Sunday, August 24, 2014

Literary Alchemy: A King's Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman

Penman’s epic novels about the lives of English royalty are much beloved by many—and with good reason. Penman’s most recent novel completes her cycle about Richard the Lionhearted, including both Lionheart and A King’s Ransom. Penman’s novels engage in a kind of alchemy that’s worth analyzing in a review because you won’t be aware of it while you’re in the midst of reading. That’s the point—she’s so good at it you won’t notice what she’s doing—you’ll be caught in the story. She does three things as a writer that ought to make the reader draw back or slow down, and yet, they don’t. In the hands of a less skillful writer these stylistic choices would, but the magic here works. Hence my claim that Penman is a kind of literary alchemist, turning the ordinary or even disastrous in most writers’ hands into something transformed and transforming.
So what are the three things? One is the length of her books. They are big. Don’t try to hold on with one hand while balancing A King’s Ransom over your cup of tea. You will drop the book. I’ll grant there are other historical writers who draw their readers through 650 pages without slowing down, but it is a relatively rare talent.
The second aspect of Penman’s style that should set off warning bells, but does not, is the amount of historical information she includes. You’ll get the complete story of Richard the Lionheart and you’ll enter into precise details of warfare, daily life, international political intrigue, personalities of all relevant persons both famous and less so, clothing, armor—pretty much everything. She even follows thru on historical tangents that are important but not central to the main tale. Writing historical fiction well is usually all about balance—including enough period detail to persuade your reader they are there, but not too much. I’ve never felt while reading Penman’s books that there was too much. But when I step back and break the spell she’s cast, it looks suspiciously like a lot of history. How does she get so much in without weighing down the tale? I wish I knew. It’s her special alchemy.
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Sharon Kay Penman, Literary Alchemist
The third bit of alchemy is the most impressive to me. Her epic arcs of history require contributions from a wide range of narrators. The ordinary writer with many shifting points of view will be told the novel suffers from confusing “head-hopping.” Somehow Penman can glide her reader from one character’s viewpoint to another without any hitches even within one scene. When I read Penman’s first novel The Sunne in Splendour, I remember being forced to put it down in order to cook dinner. I was stirring something when it dawned on me, as my thinking shifted from reader to writer/analytical mode, that I couldn’t identify who was telling the novel. I grabbed the book and scanned the scenes I’d read. When I realized what she’d accomplished, I was awestruck—seamless shifts without any awareness on the reader’s part, with no sense of disorientation. It’s a style perfectly suited to her grand subject matter. We can delve into history through multiple minds and perspectives. Each feels intimate. Each persuades. I never wonder whose head I’m in; I always know. I honestly have no idea how she does it. As the warning in ads says, “Don’t try this at home.” Unless you’re an alchemist.
Buy A King's Ransom at:
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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston

     In Hand of Fire author Starkston has pulled off a remarkable feat.  She has taken a briefly mentioned character from Homer's Iliad(whether she actually existed is debatable) and brought her to life.  Impeccably researched, this fictional realization of the Bronze Age, in all it's quotidian and cosmological aspects, ensnares the reader in a story that is both alluring in its strangeness and all too close to our own present day.
     Through Briseis, our heroine, Starkston presents an alternate view of the Iliad.  Seen through the eyes of a young woman, who because of her status, becomes a pawn in the powerful forces that raged in Troy at the time, we become privy to a version of the story that is unique.
     While Homer is a combination of history and mythology this book weds these themes in a straight forward manner that makes it all accessible to the modern reader.  I was fascinated by Starkston's view of Achilles.  We see him via the sensibility of Briseis, who loves him, while his struggles, both mythological and existential, rage within and without.
     Most readers will already be familiar with the broad outlines of Homers epic so I will forgo reiterating the plot.  For those who do not know Homers tale than this is a great place to learn about it.  What I will emphasize is that once one begins this tale one is transported back thousands of years to a time both ancient and modern all at the same time.  Reading Hand of Fire is akin to entering a time machine.  I felt the age come alive through Starkston's subtle manipulation of her research and her narrative skill.  These fully fleshed-out characters leap off the page and a time that is far away chronologically becomes all too real.  This is a wonderful introduction to both Homer and the late Bronze Age.  Any reader from teen-ager on up will find this both a fascinating history lesson and a thrilling novel.
     Judith Starkston will be appearing at the Poisoned Pen bookstore on September 10th at 7 pm to discuss and sign this wonderful novel.

Reviewed by Steve Shadow Schwartz

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Shadow versus the audio book

In a previous essay I wrote in June of 2011 entitled "The romance of the printed word", I tackled my feelings about digital versus print books.  In that year a lot of controversy was  in the air about these competing platforms. At that time it never occurred to me to even mention audio books as they were completely off my radar.  Since that time the audio book industry has experienced massive growth.
People who have long commutes listen in their cars.  Many who stare at screens all day come home with tired eyes and can close them while listening to their favorite authors.  Instead of bedtime reading with the light shining in your eyes one can lay back and enjoy the dark while still catching up with a few chapters.  Audio books also do well in our public libraries.
Despite costing as much or more than a hard-bound book, audio editions remain a value as they generally consist of superior packaging and often up to 10 CD's.  Over the years I have tried to listen to them but found the readers boring and the execution both mundane and often annoying.  However, as more professional actors and skilled verbalists are hired to execute these books, the climate has changed for the better.

I now believe this medium serves as a viable alternative to the paper book(still my favorite form) and will serve me as a welcome alternative.  As I get older and my eyes can no longer endure all day reading and writing sessions, therefore I now look forward to closing my eyes and just listening.
For example, I recently listened to five of Colin Cotterill's books featuring the Cambodian Dr. Siri.  A wonderful series of wry and arresting tales of a good man trying to survive under the Khmer Rouge.
Another audio book I highly recommend is Deborah J. Ledford's "Crescendo".  This is the third book in her series featuring the Native American police officer Inola Walela.  Aside from the fact that this is a terrific series featuring a complex set of psychological mysteries replete with utterly complete and fully rounded characters, the audio book version came as a revelation.  Christina Cox, the actress who reads the book, has uncanny control of each and every character and is able to sustain a differentiation in timbre and intonation throughout the 8CD's and over nine hours running time.
As I concluded about E-books, I now feel the same about audio books.  Each platform has a place and a use.  Anything that gets more people reading, in what ever form that "reading" takes place
can only be of benefit to us all.

STEVE SHADOW SCHWARTZ



Tuesday, March 18, 2014

KILL FEE BY OWEN LAUKKANEN



A new voice came roaring out of British Columbia a couple of years ago and blew the crime reading public out of the water.  The Professionals was an amazing debut with a fresh conceit, a startling band of outlaws and an unusual odd couple for detectives.  The razor sharp plot and the page turning execution led to huge sales and many awards.  The affable and handsome young lion of an author took the reading public with him for his second book, Criminal Enterprise, and let everyone know that there would be no sophomore slump from this Canuck.  It has been a long wait but Mr. Laukkanen's new book is finally here.

     Kill Fee brings back the odd pairing of Carla Windermere, a black female FBI agent and Kirk Stevens, a married father and Minnesota state cop.  How they come to be working  together is skillfully portrayed in a slam-bang opening scene.  The book once again features a novel idea ripped from the headlines.
     What do we do with our damaged soldiers who are returning from a fruitless war. How do we treat the psychic wounds they carry with them?  This problem is cunningly "solved" in an unexpected way by the author.
     Like an action film that never lets up, Kill Fee wends its way through a labyrinth of clues as the two detectives find themselves embroiled in a Manchurian Candidate nightmare.  As the tension builds they find unexpected feelings rising between them and how they deal with these only keeps the pages turning.  This is a police procedural and a first-rate thriller. Do not miss it.
     Mr. L will be at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale on March 26th for an interview and to sign books.


STEVE SHADOW SCHWARTZ

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review of Names of the Dead by Katia Lief



What would you do if a young man you knew only vaguely started work at your office, and asked you to share a picnic lunch? How would you feel if he then started to bombard you with gifts, emails and phone calls? At just what point would you decide that this was more than a crush... and needed to be regarded as serious stalking? Questions like these are the starting-point for Names of the Dead, a recent crime thriller by Katia Lief. This author is best-known for the Karin Schaeffer private eye series, but the heroine of her standalone novel, Darcy Mayhew, is an investigative journalist at the New York Times. That means the book will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading novels set in newsrooms, such as Julie Kramer's Delivering Deathrecently reviewed here at Poisoned Fiction.

A 30-something widow who has moved from Martha's Vineyard to the Big Apple to rebuild her life, Darcy is an appealing heroine. Anyone who enjoys the whole female private eye style of fiction will immediately be sucked in by her wry, humorous first-person narration, which is compulsively readable. However, as Darcy finds her home life with her young son Nat under threat from a stalker, the appropriately-named mailroom worker Joe Coffin, the book also has strong elements of the “domestic suspense" genre, highlighted in the LA Times.

The novel is quite short, so it can almost be read at a sitting – and it might be a mistake to pick it up if you have to do something urgent in the next couple of hours. The newsroom atmosphere is convincingly created, and, refreshingly, Darcy actually has to work on more than one story at a time – unlike many fictional journalists who can spend weeks at a time on one investigation without their bosses batting an eyelid! All the same, most of her effort becomes focused on one particular scandal, after a whistle-blower approaches her with a story which carries deadly undertones. As she becomes increasingly obsessed by this investigation, it's all too easy to ignore Joe's obsession with her, and to convince herself it doesn't matter all that much. Maybe he was outside her door by coincidence – and maybe leaving a bagel and coffee at her desk for breakfast was just a friendly gesture. Maybe.
The book builds up the tension well, with little details adding together to make Joe an increasingly scary figure. In the UK, the novel is published under a different title, focusing more on the threat he poses – Watch You Die. However, the US title is more true to the book's main theme, because this is a novel with dark underpinnings, focusing on bereavement and grieving. Darcy is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her beloved husband, Hugo, and to allow herself to love again. Her own emotions also give her an insight into the suffering of her parents, who were both Holocaust survivors. Meanwhile, as she gains a greater understanding of her mother's feelings in the past, she has to face up to the risk of losing her in the present, as she is a victim of advancing Alzheimer's Disease. These are grim themes and there is a danger that the piling up of misery could get a bit much, yet somehow the novel never feels depressing. This is mainly because of the witty prose style – and also because there are lighter sections woven in, such as Darcy's vivid memories of her life in Martha's Vineyard, and her tentative second-time-around romance with her son's gorgeous teacher.

It's not just this novel which goes by more than one name. The author, who is a creative writing tutor, has herself published under three different names. Her first books were issued under her maiden name, Katia Spiegelman, next she wrote her first thrillers using a pseudonym, Kate Pepper (the surname was borrowed from a pet cat) and then she started writing her married name, Katia Lief. She has written a lighthearted essay asking “What's In a Name?”, where she admits that at times she has ended up confusing herself. Many of her heroines also have similar names, adding to the muddle. It all means that, if you get hooked on this author's style and want to catch up with her various books, you'll have to do quite a bit of searching to find them all.  

Reviewed by Anonymous 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Narcopolis: A Novel of Bombay

Here at The Poisoned Pen, we never shy away from the grittier things in life. In fact, we like it grisly, murderous, complicated, metaphorical, fantastic, and everything else in the entire range of literature. Maybe because we can see our characters losing control over their lives, we are instantly drawn to the drama that will ensue, or maybe it is the vicarious thrill of doing something dangerous and illegal, something that we would not dare to do in real life. Whatever the reason: murder, incest, violence, sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll, they are all superb backdrops to a really great story. We have reviewed books about drug culture before. The Panopticon was a huge success as a novel and is reported to have secured a movie deal to be made by Ken Loach. Annoyingly, it will have to have a different name as there is already a movie that came out in 2012 with the name “Panopticon”.

Right name, wrong movie

It is the same situation with “Narcopolis”. The novel by Jeet Thayil won the DSC prize for South Asian Literature in 2013, quite an achievement for a first novel, but if a movie version is ever made it will have to be under a different name to avoid confusion with a futuristic thriller coming out later this year (2014). The novel is set in the Bombay (now Mumbai) of the 1970s and is the story of several characters who are already part of the opium scene descending further into their own personal hell. Part of the fascination with the novel rests with the author himself. Thayil was an alcoholic and drug addict for twenty years so when he writes of the hallucinations and the cravings, you know that he is speaking from experience, which makes the fate of his characters even more poignant. If you are worried that this genre of fiction glamorizes drugs and substance abuse, rest assured that there is nothing glamorous about the actions of any of the characters.  In fiction, as in real life, the reality of addiction is dark and desperate.

The main characters

Rashid is an opium house owner and it is in his den that we meet the other characters. In a way, he is proud of his den. He has the best opium, the best hostess, and the best reputation of all the dens. As he begins to get sucked down into the opium life, however, he starts to lose his grip on it all. His business falls away, unable to compete with the newer, nastier, quicker and harder hitting drugs of the 1980s, and yet he is now powerless to do anything about it.
Dimple is the center of this almost plot-less novel. She is the opium den hostess, a eunuch who turned to opium to relieve the pain of her operation, only to find a whole new world of pain opening up. It is her skills at making up pipes of opium that help to draw other people into the den, yet she is more aware than anyone else in the novel of what is waiting at the end of the line. She is a truly tragic figure, in that she cannot escape her fate. Customers who come and go from the den have a choice of whether to walk away from opium, or stay and spiral into addiction. Dimple has never had that choice, and she faces her ultimate demise with fortitude, fighting only with an attempt to educate herself in order that her life not be wasted.
Mr. Lee’s story is, in a way, the story of opium itself, escaping from China to India. It is he who leaves Dimple his genuine Chinese opium pipes in his will, in exchange for her promise to return his ashes to China, a promise she never manages to fulfill. Of all the characters, we get more back story of Mr. Lee, possibly because it is through him that the opium pipes come to Dimple and thence to Rashid’s den. By the book’s end, heroin and its offshoots have taken over as the self-obliteration of choice, and Rashid’s son runs the den like a business, with total contempt for his staff and customers. In the way that we all love the era in which we were young, no matter what the economic and political situation around us, the opium den with its horrors is viewed with nostalgia.

Style

Thayil was a poet before he was a novelist and his skills with words shows throughout the novel. The first chapter of the book is one long, breathless sentence that makes your head spin and your heart race, much as an opium high might do. It is a book both painful and sad, and yet it manages to be funny in places as it flicks from one character to another without much happening directly, while outside the den, Bombay grows up and changes into a harsher version of itself. 


Reviewed by Anonymous 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review of Girl on the Golden Coin: A Novel of Frances Stuart by Marci Jefferson
 Review by Judith Starkston, Judith's websiteFollow on TwitterFacebook


Flirtations of the most dangerous and serious sort entangle Frances Stuart first in the court of Louis XIV and then in the Restoration court of Charles II. Despite the luscious gowns and extravagant jewels she wins for herself, we don’t envy her the high-wire balancing act she must maintain as she tries to win first one king’s influence and then another, while concealing the tragic secrets that would destroy her family and herself. That she manages to hold onto her virginity and her dignity for much of this engaging book while obeying the selfish commands of various powerful women and men is a testament to the inner strength and resiliency of Frances Stuart, the famous mistress of Charles II.  This remarkable woman carries the book—we deeply want her to find happiness and an identity that will allow her to remain true to herself. The first step that she must accomplish is to understand her own nature and sense of purpose. That isn’t easy in the treacherous seas of the courts she grows up in, nor is it easy to find when everyone who should love and protect her is out to use her. Frances carries the weight of her mother’s and siblings’ futures as well as her own. This is a book about an admirable woman in morally ambiguous circumstances where the price of failing at any one moment can destroy a family or a country. That’s a lot of pressure on one young woman, and the turns and twists of her life will keep you thrilled on every page. That Jefferson has so fully and accurately recreated the splendor of the Restoration court—its rich fabrics, gems, palaces, dalliances and betrayals—adds to the delight.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

SO WEST: CRIME TIME - A Shadow Revurb



 Time to once again saddle up and ride the crime soaked mesas and saguaro studded vistas of Arizona.  The local chapter of Sisters In Crime, the Desert Sleuths, has a new anthology out and its hot as a pistol and dangerous as a cornered rattler.  Each year the gals(and a few guys) produce a new collection of Arizona-set crime tales.
   This years brace of 20 tales is, I believe, the strongest yet.  Under the editorial lead of the immensely talented Deborah J. Ledford a great set of stories has emerged.  Called "So West: Crime Time" the Sisters In Crime have done themselves proud.
   The stories range from comic to bloody.  There is irony and shocks galore.  The entire physical gamut of our state is made use of and the people we meet continually surprise us.  Rather than single out my favorites (I have no wish to incur the wrath of any of these lethally imaginative writers by slighting someone) I want to praise all 19 women and one man for their superior efforts.  These are stories to savor throughout the year.
   Arizona has a strong and varied community of writers from all genres.  This collection is in the vanguard of getting that message out.  This is the third in the "So West" series and they are all fine examples of our homegrown talent.  All 3 collections are available at the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale.  This is a great chance to support a wonderful local resource and to get a great reading experience.

Steve Shadow Schwartz




Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference 2014:
Early Registration is Open!
DNRS 2014 banner
The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing proudly presents 
Desert Nights, Rising Stars 2014 Conference!
Featuring celebrated faculty:
Ron Carlson
Alan Dean Foster
Beckian Goldberg
Tayari Jones
D.T. Max
T. Jefferson Parker
Jewell Parker Rhodes
Michael Schiffer
Dana Stabenow
Lisa Zeidner
Registration is now OPEN, and early registration rates apply until 
November 18, 2013.

Visit piper.asu.edu/conference for more information and to register!
Piper Banner

Five, four, three, two......

This is me signing all your pre-orders at the Poisoned Pen yesterday, and thank you for those!

Dana getting a head start on mail orders-her fans are all over the globe! 



Read what Esquire is saying about upcoming author Samuel W. Gailey on his outstanding new novel Deep Winter.

Click here to view esquire.com



Deep Winter book cover by Samuel Gailey


Join us Saturday, February 22nd, 2014 at 2 PM.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Chance by Kem Nunn-A Shadow Revurb


 With huge dollops of The Big Lebowski and rife with twisted noir tropes Kem Nunn's latest book, "Chance" arrives like a run-away wrecking ball.  This dense and madly enjoyable novel has the requisite femme fatale, the big city corrupt cop and enough shady characters to please any fan of the psychological socio-crime novel.  This is a high-wire act of a book that runs flat out and never falters.  Mr. Nunn has always been an author on the edge and here he grabs his story by the throat and squeezes it for all it's worth.
   "Chance" is the title and chances are what Mr.Nunn takes in this roiling cauldron of a psycho thriller, social satire and gleeful gore fest.  Dr. Eldon Chance, a neuropsychologist, sets forth on a classic noir path that soon turns into a trip down a rabbit hole of horrors.  His journey becomes a series of switchbacks that gather speed towards a climax that is as hilarious as it is profound.
   Since being overwhelmed by Kem Nunn's first book, "Tapping the Source", I have been a huge fan of his writing.  With "Chance" he delivers big time.  This is much more than just a crime novel.  Rich with echoes of Hammett and everything since, he pulls us along at lightning speed in this clever and richly plotted novel.  Issues of parenting, manhood, and the failures of the modern family ricochet around the central plot.  This is a rich and heady stew that charges ahead on twin rails of suspense and humor.  To reveal anymore of the story would be to temper the page-turning joy of this brilliant take on the classic San Francisco noir-clouded novel.  Clever, funny and exciting, "Chance" is the product of a terrific writer at the top of his game.  Don't miss it.

STEVE SHADOW SCHWARTZ

For further reading:

Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran
The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

Friday, January 24, 2014

Arizona Historical Novel Society Upcoming Meetings





All readers and writers of historical fiction welcome! We’re an informal group with no dues, just lots of fun and plenty of great authors to hear.

February 8, 1-4 pm
Speaker: Shona Patel, a visual presentation on the historical backdrop of her novel Teatime for the Firefly, set in India on the Assam tea plantations in the mid 20th Century.









April 5, 1-4 pm
Speaker: Ann Chamberlin on a history of sex and contraception. Ann writes about the ancient Middle East, early Islam, the Ottoman Empire and Merlin. Her two most recent books are Woman at the Well and The Sword of God



Go to Judith Starkston's website and email for directions and other information about the AZ HNS meetings.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Writer's Workshop with Robert Dugoni





Review of Delivering Death by Julie Kramer
Reviewed by Judith Starkston
Another page-turning, alternately funny and bone-chilling mystery from Julie Kramer. Riley Spartz, investigative journalist for Channel 3 in Minneapolis is still sparring with her intellectually stunted, over-sexed boss while trying to keep her career afloat. Then there’s her ex-fiancĂ©, who she’s not so sure should stay exed, except he seems to be awfully tight with his attractive new boss so there seems no hope there. Misery does love Riley, but you won’t be miserable reading as Riley’s dry, cynical humor carries a twisty plot that will keep you guessing. Perhaps I should have opened with “tooth-aching” instead of bone-chilling because that’s the clue that starts Riley off on her lethal investigation—the arrival of human teeth in an envelope. Were they taken out while someone was alive? What on earth do they mean? Someone less brave (or less in need of a story) might have left it up to the police to sort out, but Riley plows right through a mass-marriage, a mortuary and any number of other gruesome settings to get things uncovered. Her persistence might get her killed—or someone else she cares about.

For other reviews, information about Judith Starkston's novel, Hand of Fire (coming fr Fireship Press, Sept 10 2014), set during the Trojan War, as well as background history articles on ancient women, food, and daily life, go to JudithStarkston.com Judith can be followed on Facebook and Twitter