It’s a long weekend here in Canada, which always seems to mark the beginning of summer for us. By coincidence, the ebook for the women’s fiction novella anthology Summer Days is being discounted most everywhere ebooks are sold. The book’s headliner is Lisa Jackson, but it also features the wonderful Mary Carter and Holly Chamberlin. I’m in there, too, feeling fortunate to be in such great company.
Here I am, halfway through Nicci French’s Frieda Klein mystery series—I just finished Waiting for Wednesday—and I can’t resist the need to vent. This husband-and-wife team has written some of my favorite single-title suspense books. I’ve been addicted to them since my sister brought back a copy of Beneath the Skin from a trip to England.
But…Frieda. Frieda, Frieda. Frieda Klein is an interesting anchor for a mystery series. She’s a psychiatrist who desperately needs to spend some quality time on an analyst’s couch herself. She blunders into murders, her solve rate is 120%, and she’s stalked by a serial killer the police refuse to believe is still alive. She’s also blessed with an interesting posse of friends, relatives, and love interests who are devoted to her despite the fact that Frieda rarely answers her phone or returns email messages. (More on this below.) I imagine she’s as frustrating to know as she is to read about. Yet here I am, drumming my fingers impatiently for the chance to read the upcoming Thursday’s Children.
The most frustrating thing about these books? The authors’ reliance on withholding information. This is one of my biggest pet peeves as a reader. Whenever I read the words “I can’t explain/talk/go into that now,” I start to twitch. Unless the character truly means she can’t. For example, if she knows the murderer is listening in. Or if a flight attendant is shouting at her to turn off her cellphone. Under those circumstances, okay. But this usually isn’t the case with Frieda and company. The authors spin the plot out by having characters not respond to each other, or put off responding. Two characters will be on the phone, a great way to convey information, but they’ll put off exchanging key information until they can meet in a cafe, or at the office. By the end of Waiting for Wednesday, this was starting to give me fits. I don’t know about you, but if I were dashing off to confront a serial killer and I called my friend to let her know what I was up to, I’d go ahead and ID the killer in a message instead of telling my friend to meet me later for tea so I could give her the news.
But if I were about to rush off to confront a serial killer, I hope I’d have someone to call besides Frieda Klein, because Frieda never answers the phone.
I’m still addicted to this series. I just hope that sometime between Thursday and Sunday, Frieda gets psychological help and communications counseling.
My sister Julia died earlier this month. That’s probably the hardest sentence I’ve ever had to type. Julia was my first best friend, my confidante, my cowriter of two books, my go-to person whenever I didn’t know how to cope with something. I need her now to cope with this. I’m still trying to come to grips. Last week my other sister, Suzie, and I were at Julia’s house, packing away her things, which was a heartbreaking task. The only thing that made it easier was the friends and neighbors who came by to help. And the fact that Austin is such a friendly place. I felt surrounded by kindness.
But it was still difficult to go through that house. Every possession I boxed up felt like a goodbye. Especially the books. A bookworm her entire life, Julia had books in every room. She was a detective fiction nut and owned complete collections of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and so many others. PG Woodhouse had a good showing on her shelves, of course. (We spent part of the week searching for a good home for Jeeves, her dog.) I pulled down shelves and shelves of Georgette Heyer, Joan Smith, and Mary Jo Putney. Classic fiction. Historical fiction. Movie star autobiographies, which Julia and I devoured and swapped.
Julia was the first person I knew who wanted to be an author. When they were in elementary school, she and Suzie spent weekends closeted in a room co-writing stories on loose-leaf paper, fictional accounts of Julia, her friends, and a school suck-up named Fink von Stink, complete with illustrations. A large purple binder of the stories was on Julia’s shelves last week, too, and reading them with an editorial eye, I found them surprisingly fluid and well-written, and hilariously stupid.
So many books reminded me of the author manias that Julia passed on to me: Barbara Pym, Heyer, and British suspense writers like Nicci French and Val McDermid. A few were the authors that I had recommended to her, such as Robertson Davies, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Kate Atkinson. We both liked Rona Jaffe, so I understood completely when I pulled not one but two copies of Class Reunion off a shelf.
Reading is a passive, solitary activity, but Julia could be passionate and opinionated about stories. We argued over endings, and whether an author had flubbed it in the last chapter. Clearing out the bookshelves, I was reminded of the time we’d brought the same Anne Tyler book on a plane ride and had almost spent part of our vacation not speaking to each other over a disagreement about it. (Don’t ask.) I also remembered an afternoon when I was ten or eleven, when Julia finished Crime and Punishment and was so taken with it that she came to my room to tell me the story, making it sound so good that I decided I wanted to read it just as soon as I finished Old Yeller.
Julia was older than me by three years, and often felt the need to look out for me. When I was about to start school, she decided I needed to learn to spell so that I wouldn’t be an ignoramus when I arrived in first grade. She taught me one word before losing interest in the project, or losing patience with me. The word was J-U-L-I-A. I repeated it to myself constantly and wrote it in shaky letters on a poster in my room so I wouldn’t forget. As if I ever could.
It’s another book birthday!
Life Is Sweet was dreamed up several years ago when I visited Leesburg and fell in love with a coffee shop there. The place had originally been a shoe store (see pic at left–very cute!). The location closed not too long after I visited, but the idea of a repurposed downtown gathering place stayed with me, and The Strawberry Cake Shop was born.
The cake shop needed an owner, and I decided this one would be run by a former television child star trying (with limited success) to put her past behind her. The plot involves friendships in peril, the ties of family and love that bind us together, one horse-crazed adolescent, reality television, and cake. Lots of cake.
Miss You Most of All is on sale for Kindle. (Click here.) I’m not sure how much longer this will be the case, so now’s a good time to take advantage of a deal.
Life is Sweet goes on sale tomorrow!
Lately I’ve read a couple of postings from book bloggers I follow who have been debating whether or not to say negative things about books they’ve read. There are a couple of reasons for their not wanting to stray from the path of four- and five-star niceness: They don’t want to hurt authors’ feelings, or they don’t want to incur the wrath of those whose books they pan. I understand their hesitation. Occasionally authors or their fans get in a snit and argue with the reviewer in the comments section of the blog, which is never pretty. I’ve seen talented bloggers give up on their websites, and that’s a shame.
The trouble is, if all the reviews in the world are good ones, readers exist in a hard-to-navigate literary Lake Wobegon, where all the books are above average.
I don’t review books, although I will recommend the ones I like. I’m an author, and I don’t feel comfortable panning fellow authors. (I know there’s a proud, entertaining history of this, but I don’t exist in the world of The New York Times Book Review.) Of course, as a writer I want all the reviews of my books to be glowing. It’s natural. Negative reviews sting–especially when the reviewer is able to make me see her point. Really awful reviews, ones that are the review equivalent of a drive-by shooting, usually make me laugh, at least at first. For example, here’s an excerpt from an Amazon review about book I wrote:
RUN! Don’t even make eye contact with this book. I think I would have much rather ate a bowl of pig vomit than to have gone through what I did with this book.
Yikes! I don’t know about you, but if something I’m reading gets to the pig vomit stage, I quit reading and put the book in the thrift store pile or return it to the library. Would I like to be able to erase this review from public view? In my imaginary, me-centered world, yes. (Nicer still if I could erase it from my brain!) Yet there it sits after nearly a decade, and according to Amazon, four people have found the review helpful. Believe it or not, it’s those four people who make me glad the bad review remains on the website. Hard as it is for me to accept, those four readers saw something in that review that spoke to them. I’d like to think that it’s their loss…but maybe it saved them from wasting their money on a book that they really wouldn’t have liked.
I’m a reader. I buy most of the books I read in order to support fellow writers, but since I’m not rich, I like to increase my chances of spending my money on something I’ll like. I often sift through reviews on Amazon and Goodreads before buying. More than anything, I appreciate honesty in reviews. Who hasn’t been stung after snapping up a book that every professional reviewer raves about, only to discover that in your own opinion it’s a little, well, pig-vomitty? Goodreads and Amazon are useful because they allow us to seek out other readers whose interests are in sync with our own, and who are are willing to point out aspects of sometimes wildly popular books that some might find toxic. Often I learn a lot about how much I can trust a reviewer’s opinion by looking at what she pans as much as the books she raves about.
So I hope bloggers and reviewers won’t pull back from being their enthusiastic, opinionated selves. If I send out a review copy, “in exchange for an honest review” means just that. Although I will tweet links to good reviews, I rarely comment on the review itself, good or bad, because I think author surveillance can have a dampening effect on book discussions. But I read all the reviews of my own books, the positive and the negative, and appreciate the time each reader takes both to read the book and to comment on it.
Where do you go for book recommendations?