Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in review - what I read

Now playing on the iPod - "Bad" (Wide Awake in America version) - U2

It's New Year's Eve, and as usual I've nothing to do. So it's time for the Year in Review for What I Read!

Many tales of dysfunctionality in this year's list, for some reason. But some fun reads and some great discoveries as well.

The Gathering – Anne Enright †
Brown’s Requiem – James Ellroy
Finn – Jon Clinch
Abide With Me – Elizabeth Strout †
Till We Have Faces – C. S. Lewis *
Just After Sunset – Stephen King
How Not to Write a Novel – Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
Stardust – Neil Gaiman
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
Reflections in a Golden Eye – Carson McCullers
Lords and Ladies – Terry Pratchett
The Terror – Dan Simmons *
A Feast for Crows – George R. R. Martin *
Child of God – Cormac McCarthy
A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
The Code of the Woosters – P. G. Wodehouse
The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett
The Dramatist – Ken Bruen †
Leave Her to Heaven – Ben Ames Williams †
Gladiatrix – Russell Whitfield
The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain
Mistress of the Sun – Sandra Gulland
Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West – Cormac McCarthy *
Welcome to the Monkey House – Kurt Vonnegut
The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
Mistress of the Art of Death – Ariana Franklin
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon – Gideon Defoe
Garlic and Sapphires – Ruth Reichl
After Dark, My Sweet – Jim Thompson
My Sister, My Love – Joyce Carol Oates
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Amy and Isabelle – Elizabeth Strout *
World War Z – Max Brooks
The Accidental Tourist – Anne Tyler *
Something Borrowed – Emily Giffin †
Jake’s Wake – John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow
My Sweet Audrina – V. C. Andrews
Katherine – Anya Seton
The Quick Red Fox – John D. MacDonald
Spider Kiss – Harlan Ellison
Bridget Jones’ Diary – Helen Fielding *
The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing – Melissa Banks †
The Summer of Cotton Candy – Debbie Vigue
Vanilla Bright Like Eminem – Michel Faber
Real World – Natsuo Kirino
The Big Red One – Sam Fuller
Crippen – John Boyne †
The Werewolf’s Guide to Life
A Stolen Tongue – Sheri Holman †
The Autobiography of Henry VIII – Margaret George *
The Great Stink – Clare Clark *
Cavedweller – Dorothy Allison *
Beat the Reaper – Josh Bazell
Under the Dome – Stephen King
American Tabloid – James Ellroy
Heir to the Glimmering World – Cynthia Ozick †
Last Night at the Lobster – Stewart O’Nan
The Dark Queen – Susan Carroll

† = unfinished
* = re-reads

That's 58 books total. I'm hoping to have bigger numbers next year, as I'm taking a six-month hiatus off any new fiction projects (not sure if that'll really help the reading seeing as how I have one manuscript to get agent-ready and one to revise and do a publication, not to mention my usual reviewing duties).

Anyway, of those 58 here are the top ten best (re-reads don't count) in alphabetical order:

American Tabloid - Political noir as only James Ellroy can tell it.

The Big Red One - Will never will prizes for its prose but is a harsh, funny, and captivating portrayal of war by someone who lived through it.

Catch-22 - Dances the fine line between comedy and tragedy.

Child of God - Not on a par with The Road or Blood Meridian, but a haunting portrait of a person who's an outsider in so many ways.

Finn - A fascinating and often frightening take on Huckleberry Finn's father.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - I was put off by the twee-sounding title, but it was one of the most enjoyable books this year, and I'm still thinking about many of the characters.

My Sister, My Love - Joyce Carol Oates' haunting and satiric spin on the JonBenet Ramsey case.

Spider Kiss - Harlan Ellison's only published novel puts his knack for description and his savage wit to work on the world of rock music.

Under the Dome - The King is back. 'Nuff said.

World War Z - Max Brooks' take on the aftermath of a zombie plague was unputdownable.

Honorable mention: The Pirates! In an Adventure With Napoleon - So good to see the Pirate Captain and his crew again.

Looking forward to another year of reading!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review: Daybreakers

My review of the surprisingly good vampire movie Daybreakers is up at Horrorview.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Hot chicks reading books

Courtesy of the Like Fire blog, this post (with pictures!) of hot chicks reading books. Oil paintings, if you please, so it's Art.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas to all!

Now that was one dandy Christmas.

Fairly low key - only two guests, my buddies Erik and Gerry, but it was kind of nice not to be completely exhausted by the time the day was done.

Made a great feast consisting of: New York strip loin roast with garlic herb crust, creamed corn, potatoes savoyarde, Yorkshire pudding with sage and bacon, Vichy carrots, and for dessert, poached pears flambe. Yes, we had flaming dessert and no one's hair caught on fire, nor did the tablecloth, etc. Yum. Eating will continue with waffles tomorrow (thanks to the pancake/waffle batter mix Mom and Dad sent and the waffle iron my sister sent). Also need to eat more of that yummy cheese that came with the pancake/syrup box set from Mom and Dad. I am full as a tick.

In other present news: Got the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 box set from Scott, and the new Joseph Wambaugh book, Hollywood Moon, from Erik and Gerry. My brother-in-law sent four books by Walter Moers: Rumo and his Miraculous Adventures, The City of Dreaming Books (love that title!), The Alchemaster's Apprentice, and The 13 1/2 lives of Captain Bluebear. They all look promising.

Must go and eat more tidy up from the day's festivities. It was a good day, most of all because I am blessed to have such wonderful family and friends.

Merry Christmas and God bless us every one!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dear Santa

Dear Santa:

I have just watched Inglourious Basterds again and I am happy to say it holds up on a second viewing. (I originally feared it might not, but watching it a second time is a much more pleasurable experience because I'm not in physical agony from the suspense, like I was on the first viewing.)

Anyway, I have decided what I want for Christmas: I want the Hugo Stiglitz treatment. I want to be SO bad-ass that at random intervals in my everyday life I get a title card in a funky 1970s blaxploitation movie font, complete with guitar riff and Samuel L. Jackson narrating about what an awesome bad-ass I am.

I have been very good this year. I know this is a tall order for the elves but I have faith in you.

Thanks! Give my love to Mrs. Claus!


Now that's what I call writing: Charles Dickens

Now playing on the iPod: "Waltz of the Snowflakes" from The Nutcracker - Tchaikovsky

It isn't Christmas until I read this segment from Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which bright, gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there, and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge's time, or Marley's, or for many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch there sat a jolly giant, glorious to see, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty's horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge as he came peeping round the door.

"I am the Ghost of Christmas Present," said the Spirit. "Look upon me!"

Scrooge reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple, deep-green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare, and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark-brown curls were long and free, free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanor, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard, but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.

Zut alors, how I love that passage. (The detail of the empty, rusty scabbard nags at me - clearly it has some significance, but what?)

Speaking of A Christmas Carol, I finally saw The Muppet Christmas Carol today and it's a joy to watch. Not only is it remarkably faithful to Dickens' text, but has some great humor ("Storytellers are omniscient; I know everything!" "Hoity-toity, Mr. God-like smartypants!"), and a fantastic performance by Michael Caine as Scrooge (all the more noteworthy because for the most part he was acting opposite some talking puppets). Go forth and watch it as soon as you can.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Writing craft: Misconceptions

Now playing on Internet radio - "Come in Number 51, Your Time is Up" - Pink Floyd

Over at the forums on, there's a discussion titled "Mistaken notions people have about your job". And while writing isn't my job per se (meaning, it doesn't pay the bills), there are a few misconceptions about it that I've run into over the years, and since I'm slightly crabby and have nothing else to do while I wait for the brownies I baked for tomorrow's work potluck to cool down, here goes.

Misconception #1: You can't write about something you haven't experienced.

Actually: If that were the case, I wouldn't write at all. Frankly, my life wouldn't make a good story, and considering that fiction derives from conflict, which in turn derives from bad things happening, it's probably just as well. I have used some elements and experiences from my life in my fiction, but the most fun in writing comes from imagining what it's like to be in a situation unlike any I've been in, and how that person (not I) would act in that situation. Which leads to...

Misconception #2: All characters are just the writer in disguise.

Actually: Many writers do write about themselves, and as long as that works for them, more power to them. I do put some elements of my life and personality into my characters (i.e., journalism training, tendencies to be somewhat insecure). But those are condiments rather than the whole meal. I once read an interview with an actor in which he said that he approached roles by wondering, "I wonder what it's like to be this character." That's much like the approach I take - how is a given character I've created going to react to a particular situation? How will character A's reaction differ from character B's? How can I keep the reader interested in these people, even when their actions and reactions aren't always admirable? Which segues nicely into...

Misconception #3: The writer heartily approves of every thought, word, and deed his characters have.

Actually: Boy, where to begin? I once read a strange Internet post (no really) by a fellow who said a well-known thriller/horror writer was no better than a murderer. Because (so went the rationale) the writer had to imagine the thoughts and actions a murderous character had, and that meant the writer was just a baby step away from being a murderer himself. Uh, OK. Leaving aside the fact that this fellow had a shaky grasp on the distinction between thought and deed, let alone fantasy and reality, consider this. If every character had to mirror the writer's exact personality, every book would have not a set of characters but a bunch of identical people - and how boring would that be?

This fellow's post was an extreme example of what I've become all too aware of - that a depressingly large number of people don't have an imaginative life at all. They have trouble comprehending any thoughts or worldviews that don't mirror their own, and therefore can't fathom how a writer can create the thoughts and actions of a character who may be completely unlike the writer. Which is a shame - the most fun I've had in writing was with the characters who were least like me, and in a few cases these characters were utterly loathsome people. It was like putting on a Halloween costume - for however long it takes to write a particular chapter, I got to put on a disguise as Character X, and see the world through that person's eyes. And when I was done, off came the disguise and I was back to the regular me.

Villains and other loathsome sorts aside, every character needs flaws. Even fun, fine, upstanding people can have (and should have) flaws that make them recognizable as human beings. Otherwise they're cardboard (or worse, they're a Mary Sue). Nobody is perfect, and none of one's characters should be. Even wonderful, often admirable people have flaws - insecurity, inability to let go of the past, pettiness, mistrust, or even being too nice and accommodating (and becoming an Emotional Vending Machine).

Characters don't always have to be nice, but they do have to be interesting - not just to the reader, but to the author as well (because if the people who created these characters doesn't give a tinker's damn about them, no one else will either).

And lastly, here's....

Misconception #4: All you need to write a book is a good idea.

Actually: While an idea (preferably a good one) is the starting point for a book, there's much more that's needed. An idea is usually based on a situation, and a situation is not the same as a story. A situation is an event. The story lies in what takes place before, during, and after that event; in the people who are cause and/or are affected by the event; where all this happens, and when. And so much more. If that sounds like a lot of hard work, it is. But if the notion appeals - if you want to shape that story and build that world - go for it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Literary gear

Literary-themed T-shirts? And a percentage of the profits go toward fighting illiteracy? I think I love you, KafkaCotton, and you even have a cool name.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Review: Under the Dome

Now playing on the iPod - "Marshmallow World" - Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra

My review of Stephen King's latest, Under the Dome, is up at Horrorview. Great book.

Haul out the holly

Now playing on the iPod - "O Tannenbaum" - Vince Guaraldi Trio

As you may have noticed from my recent "what's playing" notes, it's officially holiday time at Casa del Cozy. Thanksgiving to Epiphany/Twelfth Night is my favorite time of year, and I refuse to apologize for this. Yes, the stores put out their decorations and wares too early. Yes, the season brings us abominations like "The Christmas Shoes" and family fare like The [insert name of cute animal] Who Saved Christmas.

But it's a special season for me, and I'm not exactly sure why. Probably not a good idea to examine it all too closely, but it may have its roots in Christmas Eves at my Grandma's house. I can still see the decorations she put up every year, smell the lasagna she'd make, recall that drowsy ride home and how I'd keep an eye out for Rudolph leading the team through the sky. I always try to re-create that feeling as much as I can, and share it with others as well. My fondness for the season even creeps into my fiction: a good barometer of how characters are faring is how they spend Christmas.

Anyway, for those who care here are my traditions and rules for proper holiday enjoyment.

Music: Christmas music should be played only from Thanksgiving through Epiphany (though I do allow myself a fix in mid-summer, about the time I'm utterly sick of the heat). I don't like "all Christmas all the time" stations as they're too reliant on screechy divas rending "O Holy Night" asunder, novelty songs that were tiresome the first time around, and the aforementioned "Christmas Shoes". I'm fairly traditional in my holiday music. It's hard to go wrong with Christmas with the Rat Pack, A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, and the Mediaeval Baebes' Mistletoe and Wine. Collections I like include Most Fabulous Christmas Album Ever, Croon and Swoon, and Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker.

Movies: Again, I'm pretty traditional. It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are as good as they ever were. As Christmas Carols go, I'm partial to the one with George C. Scott (aided and abetted by David Warner, Angela Pleasance, the late Edward Woodward, and Roger Rees). I'm too young for the exact flavor of nostalgia found in A Christmas Story, but it has more resonance for me now that I have a young son. And if one needs a bitter chaser to the holiday sweetness, one could do worse than to watch The Ref, in which catburglar Denis Leary spends Christmas Eve taking hostage a bickering couple, played to utter perfection by Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey.

TV: Video is a boon to me - I haven't had cable in years and ironically enough live too close to Mount Wilson to get broadcast reception (which is why I have to watch Castle on But thanks to DVD I can watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated if you please, not the Ron Howard abomination), A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and let's not forget the delightfully wackadoo Year Without a Santa Claus (the one with the Snow Miser and the Heat Miser).

Books: As if you need to ask. I always re-read A Christmas Carol although by now I've read it so many times I have it nearly memorized. Less familiar but just as enjoyable are Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales and Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory.

If all this can't get you in the mood for Christmas, then come on over to my house for the holiday dinner. I'll have the front room all decorated, candy galore, and a feast including roast beast!

Now if you'll pardon me, I'm off to wrap some presents!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Kelly's big score

Now playing on the iPod - "Winter Wonderland" - Darlene Love

Made our annual jaunt to Solvang and I made out like a bandit at the town's two bookstores (The Book Loft and Valley Books). I came home with:

Cormac McCarthy - Cities of the Plain and Suttree

Peter Matthiessen - At Play in the Fields of the Lord

Ray Bradbury - Now and Forever

Kathleen Kent - The Heretic's Daughter

Sandra Gulland - The Last Great Dance on Earth

John Irving - The Cider House Rules

Susan Carroll - The Dark Queen

And Young Master Cozy got a Magic Treehouse book, a pile of coloring books, and the new Skippyjon Jones book. We were both pleased with our hauls.

So now the to-be-read shelves are overflowing again. Oh well.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Review: Beat the Reaper

Now playing on the iPod - "Mistletoe and Holly" - Frank Sinatra

My review of Josh Bazell's debut novel Beat the Reaper is up at Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What I've just read: American Tabloid

It's too soon to tabulate the year's best reads (hey, still a few weeks left!), but James Ellroy's American Tabloid will be on that list.

Thanks to my good buddy and fellow writer A. J. for sending me a copy (so I didn't have to read the one Mr. Ellroy signed at this year's Festival of Books and risk getting it damaged somehow).