As part of our Best Books of 2010 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
I'll say it: I think Lionel Shriver should have won the National Book Award. The smart, unsentimental expat's 10th novel, So Much for That, asks the type of questions about health care that few legislatures are brave enough to face. Such as, whether an extra three months of life for a cancer patient—spent in and out of hospitals, enduring painful treatments—is worth the sacrifice of a life's savings.
But despite the serious topic, the book isn't dry: humor, dark or otherwise, lurks on almost every page. So Much for That does what a good novel should: manages to entertain you and make you think at the same time.
Read our full review of So Much for That here.
Writer Tasha Alexander and her Victorian-era novels featuring the intrepid, ahead-of-her-time Lady Emily should be well-known to BookPage readers—see our reviews of them here. The fifth in the series, Dangerous to Know, came out last week. Here, Alexander gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of the research required for Dangerous, making us even more jealous of the life of an author!
I spent much of last summer housesitting in rural Normandy, writing and doing research for my latest book. It was heavenly. The landscape is extraordinary, like walking through an Impressionist painting, and the food is everything you’d expect from France. I’d do just about anything right now for the village boulangerie’s still-hot croissants. Spending a significant amount of time in the place your novel is set enriches the story in ways you can’t anticipate—and in ways that would be impossible if you limited your research to reading.
But the thing that surprised me the most about my time in France was driving. Or navigating, really. And that was something that couldn’t go into a novel set in 1892.
To start, let me say, for the record, that I absolutely adore France and the French. Always have, always will. Until I came to Normandy, I’d not spent much time in France outside of Paris (it’s pretty hard to tear yourself away from Paris), and I was looking forward to exploring the coast, the crumbling châteaux, and the lush countryside. Armed with directions printed from Google Maps, I set off for my first excursion, to the seaside town of Étretat.
Within about half an hour, I was hopelessly lost.
Google Maps, you see, doesn’t quite fit with France. I was approaching the trip like an American—an American planning to follow numbered highways to numbered exits.
Now. The French have both numbered highways and numbered exits. But to get to them isn’t quite so easy as you might think. It requires a different frame of mind. You don’t want to look for the number—instead, you need to go through each roundabout in the direction of the next village that’s on your way to your final destination. Knowing you need the N15 or the D8 isn’t enough. From that day on, I abandoned Google for a real, hard copy map, and made lists of towns before setting off. In the end, it made for much more pleasant excursions. How lovely to look for Pierrefiques or Fauville-en-Caux, wondering what you’ll see there, rather than fixating on numbers. Sure, you may eventually wind up on the N15, but more likely, you’ll never see the entrance and will spend a gorgeous afternoon meandering through charming places you’d never have seen otherwise.
Once you get accustomed to it, switching back to taking I-80 to exit whatever seems pedestrian and crass. I’m already looking forward to my next trip along the back roads of France.
Thanks, Tasha! Next time you go to France, take us with you. :) Visit her site for more about Tasha Alexander and the Lady Emily series.
Book trailers have come a long way—as we've seen with the videos we highlight every week on Trailer Tuesday—but sometimes the simplest route is the best. In this video from Penguin, John le Carré reads an excerpt from his latest book, Our Kind of Traitor (read the BookPage review). His dramatic performance, complete with accents, is a pleasure to listen to.
Of course, book trailer diehards can always turn to the more conventional video for the book from le Carré's New Zealand publisher:
Which approach do you prefer?
Louis Bayard isn't afraid to take on new territory in his work—since he first turned to writing historical mysteries in 2003, his novels have covered Dickens, Poe and 19th-century French detective Vidocq with equal skill. Now, Bayard has tried his hand at writing a book that takes two present-day scholars on a search for a 16th-century letter that is the key to a mystery. The School of Night (Holt) will hit shelves on March 29.
From the catalog:
In the late sixteenth century, five brilliant scholars gather under the cloak of darkness to discuss God, politics, astronomy, and the black arts. Known as the School of Night, they meet in secret to avoid the wrath of Queen Elizabeth. But one of the men, Thomas Harriot, has secrets of his own, secrets he shares with one person only: the servant woman he loves.
In modern-day Washington, D.C., disgraced Elizabethan scholar Henry Cavendish has been hired by the ruthless antiquities collector Bernard Styles to find a missing letter. The letter dates from the 1600s and was stolen by Henry's close friend, Alonzo Wax. Now Wax is dead and Styles wants the letter back.
. . . Joining Henry in his search for the letter is Clarissa Dale, a mysterious woman who suffers from visions that only Henry can understand. In short order, Henry finds himself stumbling through a secretive world of ancient perils, caught up in a deadly plot, and ensnared in the tragic legacy of a forgotten genius.
After editing five crime anthologies, Rosemary Herbert joins the mystery-writing ranks with her first novel, Front Page Teaser (Down East Books).
Describe your book in one sentence.
Set in Boston, and following the adventures of a gutsy, underdog, tabloid newspaper reporter on the trail of a missing mom, Front Page Teaser: A Liz Higgins Mystery is not just a fast-paced puzzler, but a love song to the news reporting life.
What's the best writing advice you've ever gotten?
“Think tabloid.” My first editor at the Boston Herald told me this with a wink, because she did not mean to suggest that I write as if I were reporting for the National Enquirer. What she did mean was to cut to the chase, keep the pace lively, write with attitude and verve, and especially to get to the heart of the matter. When I was young, my creative writing teacher, Mr. Alfred Haulenbeek, told me to believe in myself and to “grow in the appreciation of fine language.” Put these pieces of advice together and you have a winning combination.
How would you earn a living if you weren't a writer?
As a librarian. I have worked as a reference librarian at Harvard University and as a children’s librarian in Maine. In fact, subplot in Front Page Teaser is drawn from my library experience. When my reporter-sleuth Liz Higgins asks librarians to reveal the reading habits of a missing woman, the librarians stand as bastions protecting the privacy of library patron circulation records. I added this to my book as a tribute to librarians and librarianship.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
Being nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America for The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing. I served as editor-in-chief for this volume.
If you had to be stranded on a desert island with one fictional character, who would you want it to be?
Nancy Drew. I’m sure she would get us out of the desert island “scrape” with pluck and aplomb. Meanwhile, we could trade some clever sleuthing clues.
What are you reading now?
Tony Hillerman’s Landscapes (Harper) by his daughter, Anne Hillerman, with photographs by Don Strel. Because Tony Hillerman is not here to celebrate the recent paperback publication of our book A New Omnibus of Crime (Oxford University Press), I have been missing him. Anne’s book makes me feel closer to Tony and his work.
There's a new voice on the historical fiction scene as of today: Kathe Koja. Known mainly for her young adult fiction, Koje made her literary debut publishing horror with Bantam Dell. She returns to an adult audience with Under the Poppy, her first book with Small Beer Press. Imaginative, poetic and more than a little bawdy, the book follows the comic/tragic love triangle involving a pair of orphans and the man who runs the brothel where they take shelter.
Fans of authors like Sarah Waters and Michel Faber won't want to miss this romp set against the bustling backdrop of 1870s Brussels, which Koja describes as a story about "love and faithfulness, what it means to really be true: to a person, a vocation, through tremendous struggle and unavoidable pain. Under the Poppy is at its deepest heart the love story of Rupert and Istvan." Read the rest of our Q&A with Koja on BookPage.com.
Admit it: there's at least one fail-proof cue out there that is guaranteed to get you to pick up a book. A time period, a cover image, a setting, a theme—everyone has a trigger. Sometimes the book delivers, sometimes it doesn't, but either way you're going to at least give it a try.
Paging through the Crown catalog turned up one for me—A Man in Uniform, which goes on sale December 28. It set off the following alarms:
While many of us think of the summer months as prime reading season, publishers tend to save plenty of their sure-to-be fiction hits for fall. And this year’s crop of late 2010 novels is certainly no different.
Our September issue has already gone to press, and we are particularly excited about our interviews with Jonathan Franzen and Emma Donoghue. Franzen’s Freedom and Donoghue’s Room are two of the most talked-about upcoming releases, and we can’t wait to see what readers make of them once they go on sale in the coming weeks (for Freedom, that’s August 31 and Room, September 13).
September also marks the release of Sara Gruen’s follow-up to the smash hit Water for Elephants, Ape House, (Sept. 7), Ken Follett’s first part in a new trilogy, Fall of Giants (Sept. 28), another love story from Nicholas Sparks, Safe Haven (Sept. 14) and Michael Cunningham’s first novel since Specimen Days, By Nightfall (Sept. 28).
But things don’t slow down in October. Nicole Krauss is back (after The History of Love) with Great House on Oct. 12 (be sure to check out our interview with Krauss in the October issue of BookPage) and John le Carré returns with Our Kind of Traitor (also on sale Oct. 12).
In November, we’re excited about a new—and very dark—story collection from Stephen King, Full Dark, No Stars (on sale Nov. 9) and Dennis Lehane’s follow up to Gone, Baby, Gone, Moonlight Mile (on sale Nov. 2).
If courtroom dramas and thrillers are your cup of tea, you are certainly in luck this fall. Vince Flynn, John Grisham, Lee Child, David Baldacci, Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson, Tom Clancy and Steve Berry all have new releases in the coming months.
So as the kids go back to school and the leaves change from green to red, be sure to pick up one of these new novels. You won’t be disappointed!
Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
HMH • $19.95 • September 1, 2010
I have been eager to read Scarlett Thomas' latest since I first heard about it back in March. As predicted, it's another book full of big ideas. This time Thomas' main focus is narrative—its limitations, restrictions and role in our lives—which she explores through the story of Meg, a would-be literary author who works as one of many ghostwriters for the Zeb Ross series of adventure novels.
Then again, perhaps it's wrong to call this a story, exactly. One of the many notions batted around in this philosophical novel is the idea of the "storyless story," a tale that refuses to follow the traditional narrative structure, and Our Tragic Universe can definitely be read as such. It's difficult to pull an excerpt from a book with so many threads—but in the one below, Meg is thinking about the ways in which tragedy is different from genre fiction.
Oedipus is an almost perfect example of the deterministic, cause-and-effect-based plot, where Y can only happen because I has happened first. . . . But every time I re-read it I marvelled at how a narrative could do so much more than just tell a satisfying story with a beginning, middle and an end, which was basically what I was always teaching the people on the retreat to do, and what I'd always done myself. Somehow, Oedipus seemed to dramatise a fundamental puzzle of human existence. Anna Karenina did this as well. So did Hamlet. . . . I could see that most narrative was an equation that balance, a zero-sum game, and that tragedy was special because you got more out of the equation that you put in, but I had no idea how to write like that. The mechanics of Oedipus were simple enough to grasp, but where did one get all that feeling from?
I'd once speculated about what would have happened if Zeb Ross had written Hamlet. There'd be no ghost, for a start. Or at least, the ghost would be reduced to a troubled teenager's hallucination, and Hamlet, with the help of his plucky love interest, Ophelia, would come to realise that his new stepfather didn't really do something as improbably and stupid as pour poison in his father's ear, and had in fact tried to save his life! Hamlet would start seeing a counsellor—perhaps Polonius, who dabbles in the self-help industry himself, would recommend someone—and come to terms with his bereavement and realise that it's OK for his mother to have sex with her new husband (although there'd be no 'rank sweat of an enseamed bed' or anything icky like that) and he'd go back to university happy, having now accepted the change in his family circumstances, with Ophelia in tow. Then I realised that if I'd written Hamlet it probably would have been like that too.
Some of you expressed strong opinions (mostly negative) when we posted about Katherine Heigl getting tapped to play Stephanie Plum in the film adaptation of Janet Evanovich's One for the Money. So we thought you'd be interested in this picture of Heigl on set, which we found via Jezebel.com.
What do you think? Anyone still pining for Sandra Bullock? Variety says that Sherri Shepard will play Lula, a choice we can definitely get behind.
Janet E. is also in the news these days for other reasons: She's currently renegotiating her contract with publisher St. Martin's Press. Reportedly Evanovich, who is represented by her son Peter, wants around $50 million for her next four "Plum" books, and St. Martin's is apparently not ready to pony up quite that much (the last four books in the series cost them about $40 million). Evanovich isn't saying much about the "private" details of the negotiation, but industry pros are wondering if she might take her fan base and self publish if she can't find a publisher ready to pay the asking price.