Thursday, May 28, 2015

2015 Dagger Award Shortlists

The Crime Writers Association has been recognizing excellent crime writing since 1955. The awards, the Daggers, are highly coveted prizes. This years nominees include the following found in our collection:

CWA International Dagger
Camille by Pierre Lemaitre
Cobra by Deon Meyer
The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo
Into a Raging Blaze by Andreas Norman

CWA Nonfiction Dagger
A Kim Jong-il Production by Paul Fischer
Ghettoside: investigating a homicide epidemic by Jill Leovy
One of Us: the story of Anders Breivik and the massacre in Norway by Asne Seierstad
Just Mercy: a story of justice and redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Endeavour Historical Dagger
Lamentation by C. J. Sansom
The Man From Berlin by Luke McCallin
Silent Boy by Andrew Taylor
Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Staff Pick - How to be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

If you want to see the Internet shaking with rage, just google the phrase How to Be a Good Wife.

How to Be a Good Wife is not only the title of Emma Chapman's novel, it is also the book that the novel's wife Marta is given by her mother-in-law. How to be a good wife instructs:

Make your home a place of peace and order.
Your husband belongs in the outside world. The house is your domain, and your responsibility.
Before he arrives home, freshen your make-up; put a ribbon in your hair.
Let your husband take care of the correspondence and finances of the household. Make it your job to be pretty and gay.

It's very obvious, very quickly that something is wrong with Marta Bjornstad. Marta has been married to Hector for so long that she cannot recall her life prior to their marriage when she was just a girl. Hector tells her that her parents were killed in a car crash and he rescued her, sick and starving on a doorstep. Hector gives her little pink pills to keep her on an even keel and instructs her never to leave their valley. She tries to be a good wife, she tries to follow the rules set out in her book, but she begins to unravel when her son Kylan leaves home.

It's hard to trust Hector.

Marta then decides to stop taking her pills and her behavior becomes erratic. She is having hallucinations (or are they memories?) of an emaciated blond girl, who reminds her of the girl her son brings home as his fiance. During a horrendous dinner party Marta behaves monstrously toward the girl, distressing all around her with her jealousy and insecurity, while Hector calmly and compassionately cares for Marta.

It's hard to trust Marta.

How to Be a Good Wife is a suspenseful and disturbing tale.  Who can we trust? The husband who conceals his faults from his wife, who controls her behavior, or, is he rather a beleaguered man worn down by years of caring for his fragile wife. Or do we trust Marta, who may have been drugged to forget her past, or perhaps is slipping into psychosis. Overall a gripping story that may leave you with more questions that answer.

One reviewer compared it to the classic The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an early example of American feminist literature, in which another unreliable female narrator relates in first person her physician husband's treatment of her "nervous" condition. This rest cure so lacks in stimulation that the woman descends into psychosis eventually seeing a woman creeping in the pattern in the wallpaper. i go to sleep flyer i'm gone

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Staff Pick - A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I left Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life with two divisive yet equally powerful reactions to this masterful, difficult book. First, I loved it; I wanted to wrap it in a blanket, cuddle it and give it some tea, rub its back and reassure it that everything would be all right. Second, I wanted to throw it away, drop it in a hole, burn it to ashes; anything so that I would never have to look at it or think about it ever again.

A Little Life cries out for visceral adjectives: heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, devastating. Multiple times, I wondered half-seriously if the author were involved in a bet to see who could torture a fictional character most thoroughly. If so, I can assure you that Ms. Yanagihara has handily won. The story spans decades, following the lives of four friends—J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude—and the various others that enter and leave their orbit. It is Jude, however, who emerges as the central character, upon whose mystery and pain the novel revolves.

When we meet Jude, he is a college student; quiet, talented, and soft-spoken, with a crippling leg injury that he will only say stems from “a car incident.” Childhood trauma is hinted at, but its sheer enormity is only gradually revealed, spooned out in small, painful doses throughout the book. What is remarkable about Yanagihara’s portrayal of suffering and its aftermath is the empathy given to both Jude, as he continually tries and fails to shirk off the weight of his past, and his friends, who attempt to love and care for him without ever entirely knowing or understanding his suffering. Yanagihara is ruthless, as she flings unending trials at her protagonist and compels her readers to feel them all along with him.

Many readers will understandably be repelled by some graphic scenes and the depressing subject matter. If you are looking for a light read with a happy ending, do not read this book. This might be the book for you if you believe the rewards of connecting, learning, and struggling with beautiful, complicated characters outweigh the heartaches of reading through their miseries.

If you are longing for more books that treat trauma victims as subjects rather than objects but still prefer your fiction with a light at the end of the tunnel, try Roxane Gay’s 2014 debut novel, An Untamed State. The novel is written from the first-person perspective of Mireille, a rich woman and new mother who is kidnapped while visiting her Haitian parents. Gay’s prose is both blunt and poetic, and her portrayal of Mireille’s struggle is both intimate and real.

by Amy P.

Monday, May 25, 2015

2014 Bram Stoker Award Winners

"The annual for superior achievement in horror literature. Named in honor of the author of the seminal horror novel Dracula, the Stokers are presented for superior writing in eight categories including traditional fiction of various lengths, poetry, and non-fiction. In addition, HWA presents an annual Lifetime Achievement Award to a living person who has made significant contributions to the writing of Horror and Dark Fantasy over the course of a lifetime."

Bram Stoker Awards

Here are a few of the winners in our collection.

Superior Achievement in a Novel
Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem

"A dark Southern Gothic vision of ghosts, witchcraft, secret powers, snake-handling, kudzu, Melungeons, and the Great Depression. Michael Gibson has returned to the quiet home of his forebears and now takes care of his grandmother Sadie – old and sickly, but with an important story to tell about growing up poor and Melungeon (a mixed race group of mysterious origins) in the 1930s, while bedeviled by a snake-handling uncle and empathic powers she barely understands. In a field not far from the Gibson family home lies an iron-bound crate within a small shack buried four feet deep under Kudzu vine. Michael somehow understands that hidden inside that crate is potentially his own death, his grandmother’s death, and perhaps the deaths of everyone in the valley if he does not come to understand her story well enough." publisher

Superior Achievement in a First Novel
Mr. Wicker by Maria Alexander

"Alicia Baum is missing a deadly childhood memory. Located beyond life, The Library of Lost Childhood Memories holds the answer. The Librarian is Mr. Wicker-a seductive yet sinister creature with an unthinkable past and an agenda just as lethal. After committing suicide, Alicia finds herself before the Librarian, who informs her that her lost memory is not only the reason she took her life, but the cause of every bad thing that has happened to her. Alicia spurns Mr. Wicker and attempts to enter the hereafter without the Book that would make her spirit whole. But instead of the oblivion she craves, she finds herself in a psychiatric hold at Bayford Hospital, where the staff is more pernicious than its patients." publisher

Superior Achievement in a Young Adult Novel
Phoenix Island by John Dixon

"A champion boxer with a sharp hook and a short temper, sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. He can’t seem to stay out of trouble—using his fists to defend weaker classmates from bullies. His latest incident sends his opponent to the emergency room, and now the court is sending Carl to the worst place on earth: Phoenix Island.  Classified as a “terminal facility,” it’s the end of the line for delinquents who have no home, no family, and no future. Located somewhere far off the coast of the United States—and immune to its laws—the island is a grueling Spartan-style boot camp run by sadistic drill sergeants who show no mercy to their young, orphan trainees." publisher

Sunday, May 24, 2015

2015 Pen Literary Award Winners

The PEN Literary Awards is the most comprehensive awards program in the country, offering over $100,000 each year to fiction writers, poets, translators, children’s authors, biographers, nonfiction writers, and playwrights. Each prize is conferred by a panel of PEN members who bring to the task a familiarity with the solitary task of creating great literature.

PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
War of the Whales: a true story by Joshua Howitz

"Six years in the making, War of the Whales is the “gripping detective tale” (Publishers Weekly) of a crusading attorney, Joel Reynolds, who stumbles on one of the US Navy’s best-kept secrets: a submarine detection system that floods entire ocean basins with high-intensity sound—and drives whales onto beaches. As Joel Reynolds launches a legal fight to expose and challenge the Navy program, marine biologist Ken Balcomb witnesses a mysterious mass stranding of whales near his research station in the Bahamas. Investigating this calamity, Balcomb is forced to choose between his conscience and an oath of secrecy he swore to the Navy in his youth." publisher

PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction
Five Days at Memorial: life and death in a storm ravaged hospital by Sheri Fink

"Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink’s landmark investigation of patient deaths at a New Orleans hospital ravaged by Hurricane Katrina – and her suspenseful portrayal of the quest for truth and justice. In the tradition of the best investigative journalism, physician and reporter Sheri Fink reconstructs 5 days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive and to maintain life amid chaos. " publisher

Pen/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography
The Queen's Bed: an intimate history of Elizabeth's court by Anna Whitelock

"Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the throne in 1558, restoring the Protestant faith to England. At the heart of the new queen's court lay her bedchamber, closely guarded by the favored women who helped her dress, looked after her jewels, and shared her bed. Elizabeth's private life was of public concern. Her bedfellows were witnesses to the face and body beneath the makeup and raiment, as well as to rumored dalliances with such figures as Earl Robert Dudley. Their presence was for security as well as propriety, as the kingdom was haunted by fears of assassination plots and other Catholic stratagems. " publisher

PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing
Boy on Ice: the life and death of Derek Boogaard by John Branch

"Boy on Ice is New York Times reporter John Branch's chronicle of Boogaard's tragic life and death. A human story in the tradition of Friday Night Lights and The Blind Side, it's a book that raises deep and disturbing questions about the systemic brutality of contact sports-from peewees to professionals-and damage that reaches far beyond the game. Derek Boogaard was a mountain of a man who lived an almost mythic sports story: from pond-hockey on the prairies of Saskatchewan to a first NHL contract in Minnesota, to the storied New York Rangers as the most-feared enforcer in the league. A gentle young man, he was a brutal fighter on ice skates, capable of delivering career-ending punches and intimidating entire teams. But at twenty-eight, his death from an overdose of painkillers in the wake of a series of concussions helped shatter the silence about violence in professional sports." publisher

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Staff pick - The Ice Twins by S.K. Tremayne

“When you love someone and they die, it is as if part of you dies with them. Therefore all love, if you like, is a form of suicide”.--S.K. Tremayne

S.K.Tremayne’s novel “The Ice Twins” exhibits a pervading sense of menace. Not the overt kind of menace where the protagonist is feeling threatened by harm, but the insidious kind born of a mixture of mistrust, suspicion, social isolation and self-doubt.

Sarah and Gus Moorcroft once had it all. Careers they were good at and enjoyed, a nice house in Camden, a loveable dog, and beautiful and perfectly identical twin girls, Lydia and Kirstie. The girls were everything to each other, sharing a bond stronger than other sisters, with private jokes and their own special twin language. Then, when the girls were six years old, a tragic fall killed one of the girls. Their perfect life was shattered forevermore… You see the twins were so identical that even Sarah wasn’t really sure which girl died. At the time she thought it was Lydia. But now… she is not so sure. Have they mourned the loss of the wrong girl? The remaining twin exhibits character traits of both girls, and appears to be mourning her sister by claiming to be her… Almost as if they are ice twins melting, one into the other.

As a measure of getting on with life, the Moorcrofts decide to move to Scotland. Gus has inherited a tiny island in the Hebrides on the Sound of Sleat.

The cottage and the lighthouse on the island are in desperate need of repair as they have been uninhabited for years. There is no cell signal, no internet, and no television. The only way to access the island is by boat, with walking only possible at the low tide and then dangerous because of the sucking mudflats.

Once the Moorcrofts move to this beautiful and isolated spot, they hope that things will change and that life will hold some promise. But, it seems as though this isn’t to be. Their beloved dog ‘Beany’ seems to behave differently and doesn’t really like to be in the cottage which is perpetually cold and damp. There is a tension between Sarah and Gus that even the hard work required to live in this remote spot will not destroy. They both suffer from survivor’s guilt and fear for their remaining daughter’s welfare. When they enroll Kristie in the village school, her odd behavior – talking to an invisible someone and claiming to be Lydia – causes her to be ostracized by her schoolmates. When Sarah, in desperation for her daughter to have a friend, invites one of the little girls from the village over to the island for a play date, the day ends disastrously. Sarah secretly consults a child psychologist. She fears for her daughter’s sanity. The little girl seems to not know who she is and asks “Which one of ‘me’ is dead?”

Gus and Sarah themselves seem secretive and cannot recapture their previous relationship. The loss of their child has formed a rift in their family and this rift is filling with bitterness, deception and anger. There seems to be a huge question of what really happened the day of Lydia’s fall. Sarah herself cannot quite remember the sequence of events. Perhaps this is because directly after the fatality, Sarah was heavily medicated…

Set in a stunningly beautiful place, “The Ice Twins” is a novel with imagery second to none. The reader can almost hear the sound of the wind, the surf and the lamenting sea birds. As well, one could feel the vulnerability of being so dependent on the whims of mother nature. With the conditions becoming more and more bleak as winter approaches, the feeling of isolation is complete.

The narrative contained many red herrings, with suspicion and doubt abounding. The story was told mostly from Sarah’s point of view, but some passages were from Gus’s viewpoint. The atmosphere was creepy and the Moorcroft’s predicament distressing.

I was so invested in the story that I took my book everywhere I went and read during my coffee break and lunch at work. I appreciated the photographs contained within the novel as they brought the imagery into an even sharper focus. “The Ice Twins” was a genuine page turner that held my interest from beginning to end.

S. K. Tremayne is a bestselling novelist and award-winning travel writer, and a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines around the world. The author has two daughters, and lives in London.

“The Ice Twins” has been optioned by Alcon Entertainment.

This book review originally published on Fictionophile

Friday, May 22, 2015

North Korea and Film

As we celebrate Asian Heritage Month, I decided to check out a book that might shed some light on the history of North Korea, an isolated country shrouded in secrecy: A Kim Jong-Il Production: the extraordinary true story of a kidnapped filmmaker, his star actress, and a young dictator’s rise to power by Paul Fischer.

This book tells the incredible story of the lengths to which dictator Kim Jong-il was willing to go in order to improve the North Korean film industry: by kidnapping prominent filmmakers from South Korea. Shin Sang-ok, South Korea’s most famous director, and Choi Eun-hee (“Madam Choi”), a renowned actress who starred in many of Shin’s movies, were a formerly-married couple who had fallen on hard times in South Korean film industry. They were separately kidnapped, held in North Korea for a decade, and forced to make propaganda movies for Kim Jong-il after undergoing years of imprisonment and attempted brainwashing. Eventually, they gained Kim Jong-il’s trust and managed to stage their escape to Vienna in 1986. It really does sound like something out of a movie plot, and indeed, an upcoming documentary called The Lovers and the Despot will cover their story.

What I really appreciate about this book is not only the amazing fortitude of Choi and Shin but also the insights they and others are able to give us about what it was like living in North Korea: the staggering wealth inequality where Kim Jong-il owns countless luxury mansions while many of his people starve. I was stunned by the contrast between Jong-il’s lavish parties with personal entertainment while political prisoners are fed soup filled with rocks and forced to sit perfectly still for sixteen hours a day or be beaten. The book emphasizes that kidnappings to North Korea happened on a frequent basis, and once you were there, it was almost impossible to escape from the country. But the main message is Jong-il’s obsession with reinforcing his family’s regime through the power of film. The movies became one of Jong-il’s main tools in building and maintaining a national identity from worship of his father, Kim Il-sung, to himself and beyond.

This might help to explain the extreme reaction to the political satire film The Interview, starring Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Randall Park as Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un. Sony Picture’s theatrical release of the film was eventually cancelled due to threats of violence from hackers linked with North Korea, which unfortunately may have a chilling effect on future films satirizing North Korea.

Those wanting more satirical films could try the 2005 film Team America: World Police, made by the creators of South Park. Here, Kim Jong-il is made to look particularly ridiculous—but then, so is everyone else parodied in the movie, whose actors, amusingly, are marionettes.

While comedy films may invite us to mock the dictators of North Korea, we must remember the actual harm done to the everyday citizens who suffer under the regime, which seeks to suppress the free thought of its people and can have them and their entire families thrown into prison without a trial or even an official charge. The documentary Kimjongilia: the flower of Kim Jong Il shares appalling firsthand stories from six former detainees: survivors of the horrors of the prison system, sexual slavery, torture, mutilation, and starvation. While the inclusion of interpretive dancers distracts from the accounts, the harrowing tales have undeniable power.

For another documentary about North Korea, try National Geographic’s Inside North Korea, with correspondent Lisa Ling. She traveled to the elusive country by posing as part of a medical team under Dr. Sanduk Ruit, a Nepalese eye surgeon whose goal was to spend 10 days doing 1,000 surgeries to remove cataracts from North Korean citizens—including many children—who had become blind due in part to malnutrition, a chronic problem in the country. While unfortunately, the team was constantly monitored by government officials, simply gaining access to Pyongyang was quite a feat. One amazing scene in particular showed how strong Kim Jong-il’s cult of personality had become: when those who had been blind finally had their bandages removed, rather than thank the doctors standing there, each of them instead profusely thanked the pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on the wall.

Finally, try A State of Mind. The creators of this fascinating documentary were given unprecedented access to two young Pyongyang gymnasts who work tirelessly to bring glory to their country. Pak Hyon-sun (age 13) and Kim Song-yon (age 11) spent months training for the Mass Games, a gloriously colourful performance that requires up to 80,000 gymnasts in the floor display and 12,000 schoolchildren for the floor backdrop. The purpose of the Mass Games is to celebrate the unity of the people and the glory of the state and leader. While the spectacle of the Games was beautiful, perhaps more interesting were the scenes of relatively privileged everyday life in the capital city, including ubiquitous power cuts and accordion performances. These scenes help to humanize the people living in North Korea and remind us that they are doing the best they can to make a living in an oppressive environment.