Saturday, June 29, 2013

Movie Review: Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010). Dir: Banksy. Starring Banksy, Thierry Guetta, Shepard Fairey, Debora Guetta. IMDB.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of those movies I've been meaning to see for a while, and as happens, I got sick recently and spent a few days at home during which I watched some movies I've been meaning to see for a while. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a somewhat controversial documentary about street artist Mr. Brain Wash, nom de travail of one Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles. He started, the film says, as a used-clothing merchant but became fascinated by street art and graffiti through his cousin, a street artist called Space Invader. Guetta, an obsessive-compulsive filmer of everything around him, started filming street artists, eventually getting to know luminaries of the field such as Shepard Fairey and even the reclusive, legendary Banksy, who directs this movie.

Guetta decides to get on the other side of the camera so to speak and becomes a street artist himself, starting with an illustrated picture of himself and leading to his meteoric rise in the art world after his first big LA show. Despite having referred to Guetta as a friend, Banksy and Fairey greet Guetta's success with derision; they openly mock him and deride his success in what struck me as some very mean-spirited and bitter postscript. But then I remembered that it's Banksy directing himself sounding like a jerk, so that pretty interesting.

Anyway so the controversy around the film is about whether or not the whole thing is a big Banksy prank. Banksy and Fairey swear that it's not for what that's worth. There are plenty of articles online on the subject- just plug Brain Wash and Banksy and prank into your favorite search engine. I think it probably is fiction.  There's plenty of close reading of the film and speculation but little in the way of evidence either way- starting with the identity of Guetta, who, depending on your interpretation, is either the real deal, an actor playing a part or Banksy himself. And, you know, if this guy exists and had a store etc., there would be some independent evidence, somewhere. But nobody really addresses that. Either way it's some kind of insight into the art world, the world of street art and the world of subcultures generally. I'll leave it up to you to decide what insight, exactly.

Rating: RENT (the movie equivalent of Backlist)

FTC Disclosure: I viewed this on Netflix streaming.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: SISTERLAND, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Published 2013 by Random House. Literary fiction.

Curtis Sittenfeld's last two books haven't been white-hot page turners but what she does really well is chronicle contemporary American life in a detailed and thoughtful manner. In 2008's American Wife, she gave us a rich autobiographical fiction about a First Lady modeled on Laura Bush. Her character was intelligent, tough and independent and deeply committed to her marriage and her role within it, that of the stabilizing influence behind a mercurial and spoiled man-child. I read the book as a meditation on the ways that women compromise to meet the needs of self and family. Her latest book, Sisterland, is another meditation on the American family but this time it's more deeply concerned with motherhood and self.

Sisterland tells the story of Daisy and Violet Schramm, twin sisters with psychic abilities to "sense" things- events, feelings, what's about to happen. As the book opens, professional psychic Violet, the more flamboyant of the two, is making headlines with her prediction of a massive earthquake about to hit St. Louis, where both women live. Violet is a wide-hipped, loose-skirted tidal wave of a woman; her sister, who's changed her name to Kate, is a suburban wife and mom to two young kids who just wants to keep her head down and not make waves. She has a perfect sensitive husband named Jeremy, and she focuses most of her energy on baby Owen and toddler Rosie. Indeed the book is positively awash in the everyday details of motherhood, which Kate/Daisy seems to want to consume her.

But here's the thing. There a couple of twists coming. There's revelation about who was responsible for a news-making psychic message that made Violet's reputation years ago- and a big one about the true nature of this earthquake. The book takes a big left turn about 3/4 of the way through, changing the game and reinforcing the idea that Kate is a woman in deep denial about herself and her nature. Some readers have taken issue with this turn, but I think if you look at the story as a whole her transformation isn't really a transformation at all. Kate has never been what she wants so desperately to be seen as. She has been hiding from herself for years, from changing her name (Daisy Schramm becomes Kate Tucker- a different person entirely) to subsuming herself in motherhood, to denying her abilities, to her repulsion (envy?) towards her sister's larger-than-life personality, not to mention her large body. Vi breaks the rules that Kate keeps, at least until she doesn't. Is it really a surprise that she'd finally rebel with an impulsive act of pure desire?

Sisterland is a slow read though the suspense around the earthquake may be enough to keep the pages moving. I know from past experience to have faith in Sittenfeld's storytelling so I was not deterred by either the length of the book or the issues around pacing. Like American Wife, Sisterland is character-driven above all so if you enjoy literary fiction that delves deeply into the minds of its characters while not always offering exactly what you would have predicted, I do recommend Sisterland.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Random House.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: THE CORONER'S LUNCH, by Colin Cotterill

The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill. Published 2005 by Soho Crime. Fiction. Crime Fiction.

So if you've been reading my "It's Monday, What Are You Reading?" posts for the past couple of weeks, you already know how I feel about The Coroner's Lunch, Colin Cotterill's first entry into the Dr. Siri Paiboun series of crime novels set in 1970s Laos. If not, well, let's just say I loved it.

Dr. Siri, as he's called, is a septuagenarian doctor who had hoped he'd be allowed to retire, but Communist officials in Vientiane, the capital, have decided to keep him on as a coroner, a job that he has never trained to do. Using whatever resources he has at hand, along with two misfit assistants and a local cop on the side of the angels, Dr. Siri recognizes pretty quickly that he can do more than just determine the cause of death. He is, he realizes, in a great position to solve crimes. And, as a coroner, he doesn't have to go looking for victims; they're delivered to his doorstep every day.

As Dr. Siri settles into his new role, he's presented with several strange deaths. First up is the sudden death of an older married woman whose husband insists food poisoning is at fault. Dr. Siri is not convinced though. Unraveling this one will involve taking down someone close to him and exposing local corruption. But the centerpiece mystery of this book is the strange death of three Vietnamese men who are found in a river, two tied with flimsy rope and one weighted down. This mystery gets to the heart of the difficult relations between Laos and Vietnam, and will find Dr. Siri alternately threatened and revered as the reincarnation of an ancient spirit. Lao spiritualism and mythology, and the battle in Siri's heart between tradition and modern scientific thought all come into play.

And then there's Dr. Siri himself, curmudgeonly and tough and funny. What made the book for me was his character and his ongoing battle with just about everything around him. I loved the combination of politics and tradition, modern and mythic, and the black comedy that rises between the interplay of traditional Lao culture and the straight laced Communists running the country. The character of Dr. Siri brings all these elements together in a perfectly delightful package. I highly recommend The Coroner's Lunch to mystery and crime readers who don't mind a little mysticism thrown in alongside the bodies, and I will certainly revisit his world!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, June 24, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Last week I finished three books- two I'd been reading slowly for what seems like a very long time, and one that I just started last week.

The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman, and Equal Danger, by Leonardo Sciascia, were the two longer reads; Equal Danger is a short book (about 120 pages) but it reads very, very slowly. The Teleportation Accident was a book my husband recommended and while I enjoyed it, it just wasn't a page-turner for me. My quicker read was the delightful The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill, and I definitely have to read more in this series because I'm head over heels in love with Dr. Siri and his band of misfit sleuths.

This weekend I started Stav Sherez's very-good-indeed A Dark Redemption, set alternately in London and Africa, the present and the past. An aspiring musician goes on a post-graduation trip with his buddies that goes horribly awry, and then years later he's a detective investigating a murder that may be related. Sherez seems like he's channeling Derek Raymond both in the quality of his writing and in the social conscience he brings to the work. I love it when crime novels are more than procedurals and read like fully-realized works of literature.

What about you? Let me know in the comments. Read more at

Monday, June 17, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Last week I finished I Will Have Vengeance, DNF'd another crime novel then started another. Phew!

I started The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill, the first in his Dr. Siri series set in Laos. Can I just tell you, I love this book. I'm in where-have-you-been-all-my-life love with this book. It's got the gory and the suspense, but it's also got the funny, the human, the awesome. It's got the best detective character I've come across, the elderly Dr. Siri Paiboun, a take-no-prisoners old timer who just doesn't care what anybody thinks. The writing sparkles, the suspense keeps you reading, and it's set in a part of the world I've never read about before. What's not to like?

I'm still reading Equal Danger, by Leonardo Sciascia, too, and enjoying it. It's different but also really good!

Have you read Cotterill? I'm going to start hand selling him the next time I'm at work. I'm going to hand sell him to everybody!

What are you reading? More at

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Crafturday- An iPad Cover!

I spent some time over the past few months searching for a great e-reader pattern, one that would include sizes for lots of devices, and one that included a license to sell. Well, I found a great one, though I've lost the link (I have a PDF download of the pattern itself) and I've spent the past few weeks trying out different versions.

The fabric is called Fulham Road and it's by Alexander Henry. Constructing the thing itself was the easy part; the challenge is interfacing. For those of you who aren't sewers, interfacing is a layer that gives the finished product some stability and structure. Interfacing can be tissue-thin or thick as book board, and anything in between; it can be a fusible or iron-on layer that you adhere to the fabric, or a sew-in layer that sits either against the fabric layers or between them. It's essential to use at least something on any accessory-type project. If you don't, it's just going to flop around and have no heft at all.

The first time I tried, I chose a thin interfacing on the fabrics and a layer of quilt batting for padding; that was too cushiony. The next time, I went ultra-firm and found that unusable as well. The fabric wrinkled and I wouldn't have been able to turn it right-side out once I had sewn it. Then I tried sew-in fleece, and again it was OK but too soft. With this attempt, I used a layer of a firmer woven fusible (Pellon Shape Flex) on each main piece of fabric plus one layer of fusible fleece. I don't know if it's just right, but it's a big improvement and usable as far as I'm concerned. I would like to try a firmer fusible combined with the fleece, to see if I can give it a little more body, but I'm happy for now.

I'm not ready to start selling these cases- I still need to practice- but I made a big step forward!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review: I WILL HAVE VENGEANCE, by Maurizio de Giovanni

I Will Have Vengeance, by Maurizio de Giovanni. Published 2013 by Europa Editions. Crime Fiction. Translated from the Italian.

Whew. That was my first reaction to finishing this firecracker of a who-dun-it by Italian crime writer Maurizio de Giovanni. Set in 1931 Naples during Mussolini's reign, I Will Have Vengeance tells the story of the murder of Arnaldo Vezzi, a larger-than-life tenor and star of the opera. An all-around jerk, Vezzi is pushy, arrogant, bossy, self-centered- and extremely talented. But he is a star, and the livelihoods of many people depend on him, so he's catered to and deferred to, at least until he crosses the one person in his life most vulnerable to his mercurial temperament.

Commissario Ricciardi, a reclusive bachelor from an aristocratic family, is assigned the case, because Ricciardi has an impressive track record when it comes to tracking down murderers. He also has a secret- he can see visions of the dead in their final moments. This ability is a liability and an asset; he can gain valuable clues but the images can also mislead him. They are also very traumatizing for him, and the emotional suffering he feels at being so close to death, all the time, is one reason why he is so reclusive. Other policemen think he's weird and avoid him, except for Brigadier Maione, who feels a kinship with the troubled detective.

And away they go. Along the way we meet a colorful cast of theatrical characters, get a taste of life, death and police politics under Mussolini and experience Naples of the 1930s. The plot proceeds briskly, peppered with lots of details of time and place. Ricciardi arrests a suspect, but it becomes clear that that's only the first step to solving this crime. Ricciardi believes all motives can be boiled down to two basic principles, love and hunger, and bases his investigative technique on a psychological as well as physical examination of the crime and those close to it. When he learns the truth about this one, he has to ask himself some hard questions about what justice really means, and how best to pursue it. A must-read for crime fans, I Will Have Vengeance is a home run; I can't wait to read the next de Giovanni in my pile!

This is my tenth book for the 2013 Europa Challenge!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: A BAD DAY FOR SORRY, by Sophie Littlefield

A Bad Day for Sorry, by Sophie Littlefield. Published 2009 by Minotaur Books. Fiction. Crime Fiction.

So I started off International Crime Month by reading a very American crime novel, the first in a series starring middle-aged quilter-turned-vigilante Stella Hardesty, a southern woman who killed her abusive husband in self-defense then launched a service helping other abused women keep their men in line- or just away from them. When she's not busy running her sewing shop, she's trussing up good ole boys who mistreat their women and convincing them to change their ways. A Bad Day for Sorry introduces Stella with the case of Chrissy Shaw, whose young son Tucker has gone missing along with Chrissy's nasty boyfriend.

By turns violent, funny, suspenseful and touching, A Bad Day for Sorry is great fun overall. Stella is a tremendously likable character and Chrissy, the young woman she's helping, is a believable victim-turned-heroine. I loved the attraction between Stella and the sheriff, "Goat," and her troubled relationship with her daughter Noelle, who's inherited Stella's (former) penchant for abusive men. The book reminds me a little of Joshilyn Jackson's book Backseat Saints in the way that Littlefield blends black humor with a very real and serious problem. There are some believability issues with what exactly Stella does and how she gets away with it but you can kind of gloss over that and just enjoy the ride.

Which is what I recommend if you think you might be interested in this book. I think it's a great choice for crime readers, especially those who like female-driven crime novels and those on the light side. I love that Stella gets herself out of a pretty serious jam using a rotary cutter and her cloth-cutting scissors. European crime novels are great but they do tend to be rather testosterone driven and I liked reading about women from a woman's point of view. I enjoyed my visit to Stella's world and plan to come back soon.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, June 10, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This past week I read A Bad Day for Sorry, by Sophie Littlefield, a crime novel set in the American South. I know it's not "international" per se but it's still a crime novel, so it fits with the month's theme. It's the first in a series that I will be revisiting at some point.

I'm finishing up I Will Have Vengeance, by Maurizio de Giovanni. I'm actually about to find out who the real killer is, after Commissario Ricciardi arrested a red herring. A whodunit set during Mussolini's rule, this book has been a great read. I have two more de Giovanni books in the pile and definitely want to continue in this world.

I started Equal Danger, by Leonardo Sciascia as well. This book is set in an unnamed place and concerns the murder of judges in a very corrupt society. The story gets more and more complicated as it goes along. I only just started it but I'm really enjoying it. Sciascia was a Sicilian crime writer who was mentioned a lot in the International Crime Fiction primer I read last month. When I saw one of his books at the bookstore, I knew I had to read him!

What are you reading today?

More at

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Review: YOU ARE ONE OF THEM, by Elliott Holt

You Are One of Them, by Elliott Holt. Published 2013 by Penguin. Literary Fiction.

Those of us of a certain age remember, at least vaguely, the Cold War.  I was in grade school when Ronald Reagan was president and Russia was still the USSR, when we had to know where the bomb shelters were, when nuclear war was a threat we lived with every day. I remember angsty pop songs and TV specials and nervous conversations about what would happen in the event of an attack. It was a scary time to be a kid.

You Are One of Them tells the story of two girls whose lives were shaped by that fraught and fragile time. Sarah's family is already broken when the story starts. Her older sister is dead and her father has left the family for his native England, leaving behind a mother paralyzed by anxiety and a daughter who sees loss and death and loneliness around every corner. She finds consolation and companionship with her neighbor Jenny Jones, a pretty and easygoing girl with picture-perfect parents, the kind of girl to whom life will come wrapped in a bow. Growing up in Washington, D.C. during the Cold War, their lives are stained with political anxiety; Sarah decides to write to Soviet President Andropov to ask for peace, and Jenny joins her. But it's Jenny's letter that Andropov answers, Jenny who gets to go to the Soviet Union and become a celebrity. And it's Jenny who dies under mysterious circumstances, and Jenny whom Sarah goes to find in the new Russia years later.

This novel is author Elliott Holt's first and it's a very well-written and and engaging debut. Personally, being about the same age as these characters, I related to their Cold War upbringing and enjoyed reading a book set in that time. I found the central mystery of the book to be interesting and the execution of it suspenseful and more or less believable. There are plenty of real-life events similar to what goes on in the novel; a little girl named Samantha Smith was asked to the USSR by Andropov after penning a letter similar to those written by Sarah and Jenny, and in recent years there have been various spy scandals that find an echo here. I don't want to spoil the story too much though.

At heart You Are One of Them is a coming of age story about a woman who grows up in the shadow of her dead friend after living in it for a while, and how that woman can or cannot move past that relationship to find herself. Ultimately Holt doesn't give us any easy answers but leaves us to ponder how we live with ourselves when that which defines us no longer exists. Sarah is a melancholy, lonely woman and as one reviewer has noted, the book is shot through with her loneliness. Holt depicts Russia as desolate, a land with little to offer someone seeking human connection. The suspense made it hard for me to put the book down; its sadness makes it hard for me to leave behind.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed a galley copy of this book from the bookstore where I work. I did not receive a copy for review from the publisher.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Review: THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT & LAST FRIENDS, both by Jane Gardam

The Man in the Wooden Hat, by Jane Gardam. Published 2009 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction.

Last Friends, by Jane Gardam. Published 2013 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction.

The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends are companion books to Gardam's Old Filth, a celebrated and popular novel about Edward Feathers, QC, a British lawyer born in Malaysia at the start of the 20th century, whose life spans that century and by all accounts, has been a pretty good success. He's had a great career in law, a happy marriage, and all appears to be well. But Feathers is a man who doesn't quite know how to love, and thus there are problems that nearly escape the eye, both with his marriage and his few friendships. Central to his life are his wife Betty and his rival (and her lover) Terry Veneering. Each novel, which together comprise one story, tells the story of these lives from the perspective of each character in turn.

Book two, The Man with the Wooden Hat, is Betty's. We see her as a young woman just as she's about to marry Edward, and we see the beginning of her relationship with Veneering and we see how her life stretches out into different kinds of disappointments, finally ending in a kind of reconciliation and acceptance of what she's made of it. I love the way this book rounded out her character and shared her secrets. Particularly touching is her relationship with Veneering's son, Henry. In Last Friends, we get Veneering's story, as well of that of a heretofore minor character called Frederick Fiscal-Smith. Veneering is a lonely man;  the son of a scrappy and passionate young woman and a shady Russian she meets in a circus, Veneering is constantly trying to reinvent himself and find his place in the world. His love for Betty is the one constant in his life but of course she is already married. His family life is a failure but his career is a success, and in the end he consoles himself with the friendship of the one man he never expected to provide that- Edward Feathers. Their friendship is one of the mysteries of life, and one worth exploring.

I really loved all three of these books. I think they should be read together, as one narrative, starting with either Old Filth or Wooden Hat and finishing with Last Friends. It's elegaic and a testament to a lost world, albeit one many do not miss. Last Friends also sees the comic character of Fiscal-Smith transformed and fleshed out, something I did not expect but enjoyed. Jane Gardam is one of those writers who just sneaks up on you. It's been a few years since I read her and I almost forgot just how good she really is. The books have all been popular book club choices and I hope her fans come in for this one, because it's really superb and offers a lot of insights into the characters that she seems to have been saving for this volume. She shows so much empathy for these wounded and vulnerable characters, and she ends the last book on such a sweet note of compassion and hope, as though the story doesn't have to be over, at least not quite yet.

These are my 7th and 8th books for the 2013 Europa Challenge. I finished them in May.

Rating: BUY for both

FTC Disclosure: I received The Man in the Wooden Hat for review from Europa Editions; I purchased Last Friends.

Monday, June 3, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well, I need to rethink what I'm reading because after being traumatized by last night's "Game of Thrones," I think maybe crime novels aren't what I should be reading! But June is International Crime Month and so I will be reading crime novels all month.

Last week I finished Elliott Holt's You Are One of Them, which comes out this week. I'll have a review later in the week but the bottom line on this is that I thought it was a very strong and suspenseful debut, as well as a moving coming of age and portrait of Cold War-era America.

Today I'm continuing I Will Have Vengeance, by Maurizio de Giovanni, also an appropriate follow-up title to "Game of Thrones" last night. It's about an opera singer murdered in his Naples dressing room, starring a detective who has some kind of psychic visions. Interesting!

Still working through the comic-absurd The Teleportation Accident. It's a fun read.

My bedside book is Jame Joyce: A New Biography, by Gordon Bowker, which I'm reading to prepare for my trip to Ireland in the fall. I'm not a big Joyce reader but it's an interesting portrait of Irish life and I'm certainly interested in learning more about him anyway. I'm enjoying reading it at about a chapter a day.

What are you reading? See more at

Sunday, June 2, 2013

June is International Crime Month!

Do you read crime fiction? If so, this is the month for you. And if you don't, there' s never been a better time to start. This month, Grove Press, Akashic Press, Melville House and Europa Editions are getting together to promote the crime genre.

Start with World Noir, a sampler published by Europa Editions. You can pick it up for free from independent bookstores, or download it here.

The book features essays by publishers, crime writers and critics with tributes, essays and interviews. Then, there is a series of samplers from Europa crime titles like Jean-Claude Izzo's classic Total Chaos, Kirkus-starred The Crocodile by Maurizio de Giovanni and Philippe Georget's Summertime All the Cats are Bored. The book also features a country-by-country guide to crime fiction, including those published and not published by Europa Editions.

I read this book through and really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about what characterizes Mediterranean Noir as well as its literary and cultural heritage. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in international mystery and crime!

The participating publishers are running a number of special events at various bookstores around the U.S.; check the events calendar of your local indie to see if something's coming your way!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

What's New on the Shelf?

I added a couple of new things to the TBR pile this week.

I got Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia, finally. I tried to read it a few years ago but gave up on it for some reason. We were planning a trip to London that ended up falling through, and the travel guide suggested this as a kind of classic about the city. I'll give it another try this summer.

Also added to the summer reading pile is Michael Frayn's Booker-nominated Skios, a farce comedy set in Greece. I seem to be reading a lot about Greece lately! Anyway I'm looking forward to a little literary light-heartedness on the beach with this one.

That's it! What's new on your shelf this week?