Archive for January, 2011

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Interview: Meredith Cole, author of Posed for Murder and Dead in the Water

January 24, 2011

Agatha Donkar, a photographer and writer based in Chapel Hill, NC, has recently been delving into the photography-themed mysteries of Meredith Cole, a mystery writer based in Charlottesville, VA. I’m pleased to host both women here for a quick interview on Cole’s books — and grateful that the chat, given their respective hometowns these days, didn’t turn rivalrous. — Art Taylor

Lydia McKenzie, an urban photographer who isn’t making as much from her portraits of prostitutes as her artistic colleagues shooting pictures for tourists, isn’t entirely satisfied with her life — and then her subjects start turning up dead. In Meredith Cole‘s Posed for Murder and Dead in the Water, Lydia’s photography and insatiable curiosity draw her into an even seedier side of Brooklyn than she had been traveling before. Cole draws on her own filmmaking background to give Lydia an artist’s eye and a detective’s curiosity.

Agatha Donkar: Lydia McKenzie is an urban street photographer whose work drags her into situations she might prefer to be well out of. Why photography? Do you have a background in photography yourself?

Meredith Cole

Meredith Cole: I have never considered myself a photographer, although I love to take photos, and have taken classes. But the choice of photography was inspired by my first career: filmmaking. I directed feature films and wrote countless screenplays in my twenties. Cinematographers and photographers look at the world in a different way than other people, and they sometimes use a camera to shield and protect them. I liked the idea of having a sleuth who was always observing and evaluating her environment. I also liked the idea that she would have evidence (her photos) to look at later and find clues.

Living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I had quite a few friends who were working as photographers in fashion and were showing their work in galleries. I borrowed a lot from their experiences, which I found really fascinating. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Interview: 2011 Piedmont Laureate Scott Huler, author of On the Grid

January 20, 2011

Scott Huler; courtesy United Arts

Scott Huler, author most recently of On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make our World Work, was named earlier this month as the third Piedmont Laureate, a position serving a five-county area in central North Carolina and “dedicated to building a literary bridge for residents to come together and celebrate the art of writing, enriching the lives of all our citizens.”

Huler is the first nonfiction writer named to the one-year position. Poet Jaki Shelton Green first held the position in 2009, and novelist Zelda Lockhart followed in 2010. The program is co-sponsored by the City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Alamance County Arts Council, Durham Arts Council, Johnston County Arts Council, Orange County Arts Commission and United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County.

In addition to On the Grid, Huler is also the author of No-Man’s Lands: One Man’s Odyssey Through The Odyssey; Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale, and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry; On Being Brown: What It Means to Be a Cleveland Browns Fan; and A Little Bit Sideways: One Week Inside a NASCAR Winston Cup Race Team. He has also worked as a reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh and appeared on National Public Radio, among other outlets.

Laureate events will be posted at the program’s website. Soon after the honor was announced, Huler chatted briefly with me about the position and his own plans for the coming year. — Art Taylor

Art Taylor: The Piedmont Laureate program seeks to promote the art of writing through readings, workshops and more. What particular goals or challenges have you personally set for yourself in this role?

Scott Huler: My goal for the year is to do what I can to wake people up to the stories all around them. I don’t really want to spend a year telling my own stories; frankly, I’ve heard them all before. So we’re trying to organize events that will be highly participatory. We’re interested in getting a lot of writers involved, and especially getting people involved who might not have thought of themselves as storytellers. Since I’m a nonfiction writer, I see the whole world as nonfiction stories. Poets and fiction writers I suppose do much the same, but what I love most about nonfiction is simply getting the story down. “Good prose is like a window pane,” says Orwell, and good nonfiction does simply that: sees something, frames it, and gets out of the way. So we’re trying to wake people up to the fact that all those YouTube videos? those Facebook status updates? those Tweets? That’s all nonfiction storytelling, and we should be aware of it — and try to do it as well as we can.

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Review: Best European Fiction 2011, edited by Aleksandar Hemon

January 17, 2011

Time Magazine called last year’s debut Best European Fiction anthology “an exhilarating read” and looked forward to more editions in the series, citing editor Aleksandar Hemon’s assertion that “readership of foreign fiction needs to be cultivated over time.” The 2011 anthology is now in bookstores, and Brandon Wicks returns to Art & Literature with a look at what’s new and noteworthy in this follow-up collection. (For full disclosure: Another contributor to this site, K.E. Semmel, translated the Danish entries to the new anthology.) — Art Taylor

Best European Fiction 2011

Edited by Aleksandar Hemon

Reviewed by Brandon Wicks

Literatures of place can be very slippery. With the American South, for example, little consensus is made over where the South is (Is northwest Louisiana the South? Is Texas? Miami?) let alone what it is—and this from a region which supposedly has a common identity. What kind of challenge must it be then to represent the entire European continent, with its ever-shifting borders, languages and attitudes?

Enter the Best of European Fiction 2011, the second volume in an ambitious anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon. The series debuted in 2010 with stories selected from thirty different countries. With this second outing, the territory expands: thirty-eight countries are now represented, including most of the UK and continental nations, much of Eastern Europe, and even subdivisions of certain regional identities (Spain, for example, has stories in both Catalan and Castilian). One of the surprising pleasures of this volume is how its writers cross borders with character and setting. Sarajevan characters find themselves in Barcelona; Bulgarian authors write about Germans—neither writers nor characters stay put. The stories themselves could be seen as a dialogue across national lines.

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Study: “The Mystery Book Consumer in the Digital Age”

January 13, 2011

“Who’s your audience? How can you best communicate with that audience?” These are among the first key questions that I ask students to consider whenever I teach a composition class. I emphasize to them: You have to know your reader to reach your reader.

Sisters in Crime — an international organization dedicated to advancing and promoting the work of women crime writers — has recently taken that idea to a new level, collaborating with PubTrack, R.R. Bowker’s book sales analysis division, to produce the just-released report “The Mystery Book Consumer in the Digital Age,” examining today’s book buying trends and habits in this genre.

Much of the report may prove unsurprising, supporting some perhaps common-sense assumptions about readers in general. Women buy more books than men, for example, and older readers outnumber younger ones, with percentages skewing perhaps even a little higher in each case for this genre. The survey posits, for example, that nearly 70% of mystery readers are women and that nearly 70% are over 45 years old. In fact, more than half of all mysteries purchased are bought by people over 55. In other not-so-new news: Name recognition helps sell books; people do indeed judge books by their covers; and e-book sales are increasing, representing 7% of book sales in 2010, up from  1.7% in 2009, at least among the data collected here.

But other statistics struck me as slightly more surprising and in some cases heartening.

  • The South leads the nation in mystery buying: 35% of all mysteries are bought in that region, followed by 26 percent purchased in the West, 20 percent in the Midwest and 19 percent in the Northeast. Being a Southerner myself as well as a mystery fan, I feel some small pride here….
  • Despite the threats posed by the ease of internet shopping, brick-and-mortar stores still rank as the most popular place to get mysteries, with 39% of these books bought there versus 17% purchased online. (Borrowing from the library is less popular than the former but more popular than the latter.)
  • Another surprise on this front: Books clubs still matter, accounting for 11% of sales.
  • Also still mattering: Book critics (and speaking as one, I’m glad to hear that too). Reviews either in traditional media or online are among the top-five influences on book purchasers. (And yet reviews still rank behind both word of mouth and that cover that we’re not supposed to judge by.)
  • For readers of mysteries — more so than for readers of “general fiction” — “liking” a character is important.
  • And speaking of the genre itself, younger readers (under 50) are less likely to have a strong sense of what distinguishes mysteries as a separate genre.

The full report is available in PDF format through the Sisters in Crime’s website, and other excerpts from and perspectives on the findings are available at SinC’s blog here. Art Taylor

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Review: The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

January 10, 2011

Laura Ellen Scott last appeared on this site interviewing thriller writer Sophie Hannah. Here, she reviews the debut novel by Erin Kelly, a writer working in a similar vein. And speaking of “creepy fiction,” Scott has news of her own this week: Her collection of very short stories, Curio, is now available online and as a download from Uncanny Valley Press. — Art Taylor

The Poison Tree

By Erin Kelly

Reviewed by Laura Ellen Scott

Come for the mystery, stay for the gothic-tinged love story that drives Erin Kelly’s impressive debut thriller, The Poison Tree.

In the sultry summer of 1997, gifted but unambitious languages scholar Karen Clarke offers German tutoring to a wild drama student named Biba, only to become drawn into the actress’s decadent, bohemian world. Biba and Rex are a pair of enigmatic siblings squatting in their childhood home, a  a crumbling mansion perched between suburban London and the pastoral dream of Queen’s Wood. A nervous Heathcliff analogue, Rex is as brooding as Biba is high strung, and it comes as no surprise to learn that their childhood was marred by tragedy. Stranded for the summer by her school friends, Karen moves into the mansion where her fascination with Biba develops into a drug and alcohol fueled crush, at least until Karen finds a soul mate in Rex. As Karen describes it:

Nothing about his personality changed: the confidence he showed in the bedroom did not extend beyond it. He was still simultaneously deferential to and controlling of his sister, neurotic about the house, and uptight, even boring, but my feelings for him were undergoing a subtle evolution. Perhaps Rex was filling the void left by Biba’s absence, or perhaps that’s just what sex does to you, but the focus of my attention and affection was slowly transferring from sister to brother . . . I wondered how I could have ever doubted his loveliness. His face was no longer a simulacrum of Biba’s, but beautiful in its own right.

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Recommendations: Overlooked and Overlauded

January 4, 2011

I was pleased to be asked to contribute a couple of suggestions to AARP’s end-of-year round-up of 2010 books. The theme is “Overlooked and Overlauded,” and I had two suggestions for the former of those adjectives (though one of the books, admittedly, got some pretty wide press, but still remains one of my favorite reads of last year). The list overall is great, with contributions from some fine critics, including Mark Athitakis, Bethanne Patrick and others. Check out the feature here. — Art Taylor

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