12.29.08

Not a Villain – Just an Unlikable Character!

Posted in Writing at 12:53 pm by Amber

One thing I’ve been told repeatedly as a writer is to make the main character likable or provide something that makes the reader connect with the character.  I recently reviewed a book in which the main character was unlikable.  The character was so unpleasant I kept wanting to put the book down unfinished but didn’t.  If I was going to review the book I felt I should read the entire thing. 

The main character can be an antihero who appears to have no heroic qualities.  Through events they may rise to the occasion and become a hero.  One recent example I’ve read about is Amir from The Kite Runner.  As a child he does nothing to help his best friend escape some bullies.  As an adult, he risks his life to save his best friend’s child.

Some characters are villains.  Villains provide an antithesis to the hero.  The first two villains that come to mind are Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett.  They had motives for the crimes they committed.  Sweeney Todd had a need to always have money on him.  Most of us can understand monetary insecurity or greed.  Mrs. Lovett wanted to return to the stage and the limelight but required money to travel out of the country.  Most of us can understand the need for money to make a dream come true.  These motives provided insight and made them seem a bit less distasteful.

Have you ever met a character that made you stop reading the book or story?  Do you have any favorite antiheroes or villains?

12.26.08

Sweetsmoke by David Fuller

Posted in Review at 10:53 pm by Amber

sweetsmoke

Caribousmom is where I first read anything about this book.  It was in the newly released section of the library recently and recognizing the name as one I wanted to read, it came home with me that day.

Set in 1862 during the Civil War, the reader is introduced to Cassius, a carpenter and slave on the Sweetsmoke plantation.  Cassius is a favorite of Howard Hoke, the landowner, and is allowed some liberties the other slaves do not.  Emoline, a former Sweetsmoke slave who was given her freedom by Hoke, is found murdered in her home.  She was a mother figure to Cassius who taught him how to read and write though no one knows he is literate.  Cassius uses his liberties and smarts to find out the identity of the murderer.

The book is a well done piece of historical fiction.  Interactions of the characters based on their station and during a time when resources are scarce ring true.  Customs are explained without reading like a textbook.

It asks some philosophical questions about loyalty and what constitutes freedom.  How loyal should a slave be to his or her owner?  Can a slave be loyal to friends and loved ones even if it comes at a cost?  How does one earn loyalty from another?  Is freedom something granted by someone in a position of power?  Or is freedom experienced through literacy and independence?  These questions are reminiscent of the debate between human law and natural law which I found fascinating in college.

The timeline of events was a bit confusing or rushed near the end of the novel when Howard Hoke takes ill but that’s a minor complaint.  For a debut novel this is a solid effort.

12.24.08

Happy Holidays!

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:37 pm by Amber

I hope the holiday season has been good to everyone and may the New Year bring only the best!

Last Minute Book Gift Ideas

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:03 am by Amber

I know some people wait until the last minute to buy gifts and this can sometimes backfire.  You have the perfect gift in mind but when you get to the store it’s out of stock.  It’s always good to have a back-up plan.

If you need last minute book ideas I have a few places for you to check out!  Natasha at Maw Books Blog is hosting the 7th Edition of the Book Review Carnival.  You can find books that have been reviewed by bloggers in several categories.  If you don’t know what to buy your much younger niece or nephew or that semi-distant relative you see once a year there are some good ideas in the carnival.  (And one of my reviews is there too!)

Sherry over at Semicolon hosts a Saturday Review each week.  Bloggers are encouraged to link to their posts about specific books.  You may find a formal book review or the thoughts and impressions of a book.  Feel free to search through the archives for some hidden gems.  You can also look through the most recent ones to figure out which books are getting a lot of attention.

Lastly, Here be (Book) Reviews has links to over a hundred book review blogs.  If you want to know what’s being read in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, India, Canada or Australia this is a great place to drop in and see what people are reading.

Happy book shopping!

12.22.08

Henning Mankell/Kurt Wallander News!

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:24 am by Amber

I recently discovered that three of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander books have been made into movies for the BBC starring Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander.  And Mankell is working on another Wallander book!  The movies will air in the United States on PBS in the spring.  Apparently many movies with Kurt Wallander as the main character have been made in Sweden.

When I read a book I usually imagine what the characters look like.  If the author has done a poor job with description I have a difficult time picturing the character.  Kenneth Branagh is not who I imagined as Kurt Wallander.  In my head he looked a lot like Stellan Skarsgard but shorter.  The publicity photos show Branaghas as an unshaven disheveled man and that is good enough for me.  I doubt my image of Wallander will be replaced by Branagh when I read more of the books.

A few months ago I read Faceless Killers, the first Kurt Wallander book, and it’s still one of my favorite reads of the year.  I’m anticipating enjoying these movies next year.

12.18.08

Things The Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Oliver Everett

Posted in Review at 12:14 am by Amber

Things the Grandchildren Should Know is a memoir by Mark Oliver Everett, the founder of the band Eels.  He answers to “E” which may explain why people who saw me with the book last week did not know him by name but had heard of the Eels. 

The title and the cover are not a good combination.  Several people commented that it seemed like it should be a self-help book.  But when I told them about the memoir they found it interesting.  The title is the name of one of E’s songs and is meant to be a joke.  Though he was married at one time he lays no claim to children.  It’s just him and his dog, Bobby Jr. 

The memoir starts off with stories from his past.  It is easy to imagine sitting at a bar with E and being entertained by his stories.  The book has a casual tone so it comes off a little bit like a one-sided conversation.  Near the end of the book this approach doesn’t work as well as it did in the beginning. 

E’s stories move into the recent past but there isn’t a connection between him and the reader.  The first story shows he can write and put some thought into the writing approach for the memoir.  Perhaps adding small details to bring the reader into the moment would have helped. 

He shares a lot of personal family history/issues and directly shows how it relates to some of his lyrics.  It’s easy to say he’s lived through some heart-wrenching experiences.  Someone with less focus on a constructive outlet would have succumbed to cumulative bad decisions.  An engaging, easy read, it rises above the celebrity/musician memoir that only dishes the dirt on sex and drugs.

12.17.08

Interview with Mark LaFlamme

Posted in Event, Writing at 12:01 am by Amber

For today I have an interview conducted with Mark LaFlamme through email.  If you have not read my review of his latest novel, DIRT: An American Campaign, you may want to read it first.  There are no spoilers in the review or this interview.  I’m happy Mark was able to spare some time from his busy schedule to answer my questions.  If you’d like to learn more about Mark or his novels, his web site is at http://www.marklaflamme.com/.

Amber: You’ve written several books but your day job is a crime reporter and journalist for The Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine.  DIRT: An American Campaign takes place during the presidential primaries.  On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of crossover between crime reporting and the electoral process.  What prompted you to write this novel?

Mark LaFlamme: Believe it or not, my reporting background didn’t help at all. I write crime and largely ignore the clamor of politics. That was a real problem when I decided to tackle a story about a run for the presidency.

I had this half-waking dream about a man digging up his dead wife in the middle of the night. There was nothing more elaborate about this dream. Just that image: a very determined man with a shovel, digging a square hole to his bride. I liked the image a lot and eventually asked myself what kind of chaos such an act would bring about. At the time, I was reluctantly getting into the Hillary vs. Obama fight and really enjoying the campaign strategies of both. I started studying political strategy, learned a ton, and decided to introduce my grave-robbing protagonist to the concept. The result were some really great characters, some that the reader will love, some that they will despise. I think that’s the success of the book.

Amber: Was there a character in DIRT: An American Campaign that surprised you?

Mark LaFlamme: My characters surprise me all the time. They never do what I expect them to do or become the people I plan them to be. It’s a creepy part of the writing process.

In Dirt, I didn’t expect Billy Baylor, the drunken author, and Thomas Cashman, the mercenary, to bond so well. Their relationship is mostly antagonistic but they manage to reach some level of mutual respect. They bicker all the time and it was just a blast to write that dialogue.

I really expected Cashman to be more ominous than likeable. He’s a gun-for-hire, after all. But his wisecracking cynicism came to be endearing and most of my writers like him a lot. They save the real love for Billy, though.

Amber: The basic plotline of DIRT: An American Campaign follows a mercenary’s search for Calvin Cotton and his dead wife before the grave robbery scandal is discovered by Governor Frank Cotton’s opponents.  The reader walks away from the book asking questions about what is acceptable behavior for meeting ambitions and how far is too far for loved ones.  Was that intentional?

Mark LaFlamme: Yes, that was intentional. But I also think it should prompt the reader to ask how much of these win-at-all-cost tactics are at work in real world politics. I have no doubt that my premise, while shocking, does not depart from the reality of high politics. We will never see all the skeletons in all the closets. I don’t know if we could handle it if the truth about all of our leaders were revealed.

Amber: How long does it take you to complete a novel?  

Mark LaFlamme: I write a minimum of 2,000 words a night, banging them out in the hours after midnight, mostly. When things get really hot, I’ll produce more like 5,000. At that pace, it takes me just a few weeks to come up with a completed manuscript. Of course, that’s the easy part. I’ll spend more time going through the book and cleaning up various messes – inconsistencies, sloppy writing, etc. Then I’ll pass the book on to a handful of test readers to get their reaction to the story. That’s always a nerve wracking period. Often, they will love something I thought was weak, or fail to be impressed by something I thought was powerful.

The first draft of “Dirt: An America Campaign” was completed in about six weeks. The tweaking and editing took another three or four.

Amber: With each novel, does the writing and editing process get any easier?

Mark LaFlamme: With each novel you tend to make new mistakes. You learn from those and take the lessons into the next book. For me, though, each new work brings about a new set of problems. Sometimes, I’ll write with fingers of fire and then find that my plot has stalled and I have to get it jumpstarted somehow. That’s frustrating, but it is usually worked through with some “Aha!” moment that comes when you’re not thinking about it. Love the “Aha!” moments.

For me, the most difficult part of the process is the beginning. Once you force yourself into writing chair, with the help of chains and locks if you have to,
you’ll be okay. Get a sentences behind you and the glorious trip into a weird new world has begun.

Amber: Have you have any memorable moments on book tours?

Mark LaFlamme: I was at a signing at Borders in South Portland, Maine to promote “The Pink Room” a few years ago when a woman came in with her mastiff puppy. She wanted a photo of the author with her dog so we put it up on my little table full of books. There was no food being served in the store that day so the managers allowed it. The dog, named Milo, ended up staying with me the remainder of the afternoon and I swear, he helped sell a dozen books. I think for my next tour, I should get a puppy.

Amber: Is there anything about DIRT: An American Campaign you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

Mark LaFlamme: It was just a ball to research this book. To write one of the opening scenes, I needed an up-close look at a burial vault for the sake of authenticity. A local funeral director was kind enough to take me to the cemetery, open up one of the vaults and let me look around. He explained how the tomb could be secretly entered and how coffins could be opened if a person were so inclined. It was sort of a Grave Robbery 101 that I enjoyed. At the same time, I was eager to get out of the tomb.

It’s very dark in there.

At another cemetery, I was allowed to climb into a freshly dug grave in order to pose for a picture taken by newspaper photographer. It’s a little unsettling down there in the dirt. But now I can say that I have literally risen from the grave. And I say it often.

Please also tell your readers that I need to pay for an expensive medical procedure and to please buy my books. Or if you want to tell them something truthful, relate that I would love to hear from anyone who reads my work, whether they love it or hate it. As a journalist, I’ve always remained extremely approachable, answering every call and every letter I get with enthusiasm. I’d like to be the same as a novelist. Also, I’m very lonely.

12.15.08

DIRT: An American Campaign by Mark LaFlamme

Posted in Review at 12:13 am by Amber

DIRT: An American Campaign is the latest book available by Mark LaFlamme.  The first chapter is available for viewing on BookLocker.  It was the strength of the writing in this chapter that made me want to read it.

Governor Frank Cotton is a Republican hoping to be named as the party’s candidate during the presidential primaries.  The novel follows a mercenary’s search for Calvin Cotton, Governor Cotton’s son, before Governor Cotton’s opponents (and the media) get wind of Calvin’s grief-filled actions.  The grave robbery of Calvin’s wife could bring down Governor Cotton’s campaign.  Thomas Cashman, the mercenary, brings along drunken novelist Billy Baylor to help track down Calvin across several states.

This political thriller is fast paced and I was able to read it in a few days.  LaFlamme was able to keep the book set in the present day with subtle references that aren’t likely to make the story feel dated in coming years.  There are lots of characters on Governor Cotton’s campaign staff that come and go but are easy to remember when they reappear.  The scenes between Billy Baylor and Thomas Cashman were the heart of the story for me and make up most of the novel.  Their encounters with Calvin showed their strength of character.  Both of them treat Calvin with respect when it would be easy to write him off as mentally disturbed.

On a deeper level the novel asks the reader, “What would you do to fulfill your ambitions?”  Several of the characters come to a crossroads and must decide if they are going to take the hard, honest way, or the easy, questionable path.

Stop by on Wednesday for my interview with Mark about writing and DIRT: An American Campaign.

12.12.08

Reading Lots and Posting Soon!

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:20 pm by Amber

Right now I’m trying to read three different books while I am busy with baking and wrapping gifts for the holidays.  The holiday cards should be ready to go by Monday.

On Monday there will a review of Mark LaFlamme’s book, DIRT: An American Campaign.  I know I promised it back in October but right after I made the promise I was contacted about a little bonus I could offer all of you.  The bonus is an interview with Mark that will be posted on Wednesday.  It’s a great interview that focuses mostly on writing.

12.08.08

The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Towards Perfection by Michael Ruhlman

Posted in Review at 10:04 am by Amber

This is the first Michael Ruhlman book I’ve read.  Since it is one of his early efforts I found a clumsy sentence here or there that brought me out of the life of a chef but the conversational tone and explanations was able to pull me back in.  My introduction to Ruhlman (and Michael Symon) was the Cleveland episode of Anthony Bourdain’s tv show No Reservations.  Ruhlman has written many books (memoirs, cookbooks, and non-fiction) since this one was published.  I plan on reading more of his books.

This book has three parts and an epilogue.  The first part is about the certified master chef exam.  The second part is about Lola, Michael Symon’s first restaurant.  (Since the book was written, Lola has moved to another Cleveland location and Lolita now resides in the original Lola space.)  The third part is about the French Laundry and Thomas Keller.  The epilogue is Ruhlman’s ruminations on the entire experience.  As a bonus, there is an Appendix with recipes from some of the chefs featured in the book.

Part I: Certified Master Chef Exam (Or the Objective Truth of Great Cooking)

If you have ever seen Bravo’s Top Chef with it’s quickfire challenges and judges table then you have a small taste of what the Certified Master Chef Exam is like.  But imagine paying thousands of dollars for ten days of classes and tests with no guarantee that you will make it beyond the first day and there is no guarantee you will receive the certification that many in your industry look down upon.  Each candidate is given a list ahead of time of the equipment and kitchen staples.  They attend classes in the mornings and then get the afternoon and evenings to prepare for their exams.  Each exam covers the use of the knowledge imparted during the lecture, execution of cooking methods, food combinations, and so forth.  Brian Polcyn is one of the chefs featured in this section.

Part II: Lola

I’m sure no one predicted during the writing of The Soul of a Chef that Michael Symon would become a Food Network star.  He is currently one of the American Iron Chefs and the host of Dinner Impossible.  (Note: It was recently announced that Robert Levine will return to hosting the show and Michael Symon has two shows currently in the works at the network.)  This chapter is basically a profile on what can make a successful restaurant.  These ingredients include (1) good food, (2) a personable chef, (3) dedicated staff and (4) high expectations from everyone involved in the restaurant.  Symon was just named one of the 10 Best New Chefs for 1998 in Food & Wine when Ruhlman decided he needed to spend some extended time at Lola to see if he could pinpoint why it was going so well for Symon.

Part III: Journey Toward Perfection

Through a mutual acquaintance, Ruhlman is introduced to Thomas Keller and eventually co-writes a cookbook with him (and Polcyn from the first section).  During his time with Keller, Ruhlman meets with Keller in California and Ohio.  They discuss not only food but the philosophy behind what makes a good food experience.  After all, someone can have a perfectly executed meal that still falls flat on flavors and vice versa.

Epilogue

The epilogue is really a summary of the time Ruhlman spends with these chefs.  At the heart of this experience is a conversation between Ruhlman and Keller.  It is the one of the points Bill Buford was trying to get across with his book Heat; we’re becoming a nation of non-cooks.  And it’s true.  Recently a recipe I was given called for grated nutmeg.  When faced with a whole nutmeg I could not identify it on sight and had to ask if the whole thing gets grated or should it be broken open and then grated?  And I realized the other day I’ve never made macaroni and cheese that did not originate from a box.

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