Sunday, January 23, 2011

WHAT DO AUSSIE READERS LIKE TO READ? Guest Blogger: Wendy Laharnar

In February 2010, Wendy Laharnar contacted me asking whether I'd like to provide a book review to her international, subscription e-newsletter, "Calamity's Corner." It's almost one year later and I have been delighted to be a monthly contributor.  In turn, I thought it would be interesting to hear from Wendy.  Thank you, Wendy.


Thank you for the opportunity to be a guest blogger, L.J. From the wonderful book reviews you present each month in Calamity's Corner, I know you are a serious mystery buff. I did try to keep the emphasis on 'Mystery', but . . .

As an Aussie, I admire the work of my fellow Australian writers who have a talent for mystery writing: Laurel Lamperd, Murder Among the Roses, a cosy set in Western Australia. Carole Sutton, Ferryman; And the Devil Laughed; Blood Opal. Carole sets her crime novels in Cornwall UK. But I also enjoyed the Romance novels of Margaret Tanner, Frontier Wife and Anne Whitfield's Broken Hero, and Rosalie Skinner's futuristic fantasy, Exiled: Autumn's Peril, has the same holding power as a gripping mystery. I am unashamedly biased and in awe of my friends' talents.

Australian Jon Cleary, at 86 is onto his 50th novel (has sold 8 million copies). He is above par with his series of police procedurals featuring Scobie Malone. Of the other Australian authors who come to mind, I'd like to mention Kim Wilkins. Her historical fantasy, Rosa and the Veil of Gold is a favourite of mine. This one explores the legendary mystery of the ancient Russian bear. Makus Zusak (The Book Thief) is brilliant, but he is family orientated rather than a mystery solver.

When I think 'Mystery', I think of Britain's Agatha Christie. She has always had universal appeal. Because of her, I grew to love reading. I'm glad I read most of her books before I started on contemporary authors, though, because now when I re read hers, I feel a little disappointed in her antiquated writing style, but never in her stories. I love Dick Francis' mysteries, too, which all concern some aspect of horse racing.

I tend to get 'Mystery' and 'Thriller' confused. The American Tami Hoag kept me reading long into the night with Kill the Messenger so I went back for Still Waters. I like the guesswork, the complicated relationships and the touch of romance she provides and I plan to read her Dust to Dust. Her sentence structure with clever use of simile is well worth studying. I'm surprised that her genre is labelled 'Thriller'. That is what I'd attribute to Sarah Rayne's books.

Born in the UK, Sarah Rayne writes psychological thrillers. I agree with the accolades on her website: 'superb story telling skills'; 'sustained suspense'; 'unpredictable twists'; 'Unputdownable'. I read her Tower of Silence and Spider Light both very clever and 'extremely dark and disturbing'. She is a writer well worth studying, word for word, if one wants to polish his or her own writing skills, but I can't read any more of her novels. To me, life is too short to spend leisure time with such horror. It's unhealthy for one's own psyche. Call me naive, but that's why I don't read Stephen King.

American, Thomas Perry's eighteenth novel, Fidelity is more to my liking because this mystery is woven in a web of deceit and unravelled by an unwittingly potential victim in a race against time, in interesting settings. I'll definitely seek out more of his books.

Because I can't recommend a longer list of Australian mystery writers, I contacted some of my Australian reading and writing friends and asked them to share their favourite authors here, with an emphasis on 'Mystery'.

Robyn Westgate's favourite Aussie author is Colleen McCullough. Her love story Tim and The Thornbirds saga kept her glued.

My cousin Sheryl said: These authors aren't Australian, they're American, but I like:
1) David Baldacci's 'Camel Club series'. I have read the first four (The Camel Club; The Collectors; Stone Cold and Divine Justice) and enjoyed each of them very much. I'm looking forward to the fifth one, Hell's Corner. The stories are about a group of four people who discover conspiracies and scandals inside the government.
2) James Patterson's Alex Cross series. Alex Cross is a black criminal-psychologist-come-policeman who manages to solve all sorts of gruesome crimes. I think the movie Along Came a Spider and a couple of others are based on those books. Patterson holds the New York Times record for the most 'Hardcover Fiction bestselling titles by a single author' (56 total) and his books have sold an estimated 170 million copies worldwide.

Rosalie Skinner, author of the upcoming fantasy series, The Chronicles of Caleath, says: When asked if as an Australian Author I read Australian stories, I have to say, I don’t think I discriminate. If the writing is good enough to turn off my internal editor and they tell the story well, I keep turning pages. However, I do have a few favourite Aussie mystery authors who spring to mind. Michael Robotham has a certain knack. He tells a great story. Back in the day there was Tony Kendrick’s A Tough One to Lose. For Fantasy authors I must mention our Aussie, Lian Hearn and her Tales of the Otori series. Other than that John Marsden and his Tomorrow when the War Began series are terrific stories. Most of the children's books I choose for my grandchildren are by Australian authors with Australian themes. They are beautifully illustrated and great stories.

When asked if she sticks to Australian authors, Australian Crime writer, Carole Sutton, answered: To stick to only one country’s books is to deny yourself a large proportion of a royal feast of world wide literature. My favoured genre for both reading and writing is crime fiction/murder mystery. British authors such as Val McDermid, Lynda La Plante, Reginald Hill, Minnette Walters have always been high on my 'to read' list. I’m also a follower of British crime TV series and particularly like the characters who work in Cornwall UK, like, ‘Wycliffe’ based on W J Burley’s novels, and ‘Inspector Lynley’ from Elizabeth George’s books. Having lived in Cornwall for 20 years I like to set my own crime books in that familiar location. Although she is not into the mystery genre, I also like reading Maeve Binchy who inspires me with the way she breathes life into her characters in so few words. As for Australian authors, a new crime writer, Felicity Young, has a delightful series out with her Detective Sergeant Stevie Hooper books. Tim Winton is slowly growing on me, though I enjoy blockbusters like Judy Nunn, Bryce Courtney and Colleen McCullough more.

I think Carole sums up my view perfectly. Aussie readers enjoy "a royal feast of world wide literature" including our own.        

Wendy Laharnar                                                 
The Unhewn Stone - Coming August1, 2011
E-Mail Wendy to subscribe to Calamity's Corner
Follow Wendy's blog at WendyL

Biography:  Wendy lives on the east coast of Australia with her husband and their Mini Schnauzer, Spitzli.  When she's not writing, she reads and sews and enjoys time shared with her grownup family. Myths, legends and the medieval world fascinate her, and she draws from these in her writng. Her novel The Unhewn Stone redefines the Wilhelm Tell legend. It is her dream to follow Ovid and create a new, universal legend, one day.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Playing Outside - An Afghan for Project Linus

When I was an infant, I was very ill.  We lived in a small town, I had an older sister who needed looking after and my parents didn't have a lot of money.  Between the ages of 6 months and 1 year, I spent most of my time in the hospital.  This was in the time when parents couldn't stay in the hospital with their children. My parents had no choice but to take me to urban hospitals a distance away and leave me, always expecting to learn that I had died.

Happily, I was much too stubborn for that and here am I, many years later, perfectly fine. The cause of my illness was never fully determined; possibly a virus, or possibly reaction to the DPT shot to which there were cases of severe reactions, even deaths, at the time.

While I, obviously, don't remember any of this, it is a subject about which my parents still can't speak easily.  Where am I going with this?  Although I don't have children, I feel for parents with children who are very ill and must spend long periods in hospitals.  When I began crocheting again, I wanted to make things for others.  Ergo; Playing Outside for Project Linus.

The Project Linus Mission: Project Linus is comprised of hundreds of local chapters and thousands of volunteers across the United States. Each volunteer and local chapter all work together to help us achieve our mission which is to provide love, a sense of security, warmth and comfort to children who are seriously ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need through the gifts of new, handmade blankets and afghans, lovingly created by volunteer "blanketeers."

Playing Outside:  Was made to provide warmth and comfort and to remind the child of all the wonderful colours found when playing outdoors.  It was done in the hope they will soon be well and running in the grass.

The Pattern:  Can me made in a variety of sizes and colors.  This is just to give a starting point.

My afghan is eight color blocks long by seven color blocks wide.
Finished size is 54" wide x 59 1/4" long

8 mm (L) Hook

FC 26 plus 2 reg CH. (Right side)
Row 1:  (wrong side)SC in 2nd FC from hook than [alternate SC, DC] to end connecting with SC in last FC of previous row (you should have 11 sets of clusters).  CH 2, turn.  Always rotate clockwise from right to left.
Row 2:  (right side) Skip final SC in previous row, SC to end, SC in CH2 from prevous row, CH2 turn.
Row 3:  (wrong side) Skip top of SC in previous row, [SC, DC} ending with SC in CH 2 from previous row, CH2, turn.
Repeat rows 2 and 3 until you have 12 patterened rows (or however many you wish for each of your blocks).  End with a row of SC, join new color, CH 2, turn and start patterned row with new color.
Join strips with SC, border afghan with a row of SC and a row of SS.

By using alternating rows of the pattern and SC, one side of the afghan is flat (less inclined to catch hospital tubes, etc.) and one side patterned for feel.

You will find more photographs of the finished afghan and details as to the yarn I used on Ravelry.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book Covers through a Reviewer’s Eye

The wonderful authors at "The LadyKillers" invited me to join their conversation on book covers.  I was very flattered and pleased to contribute the following article:

A confession must be made; I rarely see the cover of a book prior to my receiving it.  My days spent perusing the mystery aisles of bookstores are many years in the past; and this may be more common than suspected.

Online shopping and e-books have changed the world for the writer, publisher and reader.  Access to online groups and reviews, blogs, social media and, my particular favorite, the sites and catalogues of genre-specialized, respected booksellers provide a plethora of ways in which to discover new authors and read opinions on their latest work without ever seeing the physical book.   The combination of these elements is the reason for my not viewing the covers of my prospective reads. 

As a collector of signed, first editions, I rely on independent booksellers throughout the US, Canada and UK to feed my need.  One bookseller, in particular, provides an excellent newsletter for collectors that not only provides each book’s plot summary, but often includes a very brief comment from a member of the store’s staff as to their feeling about the book.  This has both introduced me to authors whose books I’ve enjoyed that I may otherwise have never read and steered me away from those whose books I most probably would not enjoyed. Their printed newsletter, which I received, is devoid of pictures.  

As a reviewer, I am able to request the advanced reader’s copy of books, usually by author’s whose work I know.  Again, it is usually through a list I receive via email in which there is no pictures. 

None of this, however, diminishes the importance of a book’s cover and the elements at which I look when viewing them.  After all, many people still often judge a book by that first impression.

Cover art:  I’ve worked in marketing for a great many years so packaging is something of which I am very aware.  Although I first see the covers most often after having received the book, I do take notice.   Cover art that catches my eye, expresses the period and mood and theme of the story is wonderful.  When a cover is poorly done, doesn’t convey anything about the book, and/or particularly when it’s an historical novel and the period costume is inaccurate, it doesn’t affect my reading, but does put into question the professionalism and commitment of both the author and the publisher. 

The covers I most remember are very graphic, such as those for Edward Marston’s and Ann Parker’s books.  Mr. Marston writes several series.  The cover art is both attractive and provides a clear indication as to which series each book belongs and in which period it is set, not only through the art but, in the first four instances, through the title font used. 

Ms. Parker’s books are set in Colorado at the turn of the century; again both aspects being immediately conveyed to the prospective reader.

Some might feel it is easier illustrating covers for mysteries set in an historical timeframe. A few examples of contemporary mysteries whose covers I particularly like are from Tarquin Hall, Jack Fredrickson and Donna Leon:

It is my understanding that many authors don’t have control of their covers and, thanks to my marketing background, I certainly understand how difficult it is to create a cover representative of the book.  Considering how significant is the cover, an approval clause by the author in their contract might be beneficial. 

Story summary:  Even with the rise in e-books—yes, I am an e-book reader having been an early adopter of the Kindle--and/or whether one sees the cover, the story summary is critical as it appears not only on the cover, but as the product description for on-line booksellers.  I understand author’s often don’t write the summaries themselves.   This is another area in which a contractual clause, giving the author review and approval permission, might be wise. 

An ideal story summary:
  • Must be accurate and not contain any spoilers - There is nothing more annoying than to be told what is going to happen before you even start the book or finding a part of the story isn’t as was advertised. 
  • Should be short and sweet - In fact, I find most story descriptions too long.
  • Should include the essentials - Things I want to know are the timeframe and location in which the story is set, the principal characters and the basics of the puzzle. 
Author biography and photograph:  Yes, I do want to know how you look and about your background.  As a reader, I become invested in your characters so I have an interest in learning about you as the creator.  It is nice if the photograph has been updated within the past couple of years; okay, within the past five years for those of us who hate having photos taken.

Cover elements about which I don’t personally care are:

Award mentions:  It is wonderful when an author’s work is recognized by having been nominated and/or having won an award.  Yes, it should be noted on the book.  However, as frequently as I’ve disagreed with some of these selections, I take that information with a definite grain of salt for it doesn’t necessarily mean the book is one which will appeal to me.

Blurbs and review excerpts:  Sorry, I rarely read them.  It is only reasonable they would be positive, if not effusive, or why would they be there.  No publisher is going to include a negative blurb such as the classic quote from Gore Vidal on Herman Wouk’s Winds of War, “This is not at all bad, except as prose.” 

One of the great regrets I have about e-books is the inability to see what others are reading.  When out in public, it’s great fun seeing the books being read by those around me.  I even wrote about it and suggested a solution at Excuse me…What are you reading?.

A wonderful book cover can never excuse a poorly written book but book covers, as such, are wonderful things.  Even though they may not influence my buying decisions, except for that all-important story summary, those which enfold the approximately 6,000 books in my home are enjoyed and appreciated.

Please let me know what you think?  What elements of covers are important to you?  Do covers influence your buying decisions?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Top Reads of 2010

Along with my love of statistics, comes my attraction to lists.  Some of us have discovered we have similar reading "DNA."  Others of you may be looking for new mystery authors to try.  Either way, I give you my list of "Top Reads" for last year.  Please remember, these are purely my opinion. 

Books I rated "Excellent" for 2010 were (author, title, copyright date):

1    Adam, Paul                  Paganni’s Ghost                      2010   
      Great characters, wonderful information on history related to music and instruments, very well plotted.   

2.   Alleyn, Susanne          Game of Patience                     2006   
      Post-French Revolution, very good sense of time and place, complex plot, ending was sad, poignant, tragic and satisfying.

3.    Bolton, S.J.                  Blood Harvest                            2010   
       Her best book yet, wonderfully creepy even if the prologue should have been at Chap 50/51, appreciated the humor and the ending.

4.    Cleverly, Barbara         Strange Images of Death          2010   
       Excellent characters and dialogue, very visual writing, powerful opening, a well thought-out, well-executed traditional mystery

5.    Crombie, Deborah        Dreaming of the Bones            1997    
       Characters are vivid and interesting, wonderful style to writing, story is emotional, intelligent and thought-provoking.

6.    Dickinson, David           Death of a Chancellor               2005    
       Wonderful characters, wry humor, excellent sense of place and time, plot that builds and interesting historical information.   A series that has improved with each book. 

7.    Fowler, Christopher       Bryant and May Off the Rails    2010    
       Humor balanced with poignancy.  Well written characters, wonderful humor, excellent writing.

8.    Krueger, William Kent    Vermilion Drift                           2010    
       Krueger is a very fine author who knows how to create characters, write dialogue, set a scent and develop a plot.

9.     McGregor, Rafe              The Architect of Murder           2009   
        Informative, educational, exciting, suspenseful, dramatic and altogether wonderful.

10.   Marston, Edward          The Owls of Gloucester          2000   
        Nothing I didn’t like about this book.  Interesting and intricate plot, various threads brought together in a double climax.

11.   Nabb, Magdalen            The Marshal’s Own Case       1990   
        Each book better than the last.  The plot is engrossing, emotional, tragic and poignant, with an ending which avoids cliché.

12.   Robertson, Imogen         Anatomy of Murder                2010   
        A straight-through read; captivating plot, good twist, insightful, evoked strong emotion. 

13.   Vargas, Fred                  Wash this Blood Clean from My Hands    2004   
        Wonderful characters, dialogue and humor.  Author has an excellent voice.  Very good plot with excellent twists.

Those I rated as "VG+" being just one or two points away from "Excellent" and are well worth reading were:

1     Alleyn, Susanne          Palace of Justice               2010   
2.    Boyle, Gerry                Port City Shakedown         2009   
3.    Bradley, Alan               The Weed that Strings      2010   
                                                the Hangman’s Bag
4.    Butcher, Jim               Changes                             2010   
5     Carrell, Jennifer Lee   Haunt Me Still                      2010   
6.    Cotterill, Colin             The Coroner’s Lunch         1976   
7    Cotterill, Colin              Thirty-Three Teeth              2006       
8.    Ellis, Kate                   The Armada Boy                 1999   
9     Finch, Charles            A Stranger in Mayfair          2010   
10    Franklin, Ariana          A Murderous Procession   2010   
11    Frederickson, Jack    Honestly Dearest,              2010   
                                               You’re Dead
12    Gerritsen, Tess         Ice Cold                               2010   
13    Griffiths, Elly              The Janus Stone                 2010   
14    Hill, Reginald              An April Shroud                   1975   
15    Lake, Deryn               Death in the Valley of          2003   
                                               the Shadows
16    Leon, Donna              A Noble Radiance               1998   
17    Nabb, Magdalen        The Marshall and the           1987   
18    Penny, Louise           Bury Your Dead                   2010   
19    Todd, Charles           A Lonely Death                    2010   
20    Vargas, Fred             Seeking Whom He              1999   
                                              May Devour
21    Walker, Martin           Bruno, Chief of Police         2008   

From the  moment you enter my place, you know you've come to the home of a reader.  Doesn't everyone's front hall look this way?  A portion of my "to-be-reads" are on the left and some of my "have-reads" are on the right.

I'd love to see your lists of top 2010 reads and also photos of your book collections.  Feel free to share.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Analysis of 2010

Analyzing results has always been interesting to me.  Whether looking at a marketing campaign for work or, in this case, my reading for the previous year, forming some conclusions, or realizing a pattern, is fascinating.

Here are the stats for my reading of 2010.

Total Books Read:  132 or an average of 11 books per month.  This is down from 142 books read in 2009.  I know this was due to (1) an obsession with the World Cup, (2) a re-emergence of my love for crochet, but most of all (3) difficulty in focusing on reading due to worrying about being unemployed.

 Author Gender:  Someone is always suggesting that readers focus mainly on authors of the same gender as they.  I am proof this is not always true.  Last year, I read
     Male Authors:        68 (52%)
     Female Authors:    62 (47%)
That's pretty close to a 50/50 split and indicates I select books by story rather than author gender.

Book Rating:  Anyone who follows my reviews knows I have a fairly detailed rating system which has developed over time. Reading for 2010 resulted in:
      13 (10%) - Excellent (A top read of the year)
      23 (17%) - VG+ (Close to excellent with only small quibbles)
      36 (27%) - VG (Enthused about it - Very well done for it's genre)
      30 (23%) - Good+ (Enjoyed it very much)
      11 (  8%) - Good (An enjoyable read)
        9 (  7%) - Okay (Enjoyed with significant reservations - only okay)
        5 (  4%) - Poor (Wasn't awful; wasn't good.  Finished with difficulty)
        1 (  1%) - NR (Finished it; would not recommend it - Didn't work for me)
        5 (  4%) - DNF (Did not finish; truly awful or did not suit my taste at all)
The breakdown of this year's results indicates I've become better about selecting the books I read.  Those that fell below a rating of Good--only 16%--were, for the most part, books chosen to read by The East Bay Mystery Readers' Group or books sent to me for review.

Book Setting:  This is a statistic I found particularly fascinating.
       Non-US:  91 (69%)
       US:           41 (31%)
I know I have a strong Anglophile tendency, but there is also a fair representation of Canada, France, Italy, Australia and Africa among the books I read last year.   It does indicate the appeal to me of the British "voice," interest in learning more about foreign settings and love of historical mysteries, the vast majority of which are set outside the US.

New-to-me Authors:  18 (14%)
It is always wonderful to discover an author you've not read previously but now add to your must-read list.  Unfortunately, the analysis I've not done is to cross reference these authors with the rating I've given their books.  That would tell me the success of my hunt for new authors to read.

Story Time Frame:
      Cont:      86 (65%)
      Hist:        43 (33%)
      Future:      3 ( 2%)
This was a bit surprising.  I would have thought the numbers between Contemporary and Historical would have been closer.  Shows what I know.  Those set in the future can be attributed to J.D. Robb, Jim Butcher and Simon R. Green.

There you have it.  More analysis can always be done but one also, I believe, has to be careful not to become so immersed in the numbers, analysis is being performed for analysis sake alone.  Still, it is fun to see.  By the way, the photo was taken in 2004 and only shows a very small portion of the books I own.

And now you, my dear friends.  How was your reading last year?  Did you keep statistics?  Did you learn anything about your reading habits?  I'd love to know.