The Blues Are More Than a Color

peacock, bird, proud

Authors appreciate the power of color to not just describe a shade but evoke an emotion. How different is your reaction to a woman’s dress described as sky blue (flirty) versus electric blue (bold) versus navy (conservative)? The color choices tell you not just about the dress, but something about the wearer as well.

The colors of things are such distinctive characteristics that we have a full palette of clichés about them—another reason to give their descriptions careful attention in your prose.

Sherwin-Williams, the paint people who each year bring us the “color of the year” (read my take on their ironic choice of Living Coral for 2019) puts well-spent energy into trend forecasting. And there definitely are color trends. One of them may show up on the cover of your next book. Certain colors are so trendy that they age quickly and not well. The 2020 Color of the Year, by the way: Naval. Good old navy blue.

S-W’s color aces have announced the company’s colormix forecast for 2020. Their several palettes are lumped under the rubric of “wellness,” because, they say, designers are seeking colors that enhance social, spiritual, physical, and emotional factors. Go for it! Interestingly, a S-W marketing manager looks to our world in describing her goals: “Designers want color to enhance the story they are telling.” Raising my hand.

You might check whether one of the S-W palettes inspires an overall feel for a character or setting you’re working on. Scandi authors will likely stick with gray. Or, maybe you just need to repaint your office. A collection of some of my favorite books about color, described here and here too.

Photo: jpeter2 for Pixabay, creative commons license

Instant Replay

I wondered, seeing the cover for The Sleepover, if it was inspired by Adrian McKinty’s new best-seller, The Chain. or an example of the hive mind at work. The chains in McKinty’s book have nothing to do with literal chains, of course, and I didn’t warm to that book’s cover (though the book is great).

Then I saw this pairing. Though the new Through a Daughter’s Eyes is apparently nothing at all like Eimear McBride’s eye-opening The Lesser Bohemians, it sure conjures it. Cover copy for the latter says it “glows with the eddies and anxieties of growing up, and the transformative intensity of a powerful new love.” And lots of sex.

Prose by Any Other Name

books, bookstore

With more than 4,500 new books published every day in the U.S., the odds of coming up with a unique title would seem to evaporate by the minute. No surprise, then, that when you search for a book by title, you often have to scroll through a lot of misses to get your hit. Amazon had 10 books with the same title as a short story collection I recently reviewed!

Suitability

In Emily Temple’s recent Literary Hub encomium on the naming of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, she says, notice first “the incantatory effect of the repetition, the rush of sibilance, the plain punch of those four syllables,” not to mention, I’d add, the evocation of the sea itself: sssssss . . . sssssssss. “It just sounds good, and any great title should sound good,” she says. Beyond that is the title’s provenance, which goes back to Greek literature. While this distinguished patrimony may not resonate with most of us, she says, “It’s also, not for nothing, a band name.” More news.

We can think of any number of novels whose titles perfectly encapsulate their core: Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin) or, more recently, Below the Fold (Dick Belsky), and Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens). Way too many book titles provide no memory-jog about their contents, as a scan of your own bookshelf will prove.

Distinctiveness

I’ve reviewed almost 175 new crime/thriller novels for CrimeFictionLover.com over the past four-plus years, and occasionally need to find one on my list. Some titles recall the book immediately. Others leave me wondering, did I read this??

One strategy is to include the name of a person or place in the title: A Gentleman in Moscow, Wolf Hall, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Such a title will be distinctive, but since the prospective book buyer doesn’t yet know who Eleanor Oliphant is, it may not be memorable. Lincoln in the Bardo works because you know who Lincoln is, even if, like me, you have to look up “the bardo.”

Overfamiliarity

Gone Girl and the cover with the flying hair was suitable and distinctive. Not so the—dozens? hundreds?—of girl-titles that followed. So many the effect was lost. At least AJ Finn, whatever his other foibles, had a woman at his window. Similarly, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (with a bullet-ridden dust-jacket), suitable, distinctive, even though we don’t know him yet, has now been followed by The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A little too similar for my taste, but both titles contain a puzzle. Even a cat has only nine lives and one death. A little snare for your memory.

Memorability

Being suitable and distinctive are ways of making your book title memorable. Given that word of mouth is one of your most potent marketing tools, you want to make sure the title of your book springs to the tongues of your many fans. When their friends seek it out, you want them to find your book, not twelve other people’s. Those right few words on the cover are hard to come by, but worth every effort.

Stuff I Learned Lately and How I Learned It

Woodrow Wilson's Princeton Home

Woodrow Wilson’s house in Princeton cost about $35,000 to build and is now—rough-guessing here—worth about 100 times that — I learned this at a library benefit dinner at the actual house, featuring a talk by U-Mich professor Patricia O’Toole, who has a new Wilson biography: The Moralist. (Wilson promoted  the neo-Tudor architectural style, and you see it all over town)

Just because an online course is about a subject I’m deeply interested in doesn’t mean the course itself will be interesting — learned during sessions 1 & 2 of a 3-part online course about genetics in genealogy

How to tell llamas and alpacas apart – at Jersey Shore Alpacas (e.g., llamas are bigger and have perkier ears)

There was a founding father before the Founding Fathers and, though the British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America,” he’s practically forgotten – a lecture at the fantastic David Library of the American Revolution by Christian di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr.Joseph Warren

Not all NYC crime writers sport sleeve tattoos – disabused of this impression at the December Noir at the Bar readathon

It took about 1300 years for medical science to reacquire the knowledge lost when the Alexandria library complex was destroyed – adult ed course on Egypt

Ron Chernow (and thus the musical Hamilton) probably got a couple of the more risqué situations in his book wrong – also at the David Library, in a talk by Tilar Mazzeo, author of the new book, Eliza Hamilton

 I may be exhibiting early manifestations of that old person’s “no filter” problem – you don’t want to know

The black stockings and tights I’ve been wearing since Thanksgiving are navy – daylight.

30-Second Book Reviews – Part 2

Reading

photo: Carlos Martinez, creative commons license

Recently Published

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker – An thriller in which real and symbolic dark clouds hover menacingly over a tiny Alabama community. Young girls—young religious girls—are being murdered. When another goes missing, the town’s turned into a tinderbox, and the sheriff is hard put to control the situation. The sheriff, the girl’s twin sister, and a couple of outsider friends are captivating characters. Written from multiple points of view, this is a complex, compelling story.

A Cold Death by Marilyn Meredith – Another in the popular Deputy Tempe Crabtree series. A group of sniping acquaintances is snowbound at a mountain cabin and none too happy about it. Loyalties shift; suspicions rise; accusations cascade. Crabtree also must deal with the ghost of a former resident, and the light touch of paranormal is handled well.

Classics Revisited

Theft: A Love Story by Man Booker prize-winner Peter Carey – In this 2006 novel, a flamboyant Australian artist struggles with a career past its peak, while dealing with his developmentally disabled (but entertainingly astute) younger brother, a conniving girlfriend who is always one step ahead of him, and an unforgiving ex-wife. “Witty, urbane, funny, and profound.”

Our Game by John le Carré – When one of the oldest friends of retired MI6 agent Tim Cranmer goes missing, along with Cranmer’s mistress, he sets out to find them. In this 1995 spy thriller, Cranmer’s bosses try to convince him his Cold War and thus his career are over, but his friend and fellow-spy appears to have identified some new mission, using the £37 million he’s stolen from the Russians to finance it. With this fast-paced, enjoyable read, you’re in the hands of the master.

The Directive by Matthew Quirk – There’s a short window of time between when the U.S. Federal Reserve makes its recommendations and when they’re made public. During that hour or so, they are one of the most closely guarded secrets in the financial world. The Ford brothers want that information, which is worth, well, millions. Clever plotting, persuasive, a fun read from 2014.

Audiobooks

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Prepare yourself to fall in love with Count Alexander Rostov, confined after the Revolution to Moscow’s famed hotel, The Metropol. The rich life he builds there never strays from elegance and civility, traits that the new Soviet power-brokers lack utterly. It’s a lovely story, and, as Ann Patchett says, “The book is like a salve.” Great narrator too.

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr – Kerr’s tenth Bernie Gunther novel, this one has the Berlin police detective on a confidential assignment from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels—to track down the father of his favorite actress. Gunther meets the woman, and they begin a risky love affair. He does find her father, knee-deep in a bloodbath in Yugoslavia, but he and Goebbels decide to keep his murderous career a secret and tell her he’s dead. Like all secrets, this one has consequences. Gunther’s sly critiques and disdain for the Nazis is another dangerous activity, and you worry he’ll go too far.

A few more thirty-second book reviews are here. Enjoy!

30-Second Book Reviews

book gift

photo: pixabay

My book reviews have lagged behind my reading ever since this website was down for a month in September. I’ll never catch up! This week and next you’ll get brief reviews of a few books to inspire your holiday shopping. One good thing about books as gifts—they’re easy to wrap!

P.S. If you click on links here to buy any of these books, as an Amazon affiliate, I receive a penny (or so).

Non-Fiction

Once in a Great City by David Maraniss – For the history-lovers on your list, here’s a fascinating social history of my home town, Detroit, in the pivotal 18 months from fall 1962 to spring 1964, when forces were at work that would shape the city irrevocably. Some were invisible, some were not seen. Pulitzer-Prize-winner Maraniss starts his 2015 book with the conflagration that destroyed the Ford Rotunda—a structure first built for the 1934 Chicago Exposition—where every fall my family and thousands of others went to preview the new Ford models and where every December I sat on Santa’s lap. It was a shocking loss, incomprehensible to me at the time, and a lesson transience. The first of many. His discussions of the auto industry and the stellar success of the Mustang, Detroit’s role in the nascent Civil Rights movement, the rise of Motown, and so much else captures “the precarious balance” of that era, in which the fate of a great American city hung.

The Ford Rotunda

photo: wikimedia

Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky – Kaminsky’s daughter has told her father’s story as his first-person account, and it is fascinating (featured on 60 Minutes this past October). An Argentinian Jew in Paris during World War II, a peculiar set of experiences prepared him to help the French Resistance provide identity documents for people on the run from the Nazis. He quickly expanded his skills and, working in secret, prepared forged papers that saved the lives of thousands. After the war, he did similar work for Algerian freedom fighters, then other leftist movements over a thirty-year career. He never took any money for this work, instead supporting himself—hardly making ends meet—through his photography. It’s an nerve-wracking tale, in which every day, every transaction held the risk of betrayal and imprisonment, or worse. If people on your holiday list gravitate to inspirational, heroic stories, Kaminsky’s your man.

Short Crime Stories

Black Cat Mystery Magazine – It’s always exciting to see a new publication, and issue #1 of BCMM suggests this will become a good one. For its debut, the editors played it safe by requesting submissions from some of the country’s leading mystery/crime short story authors. The result is a knockout! I particularly enjoyed the sly humor of many of the authors—including Alan Orloff, Josh Pachter, Meg Opperman, and Barb Goffman, whose story is appropriately titled, “Crazy Cat Lady.”

Just to Watch Them Die – This collection, “inspired by the songs of Johnny Cash,” is grittier than Black Cat, and the connection to the songs is at times somewhat tenuous. Quite a few are set in Cash country, south and west. If you have Cash fans on your list, they’ll appreciate the homage.

Switchblade – This is the collection for anyone on your list who thinks they have it bad. These are stories about people so down on their luck the reader’s situation perceptibly brightens. I couldn’t help but think of Dennis Lehane’s distinction between tragedy and noir. In tragedy, he’s said, the hero falls from a great height (think Macbeth). In noir, he falls from the curb. Lots of curb-falling here. Maybe just the thing for a grousing in-law.

On Your Reading Radar: Best Books of Spring

chairs

(photo: Andy Atzert, creative commons license)

Already reading as fast as I can, I stumbled onto Google’s enticing menu of the 30 Best Books of Spring. The “delightfully unhinged” stories in Helen Ellis’s The American Housewife sound like fun, as does Dexter Palmer’s Version Control about a possible near-future involving a woman who works in customer support for an internet dating site and her scientist husband is trying, it seems, to develop a time machine.

Jo Nesbo is always a winner in the crime/fiction genre (new book: Midnight Sun, whose protagonist is a runaway hitman), though I’m still trying to steel myself to read his reportedly most chilling book, 2012’s The Snowman.

Two more that sound intriguing are: Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night (an opera singer combs her colorful past for clues about who has betrayed her) and Jung Yun’s Shelter (a financially struggling couple must take in his parents. Tensions mount.). Finally, I cannot resist a book whose title is The Little Red Chairs (Edna O’Brien), set in Ireland, about a war criminal in hiding.

Frankly, having read so, so, so many book blurbs, they all start to sound cheesy. I tried to get past that in reviewing the Google list. You might pick out others. But wait, there’s more.

Publisher’s Weekly’s list of “Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2016,” plays it safe by emphasizing well-known authors. Its list is “culled from the 14,000+ titles” known to be forthcoming soon [!]. With that tsunami of prose, who can blame the editors for defaulting to the reliable?

In that rundown are a couple of debuts, but also:

  • Louise Erdrich’s LaRose (an ill-fated hunting trip, North Dakota, 1999)
  • Martin Seay’s Venice trifecta The Mirror Thief (16th c. Venice, Venice Beach in the 50s, and Las Vegas’s Venice casino today)
  • Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (late 17th c., New France. “10 years in the writing,” 800 pages) and
  • Stephen King’s End of Watch, the conclusion of the crime trilogy begun with the Edgar award-winning but overly formulaic Mercedes.

Finally, if I can get these read, I can be ready for the November publication of Moonglow, by one of my favorite writers, Michael Chabon, which explores a family’s hidden past and, says GoodReads, “the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies.”

Best Reads of 2015

books, reading

5-star books of 2015 (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

The books in my “best of” list are not necessarily published in 2015, just read last year. Of the 71 print and audio books reviewed here in 2015, I gave five stars to 10.

What are the criteria for awarding stars? In general, because I try to avoid books likely to be poor, most receive three or more. In my “system,” a three-star book is a good book, a four-star book is an excellent book, and those that earn that last star have something special in terms of language or character or can’t-put-it-downness.

  • City of Thieves – by David Benioff – During the siege of Leningrad, two young men are on a quest to find a dozen eggs (and save their lives). Full of adventure and humor.
  • The International: A Novel of Belfast – by Glenn Patterson – Set just before the start of the Troubles, the patrons and doings in this hotel bar reveal what Northern Ireland was then and lost forever.
  • Grand River and Joy – by Susan Messer – In the months before the 1967 Detroit riots, a Jewish shopowner must decide whether to stay in the city or flee to the suburbs like so many friends and family already have. A Michigan native, I know many places mentioned.
  • The Orphan Master’s Son – by Adam Johnson – Set in North Korea and filled with both pain and wry humor, this Pulitzer-winner shows how people must accommodate under a regime of total oppression. I didn’t expect to like it and did!
  • Against a Darkening Sky – by Lauren B. Davis – I was thrilled to see her bring 7th century England alive, when the advent of Christianity was rooting out the old polytheistic ways and being a traditional healer became dangerous.
  • Elsewhere – by Richard Russo – Not a particular fan of memoir, I found this first-person exploration of a son’s relationship with his feckless mother as absorbing as any novel.
  • Seveneves – by Neal Stephenson – What if the moon blew up? Would humans survive? Written with the author’s usual engaging characters, nail-biting situations, and deep humor. He understands people as well as science (860 pages).
  • Ghost Fleet – by P.W. Singer & August Cole – This near-future thriller shows how dependence on wireless communications networks, GPS, and other technologies make the U.S. military vulnerable. Such an important book and a good read!
  • The Children Act – by Ian McEwan – Moral dilemmas when law and religion collide in disputes over children’s fate. First-rate writing.
  • Clockers – by Richard Price – set in the fictional New Jersey town of Dempsey, the seesawing interactions of police and street drug dealers in this 1992 novel were one inspiration for The Wire.

Happy Reading!

Five Most-Read Posts of 2015

red pencil, grammar, comma

(photo: Martijn Nijenhuls, Creative Commons license)

Of the 208 posts I published on this website in 2015, these five had the largest readership:

#5 – Pump Up Your Vocabulary – Test the size of your vocabulary, and use these resources to rejuvenate the tired array of words we overuse. Awesome, no?! Plus a reminder of the importance of reading—fiction, especially—in building a rich vocabulary. With more words you can express more ideas, with greater precision and subtlety.

#4 – Fan Fic Fest – Lots of people over 30 are only dimly aware of this phenomenon. I wanted to know more, so audited a class devoted to it at Princeton. Wow. Takeaways: fan fiction (loosely: derivative works) has always existed; people write fan fiction for love of existing characters (Holmes & Watson; Spock and Kirk; Little Ponies), not money; it’s a tremendously diverse enterprise, though there is a strain of unexpected couplings and freewheeling sex; it’s decoupling works from the intents of their original creators and making them fractal, with derivative works on top of derivative works.

#3 – Best Reads of 2014 – Soon to be followed by Best Reads of 2015!

#2 – *****The Cowboy and the Cossack – this 2014 book review was near the top of the charts again in 2015. Generally rave reviews from everyone who’s read it, as well as from me.

#1 – Freelance Editing Services Booming – At a time when book lovers complain about the poor quality of editing in books today (and forget proofreading altogether), this article covered reports of a cottage industry in freelance editing services. Included are links to some reputable-seeming services and some “beware of” resources.

Last-Minute Book Gifts

book gifts

(photo: Quinn Dombrowski, creative commons license)

Is  Santa still searching for a few perfect stocking-stuffers for the people on your list? Here’s some help.

I scanned through the books I’ve read and reviewed this year, and selected some for people having different interests.

Included are a few lesser-known books, too. You don’t need me to tell you about Everything I Never Told You (by definition!) or other front-of-the-store best-sellers.

And, you’ll find The Cowboy and the Cossack there, once again, because everyone who takes my advice about it says it’s one of the best books they’ve ever read!

Clicking on the title will take you to my review. If the lucky recipient likes:

While you’re at it—buy two copies, one for yourself! Happy reading!