14 July 2013

JK Rowling Outed As A Father And Ex-Military Soldier

For popular authors, writing under a pseudonym is freeing. 

This was what Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was doing when in April, she released a crime-fiction novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling. Up until Saturday, it was assumed that the name on the book, Robert Galbraith, was the author –even though on the publisher’s website, the biography of the Galbraith says he married father of two with an army background and experience in civilian security. It also acknowledged that Robert Galbraith was a pen name. 

Still, the book got rave reviews back in April, with many saying that this tale was too good to be a debut novel by some retired military person. Was then just luck, as sometimes happens in the publishing industry, where a debut novel gets such high praise? Perhaps, but I don’t think anyone thought it could be bestselling author Rowling, who released her first non-Harry Potter book, The Casual Vacancy, last September to tepid reviews, even though it sold very well (and will be turned into a limited series for the BBC).

She’s not the first author to write under a pseudonym. Man Booker Prize winner John Banville publishes detective novels under the name Benjamin Black, while Interview With A Vampire novelist Anne Rice released a series of erotic novels under the name of A.N. Roquelaure. And long-time Stephen King fans have known that the author published four novels under the name Richard Bachman, while prolific romance author Nora Roberts created J.D. Robb as way to release her futuristic crime series (though she’s also uses the names Jill March and Sarah Hardesty).  Fantasy author Robert Jordan, who created the Wheel in Time series was really named James Oliver Rigney, Jr., but he also used Reagan O'Neal for historical fiction as well as Jackson O'Reilly for westerns. 

Why novelist do this is for varying reasons. Mostly, though, it’s because they want to shift genres and thus leave the bestselling name behind so the newest book can stand on its own. Still, this sometimes angers fans, but in my years working in the retail book business, I've also seen fans turn away from authors like Rowling and, in particular, Anne Rice, because they don't want their favorite author doing other stuff. Too many of Rice's fans have told me they avoid her work, unless it's a vampire tale. When Rowling released The Casual Vacancy, many were upset that she took such a one-eighty turn, and pondered why she just didn't give the fans what they want: more tales set at Hogwarts. But, of course, for writers of books, it's never what the fan wants, but what the writer has stuck in their heads and that must be excised. To misunderstand this equation is to misunderstand why people write at all.

Meanwhile others, like acclaimed author Joe Hill, used a shortened version of his middle name to hide that he was in fact the son of Stephen King.  But the point was with Hill and now Rowling, they wanted their books to stand separate from other works; Hill because he was writing in the same genre as his dad (and story goes that the publisher of his first collection of stories, 20th Century Ghost, was unaware of Hill’s lineage until about three months before that book collection was released) and Rowling from her Harry Potter franchise.

But her ruse lasted only three months –and in this day and age of social media, maybe a surprise it lasted this long (it seems, as well, that most in the industry were kept in the dark -Kate Mills, a fiction editor at Orion Books, tweeted that she had turned down the novel. "So, I can now say that I turned down JK Rowling. I did read and say no to Cuckoo's Calling. Anyone else going to confess?"). “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience,” she said in a statement. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

With the news that Rowling was indeed Galbraith, the book shot up quickly to number 1 on Amazon (and they were already out of stock on the title, giving it’s availability a nebulous 10 to 14 day wait. And over at BarnesandNoble.com, they’re also already out of stock on it) and a lot of brick and mortar stores were caught off guard, having only a handful of the books in stock (the three B&N’s close by my house still seem to indicate they have copies on hand). Depending on the print run of the first edition, though, the book should become a collector item much like the first UK and US editions of Rowling’s Harry Potter book has. If B&N stores are out, the next step is to find independents that may have acquired the book, but seeing that the novel was supposedly a debut from an unknown author, they may have passed it up all together or bought limited quantities.

13 July 2013

Books: Lexicon by Max Barry (2013)

Lexicon is a clever, often humorous sci-fi thriller that is all about words. Set in some alternate universe –though we’re never fully sure of that, or the year it is set in- where power is wielded by word-magicians known as poets. People are chosen because they’re good with words, and have a knack of persuasion –the ability to make people do things against their own nature, even kill or be told to kill themselves. 

When we meet Emily Ruff, she’s a teenager living on the streets of San Francisco, coning people out of money by playing the old standard of three-card monte. She is whisked away to an academy, though there is no Harry Potter or Professor Dumbeldore awaiting her, just folks named after poets, like T.S. Eliot and Charlotte Bronte. 

And, as you might expect, she does well, moving swiftly up the ladder, to achieve the greatest accomplishment, a Poet (she is then called Virginia Woolf). Still, her rise to top is not that fully easy, as she has  behavioral issues that get her exiled to a small town in Australia. After a four year stint there -and where she falls in love with a paramedic (something poets are not supposed to do)- she is brought back to DC. But her love for Harry is so strong that steals the “barewood," a device of unimaginable power, perhaps biblical in nature, and ventures back to Broken Hill, where she unintentionally is forced to unleash its horrible power.

By setting the novel in some other place, it gives Max Barry a lot of room not to explain what the “barewood” actually is (and mostly, it’s a MacGuffin) so he can write about the power of language and the use of words, how they persuade us, how they engage us, and how they can be used in the most beautiful way, but can also be used in the most ugly way. It’s a well done thriller that will make you a bit less sure of your friends, foes, family and co-workers when they try to convince you they’re right about something.

04 July 2013

Books: Tell The Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (2012)

It’s early 1987 in Westchester, NY and there's really one person who understands 14-year-old June Elbus—and it's not anybody at her suburban high school. Nor is it her nice but boring accountant parents or her older sister, Greta, who has recently "turned mean." The only one who "gets" June—who understands her need to wander the woods wearing Greta's old Gunne Saxe dress—is her mother's gay painter brother, Finn. And he's dying of a disease just starting to have a name. After Finn dies, Junie begins to learn the truth about her Uncle; she learns who Finn really was. And who was the tall man with the sad eyes who was banned from Finn’s funeral? Why is her mother so conflicted and why has Greta become so cruel and so distant? For June these questions and many more need to answered, even though her heart is breaking for the loss of her beloved uncle and godfather. 

There is much to love about Tell The Wolves I’m Home, the authors innate ability at turning a poetic phrase being her great talent. The narrative flows and you kind of can’t book the down because you want to know what happens, even though at times I was annoyed by June. 

And while all the characters are somewhat damaged –except Dad, who remains a cipher through the entire book- the cruelty seems a bit excessive. Hey, families are not perfect, I realize, but June seems to 58 year-old woman disappointed with how her life turned out, even though she’s a teenager. The point is, I was getting a bit tired of her doom and gloom outlook on life by the end.

Still, the novel is an emotionally charged coming-of-age story that paints a vibrant picture of a girl caught between being a child and the unknown aspect of adulthood, and Brunt does a good job painting all of June’s emotions. Despite some maudlin passages towards the end, the book is a worthy debut.