In Praise of Smut…

**This post originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Review Direct**

“Novels that pander/To my taste for candor/Give me a pleasure sublime.” –Tom Lehrer, Smut

This week marks a great day in literature, for me at least. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition was released with the author’s preferred text! (Read my review here)Being one of the few books to actually stay in my ever shifting Top Five book list, the excitement for an expanded edition has me all a twitter.

I suppose at this point I should back up and explain that I do not in any way consider American Gods “smut”. Please, give me a bit of leeway. I will get there.

As much as I love to support my local, independent bookstore when I purchase books, I had a pesky Amazon gift certificate that needed to be used. So, I decided to put it to use with a preorder of American Gods.

My karmic penance was swift. The book was not delivered on the release date. But, I had cleared my reading schedule and was ready to go! Now what? Starting something too engaging did not seem like a good idea given the eminent arrival of this new edition and the workload I had returned to after a conference in DC last week. A good story at the end of the day was essential, though.

There was one clear choice: get a smutty book from the library. That’s right, I read smut. I have degrees in History and International Relations and a minor in Russian/Eastern European Studies, but sometimes I really like a good, ol’ romance. This is my first public declaration of my fondness for the genre.

For the sake of this discussion I think Urban Dictionary has the most adept definition:

“Smut: Highly developed stories with love lines and other things that appeal to women that also include a lot of sexually explicit scenes…”

Voracious even in my youth, I read whatever I could get my hands on and sometimes my hands landed on my mom’s historical romances. In one summer night I could often read, cover to cover, the thrilling tale of a woman in an unfortunate circumstance who overcame obstacles, was thrown into the arms of her great love (sometimes literally), and got her happy ending. They weren’t penny dreadfuls, but they were as close as this modern girl could get.

These days I prefer the likes of Amanda Quick, Lauren Willig, and a handful of others whose historical romances primarily feature slightly older wonks (imagine that) who find their not so mainstream heroes in ways that allow them to be part of the adventure, not just a bystander waiting to be saved. There is just something so inviting about occasionally losing yourself in these tales. The historical detail varies from just enough to be believable to plots that revolve around very real historical events with the fictional characters dropped in (these are mostly found with Willig, who has a graduate degree from Harvard). The romances are not overwrought with obstacles stemming from misunderstandings, but with intrigue and mystery. When I finished War and Peace, I followed it with an Amanda Quick novel. It is like a RomCom movie after a long, trying day.

I live and work in books. Some of my closest friends are wonderful, bright, and clever people. Great books are my life and I am lucky enough to have intelligent discourse in abundance, but sometimes I just need a mental break. I want a story I can simply enjoy, but with characters who are not insipid. I find that in a certain smut.

Am I the only bibliophile to find secret pleasure in a little romp through the romance section?


My New Favorite Detective: Erast Fandorin and The Winter Queen

I have a degree in International Relations and History and specialized in Russian/Eastern European Studies. Early on when I was a bookseller I came across an Advanced Reader’s Copy of The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin. A modern author writing about late Imperial Russia. I was very intrigued. Due to a packing mistake five years ago, I only rediscovered it last weekend. I cannot decide if I am grateful for my error or annoyed, since I now have another great series to follow.

The story’s opening, which includes a brilliant nod to The Master and Margarita, sets the stage for the novel. A seemingly delirious young man shoots himself in the middle of a park for no apparent reason. Fandorin takes an interest in the incident after his boss reads the details in the police blotter. It is not long before Fandorin encounters a femme fatale, jealous lover, a lovely witness, not to mention a cast of menacing henchmen. The case takes the young hero from Moscow to London in pursuit of the truth, which is as strange as the suicide that began the investigation.

In Erast Fandorin, Akunin has created a detective unlike any I have ever read. He is clever, but young (20 years old) and naive. He has a gentleman’s background, but family circumstances meant he had to make his own way in the world. What I like the most is that he is real. He is not steps ahead of criminals, he works the details out as he goes along, which costs him a great deal. The pace of this mystery is pitch perfect. Akunin takes his time with character development. As rewarding as Fandorin’s investigations will surely be in other books, I think seeing (well, reading) as he changes with age and experience will be almost as enjoyable as the mysteries themselves.

The Winter Queen is one of the best mysteries I have read. Period. I am eager to read all the entries in the series that have been translated and am glad to know there are more out there still working their way stateside. Andrew Bromfield did a wonderful job with the translation, an often unappreciated aspect of translated novels. The prose is smooth and almost poetic, some translations clunk along and do no credit to the original writer.

I did some reading on Akunin (pen name of Georgian academic Grigory Chkhartishvili) after I finished. He noticed in post-Soviet Russia, people were clamoring for mysteries of any kind, but the offerings were usually quite salacious. After a little investigating of his own, he concluded there were sixteen types of mysteries- and he would write one of each featuring Fandorin. The White Queen was his foray into Conspiracy mysteries. I, for one, am excited to read what he does with the other fifteen.

Cozying Up with Hamish Macbeth

This gallery contains 3 photos.

There are few places in the literary world that I enjoy visiting more than Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands. The village is home to quirky characters, including the affable, bordering on lazy, village policeman, Hamish Macbeth. Like Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, he rarely has to leave his idyllic hamlet for murder to find […]

A Priest, a Satanist, and an Exorcist Walk Into a Bar: The Strange World of Felix Castor

As it turns out Mike Carey, best known for his work on comic books like X-Men and Fantastic Four, is a helluva writer too. His Felix Castor series is flat out brilliant. Having just finished the second book, Vicious Circle, I can now say I am an official fan.

The London Felix Castor inhabits is completely recognizable as the city well known to most from travel and/or literature. The same politicians are in the news, the same motorways cross the city, and the local pubs still have much needed whiskey. There is one notable difference- there is a lot of gray between living and dead.

Since his childhood, Castor has been able to see ghosts. He eventually realized he could make them disappear, exorcise them, buy playing a tune that fits their personality. After years of eeking out a living using his talent however he could, he began to struggle with the question of what became of the ghosts he sent away. Around the same time, the very end of the last century, strange things start to happen.

Remember our crazy late 1990s? The dotcom bubble ballooning and busting. Y2K fears. Anticipation for 2000. Well, in the world Carey has created something else happened then. The dead did not always stay dead. Ghosts of people who had died in the last couple decades began to appear all over (none before that time period though), some dead and buried came back as zombies (not “I want to eat your brains” kind) and, of course, shapeshifters pop up here and there (definitely not sexy True Blood types). They are all out in the open, known to everyday citizens and law enforcement. Politicians even debate the legal rights of the undead. Kind of makes those people who stocked up on water and canned goods with generators seem pretty tame, right?

Such a shift creates a business opportunity for Castor. He becomes a freelance exorcist. For the most part, he acts as a supernatural detective. Sometimes he consults for the police. It makes for some interesting cases.

Vicious Circle begins when two grieving parents contact Castor to find their missing daughter… or rather, her ghost. At the same time, his friend Juliet, a somewhat reformed demon he helped in The Devil You Know, draws him into her investigation of a seemingly possessed church. A rash of extraordinary, in the truest sense, crimes forces Castor to realize his inquires have much greater implications than satisfied clients. All of London hangs in the balance as he is thrown into the world of Satanists and a spiritual special forces branch of the Vatican, now excommunicated, on a holy mission to keep the earth safe.

The premise might sound like the plot of a comic, I know. The genius of Carey’s writing is that it reads as anything but. The Castor novels are urban fantasy noir. Sam Spade if he could communicate with ghosts. Told in first person narrative, Castor’s acerbic wit and wry observations draw you into the tale.

The books start out at such a pace, I think that there is no way Carey will be able to write for another 350 pages and keep it interesting- but he does. His plotting puts him right up there with the best mystery or thriller writers today. If you like paranormal mysteries or urban fantasy, you will love this series. If you like mysteries or just clever or unusual characters, give this one a try.

A Good Thief in a Bad Place?

I picked up The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan after seeing it listed on a “What Our Editors are Reading on the Subway” kind of list that seems to be in abundance at this time of year. The title intrigued me, so I looked it up on my public library’s iPhone app an reserved a copy. Upon picking it up, I thought for sure it would be a quick read. Not quite. Who would have thought a 238 page book would take SO LONG to read?

The Good Thief’s Guide… is the story of Charlie Howard, a Brit in Amsterdam, and is told in first person. See, Charlie is a mystery author who happens to be a thief who writes about a thief who solves crimes. With me so far? As convoluted as that might sound I was still enthusiastic. After all, so many mystery series now have a gimmick. Rare book dealers, chefs, and even Jane Austen are solving crimes these days- why not a “good thief”? So, I jumped in.

Within the first few pages, Charlie is approached by an American who knows about his double life as a thief and offers him a job. The American wants him to steal two Wise Monkey figurines from two separate residences, a quick score essentially already planned for our thief. After deliberation, Charlie decides to take the commission. Needless to say, things do not go exactly as planned.

All of this action takes place in the first couple pages… and that was a problem. Ewan’s pace felt like a sprinter trying to run the distance. Secondary characters are introduced but not really filled out. Towards the end, there are several revelations that add dimension, but feel rushed. Most readers will figure out several clues and elements of the crime chapters before Charlie.

Because the narration is told through Charlie, the reader spends a good deal of story in his thoughts, which is good and bad in turn. Charlie is wry and has a lot of charm and wit. Ewan sometimes forgets that though and bogs his protagonist down with too many thoughts. There are lots of descriptions, but they are told more as walking tour directions than words that paint a scene. It felt like a wasted opportunity to highlight the titular city by showing it through the eyes of a foreigner. The meandering thoughts and lack of context caused me to put the book down more often than I normally would.

But… (My mother calls it “the infamous but”)

While the pacing seemed off and there were issues with certain style points, I have to admit, I would read another book in the series. A book writing thief still intrigues me. This was Ewen’s first and there were definitely hints of promise in the characters. Charlie and his editor, Victoria, have a lot of potential to be fleshed out and made into proper series anchors. The criminal elements in this book also offer hope that The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris and the subsequent novels in the series will continue to show the world of a “good” criminal in a way that other novels only do in passing.

Does the premise of The Good Thief’s Guide series appeal to you? Have you read beyond the first book?

The Simple Grace of Diamond Willow

A couple weeks ago I had dinner with an old friend who is now an English teacher at a middle school in Houston, TX. Since we became friends in high school, there have been many great discussions of books between us. This visit was no exception. A topic came up that I have discussed with several people, but never someone to whom it was professionally pertinent: Are YA (young adult) books as good, if not better, than books written for adults? I will not say we resolved the question, but we did both agree there are some very well written YA books out there and sometimes the less dramatic relationships in the books allow for more emphasis on the message. They also allow adults to be more aware of the real issues and situations many teenagers face today in ways no one would have imagined a generation before.

My friend gave me a list of suggested juvenile/young adult books. The first on the list was Diamond Willow by Helen Frost. She raved about the storytelling and the uniqueness of the tale. She also said I could finish it in one night- and I did. On a weeknight at that! (Yes, I am delayed with my review)

Before I even comment on the plot, I have to say something about the way the story is told. Each page of narration is told in a diamond. Some of the words in each diamond are bolded and give more insight into what Willow is really trying to say. There are pages of straightforward narration from other surprising characters interspersed. As well as being a clever layout, it also allows the story to move quickly. Frost does not waste words. The tale is simple and beautiful and the Native American culture threaded in gives it a sense of spirituality.

The book is told mainly from the perspective of Diamond Willow, a twelve year old girl who lives in a small town in Alaska. She prefers to be known as Willow since, as she says, “I am not sparkly. I’m definitely not a precious diamond…”. All she really wants is for her parents to not treat her like a child and to blend in to the background at school. Taking care of her family’s sled dogs, especially Roxy, is the highlight of her day. The dogs are also a link to her grandparents, who she feels understand her better than her own parents.

One day, Willow is finally allowed to take the dogs and sled to her grandparent’s home, miles away, alone. It is this taste of freedom and responsibility that changes so much in Willow’s life and the lives of those around her. To say more about the plot would ruin this touching story of hope, family, and forgiveness.

I will say this to close, my evening with Frost’s prose and her genuine characters was the kind of reading experience I don’t always find. I didn’t want to put the book down for dinner or any other interruption. That earns Diamond Willow high marks in my opinion.

Have you read Diamond Willow? What do you think of experimental or unusual narration? Share any comments!

On Libraries…

It will come as no surprise that someone who keeps a book blog loves libraries. This week their importance has really been on my mind.

Facing a make or break millage, Troy Public Library in Troy, MI was threatened with closure if they did not secure enough votes in today’s election. I am pleased to say the voters in Troy appreciate their library too and voted to keep funding the institution. What really amazes me about this vote was the supporters who first brought the issue to my attention. The family behind The Books for Walls Project who also live in my area, hundreds of miles from Troy, took on the cause as though it were their own library that was threatened. The young sisters especially seemed to understand the value of a library to a community and took to the internet and social media sites with a vengeance to raise awareness. I commend them!

Personally, a local library branch brought me back a little of my youth. Over the course of several days, I attended showings at East Bay Public Library’s 5th Annual Film Strip Festival, hosted by the wonderful librarian, Rosie!
Now, there is a generational gap here. Many people around 30 and under have little or no idea what a film strip is. Slightly older people will remember film strips as the way teachers had a break from students before VHS tapes were readily available in schools (let alone DVDs!). I was probably in middle elementary school the last time I saw one. Lots of strips about science. I do remember watching the entire classic Rankin/Bass cartoon of The Hobbit as a film strip though!

Do you know what this is?

The Film Strip Festival was a wonderful collection of children’s books on film strip. Rosie showed a variety of stories, from Five Chinese Brothers to The Polar Express. Though some had quite cheesy music that really dated them, the narrator to illustration story telling was a simple treat I had forgotten.

Maybe it is the nostalgia, but I cannot help but think how deprived kids are today (yup, I am saying “these kids today”). Every semi-decent picture book is turned into a glowing movie. Watching The Polar Express film strip in particular, I was reminded of how wonderful the story and illustrations really are. There is a dark, mysterious quality to the Christmas Eve journey. Years of passing the book cover at the holidays and scenes from the bubbly Tom Hanks movie had made me forget the real magic of Chris Van Allsburg’s storytelling. Real storytelling, sans CGI, is a wonderful thing, but I worry it is a dying art.

Yet, there is The Books for Walls Project, including those sisters. Those young, avid readers who are so tech savvy. They are out there saving libraries and being introduced to so many people from around the world via their website. That is a wonderful thing too.