Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nothing to write home about

Today was one of those days and this evening is showing the signs of following suit. I must therefore be extremely brief this time around, really just checking in to say hello-goodbye. As this is not exactly polite I will leave you with a promise of a better post next week when I will be at the Frankfurt Book Fair and hopefully in the position to write about something refreshing and interesting.

The above is so unimpressive that I am adding the below, in the hope that it might make your visit worthwhile, depending on your taste in music. This is the first known recording of singer Björk, here she is just a child, singing „I love to love“. I find it very, very cute and it is amazing how early on her voice took on its unique characteristics.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, September 27, 2010

words on ribbons

A French artist has made this installation piece in the Palais Royal with words from famous authors who've written about the Palais Royal; Flaubert, Zola, Colette etc. I think it's so very cool. A great synchronicity of words and place. It made me think of Christo, remember the artist who wrapped huge things in the 70's and 80's? We've got a print of Christo's wrapping of the Pont Neuf and I'd love to see some mesh of buildings, structures and monuments wrapped with words written to describe the stories set there.

I was just in LA for the West Hollywood book fair. It was a wilting 108 degrees - - of course I got lost driving downtown taking surface streets to avoid the freeways and ended up in some decrepit once flamboyant area of old Hollywood. Full of 30's Spanish stucco bungalows and old apartment buildings that knew better days...very Chandleresque. You could almost see a man with a Fedora hat stopping on the heat flattening pavement to light a cigarette. Or Mae West pulling up in big Packard with her retinue of rent boys and swirling a boa. The tall sentinel Palm trees lining the streets and out in Glendale the coyotes cried in the early morning. Eerie keening like screams. It made me want to know the history of this place when orange groves filled the landscape instead of the #405 and strip malls. To know the geography when the air held no smog, the streetcars ran, the past of these buildings, these mean streets Chandler wrote about.
LA despite it's Elayness still evokes more than the less than tasteful billboards on Sunset Strip, the tourist buses heading to the La Brea tarpits. There's an energy, most people come from somewhere else and it's an industry town. The industry being film and TV and writing. The real insiders treat their work as a craft, a trade. On one panel at the WeHo bookfair the creator and writer of Columbo, now in his 80's, was interviewed by Christopher Rice and talked about the old Hollywood.
When writing a good story, script or 'treatment' meant something. How even in network TV a good story line dealt with issues, emotions and had something to say. "That's why Columbo became an icon, the everyday man who by sheer persistance and plodding got his 'man'. His raincoat, his old French car on the streets of LA, no one ever confused Columbo with anywhere else. People identified with Columbo and the stories I co-wrote with my partner still hold up." He then smiled and leaned forward "But I'll tell you the most important thing you need to remember about writing." Everyone leaned forward, wiping our brows in the heat. "Good writing is good writing."

Cara - Tuesday

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Samba #2

I have heard many explanations for the birth of the word samba.
And, since, I can’t be sure which one is most likely to be correct, I will refrain from mentioning any of them.
One thing we know for sure is that samba was developed in urban Rio de Janeiro in the closing years if the nineteenth century.
And that like American jazz both the music, and the dance that evolved out of it, is strongly influenced by the rhythms and movements of Africa.
Many people associate it with Carnival in Rio.
They’re right.
Others associate it with Carnival throughout Brazil.
They’re wrong.
In Holinda, for example, the music of Carnival is the frevo.
In Salvador, it’s the axé.
The first samba to be recorded was Pelo Telefone, back in 1917.
Since then, the samba has evolved into many sub-genres, each of which has earned a particular name.
There’s the samba canção (canção means “song”). I posted a good example of a samba canção last week in my post entitled Samba #1.Then there’s  the samba enredo, performed by the great samba schools of Rio and São Paulo during Carnival. (Samba schools are large organizations of up to 5000 people which compete annually with thematic floats, elaborate costumes and original music. For a look at what they’re all about check out my post of February 7, 2010 and entitled The Greatest Show on Earth. You’ll find it in the archives of this blog.)
Other forms of the samba include the partido aldo, the samba de gafieira, the samba de breque, the pagoda and the bossa nova.
The last of these was inaugurated by João Gilberto, Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Morais, men who spawned a generation of disciples.
But no one did it better than the masters themselves.
Here are Tom and João performing Desafinado. (Out of Tune.)
About the dance:
You can spot a Brazilian dancing the samba from a kilometer away.
They learn it young.
Watch the rotational hip movement and the footwork.
My wife can do it.
I can’t.

Leighton - Monday

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Your Car Is Waiting

People who don't have the things many of us take for granted make the things they do have work in ingenious ways.  That is nowhere more true than in the multiple, and often hair-raising, uses Southeast Asians have found for the humble motorbike.  In Thailand there are probably twenty motorbikes for all the other types of motorized transport combined.  They're relatively cheap, they run forever, and they can get you through the most impervious traffic jams.  Amazingly useful.

Here's Porky Pig's worst nightmare, the Two-Stroke Pig Express. The problem is simply stated: You got your pigs over here and your butcher shop over there.  And you got your scooter.  I'm pretty certain the pigs are deceased, if only because I can't imagine them getting them into the carrier while they have any say in the matter.  

Meet the most careful bike pilot in Saigon.  Yes those are eggs.  The eggs, like the pigs -- like everything in Southeast Asia except passengers -- have been secured to the bike using those stretchy things with hooks on each end that I used to keep the trunk of my car closed when I was a starving -- well, mildly hungry -- college student.  I only wish I owned the patent on those things for Thailand.

The Pipe-mobile is seen frequently in Thai and Vietnamese villages these days as indoor plumbing becomes ubiquitous.  Having watched these being loaded, I can tell you that the driver got on the bike first and then the pipes were layered on either side of him, and he'll stay on the bike until they're taken off, because there's no other option.
Moving day.  All the wicker bookcases I bought in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, where my apartments are overflowing with books, were delivered just as you see below.
This could go on forever.  But this is the use to which the motorbike (or "moto," as it's usually called) is most frequently put -- as the family car.  And I've seen them with much bigger families on them.
Only two wheels?  No problem.

Tim -- Sundays

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Blurbs

Last week I received a parcel in the post. I still become ridiculously excited whenever a package arrives in my name, probably because so few do. It's even more exciting when it's an unexpected parcel (though often the only reason the parcel is unexpected is because I've forgotten I've ordered something from Amazon, or something for the kids.) But this package wasn't one of those. It was from a publisher. Not my publisher either.

Inside was a book, an advance proof, written by an author I genuinely like, though I've not caught up with his latest couple of books. I stared at it for a few seconds. My first instinct was that it had been sent to me by mistake. Oh no, I thought, it's this author's first copy and for some strange reason it's been sent to me. Sounds weird but I remember once being sent a contract by mistake. For a very, very popular authoress (it was glimpsing those zeroes, as a poverty-stricken non-fiction hack, that made me think it might be worth a punt at fiction.) Anyway, I looked at the letter accompanying the book. It was definitely addressed to me. Below my name was a brief outline of the book from its editor. Then a sentence asking whether, if I enjoyed reading it, would I mind contacting them?

I switched between staring at the letter and book several times, trying to work what was going on. Why did they care what I thought of their book? I can be impossibly slow on the uptake some times. My wife, slightly less gormless than I, wandered past, noticed the sound of whirring from my clanking brain. I showed her the letter. 'They want you to give a quote for the cover,' she said, matter-of-factly.

At last it clicked. A blurb! They wanted me to give a blurb. Now, I have nothing against blurbs. My first book came with a few attached and as a nervous debut novelist convinced my book was about to be laughed off the shelves, I was thrilled to get them. Particularly when one came from Reginald Hill, whose books I love.  But this was the first time I have ever been asked. I felt a shiver of flattery run down my spine. But there was some unease too. Why me? Browsing the bookshops of Britain you can be forgiven for thinking there are only about five authors who give blurbs, and I'm not one of them. I am not a bestseller. Not by any stretch. Why me? 'Because they like your books and think people who like this guy's book also like yours,' my wife added, by now entirely fed up of the whirring noise. 'Why not read it, see if you like it, and give them a quote if you do?'

Ah, I thought, naive woman. If only it was so simple. From what I can glean, blurbing is fraught with peril. Do too many and you become a blurb whore. Your name is splattered across so many books it becomes as much part of the cover as the price tag. It means nothing. You look pathetic, desperate. People send books to you thinking you will lift your skirt at the slightest request.Then they realise your name has become so ubiquitous you actually harm a book's chances. You turn people off. The books dry up. You sit shivering in front of a keyboard blurbing your friends. 'John quite simply gives the best dinner parties out there....they fairly coruscate with all the ingredients that make a classic meal.' Would this be the top of a very slippery slope? Give this book an endorsement, whatever that might be worth, and the next thing you know I'm telling everyone that Dan Brown is the heir to Nabokov?

Then there's what to actually say. Blurbs rarely sound natural. Often they make the blurber sound like an insufferable smartypants. 'The Hungry Caterpillar is a journey into the core of the human psyche. Eric Carle carves in stone the insatiability that throbs within our soul, and our desire to be transformed.' Some just make me wince. I'll always remember the worst blurb I've ever read. It was on the cover of Man and Boy by Tony Parsons. 'I cried five times and laughed out loud four,' it read. Er, that's supposed to make me want to  read it? I read the book and it was so saccharine and sentimental it made me want to vomit three times and carve my eyeballs out with a teaspoon once. Not sure they would have used that though.

I'm sure you've all got your own examples. I'd love to hear them. (And the weirdest or most spurious choice of blurber. I remember a quote on the cover of one of Jake Arnott's book from David Bowie. Yes, that david Bowie. Now, whatever you think of his music, I'm not sure Bowie's imprimatur is going to have you forking out for a crime novel...) I have to know what pitfalls to avoid. Because, yes, I've read the book and I enjoyed it. I've decided to break my blurb virginity and go for it. Now I just have to write one and not sound like a smug ****...Could be my biggest challenge yet.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Bluebird of Happiness; the Chicken of Depression

I’m depressed!  Very depressed.
The Bluebird of Happiness temporarily absent from his life, Stan is visited by the Chicken of Depresssion
For the past several days I’ve been trying to write an important chapter in our fourth Detective Kubu novel.  And all that’s coming out of my fingers is drivel.  Unadulterated drivel.
To make things worse, this afternoon I had to send a copy of the manuscript of our third novel, Death of the Mantis, to a friend across the country.  While I was waiting for Fedex to deal with the paperwork, I glanced at a few pages.  Ugh!  The writing wasn’t as smooth as I remember it when we eagerly sent the manuscript to our editor in March.  It was choppy, and there were typos!  There were still typos after all that proofreading!!  Aargh!
As is the nature of the beast, I, of course, then had to find other things to be depressed about.  That didn’t take long.  As I approached – on foot – the house I am staying at in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco, I started to pant.  Whether this was from the slight hill I had just ascended or in anticipation of the 45 steps and three switchbacks on the path from the road to the door, I don’t know.  But by the time I reached the door, my heart was racing, I was sweating, and my leg muscles were in need of a steam room and massage.  Where had my youth gone?  Where was the finely tuned body of yore?
Fortunately my subconscious had anticipated my malaise and on the way home had directed me to the local supermarket, where I purchased a packet of Chocolate Digestives – one of my all-time favourite biscuits (cookies).
As I sat sipping my cuppa tea (normally enjoyed at 4pm sharp by my family in South Africa, but today 12 minutes early due to emotional needs), I decided I’d better write this week's blog before attempting to finish my elusive chapter. 
Of course, writing a blog requires a topic, which I didn’t have.  I slouched further into my chair.  Should I write about the Motswana man, Tirafalo Mokopi – a 21-year old security guard in Matsiloje village - who claimed he’d made love to a ghost?  As he lit a match to whisper sweet nothings to his sweetheart, she disappeared before his eyes, even though the windows and doors were shut.  “She just vanished,” he said in mild trauma. 
That would be a great lead-in to a piece about Succubi, I mused with a flicker of enthusiasm.  But then my negative demeanour took over.  Who on earth would want to read about Succubi?  Obviously nobody!
I helped myself to another Chocolate Digestive.
I also pondered writing another Botswana story: of the Maun businessman and New Apostolic Church priest, Raphael Shoopara Sekele.  Although initial rumours were that he had been murdered, probably because his body was found on the back seat of his car with blood dripping from his mouth and nose, police confirmed that he had died during an illicit lovemaking session, not with his wife, but with a girlfriend.  The fact that his pants were down and his manhood exposed probably helped the police reach their conclusion.  According to The Voice, ‘the revelations of his demise will come as a shock to the community and church members, who described Shoopara as a man of multiple talents…...’ I was also pleased to read that the police returned Shoopara’s mobile phone to his widow.
Grey go-away bird
I decided there really wasn’t enough in this story to make a blog of it, even though I noticed that Shoopara was originally from Kachikau - that's the town where Moremi, the cook from Jackalberry Camp in The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, and his pet go-away bird saw the man wearing the hat with guineafowl feathers.

Time for another Digestive!

Then I considered the story of ‘Pumpy’ Puso, a three-year old girl from Tutume, a small town in the north central part of Botswana, not far from Zimbabwe.  Two weeks ago, around eleven in the morning, she went to play at the neighbours’ house with some friends.  A couple of hours later, her younger cousin came home for lunch, but Pumpy wasn’t with him.  Frantic, Pumpy’s mother went next door to find her.  To no avail.  She had disappeared.  Despite massive man (child) hunts by police and community, she still hasn’t been found.
'Pumpy' Puso
Pumpy’s mother is in deep despair.  She thinks that Pumpy has been abducted for muti.  In this context, muti is a potion that transfers the power in one organism to another.  For example, if you want courage, you may take muti made from the heart of a lion.  If you want to improve your sex life, you may seek out a witchdoctor to give you the right muti to accomplish that.  The witchdoctor would likely abduct a young girl (or boy) and brew a potion made from ……body parts.  Unfortunately, not an uncommon practice.
Just thinking about Pumpy threw me into a deeper depression than before, both because of the nature of the crime, but also because the chapter that I am having trouble writing is about a man whose daughter has just been abducted.  In the chapter he becomes deeply depressed, and his mental state is increasingly precarious. 
So my depression has come full circle.
And I still can’t squeeze the right words out.
So, I’ll give up trying and have another cup of tea.
And finish the packet of Chocolate Digestives.
The blog can wait.

Stan - Thursday

Postscript:  In order to clear my head and raise my spirits (but mainly for the popcorn with butter and salt), I headed out after writing the words above to see George Clooney in The American. I am pleased to report that I'm now less depressed than I was.  Even my drivel was better than the movie.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It is hard being tolerant

A number of years ago a large hardware store franchise from Europe, Bauhaus, wanted to get in on the action in Iceland and sought to open up a huge store in the vicinity of Reykjavík. Iceland usually has a booming construction industry, the population having grown steadily all of the past century and everyone wanting to eventually live in a house, not an apartment. The store would have had decent business since they were expected to offer lower prices on construction materials, fixtures, appliances and the like, than the two large, local retailers who basically cornered the market for such goods. There was a snag however. No one would provide the foreign company with a plot of land to build on. This was a bit strange seeing everywhere you looked land was being shelled out by the town councils of the municipalities surrounding Reykjavík. At one point Bauhaus did reach some sort of agreement with one of the towns, only to have it taken away at the last minute for reasons not disclosed. Shortly afterward the mayor of this town was made managing director of one of the two Icelandic firms that did not welcome the competition. Coincidence?  
At this time a worldwide survey found Iceland to be the least corrupt country in the world. I do not know who they polled but am assuming not many people were, possibly only the mayor about to turn director. The sad ending to this story is that in 2006 Reykjavík finally provided this hapless company with a huge piece of land and construction of a 200,000 sq.ft store commenced. The building now stands empty, having been ready for stocking up in October 2008 when everything crashed here. Construction is at an all time low and very few people are buying much of anything.  There has been talk of converting it into a jail for the criminals that bankrupted us but that will be the day.
Today we have a similar sort of issue in the news, albeit less to do with cutthroat competition and more to do with the clashing of cultures. The 370 or so Muslims in Iceland need a plot of land to build a mosque. Their application has been stalled by the city for ten years. For some reason this is now much debated despite being long ongoing, I missed the beginning of the public discussions and can only venture a guess if the tenth anniversary of their fruitless attempts awoke the media. The pro-mosque people say it is racism to deny the group  this mosque and the anti-mosque people say it has no place in Iceland any more than an Icelandic church in Mecca. The anti-mosque propaganda is much more colorful I’ll give them that, they go on and on about how no one will be able to sleep in Reykjavík for constant prayer calls and that our buses will be jam-packed with suicide bombers and so on. I don’t think that is exactly how it would pan out but you will not see me in any picket line trying to push the matter forward, nor would I ever object to it when and if it comes to pass. For this I am too unreligious and thus not very enthusiastic one way or the other. I do want to see the Muslims who live here (very peacefully) treated fairly but as I think religion in general is slowly on its way out I do not think we should encourage anyone in this respect. Additionally we just passed a law making it mandatory for our churches to marry gay couples that choose this venue and I do not see a mosque abiding to such much needed reform in a similar way.  But I may be wrong.
Islam is actually quite the topic of discussion now. One of the larger slaughterhouses has decided to market its lamb in the Middle East. To do so they need to slaughter the lambs using a different method, which although it sounds rather bad is said to be just as humane as the regular method.  I will spare you the details of both. Also there needs to be some sort of religious figure present, mumbo-jumboing while the animals are killed.  This has not gone down well, particularly when it was leaked that this meat would also be sold locally but not marked as such. Some people are not inclined to eat what one caller on the radio described as “infidel meat” although I must note that most Icelanders are not too upset about the issue, more amazed than anything as our menus are not restricted by religion, only by bureaucracy. As an example Trix is banned, M&Ms were but are now thankfully allowed.  
Finally I met with the 2 men that will be part of the team I will be competing with on the TV quiz zhow. During the meeting I was trying to figure out what they were good at since I don’t want to waste time trying to get good at something they have already mastered.  I asked one of them bluntly and he replied that he was really good at flags, which was good since I am no expert. My pleasure was not long lasting since he then added that there was a small drawback, he was colorblind and could not tell the difference between green and red.  Go figure.  
Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Foucault's pendulum, loaded language & un cafe

In 1851 scientists knew that Earth rotated: in addition to the passage of the sun and stars overhead, scientific evidence included Earth's measured polar flattening and equatorial bulge. However, Foucault's pendulum (above) was the first simple proof of the rotation in an easy-to-see experiment, and it created a sensation in the academic world and society at large.
The plane of the pendulum's swing rotated clockwise 11° per hour, making a full circle in 32.7 hours.
But this year the cable suspending the bob in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris snapped causing damage to that copy (there's one in the Pantheon too) of the pendulum and to the marble flooring of the Arts et Metiers museum. Umberto Eco wrote a book entitled Foucault's Pendulum (set at the Arts et Metiers) which I deliberately have not read. Not that I don't like his work but I'm focusing part of a story at that location. Partly in the museum, and nothing to do with Foucault's pendulum.

Here's what a Foucault pendulum would do at the north pole. The pendulum swings in the same plane as the Earth rotates beneath it.

At time of my story, the Arts et Metiers museum was closed for renovation (big plot point in the story) and Foucoult's pendulum wasn't there. Or at least was in storage until the Gothic church/museum was ready for the installation. I realized I hadn't mentioned the pendulum once in the draft I finished yesterday. What to do? If you go to the museum today you'll see it, yes, it's repaired after the mishap but it's important to consider. To think about. Like language it dates the characters, the point in time, the world they inhabit.

Isabelle and Andi, my neighbors up the street - she's a Parisienne he's an Austrian who grew up in Paris - are old friends and we drank espresso at our nearby cafe yesterday. Of course we got into a serious language discussion as only French people do because I had questions.
Mostly concerning the drink we were drinking. I get into trouble over the proper meaning and inference of this drink in my books. So it was ask the expert time.
It's so fun to see Parisians get started and this really wound them up.
How does one order a coffee properly in Paris at the cafe?
A coffee means espresso in France Andi said. Everyone knows that.
un cafe which gets you an expresso
une noisette an expresso with foam

une creme a double espresso with milk
une alongee similar to American coffee diluted with hot water
un cafe serree a double espresso with a short drip and less water like a depth charge.
That sort of solved the question but it generated more intense discussion.
We got into shoes
"Souliers," I said. No you will be dated. So dated no one uses that term anymore. But souliers is in the dictionaries and they said yes, but now you say chaussures or you will sound like our mothers.
Just like un pull a sweater but his mother calls it un chandail.
That's the older generation. Outdated, you don't want to sound like Jean Gabin.
So I guess it's sort of like if some one says 'cool your jets..." they haven't left the 70's and are in a hot tub. Me, I rather be accused of Jean Gabin.
I'm still confused about Foucault's pendulum.
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, September 20, 2010

Samba #1

I heard my first samba in 1966.
It was in a cinema on East 34th Street in New York, and the film in which it appeared was Claude Lelouche’s Un Homme et Une Femme (A Man and a Woman).

Never heard of it?
Then you’re probably under fifty.
Because it was a movie that no one of my generation (or, at least, no one without a heart of stone) is likely to forget.
Sentimental, romantic and lovely.
Have a look at the scene in which the samba appears:

Six years later, I arrived in Brazil. And learned that it had been composed by Baden Powell to lyrics created by Vinicius de Morães, the poet who wrote the words to The Girl from Ipanema.
The English version goes like this:

The original title is Samba de Benção, sometimes called Samba Saravah. Here’s Vinicius himself, singing it at a live performance in Mar del Plata, Argentina (hence the introduction in Spanish) several years before his death.

This is a short post, because I’m off to Helsinki to have a good time with my Finnish publisher and to launch Haudatut muukalaiset. (The Finnish version of Buried Strangers.)

Next week, more on the samba as an art form.

Leighton – Monday

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Good One Gone

We speak of the "mystery community" that unites readers, writers, publishers, and booksellers in a shared circle of love for one of the world's most enduring literary forms.  But if it really is a community, then booksellers -- informed, passionate booksellers -- are the campfire around which we all gather.  They're the members of the community who link all the others together.

We lost one of the very best, David Thompson, assistant manager of Houston's Murder By the Book, last week.  Murder By the Book was an extension of David's outsize personality, his love for books, writers, and readers.  Any writer who was lucky enough to visit the store came away dazzled with a vision that this was what a bookstore should be, and that Murder By the Book, rather than the big chains, was the template for the bricks-and-mortar bookstores of the future.

But David was also a truly innovative publisher.  His Busted Flush Press came to the rescue of unjustly underpraised writers with beautifully designed editions of their work -- for great graphics, look at the jackets of their Reed Farrell Coleman reprints -- and just released their first Busted Flush Original, Tower, by Coleman and Ken Bruen.

David was only 38.  He left an emotional footprint on writers quite literally all over the world.

James R. Benn, author of the Billy Boyle World War II Mysteries:  If the world were a more ordered place, some years down the road David Thompson would be reading my obituary.  Instead, as a reminder that chaos is only a blink away, I and others are reading of David's death, stunned in our common disbelief that this could happen to someone so full of energy, passion, love, and from my perspective, youth . . . . I don't know what else to say, except that tonight I will have a couple of margaritas myself, and let the idea seep into my soul that perhaps I need to carry on some small portion of the goodness David brought to the world around him.  Otherwise, none of this makes any sense at all.

Cara Black, author of the Aimee Leduc Investigations:  Shocked and saddened, like everyone in the mystery community; I'm trying to understand this.  My heart goes out to McKenna.  David -- so enthusiastic, funny, and a dynamo.  I'd first gone to Murder By the Book with Peter Lovesey for my third book and met David briefly.  The crowd was there for Peter and yet David made me feel welcome . . . . He loved connecting people, loved books, writers.  The excitement bubbled in his eyes.  He breathed . . . . publishing, finding new voices and writers . . . . I know he kept up an incredible correspondence with so many of us.  Tireless, and yet he and McKenna reserved one night a week, Wednesday, I think it was, when they stayed home and just were together.

Colin Cotterill, author of the Dr, Siri Investigations Set in Laos:  In late 2004 I was starting out on this writing game and still had no idea whether I was any good. I got an e-mail from a guy I'd never heard of in far off Texas.  He said his store had voted my first book "Best of the Year" and they all loved it.  I couldn't believe anyone would go to the trouble but that was David.  He knew what it means to a writer to have support and words of praise.  We've been in contact ever since and that encouragement never slackened.  He was a rare breed who knew writers better than they know themselves and he'll be irreplaceable.  I'm sad today.

Jamie Freveletti, author of Running from the Devil and Running Dark:  When my book launched in May 2009 we had only planned on a regional tour in my area (midwest).  However, so many people told me, "Oh, no, you MUST go to Houston to Murder By the Book, David and Mckenna know this genre and love it," and I decided to contact them.  They . . . immediately extended an invitation and I flew there for a signing.  David twittered regular updates during the session, gave me coffee to keep me going, and they both went out of their way to make a debut author feel like one of the community.  I was heartbroken to hear of his untimely death.

Leighton Gage, author of the Chief Inspector Mario Silva Investigations:  I would never have toured for my first book had it not been for David.  He read an ARC and wrote to me in Brazil to invite me to Murder By the Book.  I thought, Why not? And went.

It was an honor to have known him.

Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse and Harper Connelly novels:  I heard this morning.  I am still stunned.  I can't imagine going to Murder By the Book and not seeing David.  What a great guy, what a knowledgeable man.

David Hewson, author of the Costa series:  I met David briefly only once but his enthusiasm, helpfulness and love of books struck me at once.  It's a great shock to think he won't be there in that lovely Houston store any more.  My sympathies go out to his family and friends, and my thanks for all he's done for so many authors.

Christopher G. Moore, author of the Vincent Calvino Bangkok Mysteries:  I met David last year at Bouchercon.  What a wonderful, witty, and knowledgeable guy.  This is such a shame.  A knock on the head for all of us in the crime fiction community.

Eric Stone, author of the Ray Sharp novels:  David was someone who always brought a smile to my face when I saw him.  Over the years we met at conferences and exchanged e-mails . . . . I had three, really fun book signings at Murder By the Book, thanks to him.  He was someone I never had the chance to get to know as well as I would have liked to, and it really saddens me to know that now I never will.

None of us will.  
Tim -- Sundays

Friday, September 17, 2010

Run, Forrest! Run!

Back in February I told you about this. This Sunday it finally takes place. Seven months of training, of early morning runs in all kinds of weather with all kinds of strange chafing, aching joints and weary bones comes to a head and I will run 13 miles  - or aim to run, let's not count chickens - around the northern town which serves as my ancestral home, or one of them at least, along with 54,000 other people.

I don't get too nervous about many things these days. In a few hours time I am due to give a talk at the Reading Festival of Crime Fiction (Reading being a town approximately 20 miles out of London, pronounced to rhyme with bedding, rather than the pastime that brings us all here) about crime fiction and genealogy, and I'm not the slightest bit apprehensive. Yet whenever I think about lining up on Sunday morning, my stomach starts to do the fandango.

Guy Clark - makes great running music
I suppose it's the entry into the unknown. The last time I ran a race was at primary school in 1983. While I have attended various gyms, and then let my membership lapse, I've never really been fit since I was a teenager. Save three runs, all my training has been done on my own, with only my Ipod and its music for company (Guy Clark makes great running music - who would have thought that?) The majority of it has been done by the Thames or in the parks of London, whereas the race is run around Newcastle, a place I haven't visited for more than a decade. Sometimes on my training runs I have felt exceptional strong; then there have been times when only a mile or so in I've felt like my running shoes have been fitted with lead weights and the roads are made of treacle. The furthest I have run in training is a little over 12 miles. I simply have no idea what to expect, from the race, the lie of the land, the weather, or my body. A bad night's sleep, the onset of a cold, or some unseasonally warm weather and the race could become very hard going indeed.

It's quite a familiar feeling, akin to the one I get when I've finished the draft of a book, which I know I've worked hard on. You hand in the manuscript, reasonably happy (or email it in, as is the norm these days) and then start thinking and worrying and doubting. Should I have given it another read through? Was that really the best choice of first sentence? Was that really the best choice of first word? And that ending, does it really work? There follows a tortuous silence until your editor gets in touch. There used to be a TV Advert in the UK for Del Monte, who made fruit juice. An Italian farmer lovingly tends his oranges. A helicopter lands, out of which steps a tall, dignified man in a white suit and panama hat. The farmer and his wife look on nervously as the suited man tastes the orange. A horrible pause follows. Then the man nods his head. The farmer runs, arms outstretched, and shouts: 'The Man from Del Monte...He. Say. Yes!' In celebration the oranges behind leapt from the tree with a great shout of joy.

Each time I hand in the draft of a book, I think of the Man from Del Monte. And, with the Great North Run approaching, I've been thinking about it more and more, the difference being this time that the Man from Del Monte isn't another person, like an editor or reviewer, it's my own body. I'm hoping for a resounding yes.

One last point before go and load up on carbs (beer is a carb, right?). I keep referring to the Great North Run as a race. The fact is, I won't be racing anyone. My aim is to finish, enjoy the sense of personal achievement, and ensure all the money we've raised  - I'm running with two of my sisters and one brother-in-law - goes to our chosen charity, Breast Cancer Care. However, I did learn the other day that Sting is running the race. There are few people in the world I find more po-faced and dull than old Sting - plus his music truly sucks  - so if I encounter him on the final straight I might choose, as one British athletics commentator said of Cuban runner Alberot Juanterena as he sped away on the last bend, to 'open my legs and show my class.' I doubt I'll catch him though. Sting is famously capable of six hour tantric sex sessions. Er, I'm not (He's right. He's not - Dan's wife.)


Dan - Friday

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Sources of the Nile

Avram Davidson (1923-1993) was a well-known author of science fiction, fantasy and mystery. He published over 200 short stories and essays and 19 novels. His style was to look at things from left field and then present an original insight. For example, his story Or All the Sea with Oysters was about the life cycle of things like coat hangers and safety pins. Sounds boring? It won the Hugo (top science fiction award) for the best short story of 1958. In 1961 he won an Edgar for one of his mystery stories, so he’s definitely up our street, too. In the same year he published a short story in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction titled The Sources of the Nile.

I can only speculate what led to the story, but I imagine he looked at the explosion of fads and trends – changing rapidly and unpredictably – and perhaps he was wondering why his books received critical acclaim but seldom registered on the best seller scales. If one thinks about it, it's very hard to understand why some things take off and others – superficially better in every respect – vanish without trace. The premise of his story is that there is actually a person – one man – who starts the trends. He doesn’t know anything about what he does or how he does it. One day he just starts wearing cut-off jeans because he feels like it. Pretty soon every teenager is doing the same. The action is around Madison Avenue’s attempts to track him down for their own obvious advantage. The story has always stuck in my mind because the basic question is so fascinating. What are the sources of the Nile?

I’ve just finished reading the second Stieg Larson book. In retrospect I quite enjoyed it although there were a few points when I thought it would be what 4MAers call a DNF – Did Not Finish. Anyway, this blog isn’t about that. If you’d like to read an amusing tongue-in-cheek look at the issue from a mystery writer’s viewpoint, take a look at Kwei Quartey’s blog The Girl Who Kicked the Termite Hill.
I’m interested in what generates the phenomenal success that the books enjoy.  I’m not talking about plot, characters, writing.  That can make success.  I’m talking about the super-star one-in-a-million success that these books enjoy.
Certainly Stieg Larson himself is a very interesting and intriguing person. Smart, intelligent, a crusading writer. Apparently taking on right-wing organisations without fear, although cautious with his private life. Then he dramatically dies of a heart attack and, despite his concern about the potentially violent behaviour of some of the organisations he exposes, apparently leaves no will. With a bio like that, is it surprising that he has such a high profile? Well, yes. Because we wouldn’t know (or care) about all that if his books hadn’t been such a incredible success.

A few days ago I was chatting to a friend who doesn’t read mystery novels at all and I mentioned the Larson phenomenon. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Three of my friends have told me they’re absolutely brilliant!” Had the friends read the books and come to that conclusion for themselves, or had they heard it from three other friends in a sort of inverse pyramid scheme? One thing’s clear. If my friend is going on a long flight and decides to try a mystery book, I can tell you which one it’s going to be.

Well, what do the publishers themselves know? When I first met our Australian distributer, I naively asked if they had an idea in advance of how a book would sell Down Under. He looked at me as though I were mad, and just laughed. Our Italian and French publishers bought the rights to publish the Da Vinci Code. Neither expected it to do particularly well. The French thought 20 thousand copies; the Italians were about the last publisher in the country to be offered the book and picked it up cheaply. The case rests.

Marketing? Well, our experience is that marketing ramps up after the book becomes successful. So it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anyone seen any billboards along the lines of “Unknown author’s brilliant debut novel will thrill you. Rush to get your copy while they last”? I didn’t think so.

The only model I can come up with is that each book is like a tiny ice particle tossed out onto a snow slope. The particles catch a little snow. Almost all of them come to rest immediately and are ignored. A few hit just the right angle and start to grow as they roll down the slope. Some become large enough to attract attention and are given a bit of a shove as they pass. A few get really large. People start to point, talk about them. They grow faster. One gets big enough to start an avalanche.

Or maybe there really is a unique person out there somewhere who picks up the book, thinks it’s absolutely the best thing he’s ever read, and that’s it. Would I like to meet him!

Michael – Thursday.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


I really wanted to write something happy today, something that would hopefully make the reader smile and feel good for at least the minutes it takes to scroll down the screen. But sadly it was not to be.
At present in Iceland we are undergoing the lengthiest political havoc my country has ever seen. Old sins and new are brought to light on a daily basis, more often than not, a few per day. Since October 2008 when our emperor of a banking system was revealed to have no clothes we have been bombarded with negative news in such portions that I believe must be unprecedented anywhere, anytime.  It probably relates to our size or lack thereof, other larger countries undergoing crises have much more going on and can dilute the doom and gloom with the occasional positive event. Here no. Either it is all good or all bad.  It has become so depressing to listen to the news that some people, my mother for example, have given up on it completely. Make sure to turn off the TV and the radio, put on a CD and listen to music instead.
It is not only the political minefield we are forced to gaze upon, with each side trumpeting the opposing side’s faults and forgetting to nurture any merits they might have, or the ridiculous shambles of an economy we face. You see even the church is caught up in a storm, apparently having had a bishop in office some years back who was so busy conducting sexual harassment it’s a wonder he had time for the occasional prayer. He was not one of those you could say definitely had a type; young or old, sick or healthy, he was not one to discriminate and all women stood about the same chance of getting grabbed from behind. I do not envy any female organist playing in his church, unless she was lucky enough to have eyes in the back of her head.  How his escapades (for lack of a more appropriate word) were kept under wraps must have required some masterful maneuvering considering how small our society is, but whatever strings were pulled they sure held. Please note that the photo of the Icelandic church here above has nothing to do with this bishop, it is situated in an area much more sparsely inhabited than this ridiculously lecherous man preferred (too few females per square meter).
This is not good, obviously. It takes its toll on morale and just at the point when we need it most. Having given it some thought I have come to realize that happiness is overlooked by those who set up the way our society operates, we have ministries of justice, agriculture, education and so on but I have never heard of a country which has installed a ministry of happiness. This is strange if you think about it. Everything we believe important and value has a representing ministry, except happiness. Is happiness less important than the economy? Than foreign affairs or transportation? I don’t think so. I believe happy people are less likely to commit crimes (taking a load off the justice ministry), less inclined to go overboard in their spending (making life easier for the ministry of economic affairs) and more likely to be depressed or ill (providing the ministry of health the opportunity to once not overrun its budget). And so on. The only ministry that could possibly increase its workload under this new arrangement would be the ministry of agriculture as happy people eat more carrots and cucumbers than depressed and/or miserable people.
A ministry of happiness would not operate as an agency that was to stuff happiness down people’s throats if they become sad any more than the ministry of fishing is going to force you to eat shrimp if you are allergic to shellfish. It could however keep an eye out for ways to increase general happiness within society and address threats to the same. It could specifically address the issue of children as they have a right to experience joy as much as they have the right to booster shots on a regular basis.
But this will never happen. Happiness is not a phenomenon that brings in the votes. I have at least never heard any politician vying for office promising to make people happy or striving to increase happiness in his/her constituency. Not even our comedian mayor used this angle.
Maybe we are better off removing politics from the frame altogether. This should not be hard given today’s technological advances, one would simply need a supercomputer programmed to take in and weigh all the options, what conditions give rise to being merciful, how much money there is in the kitty, which spending posts must be met and so on. This way nepotism would become a thing of the past, what supercomputer is going to hire an old daft school buddy or cousin for a position of importance. None that I know of. Certainly not the one in the photo, which is a supercomputer despite its lack of cape.
Should it come to this the ballot on Election Day would provide the voter only two options: Dell or Macintosh.
Although my computer is an IBM I would vote for Macintosh –  being a bit less conventional it seems more likely to emphasize happiness.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, September 13, 2010

of excavations and au revoir Chabrol

I guess it's returning to my 'roots' but it feels strange. Like going back in time, excavating the past; as I imgaine the workers who dug below ground for a parking lot and found this section of the Phillipe August wall dated 1200 AD. My wonderful publisher Soho is re-issuing my first book, Murder in the Marais, in all formats, and said 'now's the time if you want to go back and change anything you've always wanted to.' It scared me at first, I wrote that book in the mid-nineties and written ten since but it was a chance to go back and clean up mistakes.

I had buried Baudelaire in the wrong cemetary, realized I'd gotten a street wrong in Paris that only went one way instead of two, and given away my heroine's exact age. Something a French women would never, never do. It also presented challenges - should I age her, did I have to? Wasn't she's ageless, as I think of her, yet she'd gone through a lot of physical abuse in these books. But it gave me a perspective, re-reading the Marais, I realized how Aimee and her cohorts have grown, changed and lived through events, their perspective and attitudes deepened in the books. A surprise to me since I never knew I'd write a series, let alone get my first book published. The first book gives one freedom, you have no boundaries, no rules except the one you make up. And no complicated family tree, work and romantic relationships which you need to remember seven books down the road. Shoot your wad, go for broke, as you can in the debut book because that might be the only shot you get - I took that to heart.
Now that I'm going back, checking details on googleearth which didn't exist when I wrote the book - google was just an idea in two guys heads down at Stanford, I can change that peron's name to the proper French spelling and make someone the friend of Aimée's father which I'd meant to do quite a few years ago.
Now I'm excavating and it feels like finding part of the oldest wall left in Paris, like I did, in an underground parking lot.
You might have parked here. Or walked over this above at Odeon.

This weekend Claude Chabrol, a founder of the new wave cinema who made over 80 films, passed away. When Chabrol made his first film, Le Beau Serge, in 1958, using a small inheritance of his first wife's, he shot it in black and white, on location in his home town of Sardent. It became the first feature film of the new wave, a critical and commercial success, enabling Chabrol to act as "godfather" to his friends, who were also eager to make their first films.
His friends, film buffs at the Cinémathèque Française and at the Ciné-Club des Quartiers Latins, where they chewed the fat and argued over the finer points of film technique. The "gang", all of whom became film-makers in their own right, included Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.

Squat, bespectacled and rotund, Chabrol played the joker, resembling nothing so much as a startled owl. Though his films ie La Grande Bouffe pilloried the bourgeoisie – its foibles and petty cruelties – he was himself bourgeoise and shared many of its values: property, wealth and domesticity. What I liked best about this bon vivant was how he made fun of himself and his 'class' because as he said 'only some one who's a bourgeoisie, can truly show them'. Years ago I walked in the courtyard of 22 Place des Vosges looking for clues to Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, who'd once lived there and discovered that Claude Chabrol lived here. I wish I'd seen Chabrol, been able to express my appreciation for all his films. But I only saw his 17th century townhouse in the courtyard in the throes of renovation. A jewel.
So au revoir and merci Monsieur Chabrol,
Cara - Tuesday