Minute Marginalia

Sunday, April 15, 2007

International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day (April 23)

I don't usually do this, but Making Light has linked to a post by SFWA vice-president Dr. Howard V. Hendrix which decries writers' decisions to post their material freely on the net. Hendrix calls said writers (among other things) "scabs" and "pixel-stained technopeasants". That, in turn, inspired Jo Walton to pronounce April 23 International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day and to suggest that "everyone who wants to should give away professional quality work online." Full details are at her site (linked above).

I confess that part of my delight in this is the thought of being able to read more of Walton's work, since her Tooth and Claw remains high on my list of favorite fantasies (Trollope with dragons!). The discussion at both sites also offers an interesting reminder of just how generous many talented people are in making their work so readily available -- yet another reason to promote the project.

Southern Fried

I picked up Cathy Pickens’s first detective novel after hearing her speak at a conference. Since I tend to be picky about mysteries (as my book group can attest), I was a little hesitant to start it, thinking it might not be as entertaining as its author. It was a pleasant surprise to discover Pickens writes as well as she speaks.

In Southern Fried, Avery Andrews has returned to her hometown in South Carolina following a career disaster working as a high-powered attorney in Columbia. A practical joke brings her to the scene when a car is dredged up from a pond, resurrecting a 15-year-old mystery, and netting her a client. Avery’s other case – a factory under scrutiny by an environmental investigator – also heats up (literally) when an arsonist strikes.

Pickens has said she admired Nancy Drew and Perry Mason, and elements from both characters can be seen in Avery. In this book, Avery is probably closer to Nancy than Perry with her practical nature, perseverance, ruminations on aspects of the mystery, and frequent time behind the wheel of her car. (One wonders if it’s by coincidence or design that Avery ends up with a Mustang, Nancy’s car of choice in the revised volumes.)

Although the story is fast-paced, with significant space devoted to clues and plot developments, it’s also about Avery’s readjustment to being home and about life in a small town. As the following excerpts indicate, Pickens’s wry humor and conversational style also contribute to the story’s charm:

Aunt Letha’s rottweiler, a black mass of spoiled dog flesh named Bud, strutted at the end of his leash like one of Hannibal’s elephants. The family suspected he’d been named for an old boyfriend. Aunt Letha wouldn’t say.

The aunts had henpecked each other and the dinner to pieces before the time came to set it on the table. During the morning I’d snatched glimpses of the Thanksgiving Day parades on TV, roughhoused with my niece and nephew . . . and -- as my contribution to the traditional holiday feast -- burned the bottoms on the brown and serve rolls.

I’ve already started the second in the series, Done Gone Wrong, and am finding it as enjoyable as the Southern Fried; the third title, Hog Wild, was just released in hardcover last month.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Hitler's Daughter (TBR and Decades challenge)

Jackie French's Hitler's Daughter is a novel that shouldn't work -- yet it does. The premise is certainly original: in contemporary Australia, a young girl, Anna, entertains her friends by spinning a tale about Hitler's daughter, Heidi. Hitler never publicly acknowledges his relationship to Heidi (possibly because she has a physical disability) but does visit occasionally; she is kept hidden away, cared for by a governess devoted to the party. In many ways, it’s a story about secrets and deliberate blindness – not just about Heidi’s existence, but also about the camps into which people disappear; the petty thefts and pilfering (the cook, for example, takes scraps of food to feed her family); the black market trade as resources become scarce; the steady increase in lies and the decision not to see unpleasant truths.

The latter mindset carries over into the contemporary storyline: Anna’s tale causes Mark, one of her auditors, to ask questions about his family’s past and about current events. But his queries – about how his grandfather acquired land formerly occupied by the Aborigines, about news reports of genocide “in that place with the funny name . . . a long way away,” and about similar issues – are dismissed by his busy parents. The point is reinforced by a nightmare in which Hitler tells him, “You are all my children. . . None of you question. You are all Hitler’s children.”

There are no tidy solutions to the issues raised (and, perhaps ironically, the main storyline receives closure only by hinting at yet another secret), but that contributes to the book’s impact; it’s a tale one remembers. What makes all of this more impressive is the brevity – French manages to create two storylines with appealing characters and memorable scenes in a scant 121 pages (with wide margins and generous leading, no less).

Hitler's Daughter, cont'd

Equally impressive is French’s versatility – I had to double-check to be certain she really was also the author of Diary of a Wombat, a sweet and funny picture book depicting life from a wombat’s point-of-view. (“Monday. Morning: Slept. Afternoon: Slept. Evening: Ate grass. Scratched. Night: Ate grass.”) (For the story behind Wombat -- almost as amusing as the book -- see French’s website .)

And -- a query to blog-savvy readers: Is there a way to insert images midway through an entry? The only way to keep the Wombat cover next to that paragraph was to create a separate entry, but it seems as if there ought to be a better method.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Notes on a mystery writers' panel

Back from a conference and still hopelessly behind. . . Consequently, instead of creating an entry reviewing what I’ve been reading, this post contains notes from one of the presentations I attended. The speakers were two writers of detective fiction, Cathy Pickens (whose series character is attorney Avery Andrews, operating in Dacus, South Carolina) and Julia Spencer-Fleming (creator of Clare Ferguson, an Episcopalian priest and amateur sleuth working with police chief Russ Van Alystyne in Miller’s Kill, in upstate New York).

Both authors were terrific speakers; their session was one of the high points of the conference. Cathy Pickens, who'd expected to be half of a panel and engaging in dialogue with Julia Spencer-Fleming, instead found herself alone for the first segment, but handled the situation with grace.

A few memorable quotes and paraphrases from her comments:

On why her series character is an attorney:
"The courthouse and the hospital are the two places where people battle for their lives."
(Also "I started with Nancy Drew but I loved Perry Mason.")

On her critique group:
She mentioned it’s comprised only of people writing detective fiction and is by invitation only. No "yeah buts" are allowed (in response to criticism), because "if it's not working on paper it's not working."

On To Kill a Mockingbird (which I think she called "the most perfect book ever"):
It's "the first book I read where people talked like I did."

She also compared Scout to Nancy Drew: "a really cool girl" who gets to do exciting things (and I think she noted both were raised by widowers, forging a closer connection with their fathers).

Midway through the session, Julia Spencer-Fleming arrived; she'd encountered a series of transportation problems that would have felled a lesser woman. Instead, removing her coat as she crossed the room, she was immediately ready to participate in the panel, witty and vivacious.

Quotes and occasional paraphrases from her comments:

On being a lawyer (who's never practiced law):
"Law school -- it seemed like a good idea at the time. When you've got a history degree what else are you going to do?"

On her books:
"[P]sychologically realistic books" appeal to her. She wanted a "solid reason" for justifying an amateur’s participation in solving crimes and chose a cleric because they're involved in "crisis points" and know things about people that others don't. Balancing the narrative between a policeman and a priest "gives [her] a lot of play to look at what justice means" from two vantage points; moreover, the priest is "bringing broken pieces together and reassembling them into . . . wholeness" -- which, she added, is also what detective fiction does.

Living in Maine, she feels the weather "becomes another antagonist [in the books]. . . It can kill people." She "wanted to have a story where the place became another character" and feels crime fiction currently captures regional voices better than many other types of fiction (an idea also supported by Pickens).

Julia Spencer-Fleming’s website – which reads just the way Spencer-Fleming talks – has more information about her books and an interview with Cathy Pickens. Cathy Pickens’s website offers an introduction to Avery Andrews and her author as well as an annotated bibliography of books about writing.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Back soon

It's been one of those stretches where the closest I've been able to come to blogging is remembering that there's been no time to do it. Kidnap and Hitler's Daughter were both memorable books; some time soon, I'm hoping for a breathing space to write about them -- but not right now.