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28 posts from June 2006

June 30, 2006

With a Song in Your Heart

With a Song in Your Heart, Not on Your Screen

by Rebecca

One of Sarah's weekend blogs got me thinking about what strong sensory memories songs can evoke.  So can smells, but I'll leave that for someone else to pursue. In the Stone Age, or The Golden Age, depending upon one's viewpoint, before the advent of MTV and VH1 and all the other music video feeds, we had only our own memories and fantasies to accompany the musical score of our lives.

I'm not a techno-phobe, and I like some music videos as much as the next gal, but I don't like the fact that our own imaginations are taking a back seat to someone else's vision. As much as Michael Jackson's music videos were revered for their creativity, knowing what we know now, do you really want to get a closer look into his head? I know I don't. I can't even listen to his music anymore without picturing the freak he has become.

As a rule, I don't like audio books either, although I understand the appeal. Those characters already have their own voices in my head; I don't want them mucked up by some voice actor, no matter how good.

What really sets me off are great books turned into bad movies. Once in a blue moon, you'll get a Gone With the Wind or a Lord of the Rings--not as good, or as complete--as the books, but wonderful in their own right. But for everyone one of those, you get three V.I.Warshawskis and a couple of animated Animal Farms. Worse yet, you get the kid who, like George Constanza, will rent the movie instead of reading the book.  That's just wrong.

One of my favorite examples, and like Dave Barry, I am not making this up, is when I went to a record store to get the Broadway Cast soundtrack of Les Miserables.  The kid at the checkout counter looked at it, and told me with a straight face that he heard there was a book coming out.  After I stopped choking, I started to explain about Victor Hugo, then just gave up.

Writing, music, art--they are all products of someone's imagination.  We used to get lectures about not using calculators for math tests--you had to learn it first. The same should apply to the creative subjects. Imagination, like any other gift, needs to be nurtured to thrive. If we start relying on someone else's, we risk starving our own.

June 29, 2006

Characters We Love to Hate

by Nancy

Recently, a disgruntled reader emailed me to express her distaste for a character in my mystery series.  "I hate, hate, HATE Richard!!! Please kill him off in a really disgusting way.  Dismemberment is too good for him.  He is SO HORRIBLE!"

Well, gee, thanks.

I wanted my reader to dislike Richard, of course.  He's the man who comes between the protagonist of my Blackbird Sisters mystery series and her sometime lover, Mick Abruzzo, whom all readers seem to love. ("I want to bear his children," one reader wrote.  I think she was kidding.) I wanted to tease my readers with this Other Man, who---oh, forget it.  You don't need to hear all the writerly junk. Using Richard, I walked a fine line between telling a compelling story and manipulating my readers.

Tangent:  My Trusted Friend recently sent me a link to the Most Memorably Umpopular TV Characters.  Will Wheaton's insufferably smart Wesley Crusher character made the list.  So did Dawn Summers, Buffy's mopey little sister.  (My personal pick.) And the two guys who replaced Bo and Whatisname Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard for part of a season during a salary dispute. (But have you seen those guys on Broadway lately?  Damn, they're both really, really great!  Tom Wopat Go to fullsize image blew me away in Annie Get Your Gun.) The unpopularity list is amusing.  It's a little disconcerting, however, to realize you actually know who most of them are. Not exactly a testament to the sophistication of one's cultural taste, if you know what I mean.

The list got Trusted Friend and me thinking about the most despised characters in books.  Mrs. Danvers comes to mind immediately. For lots of reasons. Can we here at TLC come up with nine more?

While you mull over your list of nominees, let me admit that the subject of manipulating the reader is bugging me these days. I turned in a manuscript about a month ago, and my editor claims she felt manipulated during The Big Gloom--the next to the last chapter where the author must really try to surprise and terrify or risk writing a book that's Not Emotionally Satisfying.  (Read: Boring.) In my effort to push all the right buttons, it seems I may have written a few scenes that will crack plaster.  (Do you throw books at the wall if you're irritated with the author?) Here's what I did: I "killed off" a character who is later revealed to be alive.  Cheap shot? A soap opera trick? A plaster cracker? Did I clumsily manipulate my reader's emotions? Yeah, maybe.  Maybe I'm jumping the shark.  I'm still trying to decide whether to keep the scenes or not.

Personally, I hate being manipulated.  I'm turned off by cheap story-telling tricks.  I remember watching THE GUNS OF NAVARONE in a quiet theater--watching the exhausted heroes painstakingly climb a cliff in the dark and feeling as if I were right there with them--struggling up that cliff to foil the evil Nazis.  Earlier in the film, one character had slipped down a ravine and broken his leg--jeopardizing the whole mission, and now they were trying to scale a seemingly insurmountable cliff.  With time running out, the rest of the team climbed in the dark. The moment was incredibly tense.  And suddenly a bird burst out of a crevice in the rock!  Everyone in the theater gasped.  Some laughed nervously.  But it was a cheap trick, if you ask me. I was already completely glued to the action.  Why did the director feel the need to scare me?

To avoid blatant reader manipulation, we writers need to foreshadow, for one thing. No flapping birds coming out of nowhere.  And we don't force characters to do anything that's outside the book's sensibility.  In a Jane Austen novel, for example, characters wouldn't run amok and slaughter each other.  It just wouldn't have fit the tone of her work.

There's a fine line between successfully plucking a reader's emotional strings and manipulation.  First you have to build reader trust and love for one character--heavy on the motivation for why she wants what she wants so badly--then pull the rug out from under her. There are more techniques, of course, but that's a workshop, not a blog.

At dinner recently, The Charming Husband of a Book Tart commented that THE DAVINCI CODE hadn't appealed to him because the characters were cardboard cutouts. Many of us agreed.  THE DAVINCI CODE relies on intriguing subject matter to entertain, but also--like many "thrillers"--it manipulates readers instead of fully engaging their emotions with well-drawn, multi-dimensional characters.  The characters act in a plot that was devised for them, and the surprises are--literally--birds flapping out of nowhere at the right/wrong moment.  But the characters themselves are not fully-fleshed enough to drive the plot as they would in--say, a literary novel.

In the biz, we tend to label books either "character driven" or "plot driven."  (Here I'm talking about truly character-driven stories, not just stories the writer believes to be "character driven" because there was no real thought put into the story before sitting down to bang it into a computer.  A rambling story is not necessarily "character driven."  In fact, the phrase has come to mean "I have no plot" in many publishing circles.) Characters who live, move and grow within their own world---whose stories spring from their needs & desires (and fears and loves and whatnot) are different from those less fully-realized characters who seem to ride a roller coaster on a set of tracks they will never jump because the author has dictated it so. It's a thrilling ride, if not necessarily an emotionally satisfying experience.

At the same dinner, the Son of Charming Husband, sat with his nose in the pages of a graphic novel, distracted from our table conversation because he was completely engrossed in the story.  But "I don't like to read," he claimed when dinner was served and he put the book aside.  On the contrary, he'd been positively riveted by the story in his hands. We didn't argue with him, though.

Listening to father and son, I wondered if the new generation of readers isn't as intrigued by character as they are by plot?  Is that what the growing popularity of graphic novels means? 

And is plot-driven vs. character-driven truly the difference between what we've come to call a "thriller" and other kinds of commerical books?

There's a method used in MFA programs for writers who haven't quite learned how to create fully-fleshed characters--characters who will help deliver that all-important Satisfying Ending. It goes, "I know you, Mick Abruzzo.  You're a man who . . . " and you supply a detail that fleshes out the character. Such as, "I know you, Mick Abruzzo.  You're a man who makes a ritual out of preparing a bowl of oatmeal every morning because a stint in jail gave you an appreciation for small domestic tasks, which are symbols for what you really want in life."

Notice I've got a lot of "why" info packed into the sentence.  It establishes his key, compelling need, which has translated into a long-running theme for the books. With this information, I've made him more real or sympathetic or intriguing to the reader. (Remember the lady who wants to bear his children?)

Okay, so that wordy hogwash doesn't work here in print, but it works for me--the author who's really trying to create compelling characters who seize a reader by the heart, who drive their own story.   

Once I know what my character really wants, I pull the rug out from under him. Take away what he longs for.  Or give it to him with conditions.  Or better yet, dangle it in front of him, but force him to choose to do something else because Door Number Two is more important somehow. Heartbreaking? Engaging? Compelling? I hope so.

I think one reason we Buffy viewers despised Dawn Summers so much was that she was mostly a functionary in a plot. She had little detail to make her real.

Plus she whined way, way too much.

So . . . what characters in books do you most dislike?

June 28, 2006

Cat's Eye

By Elaine Viets

"All you do is drop a little bit on his eye, like this," the vet said.

He squeezed a quarter-inch of medicated cream right on my cat’s eyeball. Harry squinched his green eyes shut, then opened them and glared.

I knew it would be the last time anyone surprised him with an eyeful of gunk.

"Remember to get it directly on the eyeball," the vet said. "But be careful. If you get the tube too close, you’ll scratch his eye."

That made my hand shake whenever I picked up the tube.

Harry had a weepy eye. If he didn’t respond to the medication, he’d need surgery to unblock a tear duct.

"You only have to give him this twice a day," the vet said.

It was a small tube. Only 1.8 ounces.

Here’s an amazing fact: a two-inch tube contains approximately 3,452 miles of medicated cream. It also changes a docile housecat into a spitting, snarling wildcat.

The transformation took place in stages.

At first, Harry was only mildly ticked off by the treatment. Still, it took two of us to administer the medicine. My husband Don would hold down the cat on the kitchen counter, and hold open Harry’s eye. I would dribble the ointment all over Harry’s twitching, shifting face. I was terrified I was going to blind the poor cat. Eventually, I’d get some cream in his eyes.

By day four, Harry was taking evasive action. He hid in closets, behind couches, and worst of all, under a massive antique bed that could only be budged by four burly movers.

"You get on that side of the bed, and kneel down," my husband said.

"OK, I’m on all fours," I said.

"I’ll get on this side," Don said. "Harry’s in the middle. I’ll make the first grab."

"I hope the neighbors downstairs can’t hear this conversation," I said.

Big chunks of each day were now devoted to the cat rodeo. That is, after we located him. Harry was a wizard at disappearing. I swear that cat could dematerialize.

I’d read somewhere that a cat had a brain the size of a Ping-Pong ball. Considering how often Harry outwitted us, I figured the much bigger human brain had a lot of wasted space.

"Got him!" My husband flushed the cat out from under a chair. Harry ran between his legs. I finally cornered him under a desk. I was on the floor more than the cat these days.

"Poor Harry," I said. "I’m sorry. I know how you feel."

But I didn’t. Not until I went for an eye exam the next day. The doctor made me peer at blurry letters through a bewildering array of lenses. "Is this better or worse?" she’d ask.

"How the heck do I know?" I wanted to say. But I dutifully tried to guess which line of type was less blurry.

Then came the karmic moment when the doc stuck orange dye on my eyeball.

"Hold still," the doc said.

I blinked. She missed. It took four tries. Now I really knew how Harry felt.

The grand finale was the glaucoma test. I was supposed to stick my face in this medieval-looking iron mask, stare at a light, and a weird device would hit my eyeball with a puff of air. At least, that was the theory.

"You keep closing your eye," the doctor said.

"That’s because you keep trying to shoot it," I said.

"Try to hold your eyelid open," she said.

I tried. The doc pointed the eye gun at me, and my eyelid shut like a bank vault.

I’m sorry, Harry, I thought. I didn’t realize what I was putting you through.

"Like this." The doc demonstrated by holding her own eyelid open. Her naked eyeball and red, flipped-up lid were straight out of a Hammer horror film.

My eye went into permanent lockdown.

"What am I going to do with you?" the doc asked.

"You could have two staffers chase me under the furniture, then hold me down on the counter," I said.

The doc closed her eyes. Both of them.

***

NOTE: Thanks to all my colleagues who joined in the discussion concerning last week’s blog. I enjoyed the varying viewpoints. The blog accomplished what I hoped it would.

June 27, 2006

God Bless America...Or Springsteen

By Sarah

Because I am buying candy and Tastykakes in bulk in Pennsylvania K-Marts, I have had the Deer_flag opportunity to learn that God better be blessing America. I just hope He's been made aware of the Large and XXLarge T-shirts adorned with eagles and flags, hanging as conspicuously as the swastikas outside Hitler's bunker, or we're in for a mess o' trouble.

I've been holed up in Vermont, land of the hippie hemp-high freaks and gay lovers, so I've missed the in-your-face, pro-America, eagle-adorned, made-in-China foam beer-cooler campaign. Sure. We have or have had a "take back Vermont" movement, though the question there is, "Take Vermont back to what?" An answer to which renders most of us speechless.

Then again, being a native Pennsylvanian, I pretty much shrug at this new spin on "America: Love it or Leave it." I grew up in a dying steel town around the time when driving your VW bug would have been flirting with the kind of danger one would find dressing up as a cheerleader and prancing into  Hooters sans bra.

I know that underneath the T-shirts of waving flags beat the hearts of genuinely loving people, people who no more want innocent children to blow up in Iraqi neighborhoods than in their own. Somehow, I think, it's just a matter of disconnect. At least, that's what I have to believe because I love my country and I love Pennsylvania even more. No kidding.

My teenage daughter, on the other hand, is freaking out. What is this fascist country, she wonders. The other night - taking a break from dropping by the tons of Barnes and Nobles and book signings - we were strolling down the Ocean City, New Jersey, boardwalk and came across a group of kids playing makeshift drums. They were adorable and a crowd had gathered around. Everyone was sober - hey, it was Ocean City - everyone was having a good time until the cops showed and told them to break it up. What?

Five minutes later, the cops appeared again, confronting another group. Speaking directly to the one black kid in the crowd, the cop informed him that smoking was not permitted on the boardwalk. Thing is, the black kid wasn't smoking - as he pointed out. His Jersey-girl friend was and she - God bless 'er - asked in cracking-gum Jerseyese, "Yeah? So, like, where can I smoke if I can't goddamn smoke on the goddamn boardwalk?" Asbury_park_1

I really miss Jersey.

It's in Jersey girls like her that I look for the seeds of rebellion surely fomenting against the God Bless America T-shirt movement. Her mouthiness. The flip of her hair. Her blatant rule breaking. It's her anti-authority attitude I pray for. "Yes!" I think. "Stick up for your friend or your Marlborough Lights, whatever. Just don't back down."

This is why hard rock rules in PA and Jersey and Ohio and Indiana. Occasionally gray places where the foot of The Man trods heavily. We are not only born to run this town full of losers, but we're also born to be wild. We're hot blooded, check it and see. And we tend to give love a bad name.

"We're not gonna take it. No. We're not gonna take it," as Twisted Sister so eloquently put it. "We're not gonna take it, anymore."

Man. Like I sooo hope.

Cinderella_cover_1 See you tonight at Books & Company in Dayton!

Sarah

P.S.Hi, Bob! How are those new leaf bags?

June 26, 2006

Why I'm Not A Ballerina

Ballerina Why I'm Not A Ballerina

by Susan, the Ungraceful Tart

I walked into a door the other night.  Yes, it was dark, but I've lived in my condo for 10 years.  You'd think I'd know where everything was situated by now, as I haven't moved anything in a long while, least of all a door jamb.

I have a tendency to wake up at odd hours and head to the computer (like now, it's 4:42 a.m., and I've been up since three--oy), but I generally know my way back and forth to bed without turning on a light.  Still, half the time, I can't do it without risking life and limb.  I've banged various toes on the TV table, have bruised thighs on bed posts, and, yes, got a bump on my forehead from proceeding face-first into the door jamb.

Ow.

I was up and down after that latest incident, getting ice because my brow swelled, and poor Ed kept mumbling, "Are you all right?" while I interrupted his sleep.

It's amazing to think I survived several years in gymnastics without mortally beaning myself on the balance beam.  Thank heavens my skull is thick, after falling off the top of a slide head-first in grade school (I wanted to see if I could go down standing up--I went down all right) and being dumped upside-down by my high school cheerleading partner during a practice lift (um, he wasn't exactly Mr. Universe).  I still have a knot on my noggin from ducking beneath the concrete structure of condos-in-progress on a Florida beach while wearing a visor and not realizing I wasn't completely out from beneath the thing when I stood up.

I got into a discussion about being a klutz with a woman at a Christmas party last year.  She insisted I wasn't ungraceful, but that my trouble had to do with not developing a proper sense of myself in relation to the space around me when I was a child.  Basically, I'm as dysfunctional at simply crossing a room as I am with directions while driving.  I have a form of spatial ineptitude.

Well, okay.  I'll buy it.

Whatever the cause, at least I'm not alone.

Nancie Hays, our resident Gun Tart, has shared more than a few tales about her own klutziness (as well as the klutziness of her cohorts).  She's given me permission to spill a few of her stories here.

Nancie's problems began in grade school as well.  While helping the teacher pin papers to the bulletin board in second grade, she was "standing there with my mouth open like the little moron I was, and I hit a thumbtack slightly off-center.  It flipped off the board and into my mouth.  Yep, got it lodged in my throat.  Oh, goody.  I got a trip to the ER, where the thumbtack showed up nicely on the x-rays."

Ouch.

More from Nancie:  "I did wake up in the hospital a few times before the age of seven after knocking myself out.  This usually occurred after smacking my head on the metal bed frame when I misjudged the location of the bed behind me.  I have a small indentation in my skull from this repeated act of having no depth perception in my early years, and if I touch it just right, instant headache."

I could give you dozens more examples from Ms. Gun Tart, but I'll let her tell you about them sometime.  Needless to say, she wasn't unfamiliar to the staff at the local hospital.

She puts it like this:  "When the desk clerks in the ER know you by sight and greet you by name, it's usually not a good sign."

No, Nancie, it's not a good sign.

I'm going to borrow a page from that woman at the Christmas party and diagnose "severe spatial ineptitude."  I'm wondering if living in a bubble might be the solution (speaking of, have you seen that commercial with the dude in the bubble running into things and trying to get up the stairs?  It's hilarious!).

Nancie's friend, Linda, shares our lack of grace and has actually walked into a door jamb, too.  I already feel an instant bonding.  Here's her story:

"Years ago, the house my husband I lived in had a wonderful big closet in the master bedroom.  Just outside the closet was a dresser with a TV atop it.  One day, while puttering around in the bedroom with the TV tuned to my favorite show, I walked into the closet for something, turning around too fast and started moving forward at the same time.  Yep, I ran face-first into the door jamb and bounced off.  Immediately afterward, I heard a voice asking, 'Do you have trouble walking?'  No, no, God wasn't talking to me, and I wasn't hallucinating (though I did see a few birdies).  It was the opening line for a TV commercial for motorized chairs."

I don't know.  Maybe it's ghosts.  Perhaps furniture does move when we're not looking, and door jambs slide from side to side, just enough to catch us as we pass.

I'm a little afraid of moving into the new house late next month (yes, we got a house, we got a house!).  All those boxes to drop on my toes.  All those doorways I've only passed through a few times and never in the dark.  Cabinets sure to fly open and bop me in the head when I least expect it. 

If next time you see me, I'm wearing Band-aids as fashion accessories, you won't have to ask why.

Cheers,

Susan

P.S.  I'm teaching two classes in July for EarthlyCharms, the first session on "Creating the Perfect Mystery Protagonist" and the second on promotion.  Maybe I'll see you there!

June 25, 2006

More, More Summer Reads

You still don't have enough books to read this summer?  Go to fullsize image

Try these:

From Rebecca, the Bookselling Tart:  This week, my picks are for vampire fans. 

1. Christine Feehan's DARK DEMON--a female vampire slayer joins the Carpathians in their fight against the ultimate evil. A must read for vamp lovers.

2. Sherrilyn Kenyon's DARK SIDE OF THE MOOD--another great book in the Dark Hunter series, which combines shapeshifting, Greek Gods and a multi-book story arc, but still stands alone as a great story.

3. Coming at the end of June--Laurell K. Hamilton's next Anita Blake book, DANSE MACABRE. Warning: may be too sexy for your nightstand.

From Carla Neggers:  I'm reading the International Thriller Writers' anthology, THRILLER, published this month by Mira Books. It features 30 or so stories by a diverse and talented bunch of thriller writers--Alex Kava, Heather Graham, F. Paul Wilson, Lee Child, MJ Rose--just to name a handful. I read three or four of the stories on my  flight back from BEA and decided to save the rest for our family trip to Ireland this summer.  Can't wait!

From Margaret Dumas: It's a sad commentary that I've only recently gotten around to reading some of the books I picked up in London a few months ago (after Left Coast Crime) but some of them are really worth mentioning.

Marina Lewycka's A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRAINIAN, which I admit sounds a little, um...dry, is really a very funny and touching story about families and cultures and what happens when your recently widowed father takes up with the huge-breasted gold-digger he meets at the local Ukranian Social Club. Family legends and, yes, a short history of tractors in the Ukraine, are interwoven with the unfolding catastrophe, in a fun, fast and ultimately thought-provoking way.

A complete change of pace is Peter Lovesey's THE REAPER, about a murderous vicar on a killing spree in his charming little English country town.  If you like your humor dark and twisted, and want a real spin on the traditional cozy, this should do it for you.

And if you're looking for something to read on an airplane, you might try Diana Killian's HIGH RHYMES AND MISDEMEANORS, a light mystery set in England's lake district. I read this while I was getting my hair done a few weeks ago. The fact that I read the whole thing while at the hairdresser tells you more than you need to know about how long it takes to make me presentable, but in my own defense, I did agree to a 30-minute conditioning treatment so I could finish the book.

From Nichelle Tramble: CASE HISTORIES by Kate Atkinson. This book arrived with a lot of pomp and cirumstance (stellar reviews, tremendous amount of hype) so I waited for the duest to clear (about a year) before I picked it up. Worth the wait. Jackson Brodie is a great protagonist. Just read that Atkinson has another Jackson Brodie mystery, ONE GOOD TURN, coming down the pipe in October. Looking forward to that. Love Atkinson's wickedly direct sense of humor.

CYPRESS GROVE and CRIPPLE CREEK by James Sallis.  This is a beautifully written series.  I am a huge fan of Sallis and his economical use of language. Both these books are a great introduction to this author's work.

WHITE SHADOW by Ace Atkins. Historical fiction (mystery) by an author who previously wrote a mystery series set in New Orleans. Atkins hit his stride iwth this one.  Great setting (Florida) and intriguing, real life characters.

ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Wendy Wasserstein. I picked this up after reading about Wasserstein's death. Enjoyable fun, a little bit sad. Wasserstein is Candace Bushnell all grown up.

What are you reading?

June 24, 2006

The Bad Boyfriend Talk

a guest blog by Ramona Long:

If life were an AA meeting, this is how I might introduce myself:

"My name is Ramona (Hi, Ramona!) and my son has a girlfriend."

Whaaa? Is this now the Oedipus blog?

Let me clarify: It's his first girlfriend, which means we had to Talk.

Actually, he got That Talk long ago.  My husband delivered it in the car, because a book we own about raising responsible boys suggested the best time to address a sensitive topic with an adolescent is while driving, so there is NO DIRECT EYE CONTACT. (Yes, a man wrote that book.) Now, however, with a living breathing female involved, new more topic-specific Talks are required.

Such as, The Responsible Behavior Talk, aka The Condom Talk.  Delivered, again, by Dad, in the car. But because I know who would suffer most if the unmentionable occurred, I delivered a follow-up to The Responsible Behavior Talk, with some very direct eye contact.  "Yo. Kid.  Make me a grandmother while I'm in my forties, and Mr. Willy gets the chop."

Then came the What To Give Her For Christmas Talk, and because I didn't think a fifteen-year-old girl would appreciate a brand new blender, I took over The Talks.

I'm not complaining.  I like Talks. I mean we're talking.  Well, me mostly, but sometimes the kid slips up and actual communication results. I stay brief, don't ask any more than four questions, and keep to a minimum the direct eye contact. I get to feel like a good parent, and he gets to roll his eyes with impunity. Upside for everyone!

Here's a sampling of Talks:

When his pals whine because he's always with Her--Don't Forget Your Friends Talk.

When he hogs the mirror before seeing her--Your Hair Just Grows That Way Talk.

When he wants Her to ride his bus home and they'll be alone in our 4-bedroom house for three hours--Do I Look Stupid To You? Talk.

I thought I was doing a cracking good job at the Talking thing. Then I read Marian Keyes' LUCY SULLIVAN IS GETTING MARRIED, and that nearly launched the first Emergency Talk.  Which would have been bad, because it was 11:30 at night.

I'd forgotten the Bad Boyfriend Talk.

Aka, the Gus Talk.  (I hope that's okay, Ms. Keyes!)

Gus is Lucy Sullivan's boyfriend. Gus is cute and funny. Gus is artistic, perceptive, smart, sexy, eccentric and engaging.  Gus could charm the pants off you. Gus charms the pants off Lucy, but not on the first date. Gus would, in fact, be The Perfect Boyfriend if he didn't possess a few wee flaws. Like, being a drunk. And unemployed. And charming the pants off girls who aren't Lucy. And not calling.  Or showing up.

Bad Boyfriends go by many names: Hamlet. Mr. Wickham. Charlie Sheen. Catcher Block.  This guy:

Go to fullsize image

(Feel free to insert your own nominees here.)

In my life, if Don or Carl or Steve or Randy had hand a Gus Talk, I--and my girlfriends, roommates, family and dog--might have been spared a whole lotta pain.

Would name of son join the list because Mommy had forgotten the Bad Boyfriend Talk?

My chagrin was profound.  Would I have to re-do my introduction?

"My name is Ramona (Hi, Ramona!) and I have raised a Gus."

I fretted all night, but even I can't do a Talk before the school bus arrives. His cell phone rang during breakfast, and I nearly poured scrambled eggs into his lap.  Was it Her? Did he promise to call last night but didn't? Was it some new chick he'd been calling on the sly? Was my baby becoming a jerk-wad?

Lucky for me (and his lap) he answered, "Hey, Sean, wassup?"

I had all day to work on this Talk.  I could save a generation of girls from heartache--or, more likely, one girl from being rakishly dumped--but if I ranted, he wouldn't listen. So I edited out, "In my day, girls didn't call boys..." I shaved "even cucumber slices didn't help..."  And I threw away, "my pride wouldn't allow..." And got the Gus Talk down to six words.

"Be a gentleman, and be honest."

Of course, I embellished.  "If you like someone else, tell her!" "If you won't show up, call her!" "Tell the truth!" "Remember you were raised right!"

He sat through it and nodded in all the right places--or maybe he was nodding off. But now I had new fears. Have I skipped other Talks? Are there big gaping holes of Talkdom I'm missing right now? Will my son have his own chapter in a book like this one: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1596910569/sr=8-1/qid=1150335582/ref=pd_bbs_1/102-5031474-9298537?%5Fencoding=UTF8

Is there a Talkers Anonymous?

Help me!  Help my son!

50 Boyfriends Worse Than Yours

Anyone?

June 23, 2006

Reading Playboy For the Articles

by Margie

I was flipping through Playboy at the Salon, waiting for my summer highlights to set, and I came across a good column.

Now, as a subscriber to Playgirl, I am not going to try to tell you that I get the mag for the articles. That's like saying you pour over the Omaha Steaks catalog looking for vegetable side dishes. It's bull. So, I was pretty shocked to find an article in Playboy that was worth reading.

It's on the 25 Sexiest Novels Ever Written. You can see it online if you want, or you can just take my word for it. Not sure who was on the cover, and I think that's how people generally tell those issues apart. If any of you guys have it, you can share that bit of information without risk of ridicule: this is, after all, a literary blog.

The list is different from what I expected. OK, what I expected is already on the shelf in my bedroom. The only one on both is a Harold Robbins classic, THE CARPETBAGGERS. I've got Anne Rice, but it's on a different shelf. I used to own TROPIC OF CANCER, but I'm not sure where it is. I've read a few of the others, but they weren't keepers. FEAR OF FLYING--too whiny.  PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT--get a life already. LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER--too English. The list is more like a third-year lit class on significant events in erotic publishing. Many of the books don't even sound hot by today's standards, but they have historical significance if you're a studen of that genre.

That's not why I read sexy books. If I want to learn something, I watch The History Channel.  Maybe they could do this subject as a team project with HBO's Real Sex series, if it's still on. I read sexy books because I like to feel sexy, and sometimes I'm just not in the mood, or the place, for an actual man. Lighten up, people, I'm not going to go there, and I don't every time I read something either. I'm not a teenage boy, for heaven's sake. To quote Mr. Dynamite: "Gawsh!"

Some of these books have sold millions and millions of copies, so it's not just me reading the stuff. Here's a tip: If you think you're fooling anyone by using one of those cutesy book covers, don't bet on it.

In the spirit of hot fun in the summer time, tell Aunt Margie about the hottest book you've ever read. You don't have to use your real name, but since I work here, it'll be our little secret.

June 22, 2006

Thrillers For 100, Alex!

moderated by Nancy

With our usual gracious civility here at TLC, we've been discussing thrillers this week. And because it's gone so well (nobody has threatened bodily harm yet) why not continue the courteous exchange of scholarly thoughts on this subject?

                                 Go to fullsize image

By way of full disclosure and to counter any accusations of sour grapes, I'll remind one & all that none of the Book Tarts actually writes thrillers (at the moment) but we read them, discuss them, deconstruct them, critique them.  Occasionally lambaste them for being utterly idiotic. Being happy to share our opinions on any subject whether you like it or not, we think we have something intelligent to say about the state of the thriller genre.

And we like nothing better than stirring a pot.  So:

FRANKENSTEIN, if you ask me, is a good place to start. The story: One man, over-confident perhaps to the point of blindness in his own brilliance--ahem!--creates a creature that devolves into a monster. Forget all the movie versions. Read the book again. Okay, so the language is antiquated, but all the elements are there--a flawed protagonist who makes a mistake out of hubris, growing horror, real thrills, the ever-widening world. A brilliant Faustian plot peopled with rich characters. It's got actual ideas, too--philosophy and morality and stuff that challenges the reader to--gasp!--think beyond the action of the plot.

Have I mentioned yet it was written by a woman?

Lately, I picked up IN THE CUT by Susanna Moore. Go to fullsize image

The book was made into a movie, which I have avoided seeing because I found the book so compelling--and yes, thrilling in many senses of the word--that I don't want to spoil it. Perhaps the element that sucked me into this story right away was the troubled, yet erudite voice of a protagonist who studies language--particularly crude street vernacular, which she collects. Rather the way she collects sexual conquests. In the depths of a sleazy bar, she witnesses a sexual act, and the woman she observes is later found murdered (decapitated and "disarticulated"--what a thrillingly, deliciously awful word!) and our heroine is torn between wondering whether the investigating cop is the man for her...or if he's the killer. Tension escalates, as does the sex. She is stalked. And---spoiler alert--she comes to a very bad end. Sadistic? Yes. But the Writing. Is. Superb. It's quality, literary prose. Although it's a thriller plot, the story is ingeniously written from the first person--a real achievement of art and technique. Definitely a thriller for the ages, in my view.

Does the sex make male readers uneasy? Does the psychological subtext of eroticism give some readers--forgive me--the willies? Does the sexual element disqualify IN THE CUT from the thriller category?

Me, I think it makes the book even more--well, thrilling.

We're calling for nominations today.  What thrillers would you suggest are all-time greats? Iconic? Classics? The Best of the Best? And written by women, of course.

To help you along, Amazon categorizes thrillers--not exactly scientifically--by such sub-genres as:

Legal

Medical

Psychological

General

Spy

Intrigue

Suspense

Technothriller

And just to further your thoughts, I might add:

Scientific

Erotic

Domestic

Historical

Romantic Suspense (but I'm willing to be convinced this isn't a sub-genre of the thriller, so make your case, if you disagree with me.)

What specific thrillers would you nominate for the ages? By women, of course.

June 21, 2006

For Men Only

By Elaine Viets

It’s tough to define an award-winning thriller, but the new International Thriller Writers has succeeded:

It’s anything written by a man.

That’s not what it says on the ITW Website. That tells us, "Thrillers provide a rich literary feast – the legal thriller, the spy thriller, the action-adventure thriller, the medical thriller, the police thriller, the romantic thriller, the historical thriller, the political thriller, the religious thriller, the high-tech thriller, the supernatural thriller. The list goes on and on, with new variations being invented constantly. This openness to creation and expansion is one of the field’s characteristics."

Unfortunately, the plums at this literary feast are served to men only. For the first ITW Thriller Awards, every single novel nominee is a man.

Best Novel – five men.

Best First Novel – five men.

Best Paperback Original – five men.

And the winners of these Thriller Awards?

No surprise there: They’re all going to be men.

So is the recipient of the first ITW Life-Time Achievement Award.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the men nominated wrote first-rate, critically acclaimed novels. Other male nominees made you wonder where the judges stored their craniums.

That’s typical of almost any award nominee list.

What isn’t typical is that the ITW nominees were exclusively male. Even the Mystery Writers of America, an organization justly criticized for male bias in its Edgar Awards, is moving past that. Ironically, this year it nominated a thriller by Tess Gerritsen for an Edgar.

The ITW makes MWA look like a NOW meeting.

Consider a few of the women who submitted novels for the ITW Awards and weren’t nominated:

Elizabeth Becka, Sallie Bissell, Alice Blanchard, Linda Fairstein, Alison Gaylin, Elizabeth George, Sue Grafton, Denise Hamilton, Kay Hooper, Val McDermid, Perri O’Shaughnessy, Sara Paretsky, Theresa Schwegel, Lisa Scottoline, Julie Smith, and the mother-daughter team of P.J. Tracy.

These women are the literary equals of any male ITW nominee. Alison Gaylin and Theresa Schwegel were both nominated for Edgar Awards this year, and Theresa won. The other rejected women have enough honors to fill this page.

I’m not friends with any of the above women. Most wouldn’t know me if I sat down beside them. I don’t write thrillers. But I like to read them. And I know women write some fine ones. So why weren’t any female authors nominated for their novels?

One ITW judge was "dismayed" over the absence of women authors on the nominee list, but wonders "if the problem wasn’t sexism so much as the definition – or lack of it – of a thriller."

The MWA has a short, sweet definition of a mystery for its Edgar judges: "A work of fiction in which a crime is the central element."

On its Website, ITW co-presidents David Morrell and Gayle Lynds spent more than 500 words struggling with: "What is a thriller?"

"What gives thrillers common ground is the intensity of the emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness," they wrote. "By definition, if a thriller does not thrill, it is not doing its job."

But we all get our thrills in different ways. Apparently, women writers did not thrill enough ITW judges.

Co-president David Morrell’s list of 70 "Must-Read Thrillers" on the ITW Website includes Edgar Rice Burroughs’ "Tarzan of the Apes" and Oscar Wilde’s "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

If Oscar Wilde wrote a thriller, so did every woman on the ITW reject list.

The dismayed judge said, "Maybe the judges, when faced with trying to figure out just what a thriller was, were too quick to rely on the dick-lit cliches that have always dominated the genre – car chases, boy-banter, phallic guns and exploding stuff. Maybe instead of narrowing their focus, they should have been broadening it to reflect the rich diversity of what is called a thriller today."

There’s another problem with the ITW contest. Board members such as Tess Gerritsen cannot submit their own books, and that’s commendable. But ITW does permit reviewers to serve as judges. Many media companies ban their reviewers from judging, because the press should not create the news.

Many organizations, including MWA, do not permit reviewers to be judges. Reviewers have already judged the novels in the media. Besides, why submit a book to a committee when the judge has publicly panned it?

Consider something else co-president Morrell said about his "Must-Read Thrillers" list:

"You’ll note that there are far more male than female authors on the list. This imbalance is due to a publishing prejudice that for many years was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Editors felt that women couldn’t convincingly dramatize sensational plots . . . In turn, women avoided writing in the field because they couldn’t overcome the bigotry."

Uh, Mr. Co-President, bigotry is alive and well. And this time, you can’t blame the publishers.

Why didn’t the ITW see any problem with The Thriller Awards?

I could ask the organization for an explanation. But the nominee list speaks for itself.

This isn’t the International Thriller Awards. It’s the International Men’s Thriller Awards.

Skip the rubber-chicken banquet, boys, and make it a real guy event.

Cigars, beer and burgers in the bar – served by the ITW Ladies’ Auxiliary.