Wednesday, May 28, 2008

James Bond Gets a Retro Makeover

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

He is, for many, the archetype of the secret agent: debonair, blithe, sexy, deadly. His Sobranie cigarettes and Walther PPK handgun are iconic.

But even though half the people on the planet are said to have seen a James Bond film, he didn't start off as the fabrication of Hollywood, but as a literary concoction, spawned from the imagination of author Ian Fleming.

Born 100 years ago today, Fleming penned a score of Bond novels, starting with Casino Royale in 1953, and two books of Bond short stories. Since his death in 1964, nearly two dozen additional novels starring 007 have been penned by a trio of authors: John Gardner, Charlie Higson and Midland's Raymond Benson.

Add to this list Sebastian Faulks, whose new Bond novel, Devil May Care, arrives in bookstores today.

Mr. Faulks was a curious choice by the Fleming estate to take up the Bond baton. Unlike his predecessors, he was known as a writer of cerebral literary fiction and nonfiction, rather than thrillers. His best-known work, 1993's Birdsong (3 million copies sold worldwide), examined the horror of World War I; his 2001 novel Green Dolphin Street was set during Kennedy-era Cold War, with a worldly newspaperman as his hero.

It is to the year 1967, the year after Fleming's last book – Octopussy – was published, that Mr. Faulks returns Bond.

Rather than plopping him into a conventional cloak-and-dagger setting, Mr. Faulks sets him amid the nascent hippie scene. On returning to London from a sabbatical that has taken him to Paris and Rome, Moneypenny informs him that M has – Gasp! – taken up yoga. Bond is forced to learn deep-breathing exercises.

Not only has the world changed, so has Bond: When, early on in the book, Bond is invited up to share a nightcap with a seductive woman in her hotel room, he – Gasp! Choke! – turns her down, at least initially. (She is one-half of a set of twins, after all.)

Fortunately, the villains are no different. Bond faces off against Dr. Julius Gorner, a Lithuanian mad scientist with the literal hand of a gorilla, and his sidekick, a Vietnamese assassin memorably named Chagrin (the French word for "pain" or "grief," we are told). Gorner stokes a deep resentment of the "stuck-up" and "xenophobic" English derived from not fitting in while he was at Oxford: "He hated England because he felt it had laughed at him, and he decided to devote his life to destroying it." The trail takes Bond from London to Paris to Tehran and beyond.

Though it takes nearly half of the short novel (just 270 pages) to build to much action, the payoff is eventually worth it as Bond, Gorner and associates leave a trail of mayhem across a small swath of the globe.

While some of this sounds as if it skirts the edge of parody (A man with a gorilla hand! Twins with only a small strawberry birthmark on an upper thigh to distinguish them!), it is dutifully close to echoing Fleming's own plotting and prose. In particular, Mr. Faulks does an excellent job of mimicking Fleming's obsessions, from Bond's bathing habits – scalding hot shower, followed by a blast of cold – to his cataloging of food, clothes and exotic women. Fans will revel at the familiar references to his earlier adventures.

In much the same way Sean Connery is to many people the original and best movie Bond, Fleming too is the best and original. Though Devil May Care is no literary landmark – Mr. Faulks said it took him only six weeks to write – it comes commendably close to the original and, provided you know what to expect, provides some real, retro pleasure.

Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Chain Grows in Dubai

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 5/26/2008

“Americans are just waking up to the opportunity to sell books here,” said Isobel Abulhoul, founder and owner of Magrudy's, a chain of eight mostly English-language bookstores headquartered in Dubai. “We order stock from both the U.K. and America, and fly in books five days a week.”

Magrudy's was founded in 1975 as a toy store, but quickly changed focus to selling books and has since expanded to include seven stores in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi, as well as several book kiosks. Three more stores are slated to open this year, two in Al Ain and another in Dubai. (Al Ain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are all part of the United Arab Emirates.)

Shopping in a Magrudy's is virtually indistinguishable from shopping at a chain or large indie bookstore in the U.S. or the U.K., with English-language titles accounting for 90% of its inventory. It has a similar look and feel to U.S. stores, as well as many of the common trappings, including loyalty programs and information booths. The most obvious difference is a prominent section of titles in Arabic.

The most popular English-language categories, reports Abulhoul, are fiction, mind/body/spirit, business and management, and books that teach Arabic. Perhaps the biggest attraction for the English-speaking community is the significant selection of children's books. “Kids were always treated as second-class citizens at stores here in the U.A.E., so catering to them and to parents is a big part of our business,” Abulhoul said.

Magrudy's frequently purchases both U.K. and U.S. editions of the same books. While customers from the U.K. “inevitably prefer books from the U.K.,” Abulhoul said that many of her international customers were educated in the U.S. and tend to buy U.S. editions. The lack of customs duty in the U.A.E. means her biggest expense is shipping, which she maintained is not passed along to the customer. “I sell books at the U.K. or U.S. price and right now, the U.S. prices are much more competitive,” she explained.

Magrudy's sees only two or three American sales reps per year, if any. “Americans are losing out by not trying to take advantage of this,” says Abulhoul. “Every time I want to shift a big order of books from the U.K. to U.S. edition, I get a call from the U.K. publisher or distributor undercutting the U.S. price. They are much more aggressive.”

Abulhoul believes some reticence on the part of Americans in doing business with the U.A.E. stems from a concern about censorship, since all books imported into the U.A.E. must be approved by the government. “Yes, it is something we have to put up with,” she said. “But approval is often had in a day or two, and embargoed books can be looked at early.” Books about Islam or Middle East politics are likely to be delayed longer, and religion books not about Islam and books with overt sexual content are likely to be blocked entirely. She's also had trouble getting entire series of Japanese manga past the censor.

Though a growing number of educated expats are moving to the country—Dubai's population is expected to reach 1.8 million by 2010, with 50,000 to 75,000 of them white-collar expats—Magrudy's has only recently begun to see competition from international booksellers. Borders opened a 16,000-sq.-ft. franchise store in 2006, adding a second, 1,200-sq.-ft. satellite store last year.

Increasingly, the U.A.E. is attracting attention for its many new cultural and literary programs. The newest addition is the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature. Scheduled to run annually, the first will be held February 26–March 1, 2009, and Abulhoul is one of the organizers. She said about two dozen authors have committed to attend, including Frank McCourt and Karin Slaughter. “We want 60 authors in all,” she said. The airline has committed title sponsorship for three years.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rick Riordan is on the verge of something big

For the Houston Chronicle

In April, children's book publisher Scholastic, the company that brought Harry Potter to America, flew San Antonio author Rick Riordan to Bologna, Italy. There, Riordan's job was to help explain The 39 Clues — a forthcoming multiplatform series for children incorporating books, collectible cards, video games and $100,000 in prize money — to international publishing executives.

The 39 Clues is important to Scholastic since it represents the publisher's first serious attempt to replicate Harry Potter sales. Riordan (with a long "i," like "fire") was hired to write The Maze of Bones, the first in the 10-book series, and to create the overall storyline.
An affable 43-year-old who stays in touch with his sons while he travels by joining them online to play World of Warcraft, Riordan is already a proven star in children's book world and appears to be the right man for the job.

So far, the storyline remains a mystery, although it does involve a Da Vinci Code-like conspiracy linking famous figures from history. Riordan is no help: "I don't want to jump the gun and talk about it just yet," he said by phone last week between appearances in New Jersey and New York.

He's on the road to promote the The Battle of the Labyrinth, the fourth novel in his best-selling series Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Chronicling the adventures of contemporary teenagers who happen to be the children of Greek gods, the series debuted in 2005 with The Lightning Thief and has continued one book per year. In all, the first three titles have sold 1.6 million copies in 15 countries.

"Last year there was kind of an explosion of awareness among kids," Riordan said. "Part of that was Al Roker picking The Lightning Thief for his book club on the Today Show, but a lot of it was word of mouth."

The Battle of the Labyrinth, released in a cool 1 million first printing, is on pace to outsell in its first week what 2007's The Titan's Curse sold in its first three months.
Despite his success, Riordan has done little to change his life other than leave his job as a middle-school teacher at St. Mary's Hall in San Antonio.

"I still live in the same house and drive the same car," he said. "My philosophy is that my life is already complicated enough, and I don't want it to translate to my private life."
Riordan really hasn't left school behind. A significant part of his time is spent visiting bookstores and schools. The school visits allow him not only to promote his books but also to "test out (his) jokes."

Among his frequent destinations, perhaps because of its relative proximity to home, is Houston.
"It seems like I'm there every two weeks," Riordan said. "The kids in Houston have been very receptive and appreciative."

Riordan's local fans include 12-year-old David Cremins, a sixth-grader at Memorial Middle School.

"It's really interesting how he uses ancient Greek myths and history and turns it into modern-day scenarios and battles," said Cremins, who checked out The Battle of the Labyrinth from Houston Public Library last Friday and finished the next day. "I've read all four now, and it's definitely one of my favorite series."

Cremins estimates that half of the 30 kids in his sixth-grade class are fans, many of them boys. Riordan's ability to appeal to pre-teen boys — a demographic frequently identified as "reluctant readers" — is especially unusual.

One reason may be the personal element the author has injected into the books. While Percy may be a son of Poseidon, he also has dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. So does one of Riordan's two sons.

"My son was in second grade when he was diagnosed. At the time he was only interested in Greek mythology, so when I ran out of the original stories, he told me to make one up."
For nearly a decade before Percy came along, Riordan was known for his mystery novels featuring San Antonio private investigator Tres Navarre. The series, which debuted in 1997 and includes seven books, are, he warns on his Web site, "grown-up mysteries with R-rated content."

Though Riordan won numerous industry awards for the mysteries, he found his calling in writing for a younger audience.

"I was always a storyteller in the classroom, and my students would ask me why I wasn't writing for children," he said. "It took me a long time to figure out that they were right."
The Tres Navarre series, along with the Percy Jackson series, will end next year, Riordan said. But Percy will live on in movies, starting with the Thanksgiving 2009 release of The Lightning Thief. Chris Columbus, the man who directed the first two Harry Potter movies, is adapting it for the screen.

In 2010 Riordan will begin a new series based on Camp Half-Blood, a New Jersey summer camp for demi-gods depicted in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, all but ensuring he'll be a regular on the road and a frequent visitor to our town.
At some point he might even find time to visit Greece.

"The closest I've ever gotten is Malta, where it is rumored the Cave of Calypso is supposed to be," he said. "I would like to go."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dubai-based Translation Project Promises More Arabic Books

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 4/17/2008 12:45:00 PM

Last year the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) of the United Arab Emirates launched “Kalima,” a project to translate books into Arabic; its stated aim was to translate 100 works. Late last month, the ruler of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, upped the ante: His eponymous foundation launched a similar project, albeit one that aims to translate 365 books in its first year – or, in other words, one per day.

Dubbed “Tarjem” (meaning “translation” in Arabic) the project’s stated goal is to “develop the level of information transfer from knowledge-producing countries, especially in North America, Scandinavian countries, and East Asia;” to this end, fully half the titles translated are expected to be business and management books, with the remainder divided among literature, history and sciences. The Foundation already offers grants to writers and supports a one hour-long radio book show, launched earlier this month in Dubai.

Unlike Kalima, which empanelled a group of scholars and literary to select a list of suitable titles, Tarjem is asking authors to submit books for consideration. According to its Web site, the organization is seeking through its various projects to lay “the foundations of a pan-Arab literary renaissance.”

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Creatures of the night captivate young readers of Stephenie Meyer's 'Twilight' series

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Which do you prefer: the vampire or the werewolf? If the question sounds strange to you, you're probably not a teenage girl, or the parent of one.

Those in the know understand there's a rivalry between vampire Edward Cullen and werewolf Jacob Black for the affection of the all-too-human Bella Swan.

Still lost? We're talking about the protagonists of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series of young adult novels, which include Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse. These steamy books by a Phoenix mother of three have sold 5.5 million copies across 28 countries.

Time knows who she is: Last month, it named her one of the 100 most influential people of 2008 and asked whether she's "the new J.K. Rowling."

And local fans know who she is: More than 350 were in line at 7 a.m. Tuesday at Stonebriar Centre in Frisco to get their hands on her new book The Host, which would entitle them to one of 1,000 tickets for her appearance May 10 at Centennial High School in Frisco. (Sorry, it's sold out.)

Ms. Meyer, speaking via phone after a reading at Minnesota's Mall of America earlier this week, notes that her phenomenal success still feels a bit "dreamlike."

It suits. Ms. Meyer says the original idea for Edward and Bella came to her in a dream in 2003. Her sister encouraged her to submit it to publishers. A year later, after being rejected by nine agents, the book was plucked from the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts at Writers House, the literary agency responsible for Nora Roberts and Neil Gaiman, among others.

Four years on, she now has her own personal publicist and is enjoying assisting with the filming of the movie version of Twilight, due in theaters Dec. 12. Oh, and then there's the millions of fans.

Walking into the auditorium at Centennial High School will still bring jitters, she says. "I'm kind of shy, so a big crowd of people is kind of my worst nightmare." She says the hardest part is walking down the hall and hearing them screaming for her.

"Then you get to the stage and look at the fans' faces," she says. "Seeing all the kindness coming toward you makes everything easier."

The Host, a sci-fi tale about alien body snatchers, is billed as Ms. Meyer's first book for adults. But it doesn't stray far from the formula that made the Twilight series so successful, echoing the story line of a woman whose affection is divided, and dishing up plenty of romance without (much to the relief of millions of parents) sex.

Once bitten by the books, Ms. Meyer's fans tend to become obsessed. Among them are Chandler Nash, 15, Tori Randall, 14, and Ally Kiger, 14, all of Arlington. They comprise the the Bella Cullen Project, a Twilight tribute band.

Their MySpace songs, including "Sexy Vampire," have been downloaded a quarter of a million times. (Sample lyric: "Stephenie Meyer's the queen of all vampires/ How does she make this stuff up? She's got to be some form of genius/ with Twilight she's hit the jackpot.")

On the all-important vampire-werewolf question, Chandler says "she's undeniably a Jacob" person, Tori is "equally divided," while Ally equivocates, saying "it depends on the day."

Alicia Norton, 25, of Flower Mound, is on the side of the vampires. "The vampires are the good guys, the moral ones," she explains. "Werewolves are not."

Ms. Norton was part of a cadre of friends affiliated with the Grapevine-Grand Prairie-based Web site who camped out overnight at the Stonebriar Centre Barnes & Noble to be first in line for tickets Tuesday. The store's community relations director, Debra Stapleton, says such dedication is not unusual among the author's fans.

"She's only visiting 11 cities this tour; we have people flying in from as far away as Virginia and Georgia to see her," says Ms. Stapleton.

While The Host may be riling up her fans, it is only building further anticipation for the final installment in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, scheduled for publication Aug. 2.

"That will be a real event," says Diane Roback, children's book editor of Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine of the book business. She cites the fact that the book will get midnight launch parties and a 2.5-million-copy first printing (compared with 500,000 copies of The Host).

Which means: It may be time to make up your mind on that vampire-werewolf question. You're likely to be hearing it again soon.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Race Relations in Black and White: Mat Johnson's Incognegro

From the Houston Chronicle -- May 4, 2008

By Edward Nawokta

Texans might recall that in 1959 Dallas journalist John Howard Griffin darkened his skin and traveled through Louisiana and Mississippi for six weeks, passing himself off as an African-American. His resulting book, Black Like Me, reminded America of the racism then endemic in South.

Griffin wasn't the first journalist to conceive of passing for the sake of a story. From 1918 to 1928, NAACP activist Walter White went undercover to investigate lynchings and race riots across the country.

Though African-American, White had blond hair and blue eyes, which gave him the appearance of a Caucasian. He used that to gain the confidence of racist mobs who boasted to him about their crimes — accounts he then published in the New York papers.

His mission was risky, and White had a few close calls of his own when his identity came to light.

White's heroic acts inspired Mat Johnson's latest project, the graphic novel Incognegro (art by Warren Pleece, published by Vertigo, a division of DC Comics). Johnson is a recent addition to the faculty of University of Houston's Creative Writing Program.

Incognegro tells the story of the fictional Zane Pinchback, an intrepid reporter for the New Holland Herald, who, in the mold of White, travels undercover through the South to report on lynchings.

When the book begins, Zane is back in Harlem, angling for a job as managing editor of the paper.

Then he learns of yet another lynching about to take place, in Tupelo, Miss.

A black man is accused of murdering a white woman, and what compels Zane to risk his life once again is news that the man scheduled to hang is Zane's own darker-skinned brother.

If this sounds like the setup for a preachy history lesson, fear not.

Johnson has used this historical material as the basis for a classic noir crime story, one that includes satisfying doses of deceit, moral ambiguity and plenty of R-rated violence.

Along the way, Zane will face down the Klan, greed, ignorance and a family of separatist hillbillies fomenting a religious race war.

Johnson, who moved to Houston from New York in 2007, is best known as a conventional fiction writer.

The author of two novels, Drop (2000) and Hunting in Harlem (2004), as well as the novella The Great Negro Plot (2007), he turned to writing graphic novels in 2005, with a short run of comics starring Papa Midnite, a character developed from the Hellblazer series.

"I've been preparing to write this particular story all my life," Johnson said in a recent interview. Like Zane, he's often taken for a Caucasian. "I grew up looking very European — my father is Irish and my mother is black — so I've been fascinated with those who've had similar experiences in the past." Johnson so closely identified with the main character that Vertigo photographed him to use as the cover image.

Johnson delights in the challenge of writing graphic novels. "You have to ask yourself odd questions," he said, "such as how do I structure the story so that all the big 'reveals' — key events — appear on even-numbered pages, so a reader sees them only after turning a page."

A novel, he said, is much more fluid; with comics "you're fitting the story into the form."

Increasingly, authors are using the graphic format to reinterpret nonfiction storylines. Recent years have seen graphic versions of the Sept. 11 Commission report and biographies of Ronald Reagan and Malcolm X.

As it happens, the Incognegro character and the graphic novel form, which is most often associated with superhero characters, are perfectly matched.

The pen name "Incognegro" is essentially a superhero's alias: "I don't wear a mask like Zorro or a cape like the Shadow, but I don a disguise nonetheless," says Zane while straightening his hair and tie before setting off for Tupelo.

In the black-and-white panel drawings by Pleece, a UK artist, African-American and white characters are not shaded differently to indicate race.

Yet through efficient visual shorthand (hair and clothing styles) the novel manages to comment on both racial and class differences.

"It's interesting to consider the different ways people look at the literary stuff and the graphic stuff," Johnson said. "People expect literary stuff to be smart and sophisticated, but not necessarily a good read, while the graphic novel is supposed to be a good read but not smart and sophisticated.

"In recent years, graphic novels have been gaining respect. Jonathan Lethem has a graphic novel out. Michael Chabon published The Escapist, which came out of his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The thing I like most about graphic-novel readers is they are really passionate."

In the future, Johnson said he's likely to juggle conventional fiction, graphic novels, teaching and raising his family — he's brought a wife and three children with him to Houston.

And somewhat to his surprise, he'll be making a home here in Texas.

"Before I moved, I was teaching at Bard College in upstate New York and wasn't at all certain I was going to like Houston. I heard it was hot and there wasn't much of a literary scene. But there's a lot more here than I initially thought — writers and artists especially. It's affordable to live."

And he added, "The people here are genuinely nice."