30Mar/17

2 Reviews: The Last Days of Night (electricity) & Axeman’s Jazz (mystery)

The Last Days of NightThe Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How did America get electrified? Moore’s fictionalized account of the battle between Thomas Edison & George Westinghouse for control of what’s now a cornerstone of our lives is fascinating, & evidently sticks as close to the facts as is feasible for a commercial novel. We start at the point where Edison has made himself the Steve Jobs of his day, not just by inventing new things but by following the old cement-truck motto, “Find a need & fill it.” He’s brilliant, & he’s ruthless. Westinghouse is more old-fashioned, seeking to create the best gadget for a task. Yet it looks like he’ll be steamrolled, despite his own brilliance & his considerable fortune, as Edison applies a form of Henry Ford’s mass production to the inventing game. We watch all this through the eyes of lawyer Paul Cravath, whose future will be made or broken by navigating his client successfully (or not) through this clash of titans. Meanwhile, Paul is continually distracted by an alluring & enigmatic opera star — & by the erratic immigrant genius Nikola Tesla, who’s pivotal to the titans’ campaign to wire & light the nation, but seems not to care.

The author is a screenwriter: his sense of drama is terrific, but his prose is so clunky at times that I wish he’d partnered with a coauthor. If the writing were better, I’d have trusted the story more. It helps that Moore provides documentation at the end, showing the DMZ between what really happened & what needed to happen for this chronicle to make a good novel.

Axeman's Jazz (Skip Langdon, #2)Axeman’s Jazz by Julie Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This police procedural has nothing to do with jazz; instead, the killer is hunted in New Orleans’s self-help programs. No doubt there’s some overlap, but given the title it felt like bait-&-switch. Good narrator, good plotting; I stayed interested all the way through, mainly thanks to the main POV character, detective Skip Langdon, the one really likeable person we meet, & strong descriptions of local scenery, as well as some insightful & funny observations about Southern manners & mores. The climax was a bit too talky for me, but that may be inevitable when everybody’s in a 12-step program.

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22Mar/17

Hamilton Opens in San Francisco: Yes, But . . .

Hamilton’s audience starts gathering outside SF’s Orpheum Theatre an hour before the show.

Here’s the #1 thing to know about Hamilton:
http://www.luckyseat.com/hamilton.html
That’s where you can enter daily to win 2 seats @ $10 each for this ludicrously expensive, totally sold-out, absolutely unmissable 21st-century celebration.

Yes, a mostly rap musical about the Founding Fathers probably clashes with your idea of the most fun you’ve had in years. But, surprise! Whichever direction it stretches your comfort zone, it’ll leave you feeling expanded and illuminated.

Yes, every ticket for the show’s entire 6-month San Francisco run was snapped up long before Hamilton hit town. But you still can — and should — see it.

Yes, the list price for tickets in the 2200-seat Orpheum Theatre ranges from $100 (partial-view balcony) to $868 (orchestra). But who cares? since (1) there’s hardly any tickets for sale, and (2) there’s a daily lottery (see above).

Yes, the high prices shut out a lot of potential audience members, most critically in the young and non-wealthy brackets. But today’s the first school matinee. From the theater’s website:

“The Gilder Lehrman Institute is proud to partner with HAMILTON and The Rockefeller Foundation to offer a limited number of tickets to 10th and 11th grade students from Bay Area High Schools as part of the Hamilton Education Program. For more information, please visit to gilderlehrman.org/hamilton.”

And, yes, that ticket-sales tsunami means a bonanza for a few lucky people. But it’s also how 35 actors of multiple colors and body shapes, plus a 10-member orchestra, plus a full crew and staff, are able to support themselves while utilizing their gifts, skills, time, and labor to do the work they love.

Intermission at Hamilton: the Orpheum’s carved wooden ceilings, plaster castle walls (L), Moorish lamps, and diverse, elated crowd are an apt set for the show’s 2-level Gothic-rustic set (R), multi-ethnic American heritage, and buoyant creative energy.

Yes, Alexander Hamilton is a far more intriguing and complicated man than he looks on the $10 bill. So are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, the Marquis de Lafayette, and King George III. So are the remarkable Schuyler sisters, Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens, and others who looped in and out of Hamilton’s orbit. But how would we know that if not for this show’s brilliant creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda (book, music, and lyrics), and his collaborators Alex Lacamoire (music supervision and orchestration), Andy Blankenbuehler (choreography), and Thomas Kail (direction)?

Yes, Ron Chernow’s massive, comprehensive biography Alexander Hamilton, which Hamilton is based on, has been eclipsed by Miranda’s musical version. But nobody’s complaining.

Yes, there will be school essays, doctoral dissertations, magazine features, and blog posts written for decades to come about the ingenious diversity of Hamilton‘s music, its incisive thumbnail analyses of American history, its mind-bending approach to choreography, and much much more. But if you plan to be in the SF Bay Area in the next 6 months, this is what you need to know.

http://www.luckyseat.com/hamilton.html

 

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10Mar/17

A cool tool and a legal win for writers; a bad idea from Amazon

When I worked in an office, my colleagues kept me up to speed on tech, jargon, and TV shows. Since I became a freelancer, I’ve had to rely on magazines in doctors’ offices. Thus I’m a year late discovering the Battop Folding Keyboard. This inspired pocket-size device folds up as small as your phone, and when opened, not only lets you type in semi-comfort with your phone as a screen, but provides a stand for it. I saw it in a “gifts for under $30” spread and fell in love instantly.

There are plenty of others on the market now, naturally, but none that I’ve read about is quite this ingenious.

From the copyright front comes excellent news this week from UK solicitor Jonathan Westwood. Have you ever worried about winding up broke and/or in jail if your novel quotes more than three words from a popular song? Westwood researched this issue for his own work in progress. He concludes: “I don’t believe the use of one line of a lyric will ordinarily be considered any more unfair than extracting 300 words from a book.” Here’s why. And here’s the frosting on the cake:

“…Music publisher Warner/Chappell coerced people into giving it £1million each year to use “Happy Birthday To You” on the basis of a non-existent copyright it claimed to own. Warners had the deepest pockets with which to instruct the nastiest lawyers to bully lesser mortals for 25 years – until documentarian Jen Nelson challenged Warners’ demand that she must pay $1,500 to use the song in a film she was making. After a long legal battle Warners conceded, accepted the song is in the public domain and was forced to pay $14 million to people it had extorted.”

This week’s bad news comes from Amazon. In an e-mail which ironically declares its aim to be “Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company,” Amazon informs me that, no, it can’t change the order of books shown on my Author Page. Why are three out-of-print 1990s textbooks from second-hand dealers (one with a phony cover) displayed on “my” landing page, but not my latest in-print mystery novel or memoir? Don’t blame Jeff Bezos or CS rep “Daniel B” — blame algorithms:

“…The order of the titles that appear on your bibliography is determined automatically and based on many factors, such as past sales history, current availability, and length of time the items have been listed on our site. It’s not something we are able to manually alter.”

What that says about Amazon’s definition of “customer-centric” — and Amazon’s definitions loom very large for those of us writing and publishing books — I find troubling. I’m hoping to make more headway in Round 2 — at the very least, badger them into showing the real cover for that out-of-print secondhand textbook.

 

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21Feb/17

Review: Nightshade: a riveting Only in Tokyo Mystery by Jonelle Patrick

Nightshade (Only In Tokyo Mystery #1)Nightshade by Jonelle Patrick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For a mystery fan, what’s more fun than discovering a terrific new author? I heard about Jonelle Patrick from a mutual friend who’s also her agent — a recommendation I trusted enough to buy her first book, Nightshade. Now I can’t wait to read her whole “Only in Tokyo” mystery series.

Nightshade starts with three bodies in a car in the parking lot of a Shinto shrine — an inexplicable scene which looks like a triple suicide, except that the third victim has no link to her two “parents.” When the dead girl’s best friend, Yumi, learns the horrible news, she spots other distortions in the picture the police are eager to accept. Yumi’s discovery that the detective in charge is her old school friend Kenjo, who’s grown into an unexpectedly attractive man, churns up all kinds of complications, first to the case and then to her ripening romance with a corporate heir. Woven through the Tokyo scenery are online connections which become strands in the web that threatens to drag Yumi to the same deadly fate as her friend.

Jonelle Patrick is not only an outstanding plotter (rare) but an outstanding writer (very rare). To top it off, she has a sharp sense of what makes Japan fascinating and also baffling to Americans. I was intrigued to learn about the Goth Lolita crowd, maid cafes (where the waitress’s job goes beyond serving the customer to fawning all over him), arranged marriages, the hierarchy in Japan’s police force, and so much more. This is a compelling mystery with distinctive characters, a fast-moving plot, a strong romantic thread, and a wonderful setting. I’d have preferred a full resolution at the end rather than a read-the-next-book teaser, but the core mystery was resolved, so that’s a minor quibble. Highly recommended!

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06Feb/17

A Valentine for Massachusetts: Patriots, Cape Cod, & Mount Holyoke

The New England Patriots’ odds-defying Super Bowl victory was exhilarating. No, I didn’t watch it. In the decades I lived in Massachusetts, the Pats were an embarrassment. Only when I left for California did they vault to stardom (while the previously stellar Golden State Warriors tanked). Call it superstition, but when I saw the Pats were too far behind to have a prayer, I decided not to rejinx them and rebreak my heart.

Anyhow, the top takeaway of Super Bowl LI is the paradigm. Patriots buoyed by years of dominance take their eyes off the ball. Success vanishes. With no hope of winning, re-energized Patriots charge back into the fray. It won’t be easy, it won’t be quick, but if they fight hard enough and persist long enough . . .

That narrative of victory is one of the few shared themes on both ends of our nation’s agitated political spectrum. Thank you, Patriots. And thank you, Lin Manuel Miranda and the cast and producers of Hamilton, for your dramatic reminder of what patriotism looks like.

2017 also marks the 150th anniversary of Mount Holyoke College, a hub of beauty, intellectual exploration, and women’s empowerment ever since Mary Lyon started her Female Seminary in South Hadley in 1837. I was delighted to find a report on my mystery novels in the latest Alumnae Quarterly, and even more delighted as fellow alums have been discovering them. The Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod series (Croaked and Zapped) features a reluctant sleuth who’s best known for his creepy little black-and-white books. The Cory Goodwin series (Silent Night Violent Night) stars a Boston journalist and MHC alum whose father is Rex Stout’s New York private eye Archie Goodwin. This Spring, in Another Number for the Road, Cory heads to Paris to cover an upscale exchange program and its long-lost 60s Mystery Band.

 

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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical TalesThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Back in the pre-social-media late 20th century, it was The New Yorker magazine that “broke” many of my favorite authors. That’s where I discovered Oliver Sacks’s remarkable book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” Literary categories were less Procrustean then, & readers were more adventurous. At the time, what made this book a sensation was Sacks’s extraordinary blend of curiosity, compassion, & academic rigor as a neurologist.

The case studies he presents here are astonishing, fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking. Each was referred to him because of some unusual, even bizarre, biochemical & physiological syndrome which sets this person apart from other people: the navy man whose memories ended around 1945; the elderly woman who suddenly began hearing loud Irish songs, like a radio that wouldn’t shut off; the distinguished musician of the title, who’d forgotten how to recognize a human face. Some of these patients frightened or repelled “normal” people, but Sacks approaches each one as a multifaceted person worthy of respect & help. He watches, he listens, he tries different tactics; he sets aside the judgment of others who dismiss the patient as defective, less than human. Often his best collaborator is the patient, who is more eager than anyone to find out what’s wrong & how to deal with it. Sacks’s expertise coupled with sympathy enables him to help nearly all of them.

But what kind of book is this? Sacks the healer & writer tells us heart-wrenching human stories — & emphasizes the need that humans have for stories, whether in the form of memories or constructed narratives that make up for inaccessible memories. Yet Sacks the neurologist is writing for his peers, in an era before political correctness ruled out classifications like “retarded” & “defective” (although he repudiates them). Some of the prose is so technical that any 21st-century editor would have refused to publish it. Yet when this book came out, it became a best-seller. Rereading it now, decades later, I was surprised to see how rare it’s become for such rich 3-D human interactions to be presented in a mostly accessible but sometimes stuffy medical style.

The rise of algorithms has encouraged modern publishers to underestimate their readers, much as Sacks’s fellow physicians tended to underestimate his patients, & likewise has led us as readers to underestimate our own ability to grapple with complex writing for the sake of illumination. This is a book that’s well worth reading, even if one chapter at a time.

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05Jan/17

Review: Robert Goldsborough’s off-key Murder in E Minor

Murder in E MinorMurder in E Minor by Robert Goldsborough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The dilemma: Why would anyone but a devoted Rex Stout fan read another author’s sequel to the Stout’s long, glorious Nero Wolfe series? Yet why would any other author grab Stout’s mantel except to cash in on his success? I picked up this book looking for something I could be pretty sure I wouldn’t find. The core of the series’s appeal — narrator Archie Goodwin’s voice — is patently inimitable.

Robert Goldsborough makes a dogged attempt in Murder in E Minor, but his ear is off. He knows his “facts”: the location & layout of the old brownstone, who the supporting characters are, & what happened in some previous Wolfe-Goodwin cases, particularly the final one. His narrator’s voice, though, grates. As for Nero Wolfe, he sounds like a computer-generated robot whose program needs tweaking. Reading this book is like listening to a note-perfect violin sonata played with 1 or 2 strings out of tune.

OK, I’m biased: as a devoted Stout fan & a mystery writer, my response to missing Wolfe, Goodwin, et al. was to give Archie a journalist daughter who narrates her own series (see book 1, Silent Night Violent Night; book 2 will be out in Spring 2017). Although I was tempted to quit reading Murder in E Minor on page one, I didn’t. Goldsborough’s command of the Stout oeuvre is encyclopedic, & his plotting & pacing are good. That combination kept me from hating this book. But since Goldsborough’s Goodwin & Wolfe are even more unlike Stout’s fictional detectives than Timothy Hutton & Maury Chaykin’s were in the TV series, I won’t read another one.

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zapped-frontc-contrast-line300If inventor Pam Nash is right about Zappa, she could revolutionize law enforcement. If she’s wrong, they’ll kill her daughter.

Now you can read ZAPPED: AN EDGAR ROWDEY CAPE COD MYSTERY on your phone, tablet, or computer for just $3.99. Click to see it at Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Kobo, or Barnes & Noble.

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04Dec/16

A Perfect Victim by Patricia Dusenbury (mystery review)

A Perfect VictimA Perfect Victim by Patricia Dusenbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This suspenseful mystery drops us into the Louisiana Bayou with a local oyster-poacher who’s about to blunder into the wrong place at the wrong time. From an explosive start it cuts to a business deal — at least, restoration expert Claire Marshall hopes it’s just a business deal. Her wealthy good-ol’-boy client has been making inappropriate moves. Now he’s stopped his check for the work she’s just done. When Claire tracks him down to find out what’s going on, she discovers he’s disappeared, leaving behind the startling news that they’re secretly engaged. That inspired variation on romantic cliche is just one of many twists and turns in “The Perfect Victim.” With its diverse and interesting characters, its roller-coaster plot, and its vivid depiction of pre-Katrina New Orleans (and beyond), this Epic Book Awards winner is a treat for mystery fans.

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02Dec/16

Ngaio Marsh’s Colour Scheme (review), & 6 Things to Know Before 2017

You’re invited! Join San Francisco writers & readers at the Mechanics’ Institute, 57 Post (nr Montgomery BART), at noon on Friday, Dec. 16 for drinks, snacks, & a Writers’ Lunch panel: “Indie or Traditional Publishing: Six Things You Need to Know Before 2017.”

Colour Scheme (Roderick Alleyn, #12)Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating armchair journey to wartime (1943) New Zealand. The setting is a low-end spa on the north island, surrounded by sulfurous bubbling mud and just over the hill from a Maori village. The proprietors might have wandered in from an Agatha Christie — or did Britain actually produce a whole class of hapless, feckless expats wandering from colony to colony in search of post-military careers? Most of the characters are a bit miffed to be so far from the action in Europe, & eager to believe that Britain’s enemies are poising to attack, or at least infiltrate, the Antipodes. Marsh stokes this mood of sulky suspense with two arrivals who clearly are not what they seem: a slick, tacky self-styled entrepreneur who’s planning to take over & modernize the spa, & a reserved, perceptive last-minute guest. As usual, the cast is diverse & colorful, including the local drunk, a famous actor & his small entourage, one of whom is ambivalently drawn to the clumsy daughter of the house, & her chip-on-shoulder brother. The story boils up as slowly as the mud baths, erupting at a Maori entertainment which would be worth the trip even without the mystery. Marsh’s theatrical expertise makes this a compelling book, although I got a little tired of the nastier characters — sometimes the brother felt more like a dialect showcase than a real young man — & one or 2 plot devices seemed rather contrived. Both those cavils relate to mystery conventions that were very popular in the day but stick out now. Another plot device — introducing Superintendent Alleyn of the Yard far outside of his usual police-procedural context — I enjoyed & admired. Enfin, I’m glad I reread Colour Scheme, & I recommend it to anyone who likes New Zealand, non-twee cosies, &/or Golden Age mysteries.

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