West Virginia Book Festival

Bastille Day, the French national holiday on July 14, seems like the perfect time to mention one of the more surprising things I learned at last year’s West Virginia Book Festival.

At a reception the night before the festival, I was talking with Judy Johnson, wife of Walt Longmire mystery series author (and Huntington native and Marshall graduate) Craig Johnson. She was wearing a very distinctive pair of hand-painted cowboy boots, and I asked if I could take a photo for the blog. She said I could, so here you go:

This led to a conversation about the boots, and after telling me their provenance (which I’ve forgotten; they were from somewhere in Wyoming), she said that when she and her husband go to France, people stop them all the time and ask where she got the boots. “Do you go to France often?” I asked. “All the time,” she said.

In addition to loving her cowboy boots, the French love her husband’s cowboy books. The French translation of Craig Johnson’s debut Longmire novel, “The Cold Dish,” won the 2010 Prix du Roman Noir (according to Johnson’s Amazon.com biography) as the best mystery novel translated into French that year.

In an interview with Cowboys & Indians magazine (for real) that year, Johnson talked a little bit about his books being translated into French:

You know, of all the places I would’ve thought that the books would really take off, France would’ve been one of the last on my list — it’s so civilized — but they have and with a vengeance.

But the French have a longstanding fascination with the American West. In his book “The Greater Journey,” a history of Americans in Paris in the 19th century, historian David McCullough talks about the hugely favorable reception given to George Catlin, who brought an exhibition of paintings of American Indians — along with some actual American Indians — to Paris in 1845. McCullough writes:

It was not only the subject matter of Catlin’s paintings that appealed, but the director strength of his work, the raw color and a simplicity of form verging on naive. The paintings had much the same fascination for the French as the Indian tales by James Fenimore Cooper. This was the America they imagined, “wild America,” and that they found almost irresistible.

This might help explain another thing that Judy Johnson told me last year. She and her husband also visit Spain, where cowboys-and-Indians books and movies are popular, just like they are in France. But in Spain, people root for the cowboys, she said; in France, they root for the Indians.

Book awards, nominees and other news

A bunch of book award news lately:

| The most storied award in children’s literature, the Newbery Medal, was awarded on Monday to “The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate, a story for children ages 8 and up about a gorilla whose contented existence in a cage is upended when he’s joined by a baby elephant. According to the review in School Library Journal, the story is “a poignant, quietly powerful tale that sheds light on animal cruelty.”

| Also Monday, the Caldecott Medal for the top American picture book went to “This Is Not My Hat,” which was illustrated (and written) by Jon Klassen (who seems to be making a career of writing about animals and hats). School Library Journal said that “the brilliantly spare digital artwork conveys a parallel narrative with tiny telling details revealing that crime does not pay.”

Both the Newbery and Caldecott are awarded by the American Library Association. A list of runners-up for both awards, as well as honorees for several others, can be found here.

| Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies” has garnered more than its share of awards already. It won the Man Booker Prize, and it ended up on year-end best books lists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and many others. Mantel added to her haul on Tuesday, when “Bring Up The Bodies” won the Costa prize (and the 30,000 British pounds that come with it) on Tuesday.

The book is the second part of a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the clergyman and minister who helped bring about the English Reformation before (spoiler alert!) losing his head at the Tower of London in 1540. The first installment of Mantel’s trilogy, “Wolf Hall,” also won the Man Booker Prize.

“Bring Up The Bodies” was unanimously awarded the Costa (which was called the Whitbread Prize until 2005), becoming the first book to ever win both that prize and the Man Booker Prize.

| The annual list of nominees for the Edgar Awards, from the Mystery Writers of America, should be required reading for mystery fans. Besides the overall mystery category, there’s biography, first novel, young adult, etc. — including TV teleplay, where you’ll find the pilot episode of “Longmire,” the A&E television series based on the novels of 2012 West Virginia Book Festival presenter Craig Johnson.

| There’s also some news about book awards that doesn’t have anything to do with actual books. The National Book Foundation, which presents the National Book Awards, is changing the process by which the winners are chosen. The judging panel will be expanded, and both a longlist and shortlist of finalists will be announced.

If that sounds familiar, maybe it’s because the Man Booker Prize is awarded in a similar fashion. National Book Foundation people say they want to integrate the award more into popular culture, and they want to goose sales not just of the eventual winner, but of the books that make the shortlist as well.

Bethany professor wins British mystery award

Ever since it was released in April, I’ve been hearing about Bethany College professor Wiley Cash and his debut novel, “A Land More Kind Than Home.” A few people have told me how good it is, and I’ve read some other hosannas for it, but I just hadn’t picked it up yet.

Well, I’m gonna pick it up now.

Late last week, “A Land More Kind Than Home” won the Crime Writers Association’s New Blood Dagger Award. Named after John Creasey, the founder of the British crime writers group, the award goes to the best novel by a previously unpublished writer. The previous winners include some pretty well-known names: Patricia Cornwell, Janet Evanovich, Walter Mosley and Gillian Flynn, to name a few. (Oh, and it also comes with a thousand pounds, which would be $1,602 under the exchange rate on Sunday.)

The novel is the story of two boys in western North Carolina — mute Christopher Hall and his precocious younger brother, Jess — and is told by three narrators: Jess, midwife Adelaide Lyle and sheriff Clem Barefield.

In their citation of Cash’s book, the CWA judges called it “a potent mix of religion, fundamentalism and murder in America’s Deep South … a powerfully written study of the places religious fanaticism can lead you.” That’s just the latest accolade for “A Land More Kind Than Home,” which The New York Times called an “intensely felt and beautifully told story” and NPR called “great, gothic Southern fiction.”

Cash’s reaction to the award, as recorded by the CWA? “As an American writer, it’s a shock and a real honour to win an award in a genre with such a proud British tradition.” (He was in London for the awards ceremony, so he put that U in honor.) If you want to hear him talk about the book, there’s a video from his publisher on YouTube.

Craig Johnson: Better late than never

In Thursday’s Charleston Gazette, Bill Lynch talks with Craig Johnson, the Huntington native who graduated from Marshall University and basically lit out for the territories. He eventually settled in a Wyoming town with 25 people and wrote a mystery series starring Sheriff Walt Longmire (now the basis for an A&E television series).

The whole interview is a good read (and if you can, you’ll want to pick up the print edition to see Kyle Slagle’s Western-themed design). Among the topics Johnson covers is how he came to writing relatively late:

The 51-year-old said he’d always wanted to write, but he didn’t really get started until he was in his 40s.

“I ran out of excuses,” he laughed — not that he necessarily regretted waiting until later in life.

Life had to happen before he was ready to write.

“I think one of the biggest mistakes a lot of writing students make is that they get these magnificent degrees in writing, and they don’t have any life experience to write about,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but if I read another novel about a novelist trying to write another novel about a novelist trying to write a novel, I’m going to bang my head against a wall.”

Johnson said he was following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck: writers who had lives and saw things worth writing about.

“It took a while to find a story I thought was important enough that I had to tell it,” he said.

Johnson will address the question “How Many People Can You Kill in a Town of 25?” at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, at the West Virginia Book Festival.

A word on meeting fans, from Charlaine Harris

I’ve learned over the past several years at the Book Festival that big-name authors have different attitudes when it comes to signing books for hundreds of fans at a time. Some of them really get into it and enjoy interacting with their readers. (Diana Gabaldon comes to mind; every one of the fans in the book-signing line after her session in 2010 seemed to come away with a smile on his or her — mostly her — face.)

Other authors, not so much. It’s not that they don’t want to meet people who love their books; it’s just that they’ve obviously done this dozens of times before, and it’s part of the job.

Time will tell (in just more than a week) where this year’s authors fall on that spectrum. But I’m optimistic about Charlaine Harris. Here’s what she told Charleston Gazette reporter/editor Kathryn Gregory a couple of weeks ago.

“It’s wonderful to see people who like to read in this day and age. It’s harder and harder to muster that up,” Harris said of seeing throngs of people show up for her various book-signing appearances across the globe.

“They are there because they love books, they love to buy books and they like writers,” Harris said. “That is always the most amazing part.”

Harris said it’s not uncommon to have three generations of a family in a signing line.

“They are talking to each other about issues raised in the books or actions or what they want to happen with the characters,” Harris said. “It’s great to think that my books are providing a way for families to communicate.”

You can read the rest of Kathryn’s interview with Charlaine Harris in this Sunday’s Gazette-Mail. (And please, if you’re looking to get a book signed by Harris, make sure you know how things are going to work. She may enjoy talking with fans, but she’s on a tight schedule.)

So you know Charlaine Harris — author of many works, but best known for the Sookie Stackhouse novels — is coming to the West Virginia Book Festival next month. Right?

Of course you do. You’ve read every Sookie novel, from “Dead Until Dark” to “Deadlocked.” You’ve got every season of “True Blood” on DVD. You know all the details of the vampire mythology that Harris has spun out, and you could draw a map of Bon Temps and environs if someone asked you to.

You are a Sookie Stackhouse completist. You’ve read it all.

Or have you?

Earlier this week, Ace Books published a new anthology, “An Apple for the Creature: All-New Tales of Unnatural Education.” Charlaine Harris co-edited the collection (along with Toni L.P. Kelner), and contributed — wait for it — a brand-new, never-before-seen Sookie Stackhouse story.

Called “Playing Possum,” it’s described thus: “Sookie Stackhouse brings enough birthday cupcakes for her nephew’s entire class but finds she’s one short when the angry ex-boyfriend of the school secretary shows up.” (Some other good authors in the collection as well, including Steve Hockensmith, whose “Holmes On The Range” Sherlock/western pastiches are definitely worth your time.)

So if you really want to impress with your total knowledge of all things Sookie, you’d better check out “An Apple for the Creature.” Then, you’ll be set …

… unless, of course, you don’t have “The Sookie Stackhouse Companion” by Harris. But don’t worry; the paperback version comes out on Oct. 2 — a whole 11 days before the West Virginia Book Festival.

Hey, no one ever said being a completist would be easy.

Craig Johnson

A&E Network’s new contemporary crime series set in Big Sky Country, “Longmire,” stars Robert Taylor, Katee Sackhoff and Lou Diamond Phillips and is based upon the Walt Longmire mystery novels by best-selling author Craig Johnson.

Johnson will speak on Saturday, Oct. 13, at 11:30 a.m. at the West Virginia Book Festival. The title of his talk is “How Many People Can You Kill in a Town of 25?”

Johnson has received high praise for his novels “The Cold Dish,” “Death Without Company,” “Kindness Goes Unpunished,” “Another Man’s Moccasins,” “Hell Is Empty” and “The Dark Horse,” which was named one of Publisher’s Weekly’s best books of the year (2009). “Another Man’s Moccasins” received the Western Writers of America Spur Award for best novel of 2008 as well as the Mountains and Plains award for fiction book of the year. His latest Longmire novel, “As the Crow Flies,” was released in May.

A board member of the Mystery Writers of America, he lives in Ucross, Wyo., population 25.

Johnson joins best-selling urban fantasy novelist Charlaine Harris, best-selling author of books for teens Tamora Pierce, and children’s author Marc Tyler Nobleman, among others, in the line-up for the festival, which will be held Oct. 13 and 14 at the Charleston Civic Center. The annual, two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and lectures. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation, Pam Tarr and Gary Hart, the Friends of The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, and Books-A-Million. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

Listening to Charlaine Harris

Get it?June is Audiobook Month, so I decided to wait until the month is just about over to talk to you, gentle blog readers, about the pleasures of listening to a good book.

Now, this is not always true, but audiobooks work for series with broad characterization, zany plots, and lots of detail that make it interesting, but missing those details does not ruin the story for the reader.

Old-school cover art!This is absolutely, wonderfully true for Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampires series.  Sookie Stackhouse has a few issues – she hears people’s thoughts, which makes relating to other humans a little troublesome.  Sookie has good girlfriends, but she is catty with girls who cross her.  She likes short dresses and big hair, but she has an unfailing sense of propriety.  She’s innocent and a little naïve, but she will also kick your butt.  People seem to die around her.  A lot.  Plus, her love life is a hot mess.  She’s pretty sure Vampire Bill is the one for her, but vampire politics, other supernatural creatures, and a love of sunlight prevent the relationship from being smooth sailing.  This series is complicated, the plot is loopy and twisty, and there are like a million characters.  But it’s also super-fun, fast-paced, and Sookie is great company.

So why listen instead of reading?  Because it’s too much.  There are twelve books in the series so far, and by reading them, I can’t keep up with who is with whom and which guys are good (especially since it changes pretty often).  But listening to the audiobooks, I get enough of the characters so I can follow, but don’t get so bogged down that I can’t enjoy the ride.  And that is how I would describe this series:  a very fun, twisty, complicated, scary, funny, violent, handsome ride.

The audiobooks are narrated by Johanna Parker, who does a pretty convincing Louisiana accent (although what do I know?), and she makes Sookie – the relatable, likeable gal that Harris created – come to life.  There’s a sort of sit-down-with-a-drink-and-I’ll-tell-you-a-story quality to the books, and audiobook captures that.  Parker also does a good job with the other characters’ voices.  And there are a lot of characters.  A lot of male characters.  It’s no small feat that the listener can tell the difference between Bill and Eric and Sam and Alcide and … etc.

 This one is the author.This one is the narrator.

(Charlaine Harris, above, and Johanna Parker)

The prospect of starting a series can be daunting, especially if the series already has twelve books in it, and there’s no sign of it stopping (THANK GOODNESS).  So if you want to try Charlaine Harris (and you probably should, since she’s coming here in October), let me recommend the Sookie Oh, hey, guys.  You wanna have a reading party or something?  Cool.Stackhouse audiobooks.  (Although if you are listening to them in public, I must warn you that they are steamy.  Not as steamy as the HBO show, but let’s just say that if I was on a road trip with my dad, I would definitely choose a different audiobook.)  Start with the first one, Dead Until Dark, and work your way through Bon Temps, Dallas, Mississippi … I haven’t read them all, so I’m not really sure where else Sookie goes.  But I will be glad to be along for the ride.


Writing about the Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America last week (full list of winners and nominees here), I dwelled mostly on the nominees for Best Novel and shamefully ignored the eventual winner of the Best Critical/Biographical book award: “On Conan Doyle: or, The Whole Art of Storytelling,” by America’s best book critic, Michael Dirda.

Dirda — who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post and continues to write for them, as well as the New York Review of Books and the Barnes and Noble Review — has a Ph.D. in comparative literature and can talk about any kind of books and writing you want (although I remember him writing recently that he’s not as up on westerns as he might be). But when he talks about books, he doesn’t sound like some stuffy academic. He sounds (to use an analogy from the Gazette’s writing coach) like he’s talking to a friend on a stool at the neighborhood bar — something he knows about, growing up in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio.

“On Conan Doyle” is simultaneously a biography of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a review of Doyle’s books (Sherlock and non) and a memoir of Dirda’s fascination with Sherlockiana, from his discovery of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” as a boy to his membership in the international Sherlock Holmes society, the Baker Street Irregulars. (The subtitle of Dirda’s book is a play on Holmes’ never-completed masterwork, “The Whole Art of Detection.”)

I thought I knew a fair amount about Doyle before reading this book. He was a medical doctor who based his most famous creation on one of his professors. He considered his Holmes stories far from his best work, killing off the great detective with relief and reluctantly bringing him back by popular demand. He became involved in spiritualism in his later years, after his son died toward the end of World War I.

And after all, everyone knows Sherlock Holmes. Lots of people still read the stories, as much for the description of gaslight, Victorian London as for the mysteries. The film and TV versions are legion: Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch (that last coming back to PBS this weekend).

But Dirda explains so much more. He talks about Doyle’s “crisp narrative economy” and says he may be the best storyteller of his age. He notes that some of Doyle’s other mysteries and science fiction, which many people relegate to the margins of literary history, have much to recommend them. And he relates Doyle to his time, showing the influence that others had on him — and the considerable influence that Doyle had on those around him, and those who would follow him.

For my money, though, the best parts of “On Conan Doyle” are Dirda harkening back to his early years, remembering how it felt to encounter Holmes and his compatriots for the first time.

In the lowering darkness I turned page after page, more than a little scared, gradually learning the origin of the dreaded curse of the Baskervilles. At the end of the book’s second chapter, you may recall, the tension escalates unbearably. … [Holmes and Watson’s informant] adds, hesitantly, that near the body he had spotted footprints on the damp ground. A man’s or a woman’s? eagerly inquires the great detective, to which question he receives the most thrilling answer in all of twentieth-century literature: “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” I shivered with fearful pleasure, scrunched further down under my thick blanket, and took another bite of my Baby Ruth candy bar, as happy as I will ever be.

Edgar Award winners coming this week

Later this week, the Mystery Writers of America will announce the winners of their annual Edgar Awards. The list of nominees, announced in January, is one of my go-to places to find some quality mysteries for future reading.

For once, when the nominees for Best Novel came out, I’d already read a couple of them. One, “1222” by Anne Holt, is another in the series of Scandinavian mysteries that has dominated the mystery scene over the past few years. It’s a good one; a twist on the locked-room mystery, involving some very quirky characters and a train crash at a remote Norwegian resort in the midst of a historic blizzard.

But I’d like to see “Field Gray” by Philip Kerr get the nod. It’s the latest in his series featuring Bernie Gunther, a policeman in 1930s Germany who, when the Nazis take over, finds himself as a private investigator. The first three in the series were published between 1989 and 1991, and were republished as a collection called “Berlin Noir.” (I was sorely tempted a few years ago to blow way too much money on first editions of the originals at Read It Again, Sam in Charlottesville.)

When the series resumed in 2006, Gunther had moved on after World War II, and those books (in my opinion) didn’t measure up to the earlier ones. But with “Field Gray,” while the action jumps around over a span of 25 years, Kerr returns Gunther to the war years in a big way — it’s 1940, and Reinhard Heydrich dragoons him into the SS.

(I will also say that last year, I noted that the latest from Frank Tallis’ Max Liebermann series had been nominated, and said I’d been meaning to read him. Well, I didn’t get that done — and this year, once again, the latest book by Tallis is a finalist in the Best Paperback Mystery category. I can take a hint. Maybe.)

The winners will be announced on Thursday at the annual MWA banquet in New York City. It’s preceded by a day full of panel discussions (including one on memorable characters that includes 2010 West Virginia Book Festival presenter Diana Gabaldon).

The annual Grand Master award will go to Martha Grimes, author of the Richard Jury mystery series and several other novels. Grimes, I recently learned, has a couple of connections to the region: she was born in Pittsburgh and spent much time growing up at the Mountain Lake Hotel (which her mother owned) in Garrett County, Md., just across the state line from Preston County.