a novel about the breakdown of the same marriage? Similarly, how many times is it fascinating to read about Anne Boleyn, when you know just how very, very badly the story ends for her? With biographies aplenty out there, and novels based on the latest scholarly research, what remains to be said? Catherine Howard met her end on the block as a teenager after a rather furtive little affair; it's tragic, but again, not the stuff of which countless novels of tremendous interest are made. Do we read the same story over and over again, or go in search of new fare?

I think the challenge for Weir will be to prove that she can approach these stories with a truly new angle. The challenge for publishers? That's a tougher one altogether. I want someone to prove to me that they are willing to take a risk and publish some novels set in less-usual eras and places, and by authors who aren't (yet) household names. For me, that means no Tudors, no Wars of the Roses, and very little from ancient Rome, World War I or World War II. In the coming weeks, I'll try to draw attention to a couple of these books -- and challenge readers to give them a chance, too.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"I slipped into art to escape life..."

Every bibliomaniac can empathize with Aaliya, the narrator of Rabih Alameddine's eloquent and simply un-put-downable novel, in her approach to literature. We may not have lived our lives in Beirut in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, dealing with everything from the civil war to overly-curious neighbors. We may not have to deal with accidentally dyeing our hair blue, or deciding which classic work of literature we will translate into Arabic. But in our own ways we have all "slipped off into art to escape life"; we have all "sneaked off into literature" at one point or another.

I read An Unnecessary Woman very early in the new year and am coming back to it today because tonight it will be announced whether it will win this year's National Book Award. I hope it will -- it would win my vote -- though I fear it won't. After all, its rivals include two ultra-popular novels, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (lots of fun, but ultimately just a particularly entertaining and creative dystopian rumination about what matters in life, with predictable answers), and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I have to confess that I actually feel slight afraid admitting that I didn't love the latter. Did I admire the careful artistry? Sure, but I was so busy admiring that, I never forgot that I was reading a Work of Impressive Artistic Accomplishment. Which, let's admit it, is the kiss of death for a novel.

Here's why Alameddine's novel trumps both of these, and still -- months later -- is on track to end 2014 as my favorite novel of the year. And no, it has nothing to do with the fact that its heroine, Aaliya Saleh, has her own Twitter feed. It has everything to do with Aaliya herself, however, the "unnecessary woman" of the title, divorced, childless, maintaining at best a tenuous relationship with those around her, including her extended family. (She meets her nephew's children at one point and they have no idea who she is.) She came of age in the Beirut of the 1950s; now, decades later, she is elderly and she to question some of her rituals and established ways of existing -- and the decisions that led her to this point.

When the novel opens, another new year is about to begin, and Aaliya has to decide which great novel she will translate next. It is one of her private rituals; one that is most important to her sense of self. She has worked in a bookstore, keeping it open throughout the worst days of Lebanon's civil war, and it is literature that has kept her going. Her choice of translation project is ritualized: only books written in a language other than English or French (the two lingua francae of Lebanon) qualify; she then relies on both the English and French translations to complete her own undertaking: an Arabic version. When it's complete, the handwritten pages are put into a box, along with the English and French versions, and stored in her apartment, in the bedroom originally reserved for a maid. She has completed 37 such translations -- and nobody else in the world is aware of them. Is it time for 38, or is she now too old?

Other changes, too, may be looming. While Aaliya's literary passions have helped her cope with her lot as a surplus woman, with family turmoil, with war, with the loss of her closest friend, with the isolation -- she hears what each of the women in the apartment building is doing and can identify when one is in the bathroom above her or making dinner -- she now finds reality intruding to an unwelcome extent. Her family suddenly imposes on her.  She struggles to decide what to translate next -- would Roberto Bolano be too much of a challenge? Her body isn't cooperating isn't as much as it once did. As she ponders her options, and travels the streets of Beirut, the reader accompanies Aaliya back in time as she reviews her life.

Alameddine handles all of these revelations about Aaliya gradually and almost delicately and the result is a work of great beauty and empathy. It's a pitch-perfect portrayal of an individual's insistence on living according to her own rules and by adhering to her own set of priorities, even in the most impossible circumstances. Aaliya herself is a fascinating and complex character: precisely the kind of person who would have a Twitter account, and who would use it to make scathing comments about the shallowness of much of contemporary literature (a la Peter Stothard?) Did I always "like" her? Nope, but that isn't the issue. She's fascinating, but most importantly, authentic. I'd rather spend a day sitting down and listening to her stories and opinions: she makes the characters in the other two NBA finalists that I've read (the other two, Lila by Marilynne Robinson, and Redeployment, by Phil Klay, I haven't started to read yet) look like milquetoast types in comparison. I fear that may be the reason the book doesn't win: readers (and by extension, judges) like their characters to be a little more, ahem, realateble?)

It isn't that Aaliya isn't, though. She isn't an unreliable narrator, or an unlikable narrator. She is a woman out of place in her era and her geography: someone with intense curiosity and intellectual passion, trapped in Beirut in the midst of a civil war, and belonging to a middle class family that values women as wives and mothers, nothing else. She stares these uncomfortable truths right in the face, and finds a way to live with them. She is devoid of sentimentality -- she even despises the too-easy epiphanies in today's "literature lite". Aaliya makes her choices, and lives with the consequences.

Oh, and did I mention that I loved the writing. Well, there's that, too.

I've read a lot of novels this year. And we've finally reached the part of 2014, when everyone is making their lists -- you know, those "best of" tabulations. And while I still have three or four candidates vying for the top spot in the non-fiction category, it's hard for me to look back and say that a single book has beaten this one out. Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone came close, but I look at that as an older book that I'm only just discovering, rather than a "best book of 2014". And it would take something pretty damn unique to dethrone Aaliya at this point.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

42 Murdered journalists so far in 2014; Joel Simon tells the backstory in "The New Censorship"

Burma is a democracy nowadays, isn't it? The military junta has given way to an elected parliament, one of which democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi -- under house arrest until only four years ago -- is a member. Well, kinda sorta maybe. The fact is that Suu Kyi is now part of the establishment, and she's starting to draw criticism from some quarters for not speaking out as forcefully as she did when she was completely out of power, on issues that might provoke the military (who still hold about 25% of the seats in the legislature) and that divide society (such as the abuse of Muslim minorities).

Which leaves journalists to step into the breach. Journalists like Aung Kyaw Naing, a freelance reporter killed while in the custody of the Burmese military, who claimed he was working for a Karen rebel army, and was trying to escape custody. Some of the initial observations following his body's exhumation suggest that his injuries can't be fully explained by having been shot while trying to escape.

Burma isn't a particularly dangerous place for journalists, as these things are measured by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the organization of which Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship, is the executive director. Only four journalists have lost their lives as a result of being targeted for doing their job: Aung Kyaw Naing just happens to be the latest of these, and the latest to lose his life of the 42 journalists killed "in the line of duty" so far this year. Some of their names are very well known to anyone who has followed the news: they include Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff, brutally murdered by terrorists in Syria, with videos of their beheadings being posted online for the world to see. Some won't be known to many of you, like Rubylita Garcia of the Philippines, a newspaper reporter and radio personality, attacked by gunmen in her own home after exposing local corruption. Garcia, who was the same age that I am, died in hospital hours later.

The Philippines has been a difficult place to be a journalist, as Simon points out in this compelling book that goes well beyond what we think off when we contemplate the hazards of journalism -- war reporting, for instance -- to look at the day-to-day realities of combatting corruption in countries like the Philippines or confronting sophisticated autocrats like Turkey's Erdogan. A total of 77 journalists have lost their lives in the Philippines, but that includes the mass assassination of 32 reporters in the single deadliest attack on a group of media professionals on record, as they followed a political candidate on his way to file his candidacy papers.

This is a timely and thoughtful analysis of all the reasons we may be getting too little news about issues of importance -- and the reasons why it isn't even the countries like China (with its "Great Firewall") and Iran that we need to worry about most (or at least, not foremost), but the ones that we don't worry about, because we assume that reporters now are free to move around and report, because, after all, aren't the democracies? Not really, says Simon, suggesting that the phrase "democratator" is more appropriate for leaders who equate press criticism with a national security challenge. And repression doesn't have to reach murder to silence journalists and stifle freedom of speech.

All that a repressive or tyrannical regime -- or anyone else -- has to do to censor is to manipulate the impression the public has of a journalist who seeks to portray the powerful in an unflattering light. Turkey's President Erdogan sees Western journalists and those who don't toe his party's as line as waging "psychological warfare" against the country. If they aren't shunned by their employers and their friends, they are imprisoned. It isn't necessary to murder them.

Then there's terrorism. Foley and Sotloff are among its most recent victims; one of the first deliberately targeted (as opposed to its accidental victims) was my friend and former colleague, Danny Pearl,  kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan. I first "met" Danny when he and I negotiated the terms of the Toronto/Atlanta Wall Street Journal bureau World Series bet in 1992: Danny threw himself into it, heart and soul, to the point where, after the folks in Atlanta accidentally flew the Canadian flag upside down, Danny figured out how to program the Wall Street Journal's dot matrix printers to print out an illustration of an upside-down maple leaf flag -- and set it to every bureau in the Dow Jones empire. We later bonded over music, with Danny bombarding me with recommendations for this composer or that performer.

But, as Simon so clearly explains, now that terrorists have direct access to the Internet, they don't need reporters as intermediaries. Instead, they can use the reporters' deaths as weapons. As of the time he wrote this, some 30 journalists covering Syria and areas where ISIS/IS/IL/whatever is active have simply vanished without a trace. Evaporated. Add that to the ranks of the 70 who we know are dead -- the vast majority of them local reporters, whose deaths will never make the headlines. And think about what that means for what we learn about the world we live in.

We are "deluged with data, we are blind to the larger reality." And the Internet, far from helping, may actually be making this worse, having changed the economics of the media world, making it costly to sustain overseas bureaus and more convenient to rely on local journalists as news gatherers -- the same people who are most vulnerable to pressure. In Mexico, Simon notes, one newspaper published an open letter to drug traffickers that essentially amounted to "just tell us what to print".

People fuss a lot about questions of media ownership, but this book makes it very, very clear that the problem is a far broader one. You don't need to own a paper to dictate what it says, as long as you can employ one of the means of the "new censorship". If you are remotely interested in the caliber of news you get; if you've ever found yourself saying, "but why are we seeing all the coverage of THIS, and nothing of THAT", or griping about something in the media coverage of the world beyond the borders of, say, North America and Western Europe, you might want to pick this up and read it.

A few nights before Thanksgiving, the CPJ will hold its annual gala dinner in New York, honoring a handful of individuals from around the world. I've been lucky enough to attend this on a couple of occasions, and inevitably, it's one of the most inspiring evenings imaginable -- and the most daunting, because listening to the obstacles that honorees confront daily makes every detail of my life sound like a first world problem. A computer that crashes on deadline, nasty comments on a story or even a single, solitary e-mail death threat from someone I know very well doesn't mean what they say? Piffle. And you met the most interesting people. One year, my neighbor was Elizabeth Neuffer, author of the fabulous The Key to My Neighbor's House. It was about to come out, and we talked all evening about her reporting into the attempt to bring justice to those who had survived civil wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Buy it -- really, it's that good. Two problems: the author won't get the royalties and she won't be writing about the aftermath of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because she herself died in Iraq in 2003. It was an accident, not murder -- but still, another death in the pursuit of news. And now the latest recipient of a fellowship set up in her honor is chronicling the persecution and deaths of journalists in Honduras...

Read Joel Simon's book. The writing is straightforward and analytical; it's relatively short and to the point (in contrast to this long and rambling post...) The questions it raises are anything but simple, but the least we can do is insist on staying informed about the issues.

Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for a review. My opinion is my own, however!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tudormania is alive and well in a bookstore near you!

I confess, I have a crush on Matthew Shardlake. Yes, I know he's a fictional character, and a hunchback, and a lawyer. But, whatever. As created by C.J. Sansom, he's an incredibly powerful and convincing character. He's human: wary, fearful, lonely. After all, it's the summer of 1546 in the opening pages of this, the latest episode of the series of mysteries featuring Shardlake, and Lincoln's Inn has just dispatched him to witness the appalling death by burning at the stake of Anne Askew. The king, Henry VIII, has determined that she and others are heretics and must die for their beliefs. Of course, Henry's views of what makes someone a heretic are somewhat erratic -- devout monks have died as traitors for denying his claim to be head of the English church, while Anabaptists die for denying the rites of baptism and mass. It's enough to make anyone's head spin, and Shardlake is determined to keep his firmly attached to his (hunched) shoulders, thank you very much.

But Shardlake is also a man of principles, and a few very strong loyalties -- one to his closest friend and ally, Jack Barak, who now works alongside him in his legal practice, and another to Catherine Parr, the king's sixth wife. Queen Catherine, a reformer, has left Shardlake alone for a year since last turning to him to help her with legal matters, aware that their association led both of them into peril. But now she has no choice. Someone has stolen the text of a manuscript of religious devotions that she herself had written -- that no one else knew existed, but that can be made to look as if she, too, is a heretic. In the wrong hands, it could condemn her to a fate like that suffered by some of her predecessors. And as his life approaches its end, Henry's ill health makes his temper more dangerously volatile than ever before. The power struggle for who will control the young heir, Prince Edward, is already beginning, and many would like to see Catherine sidelined. Will Matthew help?

And so begins Shardlake's latest adventure, and it's a doozy. Frankly, I think it's one of the best books in this series so far, and removes any doubts raised by the not-quite-up-to-snuff Heartstone, its immediate predecessor. Shardlake encounters printers and Anabaptists, as well as devout Catholics eager to bring down anyone they see as being affiliated with the reformers. Some of his own clients may be his worst enemies; old adversaries may become temporary allies. He leads his friends into immense peril -- and the novel ends on a note that is going to make it very, very, very hard for me to wait for the next installment of the series. Sansom is simply going to have to write more rapidly. Or I'm going to have to find a time travel machine and go back and find out what happened next.

This book won't be out in the United States until February, so if you're reading this here and gnashing your teeth in fury and irritation, you have a couple of options. Firstly, be aware that this is the sixth book in an excellent series of historical mysteries that begins with Dissolution; you've got lots of time to go back and read your way through 'em before Lamentation arrives. Or, if you've already encountered Master Shardlake, well, either Amazon.co.uk or BookDepository.com would be happy to ship a copy of this to you toute de suite, the former for a not-too-small fee. The latter has just resumed shipping UK titles to the US and generally does so without the shipping, but I've found them slightly less reliable.

Then, since Tudor mania is once again running rampant in historical fiction publishing circles, you'll find some alternatives on the bookstore shelves to consider while you're waiting for your package to show up. Two I can recommend heartily; two, I can only suggest that you steer clear of.

C.W. Gortner may have made his name writing biographical historical novels focusing on medieval ladies such as Isabella of Castile and her daughter, Juana la Loca (his breakthrough novel, The Last Queen) but the first novel of his that I read was actually originally a self-published book, The Tudor Secret, that became a trilogy of historical mysteries, of which The Tudor Vendetta is the final volume. They feature the intrepid Brendan Prescott, an ally of the princess who has, at last, ascended to the throne as Queen Elizabeth. Brendan, raised in the household of the Dudleys, is now firmly in the camp of William Cecil and the "intelligencers" of Walsingham, etc., so the enmity with which he views Dudley make sense, even if it is exaggerated for dramatic effect here. And as in Sansom's book, it is his loyalty to a queen that counts: Elizabeth, even without knowing the true story of his own parentage, entrusts him with a secret mission. Without telling either Dudley or Cecil, she says, he  must find her beloved lady in waiting, Blanche Parry, who has vanished after visiting Catholic kinsmen. But the secret turns out to be greater than Brendan could ever have imagined, and it will seal the two young people together more tightly than ever before -- if, that is, the monarch and her subject can both survive the immediate perils. One warning here: you need to have an above-average tolerance for a rewriting of historical characters and what they may or may not have done in their lives. I confess that this did end up stretching my credulity to breaking point, but ultimately, it was the adventure that mattered.

Elizabeth Fremantle is clearly a historical novelist to watch. After penning an impressive debut novel about Katherine Parr, she has gone on to write something even stronger here, focusing on the younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey. Left in a perilous position after their sister's execution, Katherine -- the frivolous beauty -- and Mary -- the intelligent and quick-witted hunchback -- must navigate and survive two very different courts, that of Catholic Mary, who had signed their sister's death warrant, and that of Elizabeth. Both see the sisters as rivals, but ironically it under Elizabeth that they may end up faring worse. What I relished most about this was that part of the tale is told through the eyes of a relative outsider, the painter Lavinia Teerlinc, who knows and cares for both young women and tries to help both navigate the great power politics of their day. But Katherine has too little judgment -- first allowing herself to be wooed by the Spanish faction at court in Elizabeth's early days as Queen and later to marry without the Queen's permission. For her part, Mary, craving love and affection, is in search of a measure of freedom and independence. It's beautifully written, impeccably researched and absolutely fascinating -- something that I hadn't expected, given that the stories of both young women were already reasonably well known to me. Anyone to whom they are new likely will find it even more compelling. Run and get it now!

And now for Elizabeth Tudor herself... For some reason, with very few exceptions (Susan Kay's Legacy being one), books about Elizabeth on the throne seem to be much less compelling than those about her struggle to reach it. Once she's there, the drama seems to shift elsewhere -- in particular, to the struggles by Cecil and Walsingham to keep her there and to fight the espionage wars. (And there are some great non-fiction books on this topic, like The Watchers, by Stephen Alford.) In a nutshell, that's the problem with this novel by Alison Weir. Her previous novel, The Lady Elizabeth, was suspenseful, even though the reader knows that she didn't end up losing her head like her mother before her but survived to become the greatest of the Tudor monarchs. This volume, as Elizabeth plays the marriage game with her foreign suitors and alternately indulges in some hot and heavy romantic interludes with Robert Dudley, while delivering verbatim set piece speeches about not making windows into her subjects souls, etc., simply isn't all that interesting. It plods along, from one year and one episode in Elizabeth's life, to the next. One suitor fades from the scene to be replaced by the next. Elizabeth ages; her vanity grows, as does the novel's tedium. You'd be better off reading a well-written biography, quite frankly. This is really a biography that takes liberties with some of the facts and throws in some dialog.

For the record, I'm not a Philippa Gregory hater. I do think that she loves to overstate her qualifications, referring to her doctorate on every possible occasion (when it's in English literature, rather than history), and I think her writing talent, as opposed to her ability to spin a yarn, is negligible. Her penchant for saying the same thing three times in essentially the same way within five sentences is inexplicable and bizarre. What I have enjoyed about some of her novels is her ability to take a different perspective on issues. For instance, her novel about Mary Queen of Scots is a great example of the late Tudor clash of the old aristocracy -- Mary Stuart, the captive queen, and her jailor, the earl of Shrewsbury -- and the upstart new merchant class, as represented by Bess of Hardwick the brisk business-minded countess of Shrewsbury. We see the beginnings of that conflict in this novel, as Henry VII and Henry VIII deliberately -- in Gregory's telling -- push away the nobles upon whom they traditionally would have relied for advice, and instead turn to parvenus to help them rule. The narrator here is Henry VIII's cousin, Margaret Pole, countess of Salisbury, born Margaret Plantagenet, who would become his oldest victim and the oldest woman ever executed when a headsman famously had to chase her around the block to behead her. But for a period of decades, she was at the center of the Tudor court, governess to the young princess, Mary, and in high favor. This is the tale of overweening ambition and pride and an inability to recognize changing realities. Normally, having an unlikable narrator doesn't spoil a book for me, but this was an exception: Margaret was an irritatingly blind and silly woman whom I wanted to shake, rather than a subtle and complex character and the writer didn't compensate for any of this. The themes, as I noted, were interesting to ponder, but once developed, I could ponder them on my own without having to read Gregory's novel. I think there's a ratio here: for every interesting novel Gregory writes, there are four mediocre to unreadable ones. This wasn't nearly as bad as The White Queen or The Kingmaker's Daughter, but you can do a lot better.

Still suffering from Tudormania? Keep an eye open for a golden oldie, Margaret George's The Autobiography of Henry VIII (her debut novel and still her best); the series of historical mysteries by Rory Clements featuring John Shakespeare (brother of the more famous you-know-who); and Fiona Buckley's earlier historical mysteries set in Elizabethan England, featuring Ursula Blanchard, starting with To Shield the Queen. They are being re-released and made available on Kindle now.

Full disclosure: I received copies of "The Tudor Vendetta" and "Sisters of Treason" from their publishers via NetGalley in exchange for a review containing my honest opinions.

Book Porn; or, Are Book Publishers Really Dealers in Addictive Substances?

Are book publishers just drug pushers in disguise? I sometimes wonder. Certainly, every time I take a step back to look at a list of upcoming books, I begin to think that for all the agonizing that has been going on about the crisis in which publishers find themselves, they really have one big ace tucked firmly up their sleeves. They have the books that we all want to read.

Sorry, but I'm just not queuing up to read a vast number of the books that are made available by Amazon's own publishing divisions, however intriguing I find their business model and however delighted I am that it has created new career options for many authors whom the short-sighted business policies of the New York behemoth publishers have left to flounder. I've tried several and thus far my reactions boil down to "meh". I'll keep trying, and I'll let you know if that changes.

I'll always, always, always be scrutinizing new offerings from a handful of smaller publishers that have firmly established themselves as my favorites, based on my tremendous success with their offerings. A while back, I summarized some of these and listed their attractions. Today, I'd add the likes of Graywolf Press to the list, thanks to books like The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, which I'll try to get around to discussing one day soon on these cyber pages.

But around this time of year, I sit down to pull together a list of books that I am desperately eager to read, and I realize just why book publishers might do very, very well as peddlers of various illegal and intoxicating substances of the kind of things our parents told us we're supposed to "just say NO" to. Their wares are seductive and appealing. And I know that just like a really great drug might do, they'll take me away from ugly realities -- or at least, catapult me into someone else's ugly reality, reminding me that my own really isn't all that bad, after all. They'll make me believe in some greater wisdom. They'll inspire me. They'll show me wonderful imaginations at work; tremendous writing. And yes, there will be some disappointments, too, but that's part of the game.

And unlike the drug pushers, they get to promote their wares publicly. So to share some of the pain of anticipation, I'm going to tell you about some of the books that I'm most eager to read in the coming few months. Call it drugs; call it book porn; call it whatever you want. All I know is that, one way or another, by hook or by crook, these are the books that will be finding their way onto my shelves or my Kindle. A book habit can indeed become a very, very scary thing.

December 2014
Moriarty by Anthony Horwitz (my most coveted and most elusive mystery books of the winter!)
The Lonely War: One Woman's Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran by Nazila Fathi (timely...)
The Convert's Song by Sebastian Rotella (people keep telling me this is an author to read)
When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning (if they packed 'em, I want to know why)

January 2015
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (yum, more short stories by this truly amazing author)
The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe by Anthony Williams (new author, but from Soho Press)
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (lotsa buzz about this suspense novel)
Once Upon a Revolution by Thanassis Cambanis (likely to be a good book about the Arab Spring)
The Orphan Sky by Ella Leya (yes, set in Azerbaijan, but why not?)

February 2015
Shame and the Captives by Thomas Keneally (WWII POWs in Australia)
The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin (finished posthumously by her daughter)
Discontent and Its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid (non-fiction anthology by a fave novelist)
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (falconry; grief; it just won the Samuel Johnson Prize)
We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket writes for grownups!)
When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen (Estonian resistance to the Soviets; lotsa buzz)
The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli (I loved her debut novel)

March 2015
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (how to resist??)
Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon (a 50/50 chance of being a winning suspense yarn)
Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell (the sequel to Doc; it's time for the OK Corral...)
The Porcelain Thief by Hsu Huan (scouring China for buried... china?)
Mademoiselle Chanel by C.W. Gortner (a move to the 20th century for this author)
Meet Me in Atlantis by Mark Adams (the quest for the lost city...)
Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran (historical fiction about the Indian mutiny)
Last Wake by Erik Larson (The Lusitania's sinking; marking the centenary)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

World War I: From guiding you through the trenches to guiding you through the stacks of books

Back in the summer of 1978, two fellow Canadian teens who lived on the same street that I did in Brussels, came rushing over. Did I, they enquired, want to go and work in France for the rest of the summer and work as a tour guide at a World War I battlefield? I'd have to live in a youth hostel in Arras, cycle 11 kilometers each way to and from the site at Vimy Ridge every day and spend eight hours taking visitors on guided tours through the part of a restored section of the tunnels where soldiers preparing to assault the ridge overlooking the coalfields of northern France lived for years before the battle finally came at Easter 1917. At the time, I was working three half-days a week, babysitting a two-year-old boy who was partway through potty-training: he had learned that he needed to sit down on the potty, but had yet to understand the concept of pulling down his pants before letting fly. I was sick of the endless cleanup, and the lack of adult converation; a 22 kilometer bicycle roundtrip seemed like child's play by comparison. Of course, I said yes.
Sitting next to the trenches at Vimy Ridge, June 1980

And so began what would be my summer job for my teenage years until my family left Europe in 1980. It wasn't all wonderful. I rear-ended a car while riding my bicycle on the autoroute. (Don't ask...) My sweatshirt fell onto the space heater in the bureau des guides and nearly started a fire. The bike ride was grueling, taking me past freshly-manured fields every morning. On the other hand... I lived in the youth hostel and met travelers from all over the world. And I learned about the war from the locals, including people who had lived through it, or who had heard stories from those who had. About how, when the autoroute was built  nearby, countless skeletons were unearthed, and enough live ammunition to fight another war. I met veterans of the Vimy battle, one of whom cried when he couldn't find where he had scratched his name on a wall of the tunnels. I went spelunking down some of the closed-off sections of the tunnels -- strictly against the rules -- and aggravated my already horribly bad claustrophobia. And I developed an endless curiosity about this war, the physical legacy of which I could see all around me. Giant craters pockmarked the landscape and filled up with water when it rained -- leftover from the efforts of sappers to blow up the trenches and tunnel networks. In the woods -- one pine tree planted for ever Canadian soldier killed at Vimy -- unexploded shells worked their way to the surface almost daily, so sheep were used to keep the grass trimmed. Every so often, some hapless sheep would blow himself or herself to kingdom come -- and every so often, some foolish picnicker would come running to the guides to tell us about a strange metal object that at first had looked like a great flat surface to use as a table, and then...

So, I still read a lot about World War I. Not everything, especially this year, when so many new books about the Great War are hitting shelves to mark the centenary of its outbreak. Still, enough that over the years, I've found some favorites, both in fiction and nonfiction. Here are a few of 'em -- and be aware, they're not going to be the conventional histories. Those, I figure, you can find under your steam.

The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
Really, if you're interested in World War I, you shouldn't be without this book. Not exactly obscure -- Modern Library named it one of the best 100 NonFiction works of the 20th Century -- it's still not mainstream. But it's riveting. Think of it as cultural history. What was the war like for those in the trenches? How did it transform their sense of who they were and how they fit into society, and how was that reflected in their writings, from their letters and diaries to their poems? How did the language itself change as the war progressed?

Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins
This flows logically from Fussell's book -- it's about the birth of modernism, and the way that the destructive urge altered and fundamentally reshaped the forces of creativity. If you're curious about Dorothea Dix, George Grosz, and the art, music and literature of the interwar years, and how the bloodbath of 1914-1918 led to new artistic trends, this is the book to read. (And as I write this, it's only $2.99 on Kindle...)

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally 
This novel was one of my favorite books of 2013. It's the story of the two Durance sisters, both nurses, Australians, who serve first at Gallipoli and then at the Western Front. There are tensions underpinning their own relationship but the war forces them to form new bonds and brings them a sense of at least being useful, along with a sense of despair. "Young men were smashed for obscure purposes and repaired and smashed again," Naomi Durance muses. It's not about conflict itself, but life on the fringes of war, dealing with its detritus. "There's no rest for anyone until it's all over," one character points out, testily. "Unless it's the sort of final rest they dish out in Flanders and on the Somme." And there's no easy sentimentality here, either. And don't miss Keneally's other book about the Great War, the equally powerful, but very different, Gossip From the Forest. It's the chronicle of the 'negotiations' leading up to the Armistice in the Forest of Compiegne, which took effect on November 11, 1918. It's a heartbreaking and powerful novel.

Back to the Front by Stephen O'Shea
O'Shea set out to literally walk the length of the entire Western Front, from Flanders to the Swiss border, and chronicled what he saw and thought along the way. It's a slim book, but still thought-provoking and well worth a look.

Regeneration (the Trilogy) by Pat Barker
Yes, this trilogy -- especially the first book -- deserves every single speck of hype and buzz associated with it. (My least favorite is probably the middle book, but, whatever -- it's still a remarkable achievement.) Barker has captured the horrors of the final years of the war and the literal insanity of persisting in the same strategies, throwing men into no man's land in vain, and contrasted it with the treatment of men rendered insane by these military strategies by William Rivers of Craiglockhart. What is the real insanity? It's a question Barker poses repeatedly, in myriad ways, in what may be the consummate antiwar novels.

To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild
The senseless of the carnage is a theme of Hochschild's magisterial book as well. He focuses on those who resisted, from the conscientious objectors to the suffragettes, and their conflict with the die-hard loyalists, as well as those, like Kipling, who found their loyalties grievously tested as the years dragged on. Moving, because it sheds light on those whose names and stories should never be forgotten.

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
I am a massive fan of Boyden's prose, and it was this novel that converted me. Two Cree Indians are recruited as sharpshooters -- snipers -- for the Canadian army. The novel is told through the eyes of one of them being taken home to his own community, horribly wounded, addicted to morphine and written off by the army as likely to die. A healer from his own community who has known both boys since their childhood is taking him back -- the journey of the title -- but it's also a journey toward an attempted healing. What did Xavier and Elijah do -- and what did it cost them? It's a brutal, gritty tale, but unbelievably compelling.

The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer
"What passing bells for these who die as cattle"? Wilfred Owen wrote in his "Anthem for Doomed Youth. Doomed himself, Owen is commemorated in war memorials -- and in the pages of this book, which examines the ways in which we remember. It's personal journalism, and it transcends raw facts and figures without ever tumbling over into banalities or sentimental claptrap. It's brilliant, pure and simple. Read it, don't read my rhapsodies about it.

Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore
Perhaps an outlier in such august company, but I wanted to steer away from the obvious suspects -- Remarque, Brittain, Enid Bagnold, etc. In this novel, the war is the backdrop, but an integral part of the story, because it's about suspicion that surrounds foreigners/outsiders in times of war. The foreigners, in this case, are DH Lawrence and his German wife Frieda, cousin of a German war ace, Baron von Richthofen, and the setting is the remote tip of Cornwall, Zennor, near St. Ives, where the Lawrences sought refuge from war fever. Not up to the high standards of Dunmore's two later novels, The Siege and Betrayal, but something different.

Paris 1919 by Margaret Macmillan
Why, oh why, after such carnage, did Europe go back and do it all over again only two decades later? The answer lies in the Versailles treaty, and no one is better than Margaret Macmillan to lay out the whys and wherefores of the bastardized compromises and victor's justice that continue to shape the world we inhabit today. (Just look at the Middle East...)

A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot
Another outlier, but again, worth trying. Made into a so-so film, it was a great popular novel, in which the intrepid Mathilde Donnay sets out to find out just what happened to her fiancé, Manech, one day in the trenches when five men were shot for cowardice. Was he one? Could he have survived? It's no easy task, Mathilde is no easy heroine to like or admire. But she bulldozes her way to a truth of sorts.

If you live in the United States, you can't buy a poppy to wear on November 11. But maybe you can pause for a moment of silence at 11 a.m. and remember the 16 million who died and the 20 million wounded during the 1914-1918 war -- and the millions more who died in the wars it spawned and continues to spawn.
The most of the Tower of London, filled with ceramic poppies, one for every one of the nearly 900,000 British fatalities in World War I.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mystery Monday: When a literary novelist writes mysteries, the result proves magical

So, I promised that my return to blogging would be based on being critical; no cozy cheerleading here. Of course, I also pledged to be rigorously honest in my views and opinions. So if I now end up going all fangirl (horrible phrase, but the only one that possibly applies in the circumstances) in my first post, I'll take refuge by pointing to the second part of that pledge.

And just who, or what, is causing the excitement? It's the pending release of the fourth of what the author plans to be ten mysteries set in Egypt in the years leading to the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, The Burning Gates by Parker Bilal. But to understand the reason why I did a small dance of joy when I downloaded an advance review copy of this book (due in bookstores next February) from Bloomsbury via NetGalley), I have to rewind to early last year, when I picked up Bilal's first book in the series, The Golden Scales. 

From the first pages, I was hooked, as a desperate woman scours the streets of Cairo for her daughter. Flash forward, and the reader learns that Liza Markham, the woman, is still looking for the little girl, whom she hasn't seen since 1981, when she was four. And there is another missing person, too, this one of far more apparent importance to Cairo's powerbrokers, that of a young footballer and protegé of its shady, threatening owner, Saad Hanafi. Both of these mysteries land in the lap of Makana, a Sudanese political exile and former cop turned private investigator, living on the margins of Cairo society. But why would someone like Hanafi -- who has access to all the resources he could possibly want -- hire the likes of Makana to retrieve Adil, the  missing footballer? And what, beyond Makana's involvement, links the two cases?

This is set in Cairo of 1998, a city of which Mubarak has firm control but in which Makana's life is precarious. We learn slowly (at just the right time, in the right way) how it happened that he fled Khartoum and what happened to his wife and child during that traumatic flight; we also understand how that shapes his own view of the case and these other two missing children. Murder follows, and Makana's sense of justice is horrified. He pursues the case in the face of Egyptian oligarchs, Russian mafiosi and yes, Islamic militants.

What I loved about this series from the first book onward was the rich level of detail. An outsider, Makana will never be accepted in Cairo, and his life reflects that status. He even lives on a rickety, decaying houseboat moored to a bank of the Nile, making little effort to do more than exist in this exile's life until his cases engage him to the point where he becomes reckless in the pursuit of justice. Cairo, in lesser hands, would simply become a backdrop for this story, but instead emerges as another character in its own right. Makana's Cairo isn't just the souks where the tourists gawk at the merchandise for sale, but seedy little hotels, neighborhood cafes and tea shops, the ubiquitous traffic jams, the offices where underlings cater slavishly to powerful men. There's a pervasive sense of menace in the air.

You can read these as straightforward mysteries, but also as political novels. Parker Bilal doesn't just
write detective novels but also literary novels, under his "real" name, Jamal Mahjoub, several of which have examined broad political themes in Africa, so it's hardly surprising that if you scratch the surface of his "Makana" books -- excellent in their own right -- you'll find similar concerns lurking. A razor-sharp critique of political opportunism? Check. Politicians using and exploiting religious convictions in their own pursuit of power? Absolutely. If Makana's decaying houseboat home is always just about to vanish beneath the Nile's surface, Egyptian society as a whole -- however affluent it may look -- isn't in much better shape, as Bilal's novels point out.

The second novel, Dogstar Rising, once again sees Makana with two cases to solve. He has been hired to investigate apparent threats to the head of a dilapidated and dysfunctional travel agency, and, working undercover there, discovers that the thread leads to sectarian religious conflicts and some ugly past secrets. Sectarian conflicts are emerging elsewhere, however: the bodies of young boys -- mutilated -- are showing up in Cairo's alleyways, and it is all too easy for opportunists to point the finger of blame at the Coptic Christian community.

Early this year, I snapped up a copy of The Ghost Runner as soon as it was released in the UK -- I didn't want to wait to read it until it became available in the United States. It was a bit of a departure, literally: this time, Makana leaves the crowded, noisy streets of Cairo for the eerie quiet of Siwa, an oasis town. If you're thinking "oasis" as in "desert paradise", however, you may want to rethink... Makana is in pursuit of the truth behind the burning of a young woman, Karima, whose family roots lie in Siwa. Could her estranged father -- formerly a criminal, now a born-again jihadi -- have set fire to her to restore the family 'honor'? Siwa's citizens, however, don't want to give up their secrets and Mahjoub/Bilal himself confirms, in an interview with Publishers Weekly, that he saw Makana as riding into the remote community rather in the same way that the outsider in search of truth and justice shows up in a Western movie shot by Sergio Leone. Unsurprisingly, the outcome is a tremendously vivid literary equivalent of what you might have seen in one of those Westerns -- with a 'War on Terror' twist, since the novel is set in 2002.

Now I've got my hands on book #4, The Burning Gate, which may be my Thanksgiving reading treat for myself. Certainly, I can't imagine not eagerly snapping up each book in this series as soon as possible: there are some circumstances in which self control simply isn't a virtue, and this is one. I want to know how Makana fared after his misadventures in the desert. I want to know whether he'll ever find out what happened to his daughter, and how he'll fend off the next attempt by his Sudanese nemesis -- his former underling in the police department -- to coax him back into harm's way?

And another next step, of course, will have to be to seek out some of the works by Parker Bilal's alter ego, Jamal Mahjoub. Having read the first of John Banville's mysteries (written under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black) and having discovered Mahjoub/Bilal, I'm becoming convinced that this particular combination is a slam-dunk win -- especially for readers who prize great, atmospheric writing, impeccably suspenseful plots and compelling characters. And really, what more do you need in a great mystery?

Full disclosure: I received advance review copies of The Golden Scales and Dogstar Rising from the publishers via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest opinion. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Tiptoeing Back Into the Blogosphere...

Suddenly, literally overnight, I stopped blogging about books. It happened a little over two years ago, and I remember precisely what happened. I had been attending the National Association of Business Economics conference in downtown Manhattan and, after a very long day of listening to people talk about the business cycle, employment data, commodities prices -- and interviewing Sheila Bair about financial market regulations -- I staggered home to Brooklyn. I let myself in the gate in the fence that surrounded the brownstone in which I had an apartment, and lifted up the flap of the mailbox affixed to that fence. Up until that day, I had always been grateful for the large flap -- it meant that if I wasn't home, USPS, UPS, etc. could simply put any deliveries from Amazon, Book Depository or elsewhere in the big metal container. There was no problem about getting oversized mail.

As it turned out, there was also no problem in receiving other, less desirable, substances. A short while previously, I'd received an advance review copy of a new book by a debut author. I really hadn't liked it. I had said so in my review. I hadn't used any vulgarity; I hadn't commented on the author; I hadn't told people that they should burn their copies. I just said that my experience of the book made it one I wished I hadn't read at all, and listed the reasons. Usually, when I pick up a book like that, I put it down -- I return it to the library and forget about it. In this case, I had made a commitment to review it, and did (although not on this blog.) I didn't Tweet about the review, or otherwise draw attention to it. Nonetheless, instead of allowing the review to sink into obscurity, the author, as I recently chronicled in a recent column for The Guardian about the perils of book reviewing, took offense -- great offense. So did a great number of her fans. Someone -- I have no way of knowing who it was -- decided to wrap some dog sh*t in a piece of paper, on which were printed some of the same phrases that the author had used on her blog to castigate me. In my hurry to get home, I had reached my hand into the mailbox and straight into the poop.

Of course, I called the cops; I preserved the "evidence" for a few days, until it was clear that they weren't going to show up to get it and conduct DNA tests or whatever one does with such unwanted gifts, at which point it went into the trash. My sweater went to the drycleaners. My hands got scrubbed with disinfectants, using a rough nailbrush that subsequently went into the trash. And I stopped blogging. Because, let's face it, why deal with loonies?

I still reviewed for Amazon's Vine program, and resurrected the dog poop experience, at my editor's insistence, when I sat down to write about the democratization of reviewing, and how getting a bad review can temporarily unhinge some authors. Not that that is anything new, of course. Richard Ford spat in Colson Whitehead's face after a bad review, and shot a bullet into a copy of a book by Alice Hoffman after she also failed to appreciate his genius. It's fairly safe to say that you won't see me weighing in on Ford's prose here, especially since my recent reading of Canada left me underwhelmed. Pissed off writers with guns worry me considerably more than those with blogs and fans with dogs and dog poop.

Writing the column for the Guardian made me stop and think, however. I hate bullies. I don't know who was responsible for shoving that dog shit in my mailbox -- the author (who removed the offensive content from their website after I contacted the publisher), their spouse (who admitted harassing me with a series of messages), or one of the author's fans, from whom I also heard. I'll never know. But whoever it was, was a bully -- and that person took advantage of my reluctance to fight back. After writing and posting that review elsewhere, any review I posted on my blog ended up with my e-mail box full of obnoxious messages and lots of messages here for me to wade my way through and delete so that they wouldn't affect what a handful of readers enjoyed -- the discussion about books. But why give in to bullies?

I also read author Matt Haig's wonderful post about blogging. Haig spoke out, via Twitter, in favor of "a critical culture in books", arguing that we need "people to say what they want about books", even if it isn't unrelentingly positive cheerleading. He acknowledges that he himself has felt under pressure to say "nice things I only half mean". And that not all books can be good. Finally, of all people, I listened to a presentation by Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, at the Boston Book Festival. To be clear, I think his views about blogging cross the line into elitism -- certainly, he'd have no time for someone like me -- but he did make several arguments that I couldn't help but agree with. Firstly, talking about books isn't just talking about what you "like" -- in fact, he skillfully eviscerated his final questioner of the day, someone who clearly was expecting a sympathetic reaction when she identified herself as a professional reviewer who explained her dilemma -- that she only found herself reviewing what she "liked", because, after all, life is too short. Stothard looked at her in disbelief. "You don't need to like a book to think about it critically," he said. Clearly, in his eyes, professional reviewers like her were as much of a problem as amateurs like myself. "If everyone only reviewed what they liked..." And words failed him, which I suspect doesn't happen to the likes of Sir Peter Stothard very frequently.

So, with all of the above in mind, I'm tiptoeing back into book blogging. We'll see how it goes. Whether I love a book or loathe it, what you'll continue to read here are my honest opinions. Perhaps I could do worse than to borrow some other words of wisdom from Stothard: one "should never say anything in a review that one wouldn't say to the author's face." I think that's generally good advice for anything in the public domain, in any event. On the flip side, I think reviewers need to feel able to voice an opinion without worrying about what's in their mailbox or -- far more heinous -- being cracked over the head with a bottle of wine while out shopping.

Happy reading, everyone.