About Victoria

Born in Detroit. Lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Princeton, New Jersey. Degrees in Journalism (U. of Michigan) and Public Health (U. of Pittsburgh). Alumna of U. of Michigan and U. of Pittsburgh. Favorite authors: Neal Stephenson, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Furst, Charles Dickens--they all know how to tell a good story! Best book read so far in 2012: Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. Favorite TV: The Wire; Treme.

How Was That Movie?

popcorn

Ann Hornaday’s book Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies might sound like a superfluous entry in a list of how-to-do-it guides. What prep do you need? Sure, you can just relax and let the movie experience wash over you, but Hornaday’s deconstruction of the process makes viewing a richer experience.

Hornaday, a movie reviewer for the Washington Post, has organized the book usefully, too—with chapters on screenplays, acting, production design, cinematography, directing, and various technical aspects. She approaches each review with the following three questions.

What was the artist (the screenwriter, the director, an individual actor) trying to achieve? Entertainment? Enlightenment? Not sure? A fluffy confection of a comedy can be just as satisfying and successful (often more so) than a serious drama. A movie hollow at its core can try to distract you with a glitzy surface and stellar cast. But if you find yourself saying “whaaaat?”, a vague purpose or the cross-purposes of too many off-screen cooks may be at fault.

Did they achieve it? Here’s where it’s fun to see several versions of the same material, if you can. The 1996 and 2020 Emmas (Gwyneth Paltrow and Anya Taylor-Joy) up against Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless. On successive nights, I watched Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Valmont (1989). Same story, very different movies. Critics liked DL, but I liked both, and Valmont has the added allure of a young Colin Firth. Or the two excellent Truman Capote biopics (Toby Jones vs. Daniel Craig). Even a fresh conception of a familiar classic can succeed spectacularly: Caesar Must Die is a documentary about prisoners in Rome’s infamous Rebibbia prison being cast, rehearsing, and producing Julius Caesar. Astonishing.

Was it worth doing? Now, there’s a question. And, each of us will have different metrics for arriving at the answer. But if you’ve ever walked out of a theater asking yourself “Why?” perhaps it’s because the answer—at least for you—was “no.” The Wolf of Wall Street, 1917, and The Greatest Showman were films that, for me, weren’t worth the ticket price.

Keeping these three questions in the back of your mind may help if you want to go beyond “Loved it!” or “It was crap!” when you get the inevitable, “So, what did you think?”

Reading in the Time of Covid

chalk outline, body

A new approach to book reviews: In the past, I’ve reviewed almost every book I’ve read. My thought was that even a so-so review could be helpful to you. The aspects that bothered me might not be issues for you. And, if they are, then a lackluster review might save you the time and trouble of delving into a book you probably won’t like. Going forward from September 2020, I’m abandoning that approach. If you see a book here, it’s because I do recommend it.

Since my last book review post on April Fool’s Day, I’ve read at least 40 books and listened to a dozen more. Many of them were crime fiction, and full reviews on CrimeFictionLover.com are linked below. Click the book title for my Amazon affiliate link. Here’s the first three among the very best, in print. Audio on Thursday.

Rules for Perfect Murders

In this entertaining novel, Peter Swanson has concocted the perfect plot for lovers of classic mysteries. Malcolm Kershaw, the widowed part-owner of Boston’s Old Devils Bookstore wrote a blog post some years ago that described what he considered the best depictions of ‘the perfect murder.’

Now, it seems, someone has taken up his challenge and is recreating those scenarios. Or are they? Is he a suspect or the next potential victim? Desperate for answers, he launches his own investigation and, as the pages fly by, you’ll find there’s more to this bibliophile than you may have assumed. Read my full review here.

Little Altar Boy

John Guzlowski’s riveting new police procedural takes you back to the time before sustained pressure on the Catholic Church brought to light its widespread and systemic problem of child sexual abuse. It’s the late 1960s, in the post-Christmas dark night of winter, and Chicago police detective Hank Purcell is at home, waiting for his 19-year-old daughter Margaret. She has new friends, new habits, and new attitudes, none of which make him happy.

Hank and his partner are trying to resolve not one, but two compelling dilemmas: they’re clearly outraged by the evidence of child abuse among the clergy, but, while they’re trying to save the world’s altar boys, what about Hank’s own child, beset by a whole different class of predator? Hank’s wife Hazel is a useful foil for the two detectives, pressing for handling Margaret’s situation differently. But it seems there are no right answers; each course of action threatens consequences more chilling than the wind blasting off Lake Michigan. Full review here.

Nine Tenths of the Law

This literary crime thriller by Claudia Hagadus Long is part treasure hunt, part family story, part romance, part tragic history woven together in a complicated plot through the strong voice of the story’s sympathetic narrator, Zara Persil-Pendleton. At a Manhattan museum show, Zara and her sister Lilly spot a menorah the Nazis stole from their family many years before. Lilly wants it back.

The women embark on an ill-conceived plot to obtain it, which leads them into some sticky situations. At first these are awkward and funny, but gradually, they become potentially dangerous. Zara, with all her on-point observations and clever asides will keep you amused and interested. Long strikes a nice balance between describing Zara’s inner conflicts and maintaining the action of the story. My Crime Fiction Lover review is here.

Back to blogging–yay!

Good Health

People’s varying reactions to Covid-19 and the quarantine amaze me. Not always in a good way, though I still laugh when I recall Kellyanne Conway’s criticism of the WHO, “This is Covid-19, not Covid-1, folks. You would think that people charged with the World Health Organization facts and figures would be on top of that.” She followed up that jaw-dropping misunderstanding with “People should know the facts.” Spokespeople too.

I hope you and your family have stayed well and am happy to report good news on that front for my family, so far. Even though New Jersey is a peanut of a state, we have seen more Covid deaths than our big brothers, Texas and California.. The county where I live has suffered more Covid deaths than 16 entire states.  

Bad Politics

Starting in April, I took a break from 4-day-a-week website posting. I I felt oddly speechless in the face of the pandemic, the politics, the gun-toting protestors in state capitals, hurricanes battering the South, the West ablaze.

I was heartsick in the aftermath of our massive social upheavals. Now that political correctness isn’t politically correct any more, we find how much ugly stuff it hid. Yes, it occasionally strayed into eye-roll territory, but it reinforced norms about what is acceptable in a modern society made up of many threads and strands. It expressed how we should treat each other. Maybe it kept the lid on, a bit. And since behavior lags attitudes, it may have helped at least a few people break the habit of reflexive hostility and censorious opinion.

Now, of course, Americans feel empowered to give their malicious attitudes and beliefs free rein. I wish I didn’t know this dangerous river of ignorance and prejudice still flows through our country. I would have preferred to continue deluding myself that we are moving beyond the corrosive views of the past. Maybe this time, more people of good will are paying attention.

A Brighter Note

While not blogging, I wasn’t doing nothing. I read a lot (reviews of the best stuff coming soon). I watched some under-the-radar films worth catching (ditto). I also escaped today’s woes by delving into the past, working on a family history. I finished and sent off a short story. I made a batch of birthday cards.

I sought advice from three experts on various aspects of my novel and took it. Then I read the whole thing through quickly, not as I usually do, interrogating every word, sentence, and paragraph. Here I’m reminded of the woman who bragged in an online advice-to-authors forum that “by the time I send my novel to the publisher I have read it through three whole times!” Three? Thirty-three is more like it. And twice out loud.

A last flash. In early March two Siamese kittens scrambled into our lives. Will and Charles. Kittenhood has been an entertaining way to spend the lockdown. We vacillate between “What was that crash?” and “It’s too quiet.” The picture? Sometimes, if you need a kleenex, you just have to get it yourself.

Closed Doors photo: falco for Pixabay

Armchair Adventures

In case you wonder what the *** mean in my reviews, there’s a key on the book reviews page. They’re a good guide to how much I liked a book—since my reviews leave open the possibility a read I found meh might suit someone else perfectly.

****The Dead Don’t Sleep
By Steven Max Russo—It has taken five decades for the long arm of retribution to reach halfway around the world and tap the shoulder of Frank Thompson. Today, Frank is a recent widower living in rural Maine, and he doesn’t talk about Vietnam, but the buddies of the American he shot there so many years ago have found him.

The three men are full of plans for tracking him down, and for the massive, highly illegal firepower needed for this mission, one fueled with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. They’re all about Frank’s age, nearly 70, which is a stretch. I can imagine guys in their twenties and even thirties talking themselves into such a crazy plan. Yet the author makes clear the years haven’t added to these guys’ store of common sense or muted their violent tendencies.

From his home in New Jersey, Frank’s nephew Bill knows about the danger and wants to help. He has zero experience with the kinds of situations Frank has seen, and his indecision alone is enough to tell you he’d be a liability in any kind of showdown. “Stay home!” I kept telling Bill telepathically. He doesn’t listen.

This is Steven Max Russo’s second thriller. He’s an advertising executive and lives in New Jersey, which accounts for his solid descriptions of life here in the Garden State.

*****The Wild One
By Nick Petrie – This is Nick Petrie’s fifth thriller featuring PTSD-afflicted Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Peter Ash, and it retains all the energy of his earlier works. Ash’s old war-buddy seeks his help in locating an eight-year-old boy, who disappeared a year earlier from his Washington, DC, home, after witnessing his mother’s murder. The kidnapper is most likely the boy’s own father, the presumed killer, and he’s most hiding out with his tight-knit family in remote northern Iceland.

The mother, Sarah, ran a computer security business. On a client’s servers, she discovered career-ending evidence of criminality among Washington’s political class. She sets up a mirror server with an unbreakably long encryption key preserved in only one form, in the photographic memory of her son Óskar. The bad guys want it.

Ash has plenty of antagonists, aside from his internal demons. There’s the mysterious crew following him: do they want him to find Eric and Óskar? Or not? There is Erik’s paranoid extended family, not averse to ensuring their privacy with violence. There is the head of the Icelandic Hjálmar, relentless in trying to bring Peter in. But perhaps his greatest adversary is Iceland’s brutal, dead-of-winter weather. A more apt metaphor would be difficult to find. So, throw on a couple of sweaters, make yourself a cup of something hot, and settle in for a wild ride.

If there’s anything to object to in Petrie’s work, it’s a tendency to reach a little too far in the closing pages. In this book, a final act of violence puzzled me, because it came out of the blue. But that wasn’t enough to negate everything solid that had gone before. Do note that Ash is now a wanted man and has no passport or I.D. It will be interesting to see how he gets back to Oregon. I’m hoping Petrie plans to tell me.

Photo: Sasint Tipchai for Pixabay

Other People’s Problems

Reading

Memoir is not my favorite genre, but lately I’ve read a couple of interesting ones—about a misbegotten woman and an idolized father—and two nonfiction stories about the trials of war, one with a happy ending, one not.

****Celibacy: A Love Story
By Mimi Bull – The book’s subtitle as the punchline, “Memoir of a Catholic Priest’s Daughter.” As a child in a world of secrets, she was adopted by an older woman and her twenty-something daughter. It doesn’t surprise that her “sister” turns out to be her mother. Only after the mother dies does Mimi learn who her father was. Despite the lack of suspense, the book is fascinating. The adult Mimi and her husband lived in Istanbul, in Sedona, in Vienna. A unique story, charmingly told.

**The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
By Lucette Lagnado – I heard about this book while I was in Egypt, a country that once had a significant Jewish population, until Egyptian President Nasser forced them to leave. To the child Lucette, Cairo and her family’s apartment were paradise, and her father was king. When they are exiled, a Jewish aid agency finds them a disreputable lodging in Paris and an unsatisfactory apartment in New York. Lucette’s father’s business is murky; in New York, he sells fake Italian neckties. The family hates its new life. Lucette blindly adored her father, but I cannot tell you why.

****Escape from Paris
By Stephen Harding – This is the true story of a group of American airmen shot down over France and the complicated escape routes the French set up for them. Danger is on all sides. One of the safe houses is right under the nose of the Nazis, in the apartment of the caretaker of the Hôtel des Invalides, site of Napoleon’s tomb. Very exciting!

***The 21
By Martin Mosebach – As the cover proclaims, this is “a journey into the land of Coptic martyrs.” On February 15, 2015, twenty-one young Egyptian men, ISIS captives, were marched onto a beach in Libya and beheaded. The video recording of that event went around the world. What was most striking was the dignity and faith they maintained until the end. The author sets out trying to learn about them, their home villages, and the faith that supported them. A bit philosophical for me, but I read it to pay my respects.

Conscience

George Street Theatre, Conscience

On stage at George Street Playhouse is the world premiere of Tony award-winning playwright Joe DiPietro’s play Conscience—a timely examination of the political risks and imperative for elected leaders to stand up to a demagogic bully. The production, expertly directed by George Street’s artistic director David Saint, opened March 6 and runs through March 29.

DiPietro focuses his historical drama tightly on four people: Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith (played by Tony-winner Harriet Harris) and her aide William Lewis, Jr. (Mark Junek), on one side, and Senate Republican Joseph McCarthy (Lee Sellars) and his researcher—and later wife—Jean Kerr (Cathryn Wake), on the other.

As the drama begins, Smith—the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate—is a political whirlwind. McCarthy, elected in 1946, clearly doesn’t take his Senatorial duties nearly as seriously as he does his flask. Their two aides effectively and efficiently stake out the opposing political positions. You dread the vicious confrontation to come, when she remarks on McCarthy’s two essential qualities: “the ability to hate and the skill to communicate it as virtue.”

McCarthy’s virulent anti-Communism crusade begins when, before a group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia, he waves a piece of paper that he claims contains the names of 205 Communists who work in the U.S. State Department. Fueled by alcohol and drunk on power, he rides high for the next few years, making wild accusations about Communists in government that stoke public fear.

By 1950, the appalled Smith is the only Senator brave enough to take him on. She believes her colleagues will support the Declaration of Conscience she delivers on the Senate floor. But only six senators sign on, and later disavow it. The declaration makes McCarthy her implacable enemy, and Smith and Lewis, a homosexual, become a target of his smear tactics.

The demagoguery, defamation, and mudslinging continue, until McCarthy takes on the U.S. Army, a quest that ends with the famous statement: “Have you lost all sense of decency?” It’s a comeuppance the audience savors after so much one-sided verbal violence.

Despite the unsettling resonance with the current political moment, DiPietro avoids cheap political shots, focusing instead on the intense interpersonal dynamics. Smith is a powerful, complex character—a woman with a sense of humor—in DiPietro and Harris’s hands, and Sellars’s McCarthy slowly unravels before your eyes. Junek movingly confesses his homosexuality, and Wake adds an effective touch of sanctimony to Ms Kerr/Mrs. McCarthy.

George Street Playhouse has great skill in bringing such focused biographical works to life, having previously excelled with DiPietro’s The Second Mrs. Wilson and Joanna Glass’s Trying (about aging US Attorney General Francis Biddle). Even though this important play is about politics and therefore, mostly about talking, David Saint’s lively direction never lets its momentum slow. It is mesmerizing.

Conscience is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

Dust Off Your Library Card

chalk outline, body

You see so many reviews of brand new crime novels on this website because, as you may know, I read and review them for the fantastic UK website CrimeFictionLover.com. Occasionally, I dig into my book pile and find something not suitable for CFL. Possibly it’s a book that’s been out a while, a new book already reviewed by CFL or in one case below, great non-fiction. A post for another day is a list of not-crime books. There is such a thing!

***Identical
By Scott Turow (2013) – if you want a novel full of twists and turns, this one has it. If you want a novel that stretches the bonds of plausibility, you have that too. Twin brothers Cass and Paul (Castor and Pollux, get it?) couldn’t be more different. One is running for city mayor, the other about to be released from jail after 25 years. He pled guilty to the murder of his girlfriend Aphrodite Kronon. Confusions worthy of the ancient Greeks and arising from twinhood are here, fairly predictably.

****Statute of Limitations
By Steven F. Havill (2006) – This is one of Havill’s meticulous police procedurals set in small-town New Mexico. I’ve read three of them, and I love them! A retired police chief abandoned after collapsing from a heart attack, a body in an arroyo, a late-night attack—this Christmas season is certainly not filled with goodwill toward mankind. Under-sheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman doesn’t miss a beat.

****The Aosawa Murders
By Riku Onda (2005), translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts – Newly published in English, the scenes in this prize-winning book are like a set of still lifes. Different points of view describe a crime in which 17 members of a single family were murdered, with only one survivor, a young blind woman. Gradually, the crime is pieced together. Lovely writing, stellar cover.

***False Light
By Claudia Riess (2019) – This is the second outing for amateur sleuths, art experts, and randy spouses Erika Shawn and Harrison Wheatley. Their challenge this time is to decipher a coded message from a famous art forger, now dead. Supposedly, it will identify some of his works masquerading in prestigious collections as the real thing. It’s a great set-up, and if you’re a fan of art world skullduggery, you may enjoy this, but I found the denouement implausible.

*****Breaking and Entering
By Jeremy N. Smith (2019) – Subtitled “the extraordinary story of a hacker called ‘alien,’” this is the nonfiction story of a woman’s career from her exploits as an MIT undergraduate through to her current role consulting with banks, government agencies, and others on security issues. Cybersecurity is their big concern, and she and her team are cyber experts, but they also routinely prove to clients that good old humanware can be their weakest link. Fascinating.

****Passport to Death

By Yigal Zur, translated from Hebrew by Sara Kitai. This thriller, recently translated into English, features former Israeli security operative Dotan Naor, whose firm has something of a specialty of rescuing Israelis who find themselves in tricky situations abroad. In his new case, a pretty young woman named Sigal Bardon, age 26, has gone missing in Bangkok, and her family wants her back.

Naor is a cynical narrator, intimately familiar with that southeast Asian city, having spent time there off and on for two decades. If he had to guess, he would chalk Sigal’s disappearance up to a drug overdose—heroin, Bangkok gold. There are a lot of bad ways that story can end, and he knows most of them.

Once in Bangkok, Naor takes a room in the heart of Patpong, a nexus of unsavory activity, and a district where information about Sigal, or the woman herself, is likely to be found, traded, or bought. On a sweltering day he takes a ride in an air-conditioned cab. The driver offers the usual drugs and girls, and he also has passports belonging to Sigal Bardon and someone named Micha Waxman. Naor buys both, plus the information that the driver drove them to the train station. This encounter is too much of a coincidence, and Naor wonders who’s trailing him, who recruited this driver, who’s anticipating his mission.

The complicated plot involving a diverse cast of Israeli expats, drug kingpins, and Thai Tourist Police moves along briskly. Sigal herself remains something of a cipher, but the colorful supporting characters—monks, fortune tellers, whore mistresses, and Naor’s old Shin Bet acquaintances, troublesome though they may be—are vivid.

Throughout the story, Naor hears echoes of his past and the scandal that ended his special forces career. Old companions lurk in Bangkok’s dark corners, but are they allies or adversaries? He takes the pessimistic view: “The past surged up and flooded over me like a sewer that had overflowed.”

Every clue that Naor tracks down solidifies his initial impression that drug dealing is at the center of Sigal’s disappearance. But is she still alive? Her sister thinks so, but says little. The drug lords she doublecrossed think so and want her themselves. Waxman thought so, but he’s dead.

Zur’s rich descriptions of Bangkok permeate every scene and engage all the senses. This isn’t a story that could take place anywhere else, and by the time you turn the last page, you may feel like you’ve been there. And you’ll be glad to have made the trip from the comfort of your reading chair, out of danger and chaos.

Zur’s previous thriller Death in Shangri-La was also fun!

Photo: cegoh for Pixabay

Book Title = Sales?

Maybe you’ve wrestled a fair bit with choosing a title for your new book. Now comes Jim Milliot in Publisher’s Weekly to tell you it actually matters for your book’s marketing.

Milliot describes an online study conducted last fall by the Codex Group, involving nearly 4000 book buyers and more than 50 new and forthcoming titles. The study examined whether a book’s presentation encouraged prospective readers to browse, as measured by the number of clicks the books’ “read more” buttons received.

As valuable as such information should be to authors, the study has a number of features that limit the interpretation of its results. I’d like to know more about those 4000 readers—gender and age breakdown, genre preferences, are they regular online purchasers?, and so on.

All 10 of the most actively browsed books have women protagonists, several involve children, marital relationships, and female friendships. Were the 50 books tested skewed in this direction, or is it that people who like that type of book are more curious about them? It’s worth noting that, even the best-ranked books received no more than one in four “read more” clicks.

Plowing on, here’s the bad news—or good news if you’re published by Amazon. Eight of the top 10 books receiving clicks were from Amazon Publishing—a data point that would be more impressive if we knew what proportion of the 50 were published by Amazon. Still, five of these highly-rated Amazon titles were among last year’s 11 top-selling ebooks. An attractive cover meant more than taking a deeper look, it meant readers clicked the “buy now” button too.

This suggests Amazon is doing something right, and that may by particularly important for you if you’re a new author, as were some of the authors among the top 10, if you don’t have a pre-existing fan-base, if you’re experimenting with a new genre, or if you write in the genre (women’s fiction) whose readers responded most strongly in this research.

So, how does Amazon do it? For two of the three most popular books in this test, participants said it was the book’s title, not the graphics, that drew them in. Hunh. I’d find this more persuasive if they tested titles alone, on a blank cover, and Milliot’s article doesn’t suggest they did that. It’s hard to separate the effect of a title from the overall—and often more memorable—artwork behind it. Reading the list of titles of the top 10 books makes this finding even more surprising. The most frequently browsed book, for example, was After, pictured (though I can’t be sure this is the version people in the test saw). Without the photograph, the title wouldn’t carry much meaning.

Maybe After succeeded because Amazon tries hard to ensure that title and cover art reinforce each other. (To illustrate, see “Together, they signal readers about the book’s contents and help them know whether they’d like it.

There’s a lot riding on these choices. Everything—art, title, cover copy—is part of your story’s package. Make good choices!

Yesterday’s post provided a few things to think about when choosing the book title that will make an interesting and lasting impression.

Photo (top): Annette G for Pixabay

Will People Pick Up My Book?

We writers are ever in search of a search of a formula that will make our books leap into prospective readers’ hands, rather than languish untouched on the long, slow slide to the remainder bin. If only readers gave it a chance, they’d love it! Right? Would some of the magic leap out when they picked it up?

Watch book store patrons browse the tables a while and the old saying, “you can’t judge a book by its cover” appears definitely wrong. Certain books attract. And they aren’t necessarily books with a lot of publicity or a best-selling author’s name. Something about them draws people in.

Quite a bit has been written about the importance of cover art and how it’s not something amateurs can attempt at home. We’ve all seen the covers of self-pubbed books that look like misguided collage projects or more likely ones that are just . . . not . . . right. While we recognize covers we like from an artistic perspective, does the art lead to further perusal of the book and—ahem—buying it? Publishers assume so. (Here’s Tim Kreider’s amusing take on the author-publisher dynamic in book cover design from the New Yorker.)

Two recent blog posts talk about another important aspect of your book’s exterior—the very first words of yours that readers will see: your book’s title.

In Writer Unboxed, Nancy Johnson riffs entertainingly on this subject. In coming up for a title for her own debut book, she heard the advice to “keep it short.” One-word titles can convey a lot; Michelle Obama’s Becoming is a perfect summation of her best-seller. Ditto Tara Westover’s Educated, which, in addition, vividly illustrates the importance of the interplay of title and art. What at first looks like a pencil-shaving is a lone girl standing on a mountain, the heroine of the piece.  

Short, punchy titles are presumably easy to remember. Tell that to Delia Owens. One of Johnson’s favorite titles is Zora Neale Hurston’s Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Unforgettable. And, much better than a too-short title that doesn’t convey any extra substrate of meaning. Look up some one-word titles (Guardian, Broken, Alien) on Amazon and see how many competitors there are. As a result, what Johnson concludes about title length is, like so many other rules for writers,“it depends.”

As you know, titles of creative works can’t be copyrighted, so it can be hard to come up with something unique. Appropriating The Talented Mr. Ripley would raise eyebrows. If several other books already share your planned title, you want to think about the company you’ll be keeping (and how far down your book may appear in Amazon’s listing of similar titles). Unwary buyers will be annoyed if they intend to order your romantic suspense and get a slasher story instead.

Tomorrow: A study of the link between title and sales.