Monday, May 30, 2011


Long live the Western.  Author Patrick DeWitt brings fresh verve to a classic genre in his new novel.  It is told from the first-person perspective of Eli Sisters, one half of a hired gun team.  They've set out to find and kill Hermann Kermit Warm (ironically, the name of a famed art director in early German film) at the behest of the enigmatic "Commodore," who seems like a sort of Keyser Soze pulling strings from an unseen corner.  Still, the brothers are very good at what they do, and make pretty good money doing it.  They cross the old west on horseback, have run-ins with gamblers, gunslingers and girls and reach their quarry just in time to join in on some prospecting for gold.  

What makes the book so enjoyable is the easiness of the tone.  Eli's thoughts and description are uncomplicated.  He is not, however, simple-minded.  He has internal dialogues about morality and external arguments on philosophy with other characters.  And of all the strange people we meet on their journey, Eli certainly displays the most kindness.  It is his forgiving view that allows us, the readers, to forgive brother Charlie, or at least understand him.  It is very open and human, which is what a Western should be -- strip away the urban constricts, leave a man to the elements and see what becomes of him.

Though not precisely a comedy, there are as many funny moments as their are awkward ones, and somewhat violent ones.  It is a Western, after all.  (Note: Animal lovers should be warned there  are some graphic descriptions of veterinary surgery.)  There is also a fun hint of steampunk in the prospecting scenes when they learn their mark has developed an unusual technique for finding gold deposits.  

It's fun, adventurous and a great summer read.  And it's about to get even more fun!  The great folks from HarperCollins did a limited run printing of the fantastic cover art by Dan Stiles (see the art at the top of this post).  Each is numbered and signed and one can be YOURS.  All you have to do is leave a comment below, with your email address. You can get extra entries by posting a mention to your blog, Facebook or Twitter.  Just be sure to send me a link in the comments.  The contest will end Monday, June 6, 2011 at 10:00pm EST.  I will choose a winner at random.

 US only, please. [THIS CONTEST IS NOW OVER.] 

Thanks to the folks at HarperCollins for the review copy, and for offering a poster for this giveaway.

Watch the fun, animated book trailer here:

ISBN: 9780062041265; ISBN10: 0062041266; Imprint: Ecco ; On Sale: 4/26/2011; Format: Hardcover; Trimsize: 6 x 9; Pages: 336; $24.99; Ages: 18 and Up; BISAC1:FIC000000

Thursday, May 26, 2011

ARMCHAIR BEA 11: Relationships

I kind of touched on this yesterday with my post about authors and publishers I've "hit it off" with -- at least the cyber world.  I start by recognizing a couple of things.  The publishers/publicists who send us pitches or ARCs are doing their best to get a book in front of as many interested readers as possible.  They are trying to match us (the reviewers) with the type of story and writing AND they are trying to match our readers with the books.  It's a three-tier system.  In view of that, I tell a publicist when there is a book I desperately want, and give them examples of similar things I've reviewed (genre, author, etc).  By the same token, if they send me a pitch that has no interest, I politely decline.  It's taken me awhile to not feel bad about this, but it doesn't do anyone any good if I am reading something begrudgingly.  Very occasionally, I receive ARCs unsolicited.  I no longer feel guilty if I don't get to those either.  If I can, I will, but I made no promise to do so.  I also make sure to send a direct link to my review to the publicist who sent me the book as soon as it is posted.  

I truly think this is the best way to create strong relationships with publicists.  But if any publicists or other reviewers disagree, please tell me.

In my reviews themselves, my number one aim is to talk about the book in a way that will help MY reader know if they would like it.  I will point out strengths and weaknesses, make comparisons and try to evoke the style and tone of the work.  I try to give my readers an idea of what they will encounter in this book, and hopefully they will be inspired to read it. 

If there is a particular book that I am incredibly impressed with I will try to reach out to the author -- either through twitter, their site or the publicist.  Although I do want them to see my review, I also want them to know that someone read their hard work and was really touched by it.  A great example of this is my review of The Diviner's Tale by Bradford Morrow.  He was tickled by the picture of me actually reading his book (along with my cat), which struck up a conversation in the comments about divining and our experiences with it.  I think these are the meaningful touchstones for writers and reviewers.  

Writers, as a rule, don't sweat out a story just to make piles of money (though they wouldn't mind surely).  It starts with an irrepressible need to tell a story -- but that is only the first half.  They also need that story to be heard or read.  That's where we come in.  We act as mediums for authors.  We get the message from their ether to our listeners.  

By noting this mutual respect, we can keep an active dialogue between writers, reviewers, critics, and readers -- one that swaps tales, ideas, fears and hopes.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

ARMCHAIR BEA 11: Author Interviews & Favorite Blogs

I was a bit late to the Armchair BEA train, so I was not assigned an interview to do.  I can, however, direct you to two interviews I have done in the not-so-distant past.

My interview with Sarah Rose, author of For All the Tea in China.

It's an amazing book on a long-lost history of corporate espionage.

Sarah is a freelance travel writer, and amusing "twitterer."  You can follow her at @thesarahrose.  She was also very encouraging to a newbie reviewer, like me.

I interviewed Ben Greenman on his book Celebrity Chekhov, which slightly altered classic stories by inserting modern celebrities.  

I also interviewed him about "Letters with Character", an interactive site that invited anyone to write a letter to a fictional, literary character.  

As anyone who has corresponded with Greenman knows, he answers his emails and queries so quickly, he must have wifi imbedded in him somewhere.  You can follow him on Twitter as well at @bengreenman.

In terms of a favorite book blog, I'm gonna have to go with The Olive Reader, and its main blogger, Erica Brooke.  

She is funny, informative, helpful, and accessible.  Who doesn't love pictures of cats eating tacos!  You can follow Erica on Twitter at @ericabrooke and @harperperennial

I'm also going to give a shout out to author Shane Jones (Light Boxes).  His blog is atypical and his tweets can be even more abstruse, but quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

ARMCHAIR BEA 11: Best of 2011 (so far)

I read so much, and I enjoy many things for different reasons.  It's hard to call something the "best".  But in the name of Armchair BEA, here goes...

THE DIVINER'S TALE by Bradford Morrow

Very rarely do I become completely obsessed with reading a particular book.  Reading in general, sure, but I simply had to know what would happen to the very modern, very approachable characters in this book.  Which of course means it is all the more disappointing when the book is actually finished.  A terrible catch-22 of book-reading.  

Read my review here.

POX: AN AMERICAN HISTORY by Michael Willrich
This one made the cut because I didn't know a disease could be so fascinating.  Of course, it is about much more than a single disease.  Rather it is an investigation into social standards, the advance of medicine, and a discussion of the debate still going on 100 years later -- the morality of compulsory vaccination.

Read my review here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

ARMCHAIR BEA 11: From Virtual Booth #221b

It should be obvious from my imaginary booth number that I love Sherlock Holmes and his ilk.  I should have been born English.  On July 4th, I wish for Reunification Day as much as I celebrate Independence Day.  

All to say, I love the English language.  I love how it sounds, when tailored well.  I love words and I love storytelling.  It may come as no surprise that I was an English major in college -- though I very nearly wasn't.  My first, compulsory English class was miserable and I nearly scrapped the idea altogether.  The next semester there was a class entitled "The Detective and Criminal in Literature."  We read Poe and Doyle, but I was also exposed to Wilkie Collins, whose vast works I am still enjoying.  It was by no means a "fluff" course, but engaged my sensibilities on a different level.  I am now finishing my Masters in Cinema Studies, which uses some of the same tools to examine storytelling.
By day, I manage a nonprofit.  But a little over a year ago I practically fell into book reviews.  I strive to write reviews that do more than provide a summary.  Rather, I attempt to use my skills as an analyst to tease out themes.  Most of all, I try to make sure my reader knows whether or not THEY might like the book, regardless of how I liked it.  I'd like to think Holmes and Watson would have approved.

I'm blogging from my home in a Historic District near Savannah, GA.  This is my first Armchair BEA, and I'm hoping to "meet" some great bloggers, authors and publicists!


It's one of those things that happens to someone else.  We know it's real, but we all think we're smarter than those criminals, those bank robbers that hand the teller their ID during a robbery.  Criminals like that eventually fall victim to traps of their own making and can't be much for society to worry about.  In a sense we're right -- but survival of the fittest applies to criminals too.  The central character of this story manages to deceive some very smart, well-put-together people and convince them of the unbelievable.

As an exchange student from Germany, Chris (later Clark) ingratiates himself with a family and is granted an extended green card.  From then on, he disappears into the fabric of America, transforming himself into whomever he needs (and wants) to be.  He is particularly manipulative with women, though not exclusively, and ends up as the toast of society in San Marino (a wealthy LA enclave), NYC, New England and Boston.  He built his worlds out of empty promises, then moved on and constructed another.  

Mark Seal, contributing editor to Vanity Fair, traces this bizarre path with determination.  It's not easy tracking someone who doesn't want to be found, and it's even harder when they never really existed.  And while Seal's aim is of course to set down the facts as the happened (at least as best we know), there is also a more abstract reality he is trying to obtain -- exactly what is it about this person that made him so convincing?  So many people, many of them highly educated, were taken in.  People who should have known better.  His charm was so overwhelming that in some cases people even ignored the alarm bells in their head. 

The home in San Marino that Rockefeller claimed to live in.
Seal's record includes numerous interviews with people duped by Rockefeller as well as various law enforcement agents to aided in his eventual capture.  Any opining is done through them and their quotes.  Perhaps this is what makes the book so compelling.  Seal manages to let the sensational story tell itself rather than sensationalize it.  One might also speculate that very tack is why so many people even agreed to be interviewed, when they had refused before.  Seal's delivery is straightforward, easy-to-follow but not at all dry.  While Rockefeller's position is uncertain, the reader can rely on Seal's presentation of the facts.

Many thanks to Lindsay at Viking/Penguin for the review copy.

ISBN 9780670022748 | 336 pages | 02 Jun 2011 | Viking Adult | 5.98 x 9.01in | 18 - AND UP

Monday, May 9, 2011


This is the perfect little handbook for the English major, or literary wit in your life.  Simple and compact, it is a compilation of interesting facts surrounding the myth and mystery of William Shakespeare.  Author Stephen Marche notes that when he embarked on his PhD dissertation, "I chose Shakespeare because I thought he would never bore me.  And I was right."

This book seems like a light study of all those little crumbs he picked up along the way, but had no place in an official academic paper.  His strongest moments are when he notes an anomaly, or finds a pattern and lets it lead him into something new.  The story of how starlings came to be in Central Park (and now North America) is one such discovery.
Marche's assessment of certain themes is also eye-opening.  In particular his chapter on youth, specifically the section about Ophelia, is lovely -- although, as an English major myself, I must politely disagree on his stance on Ophelia's state of mind.  I do agree with his notion that it's a bit weird that Queen Gertrude tells us all about Ophelia's death, as if she watched but did nothing to help her.  I've always attributed that to a necessary solution to a staging problem.  The point is, he brings up ideas is an easy manner and makes one take a second look -- or in some cases a first look -- at how one writer influenced the future. 

Paul Robeson as Othello
Other sections are not as engaging.  He notes that a Nazi pamphlet entitled Shakespeare - A Germanic Writer was circulated and there were more productions of Shakespeare plays in Germany in 1936 than in the rest of the world combined.  But Marche fails to comment on this.  Was it because the artistic left saw little else they could perform - and survive?  Was it is a commentary to the dangers of the rising party?  What did the Nazis see in Shakespeare that they felt could be used to their advantage?  Marche's short paragraph raises many questions but answers none.  Though this book is by no means intended to be an academic tract, it could have withstood a bit more fleshing out in parts such as this.  

Anne Hathaway's cottage, most likely the wife of William Shakespeare.
Thankfully, Marche only briefly goes over the many questions and conspiracies surrounding Shakespeare's identity and biography.  These are not relevant in this particular case, as the writing itself is what is being analyzed.  Overall, the book is very enjoyable and certainly accessible to anyone with a vague interest in Shakespeare, or simply in modern culture.  

Many thanks to the folks at HarperCollins for the review copy.
ISBN: 9780061965531; ISBN10: 0061965537 
Imprint: Harper 
On Sale: 5/10/2011
Format: Hardcover
Trimsize: 5 x 7 1/4
Pages: 224; $21.99
Ages: 18 and Up

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


I can't be sure how I became entirely sucked into this story.  Perhaps it was the easy, seductive charm of the setting; or the way the era was not obvious at the outset; maybe how it took on the genres of ghost story, coming-of-age tale and historical fiction all at once.

It is set in the exclusive Harrow on the Hill boarding school, just outside of London.  Alma mater for Byron as well as other fabled graduates, it becomes a torturous last chance for a young American studying abroad.  Escaping his own troubled past, our narrator seeks some sort of firm footing and perhaps a bit of acceptance.  Instead he finds himself the victim of an angry spirit's torments. 

It seems the ghost of Lord Byron's jilted lover has turned his sights on the main character and those that surround him.  With a few faithful friends and professors, they seek to sooth the phantom and release themselves, and the school, from his scornful mischief.  

It is enjoyable to explore Byron's past through the eyes of this author and his characters.  His imaginative story is based on numerable biographical facts.  Byron did attend this school, there is a play called The White Devil, Byron did have a close friend, who did die of tuberculosis and Byron did leave England suddenly in 1809.  (Read more from author Justin Evans here.)  The weaving of all of these unusual circumstances into a ghost story would have been too much for any author to resist.  Luckily they were picked up by Justin Evans who clearly enjoyed letting his imagination wander the underground chasms disguised by time.

All in all, the book is great fun.  The point-of-view changes fairly seamlessly.  The narrative style of inner thoughts that break in is particularly well-used.  What is not perfect in every aspect (sometimes the villainy of the Snape-like headmaster gets a little overdone), it more that makes up for in chills and creativity. 

Thanks to the folks at Harper for the review copy.

ISBN: 9780061728273; ISBN10: 0061728276
Imprint: Harper
On Sale: 5/10/2011
Format: Hardcover
Trimsize: 6 x 9; Pages: 384; $24.99
Ages: 18 and Up; BISAC1:FIC031000