Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Harlan Coben

I told you that I would have the second half of my series recommendations in my next blog.  I lied.  Rich, Leslie, Joni, and I made the trek from San Jose to Corte Madera to see Harlan Coben.  He was amazing.  I have to tell you about some of things he had to say.  First of all, he's hysterical.  I found myself laughing hard and out loud a lot.  He started by saying he grew up just a little East of Corte Madera - New Jersey.  That set the tone.  In fact, the only author I've heard who was as funny as Coben is Dave Barry - and he's actually a humorist.  It's not fair to compare a humorist and a mystery writer for being funny, but Coben more than held his own.

He talked very little about his new book and a lot about writing.  In fact, he actually had suggestions for the writers that were in the audience.  Here are some of his gems:

1.  Writing is inspiration, perspiration - and desperation
2.  He writes because he's not qualified to do anything else.  He thought he might make a good duvet cover.
3.  He had his new book sitting on the kitchen counter at home.  It was turned over, which showed a hardcover-sized picture of Coben.  His 17-year old daughter walked by, looked at it, and said "Ew."
4.  No matter what's he doing, there's a voice in his head telling him that he should be working on his book.
5.  Writing is communicating.
6.  3 tips:
     Don't worry too much about the setting.
     Don't do unnecessary research.  It's about imagination.
     Be honest.
7.  Treat writing like a job.
8.  He reads over his entire book every 75 pages.  He said that by the time he's done, he's probably read the first chapter 8 or 9 times.  When he's finished, he reads the entire book out loud.  He said writing without reading is like clapping with one hand.  This whole process was particularly fascinating.

He also gave some good quotes.  Elmore Leonard said:  "I always try to write by cutting out the parts people are going to skip."  Dorothy Parker said:  "I don't like writing.  I love having written."

I've now been to maybe a 100 author events.  Coben is among the top 2 or 3 that I've seen.  It's a combination of humor, interest, tips for writing, and humility.  On top of all that, every one of his books is a very good read.  It doesn't matter which one you pick up, you will enjoy it.  If you ever get a chance to see him in person, make the effort.  You'll be glad you did.

Okay, next time I PROMISE that I will reveal (drumroll, please) the second half of the series that I would recommend.  I know how excited all of you must be.

Friday, March 25, 2011

New Authors

First, a couple of notes:

1.  Harlan Coben is coming Monday night, March 28, at 7 to The Book Passage in Corte Madera.  I know, it's a really long drive from the South Bay, but it is Harlan Coben!  He's one of the favorite authors for a number of us.
2.  I finished the new Picoult.  It was excellent.  I definitely encourage everybody to read it.

Okay, now on to new authors.  I have already done a blog post about Stein - The Art of Racing in the Rain - and Robison - Look Me in the Eye.  Those were first-time authors for me.  Now I've got two more to talk about.  One is Taylor Stevens - The Informationist - and Sam Bourne - The Righteous Men.  First, Stevens.

This is her debut novel.  The book was reviewed by USA Today, who likened the main character to Lisbeth Salander, from the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.  The protagonist here, Vanessa Michael Munroe, is in her mid-'20's.  She has some similarities to Lisbeth but is not a carbon copy by any means.  Most of the story takes place in Africa.  Our heroine (is hero male only or can it refer to both?), who goes by the name Michael, specializes in getting information and is helped along by crazy combat skills (see the similarities?).  She is hired to find the daughter of a very wealthy Houston oilman, which daughter (awkward!) disappeared in Africa several years earlier.

For a first shot, it's decent.  It's good enough that I will read the next one, which is supposed to be a sequel and that will be published next year.  I get a sense that Stevens will get better the more she writes. In my experience, it is not uncommon for a writer to get better with each book.

The other new author is Sam Bourne.  He has written several.  This one has an excellent plot.  Righteous men are being killed all around the world in order to bring about the day of judgment (I'll let all of you read it to find out more).  The group behind the killings is, not surprisingly, comprised of religious zealots.  Most of the action takes place in New York during the High Holy Days (that's the ten days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for those of you who do not know what those Days are), including a large amount of time spent among a band of Chasidic Jews.  The protagonist is a young New York Times newspaper reporter who has to find a way to save his wife.  The only way he can see doing that is by enlisting the support of an ex-girlfriend.

The problem with the book is that it takes 300 pages (out of 550) before it starts to amp up the excitement of the plot.  All of the pages leading up to the last 250 merely set the stage - but way too slowly.  The good news is that you will race through the last 250 pages.  I would say it's worth it, but you have to be prepared to be a little patient leading up to it.  It turns out that Paul and I were reading it at the same exact time without knowing that the other guy was reading  it.  And, it was the first Bourne for each of us.  That has to rank as quite a coincidence  The other good news is that Paul is reading another book by him, The Last Testament, and says he gets into the main storyline much fast than with The Righteous Men.  Having said all of that (I know you're all shocked that I have overreviewed) , I do recommend it.

Next time, I will give you the other half of the series that I think many of you would like.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

2 author events

Joni and I went to two author events this week.  They (the events and the authors) couldn't have been more different.  Wednesday, we saw Jodi Picoult in San Rafael at Dominican College (with Donna and Phil), sponsored by The Book Passage.  There were 200 people in attendance.  Friday, we saw Keith Thomson (Once A Spy) at Keplers, where there were a total of 12-15 people, of which a few were Thomson family members.  Never mind that Sing You Home is Picoult's 18th novel and immediately went to #1 on the USA Today book list and that Thomson's Twice A Spy is his second novel and didn't make the top 50.  What they had to say, and how they said it, was dramatically different.

Picoult -
She was really interesting.  As I'm sure most of you know, she writes books about knotty issues.  This book tackles the struggles with infertility, religious conservatism, and gay awakening (her son "came out" two years ago).  She said that she gets the subject matter for her books by asking "what if" questions that she can't answer.  Besides having interesting story lines, she's such a good writer.  I've  read 175 pages of the new one (I've read her other 17) and am enjoying it immensely.  Her skill as a writer is definitely reaching a very high level.  This one, though, is very unique because she wrote 10 songs (she has written over 100 songs, including a stage musical for teens) and has a CD attached.  She even indicates at 10 different places in the book where each song should be played.  She brought along the woman who sings the songs and wrote the music.  The singer performed three of the songs.  Needless to say, that was a first for an author event for me.

She told a very interesting story about the movie, My Sister's Keeper, that was based on her book.  The director was Nick Cassavetes.  She spoke with him before the movie was filmed, and he promised that he wouldn't change the ending (which is quite a shocker and upsetting to some - right Donna?!).  Unfortunately, she said that once you give up your rights, you, as the author, have no more control over what the movie studio does.  In this case, somebody behind the scenes alerted Jodi that Cassevetes was changing the ending.  She called him and got no response.  She went down to the studio and was kicked off the set.  She was, needless to say, not happy.  (Postscript:  She got a little bit of karmic revenge when Cassevetes was fired from his next movie).

The audience was about 10-1 women.  I asked her why there was such a big disparity between men and women when almost all of her books treated men and women equally.  She said that she gets about 200 letters each day, and that 48% of them are from men.  Then she said (dismissively, I might add) that the reason so many more women than men were in attendance that night is that women like to get out of the house more than men do.  Ouch.  Bitch-slapped for being a man.

Thomson -
He was promoting his second book, which is a sequel to his first one.  He said that his next one will not be a second sequel, but he can't tell us what it's about (one of those "I can tell you, but then I would have to kill you").  He talked a little bit about one of the two protagonists, Drummond Clark, being based on someone that he knew of.  He raised the very real question of what do you do with an ex-CIA agent who knows a lot of secrets and who then develops Alzheimers.  In the first book, the CIA tries to neutralize (i.e. kill) him.  It's an interesting question to ponder.

He did give a demonstration of a drone.  He had a small one with him that he basically flew using his iphone.  That was pretty cool.  I had heard a lot about them but didn't really know what they did.  I guess they're used to hover over areas to determine what's there.  He mentioned a sheriff in the Midwest that used them to find meth labs instead of him and his deputies being shot at when they went in person.  He said the drones come in all sizes.  The Israelis have drones that are the size of 747s.

The advantage of Thomson over Picoult is that I was the first in line to have my book signed by him while the line for Picoult was probably 75 strong (I was about #20).  But all in all, I would say don't miss Picoult.  You can miss Thomson but his books are a good read.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Okay, it's time for everybody's all-timers.  Okay, it's only 8 of us, but here they are:

Dennis - Clavell - Tai Pan, Michener - Centennial, Irving - Cider House Rules and Son of a Circus
John - Larsson - Tattoo trilogy, Bryson - Short History of Almost Everything
Jen - Devereaux - The Summer House, Hosseini - One Thousand Splendid Suns
Jolene - Conroy - Prince of Tides, James Lee Burke, Robert Ludlum, James Clavell, Elizabeth Lowell
Paul - Courtenay - Power of One, Roy Lewis -Evolution Man or How I Ate My Father, Edward O.
          Wilson - Consilience, The Unity of Knowledge
Joni - Follett - Pillars of the Earth, Wallace - The Plot, Conroy - Prince of Tides, Archer - Kane and Abel,
          Martin - Back Bay
Lloyd - Follett - Pillars of the Earth, Clavell - Shogun, Michener - The Source

Tomorrow night:  Picoult in San Rafael.  Can't wait!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Series - Closed-Ended

Before I conclude the Open-Ended Series, let me give you a few closed-ended (still awkward) series.  These are series that have a beginning and an end and progress in a logical, chronological order.

John Jakes has 2 - The Kent Chronicles and North and South.  The Kent Chronicles is an 8-book set, beginning with an young Englishman that comes over to America before it's America (in the 1760's, if memory serves) and ending in 1908.  I loved this series.  I recommended book 1, The Bastard, to Josh for his first book this year.  He liked it okay.  I made a mistake.  He's probably not going to read the whole series, so it was silly to have him read just 1.  These closed-ended series really only work if you read all of them (sorry, Josh).  But if you like historical fiction, you will love this.

The second Jakes series is a trilogy - North and South.  It's about 2 brothers in pre-civil war days.  They end up on different sides during the war.  It follows their progress through the Civil War and a little beyond.  This is excellent stuff.

Another author who I really like is Joel Rosenberg.  He wrote 5 books about America's involvement with the Middle East and the whole oil thing.  It's called The Last Jihad.  It has religious end-of-the-world overtones, but that will not affect your enjoyment of the books.  He is an excellent writer.  He's now written book 1 of a new series called The Twelfth Imam.  The first book is of the same name.  It is really good and very exciting.

Ken Follett wrote only 2 books about England in the early 20th century.  Of course the first one was Pillars of the Earth, and the second one was World without End.  I don't know if he's going to write a third or not.  Because they were both so good, and because they (loosely) followed each other, and because I like to list these 2 books whenever I can, they're on the list.  They're both not to be missed.

Follett has also just written book 1 of The Century Trilogy.  The first book is Fall of Giants.  I liked it a lot.  It isn't Pillars, but then, what is?  The second book will be in 2012 and the third in 2014.  It goes from WW1 to WW11 to Vietnam.

Many of you may not know that Lonesome Dove (one of my all-time faves) is part of a 4-book series.  After Lonesome Dove, he did the final book in the series, Streets of Laredo.  Then it was a prequel, Dead Man's Walk.  And, finally, he wrote Comanche Moon, which takes place between Dead Man's Walk and Lonesome Dove.  I enjoyed all of them, with Lonesome dove being the best, by far.

J.K. Rowling wrote - anybody want to guess? - Harry Potter.  I enjoyed those a lot.  If you like fantasy, these are pretty darn good.

Finally, there's John Twelve Hawks (I didn't make the name up).  He wrote a trilogy called The Fourth Realm.  The books, in order, are The Traveler, The Dark River, and The Golden City.  It's really about Big Brother and how some companies are trying to control the lives of all citizens (a la George Orwell, in 1984).  There is a little bit of science fiction thrown in with the protagonist traveling to another realm, but it works in the context of the story.  It's really well done.  Be prepared for dark.

Author Events:
Jodi Picoult - 3/16 - Dominican College (The Book Passage) - 7:00
Keith Thomson - 3/18 - Kepler's - 7:00

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Series - Open-Ended

There are 20 open-ended series that I want to tell you about.  I'll do 10 today and 10 in a future blog.  But before I start, I want to mention a couple of things.  First, I'm getting ready to compile the list of all-time favorites.  5 people have responded so far.  Does anybody else want to weigh in?  I'm going to post what I've got the week of March 14.

Secondly, there are 2 author events to tell you about.  The first one is a reminder that Jodi Picoult will be at Dominican College in San Rafael on Wednesday, March 16, at 7:00.  The second one is Keith Thomson, who will be at Keplers Friday night, March 18, at 7:00.  Keith wrote Once A Spy last year and is coming out with Twice A Spy this Tuesday, the 8th.  Joni and I will be attending both events.

Okay, on to open-ended series.  These feature the same protagonist book after book with no endgame.  Although an author may end the series, he or she typically doesn't wrap anything up.  This is why I call them open-ended (what a wordsmith I am).  This is to be distinguished from series that have a beginning and an end with logical time passages in each book.  Not surprisingly, but a bit awkwardly, I call these series closed-ended.  These will be the subject of a future blog (I seem to have plans for a lot of "future blogs!").  The following are all series that I currently read.  And like they say on Dancing with the Stars, they are in no particular order.

Daniel Silva - his Gabriel Allon is an Israeli spy/world-renowned art restorer.
Steve Berry - Cotton Malone is an American expatriate, ex-CIA book dealer in Denmark.
Vince Flynn - Mitch Rapp is the ultimate CIA agent.
Barry Eisler - John Rain is a half-Japanese, half-American assassin whose home base is Tokyo.
Brian Haig - Sean Drummond is a JAG lawyer.
W.E.B. Griffin has 3 series, 2 of which are on (permanent?) hiatus - The Corps and Brotherhood of War.  The 3rd series, which is going on now, is Presidential Agents, with Charley Castillo.
Harlan Coben - Myron Bolitor is a sports agent (but so much more) with his sidekick, Winn.
Alex Kava - Maggie O'Dell is an FBI profiler who handles serial killers.
David Rosenfelt - Andy Carpenter is a wise-cracking lawyer in New Jersey.
Alex Berenson - John Wells, like Mitch Rapp, is the quintessential CIA agent.

There are a number of us who read these series and very much enjoy them (although Bob is tired of Griffin doing a lot of recapping).  If anybody wants any more explanation as to what these series are about, let me know.  I would be happy to give you more explanation.