Friday, February 09, 2007

Crime and punishment

[Posted on Friday, 9 February 2007.]

First, a thank you to Grace, an American reader, for her recommendation. See yesterday's comment. I have added the book to my library list.

Yesterday, a friend who has a stall on a rastro, came to pot-luck lunch bringing two plastic bags of paperbacks, some of which she thought we might like to read before they appear on her stall. We selected 13 and I wrote down the titles as a safeguard against any getting mislaid among our own books.

Last night I started reading The Other Daughter by Lisa Gardner. [See photo] This opens with the execution in Texas of Russell Lee Holmes. When asked by the sentencing judge what he has to say about kidnapping, torturing and murdering six small children, this man's reply was, "Well, sir, basically, I can't wait to get me another."

This morning, when Mr Bookworm switched on the light, I told him about the execution scene in which the murderer's eye sockets are taped so that there would be less mess when his eyeballs melted. Later there's a description of his skin turning bright red and beginning to smoke. "Abruptly his feet blew off. Then his hands."

Mr Bookworm said he had never heard of that happening to people condemned to die in the electric chair and he couldn't see why their feet and hands should blow off.

However, at the beginning of the book, the author acknowledges help from "Bob and Kim Diehl, former corrections officers for the Texas Department of Corrections. Not just anyone will answer e-mails from a total stranger, particularly a stranger enquiring about proper protocol for the electric chair." So one must conclude that Lisa Gardner has her facts right.

In the Q&A at Ms Gardner's website, she is asked, "Do you use real events?" To which she replies, "I am routinely inspired by true crime. The basis for The Other Daughter is the real life story of Ted Bundy, who fathered a child while on death row. That made me wonder what it would be like growing up as the child of a notorious serial killer. The Third Victim, of course, is based on the string of school shootings we've had in the United States. That research was very sad for me, but I also needed to do it. Like most Americans, I wanted to understand what would drive kids to perform such heinous acts. Many of the answers surprised me."

A book called Hide, which came out at the end of last month, is Lisa Gardner's 22nd novel. She didn't start out as crime writer. "A funny thing happened my junior year of college. The novel—rewritten several times now—actually sold to Silhouette Intimate Moments. They gave the book the title, WALKING AFTER MIDNIGHT, and me the name Alicia Scott. It was pretty exciting. Then I got the check in the mail. Three thousand dollars. Not much for three years of work. I bought a computer for my new nom de plume, then went out to get a real job."

Unfortunately her website designer has used white text on a dark blue background which is always harder to read than black text on a white or pale ground.

More comments about this book when I've finished it.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Tenderness of Wolves

[Posted on Thursday 8 February 2007]

I've been checking the list of Whitbread Award-winning books. There are none on our shelves, although I have borrowed several from my summer-time public library and always been disappointed.

However the first novel to win the Costa Award, Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves, sounds more promising as far as the middle-brow reader is concerned, as opposed to the "literati" who, we are told, were at last night's presentation.

To be honest, I have never heard of Costa Coffee, the Award's new sponsor. For many people, including me, the word "costa" evokes a vision of Benidorm, Lloret de Mar, Marbella and other over-crowded resorts on the coasts of Spain.

An interesting piece about Ms Penney is The Scotsman interview with her by Jackie McGlone.

Excerpt: "There is something Garbo-esque about Stef Penney. Maybe it is because she has unusually vivid blue eyes, long, slender bones and enviable cheekbones set in a luminous face that is all intriguing planes and angles. Mainly, though, it's her spiky persona, which she wears like so much metaphorical barbed wire.
The air of mystery she exudes only adds to her resemblance to the Hollywood star who so famously wanted to be left alone. "


"Does she live alone in her Hackney flat? "No." With her partner? "No, I don't have a partner." Does she share with friends or family? "No." But she does not live alone? "No, I don't live alone." Aha, so she lives with her fictitious characters then? "Whatever. You can say anything you want. I've vowed never to read anything anyone ever writes about me anyway," she says, fiercely balling up the remains of her pain au chocolat in a napkin.
Only minutes into meeting her and I feel as if I am sitting opposite a passive-aggressive clam. However, I will forgive Penney for all her obfuscation and prickly unwillingness to divulge anything about herself because she has made a remarkable literary debut. Her brilliantly assured, subtly written novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, set in the atmospheric icy wastes of 19th-century Canada and published to admiring reviews last autumn, is surely a dead cert to win the First Novel category in the Costa Coffee chain's sponsorship of the awards formerly known as the Whitbreads."

Just picked up this review of the hardback [the pb comes on March 1st] from Amazon UK.

"Another great, door-stopping book. With dire memories of 'Labyrinth' I very nearly didn't buy it, but I couldn't resist the cover design. And the first page captured me. At last, a new writer who can really write. Momentum was lost, however, when I found I couldn't keep a hold on all the characters trecking about the wilderness. The cast seemed to have grown bigger than that of War and Peace and I truly only cared about one of them - the fascinating trapper who is dead by page 16.
The unhappy ending didn't actually make me suffer as I hadn't invested that much interest in the characters.
Don't publishers employ editors any more? This spirited writer needed a bit of control and... well - editing. The book could have, with advantage, lost a hundred pages.
If the reports are true that the writer has never visited the Canadian outback, the result is all the more astonishing in its vividness. Anyone inspired to read something by a French Canadian novelist who lived in this place at this time will enjoy 'Maria Chapdelaine' by Louis Hemon."

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A publisher with a head for heights

[While the dateline is being erratic, I will show the actual date at the top of the blog. This blog was posted on Wednesday 7 February 2007]

Also in today's blog
An American comment on the US prescription drug scene

First, here's an interesting comment on the book world which, in my view, is true of the whole publishing industry, not only the genre the publisher is discussing.

"The problem with publishing in the genre at the moment, and it is a problem, in the UK at least, is that as publishers we are not driving the market, we are unable to shape our destinies and those of our authors. Over the past few years we have found ourselves at the mercy of a book trade which has focused exclusively on high initial turnover and short-term profits (the genre has traditionally worked as a long lived backlist, word-of-mouth area: so that hits us hard); a book trade moreover, in which the power resides in the hands of a very few (who therefore have no time to read, and when they are reading it's rarely fantasy or SF). It's incredibly hard to launch successful new writers in this field at the moment, and that's deeply frustrating."

That comes from an interview with publisher Jane Johnson by Adam Volk.

Ms Johnson is also a writer and, as you see from the photo, a climber. Here's an excerpt from the bio on her website designed by Dan Isted.

"She is Fiction Publishing Director for HarperCollins Publishers UK, where she is responsible for the Voyager science fiction and fantasy list, as well as publishing thrillers and some historical fiction. For many years she was also responsible for the publishing of the works of JRR Tolkien, and as Jude Fisher wrote the bestselling Visual Companions which accompanied Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. As such, she was one of very few visitors to the film sets in New Zealand and came away with some amazing experiences and memories."

"You can see more about these on her site for adults:, where you will also find more about her epic fantasy trilogy, FOOL’S GOLD (SORCERY RISING, WILD MAGIC and THE ROSE OF THE WORLD). As Gabriel King she has co-written four epic novels about cats and their mythical lives alongside human beings: THE WILD ROAD, THE GOLDEN CAT, THE KNOT GARDEN and NONESUCH.
She is also a trained lecturer and holds a Master’s Degree in Old Icelandic. When not writing and publishing she likes to rock-climb, and it was in 2005, while climbing in Morocco, that she met her husband: now they split their time between the UK and Morocco, and share their life with Jane’s Norwegian Forest Cat, Thorfinna Hairy-Trousers: or Finn, for short."

Comment on previous blog

Not everyone bothers to read blog comments unless they are already in place at the time of their visit. You may have missed this interesting comment on the blog headed The Dangers of Too Much Medical Care.

"Why are no British doctors writing about this problem? Because the pharmaceutical industry is huge here in the US.

As the government here cannot, by law, negotiate drug prices for the minimal government coverage that exists (Medicare), the drug companies make a lot of money. And all of the drug companies advertise on TV. If you've seen any American TV, you'd notice this pretty quickly.

But I do also believe that this is partly the public's own fault. If you have, for example, high blood sugar, and the doctor tells you that you can lower it by changing your eating habits and exercising more, or take a pill, most people would take the pill. Why? It's easier, and we've been conditioned by all these ads that pills must be safe, otherwise the government wouldn't allow them to be sold.

Interesting topic, and I must make a note of the book so that when (if) it's available at the local library, I can have a look at it. Thanks! Lorna Sacramento, CA 06 February, 2007."

Thank you, Lorna. It's some time since my last trip to the US and I didn't realise, or had forgotten, that drug companies there could advertise on TV. As far as I'm aware they still can't do that in the UK, but I always have a book to read during the advertisement breaks anyway.

Not that The Box is on much in this household. Mr Bookworm is currently engrossed in Lesley and Roy Adkins' The War For All The Oceans which I blogged about in October 2006. I'm just starting Anthony Trollope's The West Indies and The Spanish Main. More about that later.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Dangers of Too Much Medical Care

[Maddeningly, the date problem isn't solved after all. I used the Post Options button to correct today's blog date to Tuesday Feb 6, but it's still coming out as Monday and Monday's date-line has vanished. Oh well, no use getting steamed up about it, I guess. Will try to make corrections later.]

The other day I discovered an interesting and rather alarming page at Amazon US headed The Dangers of Too Much Medical Care.

It's a list of 26 books with titles such as

Selling Sickness: How the World's Biggest Pharmeceutical Companies Are Turning Us All Into Patients

Disease-Mongers: How Doctors, Drug Companies, and Insurers Are Making You Feel Sick

Hope or Hype : The Obsession with Medical Advances and the High Cost of False Promises

The list has been compiled by an American science fiction writer Sylvia Engdahl whose father was Swedish. [See photo] Her website is well worth a visit.

I arrived at Ms Engdahl's list via the site of an American doctor, Dr Jay S Cohen, where I was appalled to learn that "Medication reactions are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, linked with more than 100,000 deaths, 1,000,000 hospitalizations, and 2,000,000 severe or permanently disabling reactions annually (JAMA 1998). And that's just the statistics from hospitals; adding adverse reactions in outpatients would make the numbers even higher."

On Dr Cohen's site I also read, "MENSA BULLETIN: "If you're one of the 46 percent of Americans on a drug regimen, this book could save your life, so do yourself a favor and get a copy." "

Way back in 1959, for a few weeks – I can't remember how long it lasted - my days, like those of many pregnant women, started with bouts of morning sickness. As by then I had given up newspaper work and was writing romances at home, throwing up breakfast was only a minor problem.

Fortunately I didn't ask for, or my doctor didn't offer, the pills that some women took. Because, as you can read at Wikepedia, from "1957 to 1961 in almost fifty countries under at least forty names, including Distaval, Talimol, Nibrol, Sedimide, Quietoplex, Contergan, Neurosedyn, and Softenon. Thalidomide was chiefly sold and prescribed during the late 1950s and 1960s to pregnant women, as an anti-emetic to combat morning sickness and as an aid to help them sleep. Unfortunately, inadequate tests were performed to assess the drug's safety, with catastrophic results for the children of women who had taken thalidomide during their pregnancies."

Since then I've had more than one friend who has become addicted to tranquillisers, but luckily I've never needed to take more than the occasional paracetamol for a headache. Nevertheless, I shall order Dr Cohen's book The Dangers of Too Much Medical Care.

If 46% of Americans are on prescription drugs, how many Brits are, I wonder?

So far I haven't found any statistics, and Amazon UK doesn't have a page of books by British authors about the prescription drug problem in the UK. The only title listed is by another American doctor.

Why are no British doctors writing tirades about this problem?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Six of the best

[Thanks to advice from Michael Allen, a k a Grumpy Old Bookman, I've been able to correct the wrong date showing on this blog earlier today. He reminded me about the Post Options button which I had completely forgotten about. Thank you, Michael.]

Also in today's blog

More about Maggs

As I mentioned in Friday's blog, Grumpy Old Bookman tells us his heart sinks if a chapter is 35 pages long. He prefers 10 pages or less.

On Saturday morning I browsed our sitting room bookshelves and selected six favourite titles to check their chapter lengths.

1 Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander [1970] has 346 pages divided into 12 chapters. Slightly over 28.5 pages per chapter.

2 The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield [1939] has 576 pages divided into four parts containing 56, 13, 49 and 27 sections, the equivalent of 145 chapters. That's just under four pages a chapter.

You'll find some interesting comments about the movie version of this novel at the blog of Amardeep Singh, Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University.

3 Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge [1932] has 328 pages, 25 chapters i.e. just over 13 pages per chapter. Ms Bridge is not too far outside GOB's approval zone.

4 The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grame [first published in 1908 but mine in the 54th edition pub. 1937] has 248 pages in 12 chapters. Oh dear, more than 20 pages per chapter so a heart-sinker for GOB.

About this book, Wikepedia tells us, "The book made Grahame's fortune, enabling him to retire from his hated (though respectable and well-paid) bank job and move to the country. He spent his time by the River Thames doing much as the animal characters in his book do, namely (in one of the most famous phrases from the book) 'simply messing about in boats'. It can also be viewed as a commentary on class dynamics in British society. Roughly speaking, the 'River-Bankers' represent the upper classes, while the 'Wild Wooders' represent the lower."

Admittedly I was under ten when I first read this marvellous tale, but I've read it many times since and never thought it had anything to do with class dynamics, whatever they may be. To most readers, the River-Bankers are nice people and the Wild Wooders are scary.

5 Lee Child's One Shot [2005] 483 pages, 17 chapters. 28 pages a chapter.

6 Spies by Richard Ben Sapir [1985] 360 pages 27 chapters. 21 pages a chapter.

Whether Grumpy Old Bookman has read these novels, who knows? But, if he hasn't, he has missed some great books.

My feeling is that chapter length is unimportant. What makes a chapter seem tediously long or grippingly short is the balance of dialogue and narrative.

More about Maggs

As a matter of courtesy, I usually tell people I've blogged about them. After writing about them on January 23, I emailed a note to Maggs Brothers Rare Books, saying I hoped they didn't mind my borrowing a picture of their Travel Room.

A reply came from Sophie Schneideman who works in the Modern Books room [see photo], her specialities being illustrated books, private press books, cookery and bibliography.

She wrote "Dear Ms. Weale, Thank you very much for your email. We are thrilled by your blog. How very charming and very gratifying. Also, what a wonderful blog. I shall be a new watcher. Kind regards Sophie Schneideman, Maggs Bros Ltd., 50 Berkeley Square, London W1J 5BA.

I rather hoped they might have a first edition with the original jacket of The Rains Came, but they don't at the moment. The only jacket to be found on the web is a horrible one showing the stars of the film, Myrna Loy and Ronald Colman.

Not that I would pay serious money for an immaculate first edition to replace my battered one. Forty years ago, perhaps. But at my age weeding out rather than acquiring books seems more sensible.