Friday, December 30, 2011

What were your favorite books of 2011?

Sometimes, my favorite books are the ones I never would have chosen myself. Take Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure.”

When my book club picked the novel last year, I gritted my teeth and began reading out of duty, not desire. But I ended up loving Hardy’s indictment of Victorian society and his colorful, flawed characters, especially Arabella Donn, a tarty barmaid who would fit in perfectly on several current reality TV series.

So, my humble advice: Try some books in this new year that aren’t your typical picks. To get you started, I’m listing a few books I particularly enjoyed in 2011:

“Zeitoun,” by Dave Eggers. In this nonfiction work, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American and father of four, chooses to ride out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to protect his house and business. Equipped with a canoe, he paddles flooded streets, rescuing people and feeding stranded pets – until he’s mistaken for a terrorist and imprisoned.

This spectacular piece of reporting makes our government look pretty awful. The New York Times has predicted that in 50 years, “when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”

“Bossypants,” by Tina Fey. A memoir by one of America’s finest comedians, complete with dorky childhood photos. Plus, you get Fey’s “A Mother’s Prayer for Her Daughter,” already an Internet classic. It begins: “First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither the Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches.”

“Black Swan Green,” by David Mitchell. Known best for experimental novels like “Cloud Atlas,” Mitchell offers a semiautobiographical coming-of-age story in this rich, poignant novel. Thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, who lives in England in the early 1980s, must endure an adolescence made particularly miserable by his stammer, which, he says, “makes me shrivel up like a plastic wrapper in a fire.”

“When Parents Text,” by Sophia Fraioli and Lauren Kaelin. This collection of texts sent by parents to their teenaged and young-adult children is sometimes touching, always hilarious.Two examples:

Mom: My fingers are saying words. This is amazing.
Dad: You could poop in your pants in the yankee candle store and no one would know.

On that intriguing thought, I’ll end. Happy New Year, and happy reading.

What was your favorite read of 2011, and why? Leave a comment here and let me know.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Union County author writes an e-book cliffhanger

Serial novels made Charles Dickens a star. When his first one, “The Pickwick Papers,” was published over 20 months in 1836-37, readers clamored for each installment.

Now, Union County author S.L. Schmitz is hoping the serial novel might be her literary ticket to success, too.

Schmitz is among a growing number of authors publishing novels in installments as electronic books.

Her book, “Mina’s Daughter: The Harker Chronicles,” continues the Dracula story, as Katherine “Katie” Wilhelmina Harker searches for answers about her mysterious past.

It’s among more than 30 serial e-books published recently by Pennsylvania-based Trestle Press.

Sales of several of those, including “Amish Knitting Circle” by Karen Anna Vogel, are soaring. “Amish Knitting Circle” was one of six Trestle Press series that recently made Kindle’s Top 15 for fiction and short stories.

Serial novels aren’t as high-profile today as they were in Dickens’ time, but they’ve never died. Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” was serialized in The San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s. Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” ran in 27 parts in Rolling Stone in the 1980s.

Now, the rise of electronic books has created a convenient platform for the serial novel. Unlike traditional books, e-books can be written to any length, including just a few thousand words.

Through Trestle Press, Schmitz aims to publish an installment of two to three chapters of “Mina’s Daughter” each month. Each sells for 99 cents. She’s planning 10 to 13 parts in all.

Schmitz, a middle-school teacher who lives in Indian Trail, also publishes traditionally. Dark Continents Publishing is releasing her dark fantasy, “Let It Bleed,” in January.

She sees serial e-novels as “one way for authors to get control of pricing back.” A reader who buys every installment of “Mina’s Daughter,” for instance, will pay a total of $10 to $13, substantially more than the few dollars readers pay for most e-books by emerging authors.

Schmitz’s next installment of “Mina’s Daughter” is set to be published electronically any day now. It’s available through Amazon and

As it concludes, Katie realizes she is changing into a vampire. She’s boarding a train to Amsterdam, hoping to track down a professor who can help her halt the transformation.

What happens next? I’m afraid, dear reader, I can’t tell you. You’ll just have to wait for the next installment.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Charlotte author's novel up for national award

A big congratulations to Charlotte's Jenny Hubbard, who's one of five authors in the running for the William C. Morris Award. The annual award is given by the Young Adult Library Services Association for outstanding young-adult novel by a first-time author.

Hubbard's "Paper Covers Rock" (Delacorte; $16.99) is set in a boys' boarding school, where 16-year-old Alex is devastated when he fails to save a drowning friend.

Hubbard taught English before she quit to write full time. This first effort is drawing comparisons to John Knowles' "A Separate Peace." Pat Conroy calls it "one of the best young adult books I've read in years."

The winner of the Morris Award will be announced Jan. 23.

Monday, December 12, 2011

New Johnny Cash book features Charlotte photographer's photos

In the summer of 2003, Charlotte photographer Daniel Coston photographed two Johnny Cash shows in Virginia. They turned out to be the country music icon's final public appearances before his death in September 2003.

Now, four of Coston's photographs are featured in "House of Cash: The Legacies of My Father, Johnny Cash" (Inside Editions; $39.95), by Cash's son, John Carter Cash. Among the four is the one at right, a photo of father and son.

"John Carter has said that he is very thankful that I was there, and got the photos that I did. Which honestly means the world to me," Coston told me in an email. "I shot those shows not caring what the outcome would be, but because I wanted to document what felt like an amazing series of events in the lives of the Cash and Carter families. As well as my own, as it turned out."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vonnegut biographer in Charlotte next week

Charles J. Shields will sign copies of his new Kurt Vonnegut biography, "And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life," at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 13 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

Named a New York Times' Notable Book of the Year, Shield's biography portrays Vonnegut ("Slaughterhouse-Five," "Cat's Cradle") as an unhappy man trapped in a bad marriage. Vonnegut had been cooperating with the biography when he died in 2007 at age 84.

Shields, who lives in Virginia, is also author of "Mockingbird," a biography of Harper Lee.

Monday, December 5, 2011

New Miss Dimple mystery from Fort Mill author

In "Miss Dimple Rallies to the Cause," a new cozy mystery by Fort Mill author Mignon Ballard, we find first-grade teacher Miss Dimple Kilpatrick once again turning amateur sleuth in her small town of Elderberry, Ga. Set in 1943, this is Ballard's second Miss Dimple mystery, following last year's "Miss Dimple Disappears."

Ballard will sign copies 7-8:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9, at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road. She'll also sign copies 10 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Dec. 10,
at Crossings on Main, 102 Academy St. in Fort Mill, and 2-3:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 10, at the BooKnack, 742 Anderson Road in Rock Hill.

Publishers Weekly calls Ballard's second Miss Dimple mystery "full of Southern charm."

Thursday, December 1, 2011

'Darwen Arkwright': A new book for middle-grade readers

Before he published his newest fantasy, Charlotte’s A.J. Hartley sought the opinion of one critic in particular: His son.

As 9-year-old Sebastian read “Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact” (Razorbill; $16.99), his dad watched his reactions closely to see passages made him laugh, which parts he found scary.

Hartley, a UNC Charlotte Shakespeare professor, is the successful author of several adult thrillers and fantasies. This new novel is his first for middle-grade readers, so Sebastian provided a valuable target audience.

He gave his dad’s novel two thumbs up, by the way. That you might expect, but Kirkus Reviews was similarly impressed, calling the book “an page turner that manages to be by turns spooky, suspenseful and touching.”

Like Hartley, Darwen Arkwright hails from a small town in Lancashire, England. (“Darwen,” by the way, is a town in Lancashire. “Arkwright” is a common local name.)

At age 11, the boy is sent to live with an investment-banker aunt and attend a posh private school in Atlanta. There, already reeling from shock, he discovers a mirror that’s the porthole to a beautiful and dangerous world. Darwen, it turns out, is a mirroculist, a who can see into other worlds through mirrors.

Over the past month, Hartley has visited fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms around the Carolinas, reading from his novel and answering “sensible, smart questions” about where he gets ideas, how he deals with rejection and whether his book could become a movie.

He has also fielded a few questions that adults seldom ask, such as: How much money do you make?

It’s different than lecturing college students, but he’s enjoying it. “Nine is about my mental age,” Hartley says. “I spend a lot of time pretending to be a professor,” but writing about Darwen “gives me the opportunity to be the kid I never grew out of.”

Look for more Darwen adventures. Hartley’s publisher has already committed to at least two more novels. And look for Sebastian to continue as his dad’s first and most important reader.

A.J. Hartley will read from and sign copies of “Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact” 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, at the Morrison Barnes and Noble, 420 Sharon Road, and 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.