Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Please, help....the New York Times book review editors

by Libby Sternberg

This week, the Public Editor at the New York Times has addressed a question about why the paper publishes several reviews and/or stories about a single book when there are so many "deserving writers out there" (to quote the Times's theater and books editor, Scott Heller, interviewed in the Public Editor post). The question came up recently, apparently after the Times had reviewed a book by Nathaniel Rich twice in April and also published an essay by the author and other related pieces.

But in 2010, the same question was raised  by authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner when the Gray Lady ended up giving similar treatment -- several reviews, at least -- to Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom.

Said Picoult at that time:

"When in today's market you only have a limited review space for books, I wonder what the rationale is for the New York Times to review the same book twice, sometimes in the same week."

Picoult and Weiner had more expansive complaints about how commercial fiction is generally ignored by the Times and how women writers of commercial fiction don't get much coverage at all there. Said Weiner in the 2010 piece:

"I think I remember seeing one review of (romance author) Nora Roberts once, whereas (thriller writer) Lee Child can count on all of his books getting reviewed. This strikes me as fundamentally unfair."

That women's issue aside, the Times's public editor addressed the duplicative reviews a few days ago. And...the reason might surprise you:
(Books Editor Scott Heller) explained that The Times’s three staff book critics — Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin and Dwight Garner — make their own decisions about what to review. They do so without regard to, or knowledge of, what the editors of the Sunday Book Review, a separate entity, may have assigned or have planned. The Book Review has its own editor and staff.

Holy Intraoffice Memo, Batman! The book critics are monks who've taken a vow of silence? They can't talk with each other? 

Perhaps a rare photo of a NYT book review editor?
This is a problem that the best minds in America surely can resolve. I have some suggestions (cough:: whiteboard::cough cough:: email::Morse Code...), but would welcome others. In fact, I'm particularly fond of any steampunkish ideas, so please feel free to comment with those types of suggestions (mechanical pigeons with messages in their claws? Yeah, I'm feelin' it.)  And to ignite your inner creative fire, here's some fuel: By the end of Friday, April 26, 2013 (Eastern time), I'll choose at random a winner from comments, and you'll get a free digital copy of any Istoria book of your long as you promise to review it (honestly, of course) on Amazon, Goodreads, or elsewhere!

Please, the New York Times needs your suggestions--how can its book reviewers avoid reviewing the same book multiple times?

Libby Sternberg is editor-in-chief of Istoria Books.


Monday, April 15, 2013

MYSTERIOUS MONDAY: Novelist Joyce Yarrow's Favorite Mystery Author

by Joyce Yarrow
When it comes to creating the antagonists in my books, I heartily agree with Somerset Maugham, who said: “Things were easier for the old novelists who saw people all of a piece. Speaking generally, their heroes were good through and through, their villains wholly bad.

Today’s fiction writers are challenged to make our villains psychologically complex, without glorifying or totally damning them. Fortunately for us, we have Georges Simenon, my favorite mystery writer, to show us the way. A Belgian who wrote more than 200 books – many of them set in Paris – Simenon had a gift for portraying the most degenerate, desperate, and psychopathic individuals in the realistic light of ordinary circumstances.

In his stories, Simenon makes no attempt to “humanize,” his evildoers – at least not in the sentimental way implied by that term. Instead he uses the banality of their thinking to help us understand them. Take, for example, this passage from Dirty Snow, set in occupied France:

“Men in uniform were killed every week, and it was the patriotic organizations that got into trouble, the hostages, councilmen, notables, who were shot or taken God knows where. In any case, they were never heard of again. For Frank it was a question of killing his first man and breaking in Kromer’s Swedish knife.”

A knife that, in contrast to his abhorrence for people, Frank holds in high esteem:

“It was made in Sweden, a knife with a folding blade, so pure of line, so sharp, that you got the feeling the blade was actually intelligent and could find its way all by itself into someone’s flesh.”

Another masterful technique of Simenon’s – one that that draws readers in and keeps us spellbound to the very end – is his use of restraint. In the opening scenes of Dirty Snow, we are party to Frank’s plans to commit the murder, as well as his compulsion to reveal himself to a person with whom he will share a “secret bond.” But when the time comes for the bloody act, Simenon cuts away to Timo’s Bar, and all we are told is that, “The knife, carefully wiped, was in Frank’s pocket.” By that time we are so totally inside Frank’s head, that we feel the horror of the crime without having witnessed it.

Thanks to you, George Simenon, mystery writers like myself have a high bar to reach for when writing about the darker aspects of human nature.


Joyce Yarrow’s complex, intelligent and satisfying mystery Code of Thieves has just been rereleased by Istoria Books in digital formats. The new edition features an essay by and interview with the author.

Read excerpts of Joyce’s books here:
Hear Joyce read a snippet of CODE OF THIEVES in a book trailer here:

Joyce Yarrow was born in the SE Bronx, escaped to Manhattan as a teenager and now lives in Seattle with her husband and son. Along the way to becoming a full-time author, Joyce has worked as a screenwriter, singer-songwriter, multimedia performance artist and most recently, a member of the world music vocal ensemble, Abráce.

Joyce is a Pushcart nominee, whose stories and poems have been widely published. Her first book, Ask the Dead (Martin Brown 2005), was selected by The Poisoned Pen as a Recommended First Novel and hailed as “Bronx noir”. Her latest book, Code of Thieves, takes place in Brooklyn and Moscow. It was published in hardcover (as The Last Matryoshka) by Five Star/Cengage and is now available for Kindle and other ereaders through Istoria Books. (

Joyce considers the setting of her books to be characters in their own right and teaches workshops on "The Place of Place in Mystery Writing."

CODE OF THIEVES by Joyce Yarrow
Full-time private investigator/part-time poet Jo Epstein travels to New York and eventually to Russia to help clear her emigre stepfather—who is framing him for murder and who is sending him threatening messages in Russian nesting dolls (matryoshkas)? Her investigation takes her on a journey into her stepfather’s past and into the honor-bound code of the “vory,” a Russian criminal syndicate.
  • "Intricately layered like the Russian nested doll of the title..." Library Journal
  • "You'll want to discover the secrets buried in The Last Matryoshka..." Lesa Holstine, Lesa's Book Critiques
  • "Joyce Yarrow....may very well prove herself to be the Mickey Spillane of the 21st century...." Seattle Post Intelligencer
Buy Code of Thieves by Joyce Yarrow for Kindle here.
It is also available at other major etailers.

Here's how:

Respond to this post, telling us who your favorite mystery character or author is. Make sure to put your email in the post.
By Tuesday, April 16, 2013, midnight, Eastern Time USA, Istoria Books will choose a winner at random from those who responded to this post.


Monday, April 8, 2013

MYSTERIOUS MONDAY: How characters evolve over a series

by William S. Shepard

I have written the first four novels of my diplomatic mystery series, and am now halfway through writing the fifth. The idea for the series itself came naturally, as I was a career Foreign Service Officer, and I had noticed that diplomats have access to all sorts of information – diplomatic reports of course, but also intelligence matters and police records. They also work in two cultures at the same time – the American, and the foreign nation where their embassy of assignment is located. 

That is what the word “diplomacy” really means – “having two eyes,” one to watch out where you came from, and the other to monitor where you are stationed. The diplomat who can’t do both carefully at the same time is sure to be fired or reassigned!

 How do characters evolve? It is not a one dimensional decision. They grow, of course, and become more complicated. In Robbie’s case, his professional responsibilities grow from those of an American Consul at an out-of-the-way post, to those of a staff aide to the Secretary of State. But also, the back stories of several people who are close to him are etched in, as they become three dimensional.

My protagonist is Robbie Cutler, a thirty-something career diplomat at the beginning of the series. In Vintage Murder he is on his second foreign assignment, as Consul at the American Consulate General in Bordeaux, France. Here the reader meets several continuing characters. Many people’s favorite character is Robbie’s Great Uncle Seth B. Cutler, a nationally prominent educator whose shadowy background in the OSS gives him an opening to high level decisions in Washington. Sylvie Marceau is a reporter in Bordeaux who interviews Robbie in connection with the murder of a celebrated American wine writer. Soon they are a twosome, sleuths in practice who become romantically involved.

 Now, Robbie is bright, but for people smarts, Sylvie is the insightful one. She also passes the test by making a favorable impression on Robbie’s sister, Evalyn. Robbie’s parents, “Trip” and Lucille Cutler, were also a Foreign Service couple.

  In  Murder On The Danube, Robbie is transferred to the American Embassy in Budapest. Here the back stories begin. It seems that his father has been haunted for years by the memory of a young Hungarian Freedom Fighter whom he failed to save as the Russians crushed the Revolution. As murders start, Robbie’s task is to solve them, while finding out what really happened to his father’s lost romance. At the same time, his sister Evalyn visits him in Budapest and reads him the riot act for teetering on the verge of a romance with an available married woman. Chastened, he realizes the truth of what she says, and is relieved when Sylvie accepts his proposal of marriage.

Sylvie and Robbie are on their honeymoon in Murder In Dordogne. In that romantic French countryside, remains are discovered in a cave, which may well be all that is left of the fiancée of Uncle Seth, who was lost while on a mission with the French Resistance. But was her death really connected with the war, or with the disappearance, never solved, of a priceless Van Gogh as the war ended?

  In The Saladin Affair Robbie is working for the Secretary of State. He goes with him on a six nation tour of Europe, dogged by Al Qaeda. There is also that matter of the murder of the American Ambassador in Dublin. To surprise Robbie, Sylvie meets him in Vienna. She soon worms out of him the fact of the Dublin murder before it becomes public knowledge. Her insights prove crucial in solving the case.

            Robbie and Sylvie have now evolved into a diplomatic couple, and their family is more three dimensional, thanks to the evolution of their characters. As Uncle Seth says, “It’s good to have two sleuths in the family!”

Istoria Books's "Mysterious Monday" program features posts about mystery writing, reading, bookselling and more by writers from beyond the Istoria stable. Stop back on Mondays for insightful posts on the mystery genre. Check out Istoria Books's mystery offerings here.

Mysterious Monday posts from the past: