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February 2013

Book Review: HAMMETT UNWRITTEN by Owen Fitzstephen, Afterword by Gordon McAlpine

This review originally appeared as a starred review in Shelf Awareness for Readers, and is reprinted here with permission.

One almost has to be a Pinkerton detective to unravel the double crosses and mystery surrounding the falcon statue in Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen. Or is it Gordon McAlpine, who wrote the afterword? Isn’t Fitzstephen a character from Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse (though his name was spelled Fitzstephan)? This meta novel is a puzzle like that.

Leaping around in time, the narrative explores why Hammett never published another novel after The Thin Man. As he’s putting final touches on that manuscript, he’s visited by Moira O’Shea, on whom he based Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. She tells him the black bird sitting on his desk is made of a magical stone that grants the owner’s wishes, and is thus the reason for Hammett’s success.

When Hammett scoffs at this notion, she convinces him that the only way to prove the legend wrong is to give her the statue. He immediately encounters writer’s block so immovable, the block is more like a wall. Hammett searches for O’Shea to get back the bird, but she seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Could the mythology surrounding the falcon be true? Or is O’Shea exacting psychological revenge?

Readers may sometimes feel like McAlpine (yes, he’s the real author) is messing with their heads, but it’s fun to go along with Hammett as he investigates the legend. Fans of Hammett’s work—and The Maltese Falcon in particular—should enjoy references to it, and the novel’s blending of fact with fiction. In the end, it almost doesn’t matter what’s true, only that it’s a story well told.

Nerd verdict: Mysterious, meta Hammett

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy from an indie bookstore


Thoughts on the 85th Academy Awards & Fashion Commentary

MacFarlane. Kevin Winter/Getty

I went into this year’s ceremony more excited than usual because many of the categories were not predictable. Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway were sure things, but there was possibility for surprises in the best actress, supporting actor, director, and screenplay categories. And the surprises did come to pass—who predicted Quentin Tarantino winning original screenplay for Django Unchained? Mark Boal had won the WGA award for Zero Dark Thirty.

Most pundits thought Steven Spielberg would take director since Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated, but Ang Lee won, though Life of Pi had claimed several Oscars by the time best director was declared so it wasn’t a huge shock. I started wondering if Naomi Watts could pull off an upset in the best actress category but Jennifer Lawrence prevailed and I was perfectly fine with that. I loved both performances; Watts’s work was just more harrowing.

Oh, did I mention a tie in the sound editing category? That’s only happened five times before in Oscar history! Both Zero Dark Thirty (Paul N.J. Ottosson) and Skyfall (Per Hallberg & Karen Baker Landers) won.

Unpredictability aside, this was one of the most awful ceremonies in recent memory. Seth MacFarlane made James Franco look like Bob Hope when it came to hosting. I was begging for him to cut short the interminable and painfully unfunny Star Trek opening bit with William Shatner. It had nothing to do with the nominated movies. If MacFarlane wanted to be ahead of the curve and tie in a number to Star Trek Into Darkness coming out this summer, at least have Chris Pine at the helm.

He went on to perform a musical number about seeing different actresses’ boobs in movies. Yes, really.

Tatum & Theron. Mark Davis/WireImage

When MacFarlane tried to class things up by bringing out Charlize Theron and Channing Tatum to dance along while MacFarlane sang “The Way You Look Tonight,” it still had nothing to do with this year’s movies. The classic tune from Swing Time won an Oscar for best song back in 1936, and MacFarlane could have included it later on in the show, but the opening should be about the current crop of movies.

Overall, MacFarlane just wasn’t funny. I think the only joke of his that made me laugh was the one in which he teased that the cast of Prometheus would appear to explain “what the hell was going on with that.” Daniel Day-Lewis was wittier when he said Meryl Streep was Spielberg’s first choice to play Lincoln, while the actor was supposed to portray Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

And what was that final number, an “ode to the losers,” that MacFarlane performed with Kristin Chenoweth, who deserved better? So embarrassing! Mr. PCN quipped, “The only things this number needs are Rob Lowe and Snow White.”

Let’s go over some of the winners in the major categories before I move on to the fashion.

ARGO producers: Grant Heslov, Affleck, George Clooney. Kevin Winter/Getty

Best Picture: Argo (announced by the biggest surprise presenter of the evening, Michelle Obama!)

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Best Actress: Jennifer Lewis, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

Best Director: Ang Lee, Life of Pi

Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Best Adapted Screenplay: Chris Terrio, Argo

Best Song: Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth, “Skyfall” from Skyfall

Best Score: Mychael Danna, Life of Pi

Best Cinematography: Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi

For a full list of winners, go here.

OK, let’s critique the fashion!

There were many nicely dressed stars, but nothing made me say Wow. Mr. PCN popped in and out as I watched the red carpet so I’ve included his comments here as well.

Jessica Chastain. Kevin Mazur/Wireimage

This is probably the best I’ve seen Chastain look—she glows. Her red carpet style has always been a bit off somehow. Here, she looks classy and polished, if a little safe.

Mr. PCN: I have a problem when people are the same color all over.


Jennifer Lawrence. Steve Granitz/WireImage

White is boring, and it’s too big at the bottom, but above the waist she looks gorgeous.

Mr. PCN: Looks like she’s wearing layers of fake snow you see in amusement parks.


Catherine Zeta-Jones. Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Wearing gold to the Oscars (and then posing in front of a poster of it) is trying too hard.


Naomi Watts. Steven Granitz/WireImage

Ooh, interesting neckline. Pewter or gunmetal is not my favorite color, but this dress is so sleek and just the right amount of sparkly.

Mr. PCN: It screams, “This is my favored breast.”


Charlize Theron. Steven Granitz/WireImage

There is nothing exciting about this—not the color, the style, nothing. It fits well, and that’s the best thing I can say about it.

Mr. PCN: Um, everything about her works for me.


Jennifer Garner. Steven Granitz/WireImage

Jane Fonda. Kevin Mazuz/WireImage

Tie for best color: Jennifer Garner and Jane Fonda. These two stood out from all the white and black and pale-colored gowns.


Halle Berry. Steven Granitz/WireImage

She showed that she could cover up a little and still be sexy, in a strong instead of slutty way.

Mr. PCN: Looks like a girl in bondage, not a Bond girl. It also resembles the Chrysler building.

Stacy Keibler. Steven Granitz/WireImage

Another gunmetal gown I found striking. It looked liquid, as if it was slowly dripping off her.

Mr. PCN: This is what Halle Berry should’ve worn.


Anne Hathaway. Steven Granitz/WireImage

Wish it were a more vibrant pink. And, uh, what’s going on there in front?

Mr. PCN: Those darts are really perky.


Amy Adams. John Shearer/Invision/AP

This reminded me of Kyra Sedgwick’s 2006 Emmys dress, and therefore didn’t seem new or exciting.

Kyra Sedgwick. Frazer Harrison/Getty

Mr. PCN: The skirt [on Adams’s dress] looks like the goatskin pants that Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd wore in Dragnet.


Salma Hayek. Steven Granitz/WireImage

How is it possible for a dress to make Salma Hayek look not sexy?

Mr. PCN: She broke into a museum of old movie costumes and stole that dress.


Nicole Kidman. Steven Granitz/WireImage

Was Kidman trying to land a contract for a Vegas show?


Helen Hunt. Steven Granitz/WireImage

Most Green Award goes to Hunt, who wore an H&M dress she already owned. Yes, you read that right. She said she wanted to plug the brand because the it partners with Global Green. The gown needs some ironing but she looks pretty good. Kudos to her for not getting caught up in all the couture frenzy.


Kate Capshaw. Getty Images

Most badass heels: Kate Capshaw.

What did you think of the show and fashion? Sound off in the comments!


Book Blurbs by PCN

Yesterday, I sent a note to crime author Meg Gardiner, thanking her for vetting a book for me. I receive lots of ARCs for review consideration and sometimes I’m so overwhelmed, I don’t know what to read first, or even read at all.

But when I saw Meg’s blurb on the cover of Dana Haynes’s Ice Cold Kill (out March 26), I thought I’d give that book a try. I don’t blindly believe in blurbs, but I’ve read Meg’s work and been lucky enough to spend time with her at Bouchercon, so I know she’s a whip-smart, discerning person who doesn’t suffer morons or, I assume, moronic writing. And so far, I’m enjoying Kill.

So I thanked Meg for helping with this choice, because sometimes even synopses don’t do anything for me except make my eyes roll backward into my mouth. When I told Meg this, she responded, “Now there’s a blurb: ‘Won’t make you choke on your eyeballs!'” I thought, That would definitely make me read a book.

Then I started thinking about how boring most blurbs are, how they often resemble each other and become useless noise. So I came up with the following blurbs that would get me to read something:

“Takes you on the kind of ride that gets you thrown into a Mexican jail!”

“Scarier than a clown exorcist!”

“Blows your mind like a hooker who likes brains!”

“More exciting than whatever you’re doing, unless you’re playing with chickens!”

“Like an EpiPen to your heart…after a triple espresso!”

“You couldn’t handle this book!” (reverse psychology)

“Better than the book by that guy you read that one time!”

“It will kick your teeth in, gouge out your eyes, pull out your guts, and jump rope with them!”

Would these work for you? Want to add your own blurbs in the comments? Does anyone want me to endorse your book?



The Girl Who Won’t Stop Running

Within the last year, I came across these covers:

This paperback of Lisa Unger’s book came out in June 2012.

The same month, the cover below for Michael Robotham’s new book, due October 2012, was revealed on his Facebook page.

After I commented that it was similar to the Unger cover, I received an ARC of Sorry with the following cover (I am not claiming I instigated the change or had anything to do with it):

Looks like the image was reversed, and some minor changes were made, including one arm being tucked in. This version appeared on the finished book.

A couple months ago, I received the ARC below (the book came out Feb. 5). There in the background is the tucked-arm girl!

I don’t know anything about cover design, but if the person who created the image of the girl receives payment for each usage, he/she is having a pretty good run. Maybe next time, the girl in red will be running toward us, or even upside down!


Nerdy Special List February 2013


What is happening to February? It’s more than half over?! Better post this month’s Nerdy Special List, then.

Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts read two standout February releases:

Birthdays for the Dead (Harper Paperback, Feb. 19) is the new standalone from Stuart Macbride. Detective Ash Henderson is part of the task force trying to catch the Birthday Boy, a psychotic killer who is abducting girls just before their 13th birthday, torturing them to death, and then sending their parents birthday cards every year on the girl’s birthday—cards that contain progressive pictures of the girl’s torture. Henderson has a piece of information the rest of the team lacks, though. The Birthday Boy kidnapped and killed Henderson’s daughter. This is a deliciously dark psychological thriller. Whether you’ve read Macbride before or not, if dark and haunting is your kind of thriller, Birthdays for the Dead is a must!

The Day Is Dark (St. Martin’s Griffin, Feb. 26), by Icelandic crime fiction writer  Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, continues her  Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series. Thóra travels to Greenland to help investigate the disappearance of two men working on a mining research project. The local inhabitants believe the location of the project is cursed and the more Thóra investigates, the more the curse looks possible. The juxtaposition of science and myth makes this mystery thought-provoking and intriguing. The writing may seem clunky at times, but this may likely be due to the translation. The underlying story is complex and the supporting characters are as rich and developed as the protagonist herself.

Danielle at There’s a Book has two recommendations as well, but in different categories:

Young Adult:

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel Books, Feb. 12) is the follow-up to her very successful debut novel, Between Shades of Gray, and she proves she’s here to stay. Easy tells the story of Josie, a young girl trapped in New Orleans during the 1950s due to her mother’s profession as a prostitute. Josie’s determination to get out and make a life for herself is thwarted by the death of a visitor she can’t seem to distance herself from. Out of the Easy is rich and full of all of the mystery you could hope for in a setting such as New Orleans. Despite this being a young adult novel, I could easily see adult readers falling in love with this world and Ruta Sepetys’s brilliant storytelling yet again.

Picture Book:

Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle (Chronicle Books, Feb. 5) is one of the most beautiful and entertaining picture books created to date. Idle’s illustrations, which include strategically placed flaps that lift, tell the story of an uncoordinated aspiring ballerina and a graceful flamingo who attempts to teach the little girl how to dance. It’s a wordless picture book that captures the true meaning of grace, beauty, and friendship. Not only is it a favorite of my four-year-old daughter, but Flora and the Flamingo is quite possibly my favorite picture book to date.

PCN’s recommendation:

Since Tuesday, February 19, marks the 71st anniversary of the issuance of Executive Order 9066, which sent Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II, it seems fitting that this month’s standout book for me was Sophie Littlefield’s Garden of Stones (Harlequin MIRA, Feb. 26). It shredded me and left me wanting to weep for days. Jen asked me to mention that she also recommends this book.

The story begins with a killing in 1978, and Lucy Takeda is a suspect after a witness reports seeing her at the scene. The tale then travels back and forth between 1978 and the early 1940s, when a teenage Lucy and her beautiful mother, Miyako, are forced out of their Los Angeles home in the days following the Pearl Harbor attack and sent to Manzanar. Littlefield creates a sense of unrelenting dread as each day passes for Miyako and Lucy at the camp, with readers knowing the women are headed for experiences that would alter them forever, but feeling as helpless as the internees in doing anything about it.

Apparently, during the book’s proposal stage, Littlefield’s editor had to defend her qualification to write this book. The author, after thorough research, shows she’s definitely up to the task, telling the story in a convincing narrative voice, giving us a glimpse of how innocent Japanese-Americans must have felt during an ugly time in US history.

Littlefield steers clear of being manipulative and sensational, depicting horror with subtlety, which is more effective because our imagination fills in the rest. There are heartbreaking details about daily life in the camp, with Miyako and Lucy striving for dignity and grace even in the most degrading conditions, but there’s beauty, too, as represented by the titular object, and Lucy’s seed of hope that grows no matter how many times others try to kill it.

What books have you enjoyed so far this month? Which February releases are you looking forward to?


CHRISTMAS IN HANOI, POE, and Charlie Huston

Scene from the play: What the hell is going on here? And of course that’s me with veil on head.

In case any of you were considering filing a missing persons report on me, I’m still here, just keeping my head down on a bunch of different projects. I’ve been rehearsing for a play, Eddie Borey’s Christmas in Hanoi, which opens Wednesday, Feb. 13, at East West Players. The official description from the theater’s website (where you can buy tickets):

A mixed-race family returns to Vietnam for the first time since the war. One year after the death of their strong-willed mother, siblings Winnie and Lou travel with their Irish Catholic father and Vietnamese grandfather to reconnect with their roots. Whether they embrace that past or reject it, they are haunted by their own family’s ghosts and by the phantoms of Vietnam’s long history.

Here’s the trailer. Director Stephane Gauger felt it best I was shot from behind, in the dark, obscured by smoke.

On top of this, I’ve been editing, having just wrapped a couple of projects and will soon be receiving Poe, the first collaboration between Brett Battles and Robert Gregory Browne. It’s the start of a new series featuring Alexandra Poe. For more info, go to the book’s Facebook page. I’m so looking forward to it!

I’m also doing some minor work for HEW PR to help launch Charlie Huston’s new website soon, ramping up to the release of Skinner in July. Who is excited about this?! Finally, a new Huston novel! While waiting for the site and book, you can visit Charlie’s page on Facebook.

Enough blah blah blah about me for now. I recently finished some books I’ll review soon, and will post February’s Nerdy Special List later this week, with some good recommendations from my trusty fellow book bloggers.

What’s new with you? What are you reading? What do you recommend?

Photo: Michael Lamont