The Fall Guy by James Lasdun, a fun short read

A fun thriller to read in an evening

I like good short books that you can read in afternoon or evening. And I also like psychological thrillers. The Fall Guy falls into both those categories. I highly recommend it.

But that’s not what this post is about. I wanted to talk a little bit about the reviews for The Fall Guy. In general, the professional reviewers liked it. And although I often find that reviewers over praise a lot of mediocre stuff, especially mediocre, literary-wannabe stuff, I’m totally on board with them in this case. (For the record, here’s one example of egregious over praising in the thriller category.)

For all their flaws, Average Joe reader reviewers at places like Amazon and Goodreads almost always call the critics out for over praising albeit often for what I find to be the wrong reasons.

Average Jane, for example, frequently gets shirty if a book isn’t the type of thing she likes. Such was largely the case for The Fall Guy, which has lower-than-deserved reader reviews.

No, it wouldn’t

Average Jillian provides a classic example. She wants another book from the one that was written. She doesn’t appreciate that The Fall Guy is all about its unreliable narrator and his perspective. The reader has to do the rest of the work and imagine what the two main characters are really like. That’s the whole point. We don’t get to see them from any other perspective than the narrator’s.

This idea that you can and should know everything is one I encounter in the real world. People believe they can know the unknowable and get frustrated when they can’t.

In the case of the The Fall Guy, it’s the mystery and unknowing that makes it so good. And it’s a fun, quick read. Have at it.

Dark Ambition chronicles the Tim Bosma murder investigation and trial

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screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-37-55-pmDark Ambition: The Shocking Crime of Dellen Millard and Mark Smich went on sale November 8. (Yes, that day.) In between the wall-to-wall Trump election coverage, I did a number of radio and TV interviews about the book, two of which have been posted online.

If you’re curious, my talk with John Gormley can be found here, the last item on the November 9th list. I also spoke to Scott Radley of CHML in Hamilton, who wondered what more there was for the public to know about the Tim Bosma case after the very extensive trial coverage. You can hear my response by going the station’s audio vault and filling in the date (Nov. 9) and time (7:00 p.m.) of the interview and then fast forwarding to 7:42 p.m.

Radley is not the first person to ask me if they will learn something new from the book. Here’s what some readers said:

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Comments like this are extremely gratifying. One of my goals with this book was to take people inside the courtroom and help them understand in detail what it’s like for the police to investigate a murder, and then for the prosecutors to bring the case to trial. Another thing I try to do is give readers a feel for how this tragic and extremely high-profile murder  was discussed in social media and occupied armchair detectives at sites like Websleuths, which not everyone is familiar with.

You can buy Dark Ambition in most bookstores and order it online at Chapters/Indigo and Amazon although the hardcover version is temporarily out of stock until Nov. 17th at Amazon Canada. A few copies are still available at Amazon.com.

I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have about the book in the comments section. Or you could come out and talk to me in person at a special literary evening on Thursday November 17th in Burlington. Writers Stephen Brunt and Brent van Staalduinen will also be there discussing their new books. There’s a $20 admission fee with all proceeds to the East Plains United Church.

Come hear about ‘Dark Ambition’

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Pre-order at Amazon or Chapters/Indigo

I’ll be speaking about my new book, Dark Ambition: The Shocking Crime of Dellen Millard and Mark Smich on Thursday November 3 at the Barbara Frum library.

Although Dark Ambition won’t be officially released until November 8, there will be special copies for sale on Thursday.

Also speaking will be Jeremy Grimaldi, author of A Daughter’s Deadly Deception, the story of the fascinating Jennifer Pan case.

Here are the details.

Hope you can make it if you’re in the GTA.

Jonathan Franzen’s Purity deserves to be fodder for the feminist outrage machine

Jonathan Franzen’s Purity is a novel about sex and power and horrible people in which even the the least horrible of the characters behave horribly. The book’s both surprising and disappointing because Franzen —  in The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010) –created such vivid and believable characters that, in spite of all their flaws, you could sympathize with them or, at the very least understand their motivations. They reflected the world we live in all their hapless, comical, pathetic glory .

In Purity, in contrast, no one’s motivations or actions are fathomable despite the long and windy explanations for why they supposedly act the way they do. The two main male characters Andreas Wolf, a Wikileaks style activist, and Tom Aberant, a successful crusading journalist, both hate their German mothers and treat them with palpable cruelty. In contrast, the main female character, the eponymous Purity or Pip for short, should hate her unredeemably awful mother, but for some reason gives her the pass she grants to no one else.

Pip eventually meets up with Andreas, but I can’t tell you too much about why or how because spoiler alert. What I can say is we readers get east Germany before and after the fall of the wall, Stasi secret police, internet activism, Bolivia, Belize, bad artists, righteous journalists, drunken novelists, crazy wives, multiple jealous girlfriends, and way too much information about Andreas’s and Tom’s hard-ons.

The tenor of the dick talk makes me bet that it’s only a matter of time before this novel gets denounced as misogynist porn and its author along with it. While I’ve always been Team Franzen in his various pop culture clashes, including the one with Jennifer Weiner about coverage of women authors, I don’t think I can defend him this time around.

There’s something that makes me deeply uncomfortable about the women in this book despite the fact I’ve never had a problem with Franzen’s female characters before. In Purity, the women are all hyper-controlling, manipulative, jealous and looks obsessed. Super stud Andreas has a harem in his thrall. Female solidarity is MIA.

If there’s a sub-text here or satire going on, then count me as missing that too. I’ll be shocked if the outrage machine doesn’t end up in high gear over Purity. And I expect to see a lot of critics pulped as a result. Even if this isn’t Franzen at his best, I suggest you speed read Purity to prepare.

 

 

Relax, dog lovers, Popper cheats death in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

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If you are, like me, a dog, book and movie lover, you will feel a sense of dread when reading Donna Tartt’s new book, The Goldfinch. This is because it features a small white fluffster of a Maltese dog — called variously Popper, Popchik and Popchyk — who appears doomed from the moment he makes his entry into the novel, greeting with desperate shrieks the evil owner who has left him home all alone for almost two weeks.

Luckily for Popper, things change for the better thanks to Theo, the new teenage addition to his household,  and Theo’s bad-guy buddy, Boris. These two drug and booze-addled dudes let the little dog hang out with them, ending his life of isolation. The downside  is that their activities don’t exactly provide a safe and secure environment for the family pet, provoking many anxieties that he will go missing forever in a deserted Las Vegas subdivision.

Worse yet, when Theo and Boris encounter a mobster, it seems predestined that Popper will get what happens to so many movie dogs and end up lifeless on the front door stoop or kitchen counter with a threatening note attached to his collar.

Any half-serious movie goer knows just how often the loyal family dog meets a gruesome death, enough that there exists an entire website — www.DoesTheDogDie.com — devoted to answering this “most important movie question” and mentally preparing dog-loving movie goers for what’s to come.

That there is no literary equivalent to  www.DoesTheDogDie.com can be seen as a good thing  in as much as it  shows that tear-jerking pet death  has never been as big an issue for books as it is for movies. On the other hand, it also means there’s no quick reference guide to turn to if a reader does start to worry about a fictional dog’s future.

Therefore in the interests of calming the nerves of dog and literary fiction lovers reading The Goldfinch, I am hereby informing you that Popper survives this almost 800-page novel unharmed despite his many brushes with danger and long absences from the narrative.

And no, I did not forget the spoiler warning. The only thing this knowledge will spoil is a sadistic ride on the roller coaster of fear for an innocent little Maltese dog. Knowing Popper’s fate does not in any way affect the outcome of the rest of The Goldfinch.

Rest reassured dear Reader, Popper lives to a ripe old age.

Wattpad, What Pad, WTF Pad???!!!

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Wattpad is a bit of a tech darling as of late. Not only does it have the venture capital crowd on its side, it’s also got Margaret Atwood. In fact, credit where credit’s due, Atwood’s the one who coined the name “what pad,” which inspired WTF pad, whch sounds a lot like making reading and writing social, which is what Wattpad’s supposedly about. Or one of the things Wattpad might be about.

Except nothing about Wattpad, beyond the fact that it seems to have some very solid traffic and useage stats, makes much sense. If you don’t believe me, just go to their site and see if you can figure it out. I can’t and I’ve been dropping in once a year for a while now.

Although he makes a valiant attempt, this interviewer (I believe it’s Michael Healy)  seems equally perplexed by Wattpad. It’s almost as if he should have subtitles that read, “I don’t get it.”

In an attempt to get its story across, Wattpad often describes itself as wanting to do for writing what YouTube does for video. But that analogy doesn’t work for me for a number of reasons that I’ll only go into if someone asks.

Publicly at least, the Wattpad business model seems to be if we keep building it and they keep coming, we’ll find a way to monetize it. Think Twitter and Facebook. Fair enough, but we’re all still thinking about Twitter and Facebook, wondering if the former’s even profitable and if the latter’s ever going to live up to the hype.

Wattpad CEO Allen Lau is on the record for being a fan of  free and freemium (see video for just one example) and for talking — not all that clearly — about transactional relationships (the old way) versus gifting (the new way). Although at one point in his video interview he seems to advocate the write-for-free, sell-the-t-shirt-and-souvenir-book model, during the question period, he says he doesn’t want to get into the shrinking paper book market. It’s confusing if not contradictory.

For a company that’s all about story sharing, Wattpad either doesn’t have a very good story to tell, or they do but they’re not about to share it, which is kind of strange given that they’re hiring a PR manager when they’re not ready to divulge the plot.

In the past, I’ve called BS on some bizarre internet media companies — including Geosign which may have suckered U.S. venture capitalists out of a large chunk of the $160 million they invested — and I’ve turned out to be right. But I have a tendency to be overly sceptical and not see what I don’t know — like how Google was going to make a profit. Cough, cough.

In the case of Wattpad, I do think there’s a potentially viable business and this quote from the video (approximately 26 minutes in) is a clue, or one clue at least , to what the business model that Lau declines to talk about, might be.

A lot of people believe that on the internet we are going to get rid of all the middle men. I don’t think so. If you look at YouTube they are still a middleman, but the role of the middleman is quite different from the traditional world. (With the old model) the middleman is basically the gatekeeper, they would control the flow from the content creation side to the end user side. But for digital or for internet companies that role is changing. We are no longer the gatekeeper. We are the facilitator.We want to remove and reduce the friction between content creation and content consumption.

Lau also puts a lot of emphasis on being first and how one mega-player often reigns supreme on the internet in industries where competition used to be more vibrant. He cites Amazon and book-selling as an example.

My theory is that Lau wants to turn Wattpad into some kind of publishing marketplace where writers can use the social network as a focus group, get cover art, hire an agent, get publicity, find translators and much more.  Wattpad would collect commissions and fees from freemium users all along the publishing chain including present partners like Smashwords and Lulu.

Instead of helping writers monetize, which Lau says he doesn’t want to do, writers would help Wattpad monetize by paying for the freemium services they need. While only a handful are ever likely to break even or break out, they’re the ones who’ll provide the bulk of the revenues.

Wattpad has recently been asking published writers to put previously published works on line for free. Those who give it a whirl, like Jon Evans, have access to information about how readers read that they never had before.

Wattpad provides data

Lau  emphasizes the importance of data multiple times throughout the video. He also says on his blog that “the current ebook ecosystem is quite clearly just another bridge product” like Microsft’s Encarta encyclopedia on DVD. “Except for the output, the way ebook is written, edited, published and sold are more or less the same as the old traditional publishing system,” he writes.

That indicates to me that he’s aiming to make Wattpad the new ecosystem. I would be very surprised, however, if Amazon doesn’t understand all this just as well. Not only does Amazon likely have stats on how readers read every single ebook it sells, it’s also got its own publishing house and employs people who understand both traditional and “bridge” publishing models. It’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t understand that “the book” is evolving and that the future will be different.

As for the community aspect, Kindle Direct Publishing could build that out pretty fast and the big social reading sites have strong communities that are older and wiser than Wattpad’s mostly teen audience. They could move into the “new ecosystem” pretty fast if they wanted to.

End of Chapter One. I can now see if anyone’s interested and, if they are,  move on to Chapter Two in the Wattpad saga.

Discussing The Dinner by Herman Koch

If you’re a mystery fan looking for a quick, fun, plot-twist-filled read, you’ll l likely enjoy Herman Koch’s The Dinner, a Dutch sensation and worldwide bestseller recently translated into English.

Just don’t expect much more from the novel. Like the dinner it describes, it’s predominantly show and lacking in substance — most seriously in the way of character development.

The dilemma it portrays — parents debating what they should do about a horrific act committed by their sons — is indeed an interesting one, but, save for the unreliable narrator, we learn nothing about why any of the other characters behave in the shocking way they do.

Many reviewers have read this as a criticism of the bourgeoisie or Dutch society as a whole, in effect accepting that, yes, this is what parents who love their children would normally do.

I don’t for one second buy that, but maybe that’s just me. Let me know if you feel differently.

Review: The Daughter of time by Josephine Tey

All the news about Richard III has reminded me of Josephine Tey’s great 1951 detective novel, The Daughter of Time.

The book began the most recent rehabilitation of Richard III, who until its publication was known in modern times mostly by his evil Shakespearian reputation.

Tey’s hero, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with a contemporary portrait of Richard III that bears no resemblance to the Wicked Uncle of history. Could such a sensitive, noble face actually belong to one of the world’s most heinous villains — a venomous hunchback who may have killed his brother’s children to make his crown secure? Or could Richard have been the victim, turned into a monster by the usurpers of England’s throne? Grant determines to find out once and for all, with the help of the British Museum and an American scholar, what kind of man Richard Plantagenet really was and who killed the Little Princes in the Tower.

If you haven’t ever read it, now’s the time. And at just 204 pages, it’s the type of book that can be read and enjoyed on a Sunday afternoon, but will stay with you for decades.

Thumbs down to the The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan

File this under: This is a terrible book, but for some reason (clue: read the acknowledgements), the critics won’t just come out and tell you it sucks.

So here’s why it’s bad (Spoiler alert!):

  • Cardboard, lifeless characters. It’s impossible to believe in them and their relationships. They appear to have sprung fully formed from a preliminary plot outline.
  • Gaping plot holes. Just two examples: Clover thinks her plan to get knocked up will work in an age of DNA testing, Herve’s lover cops to their affair after denying even knowing him a minute earlier. I know, right?
  • Small annoyances. Could anyone really believe there was no wifi at the Harvard dorms?I know, right?
  • No redeeming features such as wit, small insights. The jokes about Bruno’s English are cringe-inducing.

P.S. I liked Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War.

It’s me vs. the world: Not merely different tastes but a state of totally not getting it

By Ann Brocklehurst
Originally published Saturday Post, 28 February 2004, National Post

I’m one of the small minority (or so it seems) of people who didn’t like Lost in Translation. Or let me rephrase that. While I was entertained by the film and enjoyed eating my red licorice while feasting on the eye candy of Tokyo and one of its luxe hotels, I am at a complete loss to explain why just about every single critic, not to mention a good portion of my friends, revered this movie.

Where they all saw remarkable insights about cultural dislocation and globalization, I watched a series of lame and tired xenophobic jokes made at the expense of the Japanese. And while they were fascinated by a touching platonic love story, I couldn’t get past the message that it’s perfectly OK to diss the servants and the natives as long as you’re in the throes of deep mutually alienated attraction.

This hasn’t been my first experience doing time in a parallel universe. The year before, I didn’t laugh once at the British writer Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It, a supposedly comic novel about the travails of working moms, which was passed from one stressed-out mother to another with rave reviews until it fell into my hands. And then there was The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, whose chief claim to fame, despite the fact that it was about a murdered child, was supposed to be its total lack of sentimentality and mawkishness. I found it overwhelmingly sentimental and mawkish.

I want to emphasize that I’m not a deliberate contrarian who takes perverse pleasure in dismissing anything that receives critical or popular acclaim. I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was praised by both critics and the masses. I found Bridget Jones’s Diary, an earlier exercise in Brit chick lit, hilarious and original. And I was extremely impressed with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which was to 2001 what The Lovely Bones was to 2002.

My point here is absolutely not to discuss mere differences of taste and opinion of the “you found that character realistic and I didn’t” or “he doesn’t really like that type of humour” sort. No. What we’re talking here are situations in which it’s you against the world. In short, a state of totally not getting it.

How is it possible, for example, that Don Cherry gets a seven-second delay and an investigation into his conduct by the Commissioner of Official Languages for saying that only French guys and Europeans wear visors, whereas Sofia Coppola gets a complete pass on jokes about the Japanese mixing up their r’s and l’s, bowing a lot and — oh my gawd! — not speaking English? Or how could The New York Times possibly appoint as its Arts & Leisure editor a woman who got her biggest laughs in months from I Don’t Know How She Does It?

Is it not truly scary to think that such an important arbiter of cultural taste in the world’s only superpower was mightily amused by lines like “The network is so slow this morning, it would be quicker to fly to Hong Kong and pick up the Hang bloody Seng in person” and “Has a father who has a wife on the premises ever read a note from school?”

When I find myself posing such questions, having given up on browbeating friends and acquaintances, I turn to the Internet for consolation. There it is easy to find people who despise Lost in Translation, I Don’t Know How She Does It and The Lovely Bones.

But, alas, one encounters another (even bigger) problem. These are not at all the sort of people whose company you want to keep. They have come to the same conclusions as you have but for completely different reasons. They hate Lost in Translation because it has no plot — meaning, presumably, that it doesn’t end the way boy-meets-girl movies are supposed to. They cite the late Edward Said’s Orientalism as if all its conclusions were the indisputable truth. And they toss out accusations of racism as a way to achieve moral superiority.

In situations of complete intellectual isolation, I have learned, the only thing that can be done is to wait it out. For, no matter how bad it seems, there will eventually be a backlash. Lost in Translation’s four Oscar nominations, for example, prompted a number of newspaper rants from others who found the film as vapid as I did and took the opportunity to say so. The Lovely Bones was far less favourably received in England, where many critics declared themselves puzzled by the unanimous raves it had received in North America. Unfortunately, such was not the case for I Don’t Know How She Does It, which managed to cross the culture gap in the other direction almost entirely successfully.

In trying to explain the U.S. popularity of The Lovely Bones, one British critic went so far as to attribute it to Sept. 11 aftershock and Americans’ need to hear the voice of the gone and to piece together the future after cataclysm.

I tend not to favour such pop-psych explanations, since they make it easy to ascribe various complexes and syndromes to anyone who disagrees with you.

But I remain as mystified today that I can have friends who rave about I Don’t Know How She Does It as I was back in Grade 8 when no one in my circle saw anything special in The Catcher in the Rye. I have long since accepted the fact that there’s no accounting for other people’s tastes. And that holds especially true for the really, really bad taste of those who should know a lot better.