Wednesday, July 31, 2013

People Are Freaking Out About the New Cover of Flowers in the Attic

It’s only been a few months ago that people lost their minds over the repackaging of The Bell Jar.  Now it’s V. C. Andrews’ 1979 trash classic Flowers in the Attic. This time the uproar might be justified, if a little overdramatic. Here’s the new cover, and if you know the plot, you’ll either gasp in horror or bust your gut laughing:

The new cover for the Kindle edition of Flowers in the Attic has nary a hint of what's inside.

Yep, that’s the cover Pocket Books has chosen for a story about kids locked in the attic by their religiously fanatical grandmother. There’s little hint of the abuse, neglect, or the subsequent explicitly-rendered incestuous sex between the brother and sister. (Couldn’t they at least make the house seem like it’s looming a little, or make the sun less sunshiney?)

I’m sure this version might trick some unsuspecting youngsters into thinking it’s a Nicholas Sparks-esque heart-warmer of a romance. Some might be scarred for life. Some will likely devour the sequels in rapid succession. 

The first edition of Flowers in the Attic was more in keeping with the psycho-thrillers of the era.

It would have been exactly the sort of thing I would have been thrilled to find when I was an adolescent. My mother didn’t often outright ban me from reading books, but she wasn’t very keen on my reading books with content that was too adult. The trick I learned was to seek out books that had young adult-looking covers, but with lots of juicy stuff inside. For kids today that are anything like I was, this book is like a stash box of smut.

What no one’s really remarking on is the fact that this new cover is for the Kindle version. So far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist in a print version  -- and likely never will, thanks to the hooplah. Do people pay that close of attention to e-book covers?

For anyone who missed the sleaze in its first bazillion printings, you can get the e-book right now for only $1.99.

What do you think about the romantic packaging for a book with a darker -- and more tawdry  -- story inside? Are you freaking out or chuckling?

Monday, July 29, 2013

10 of the Best Free Classic Mysteries for Your Kindle

Amazon makes it difficult to find free books, and that’s understandable: they are, after all, a business. The lack of a browsable list of all free books, though, means that those who want a bargain have to know what they’re looking for in the first place. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that Amazon is also listing fewer and fewer free books in the “customers also bought …” recommendations.

I’ve come across quite a few classic mysteries in my own searches, and I’ve gathered some of the best here for you. These are all public domain books, so the free price isn’t part of a limited-time special.

Most of these are also available at Project Gutenberg, if you need them in alternate formats. Click the titles below to download the free copies at Amazon.

Last photo of Jacques Futrelle, taken on the Titanic.

Jacques Futrelle has been a favorite of mine since reading “The Problem of Cell 13” in one of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes anthologies. This short is a great introduction to Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, known as “The Thinking Machine” for his logical approach to crime. Futrelle’s writing career was unfortunately cut short at age 37 by his fatal trip on the Titanic.

Early edition of Orczy's The Old Man in the Corner.

Most people know Orczy’s name as the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel, but they don’t often know that she penned more than a dozen sequels to it, plus piles of other novels and short stories. Her stories featuring an old man who solves mysteries from his chair in a tea room while in conversation with a journalist may be the first example of a literal armchair detective.

Tommy and Tuppence, Christie's cool couple.

Most Christie fans fall into either the Miss Marple or the Hercule Poirot camps, but now and then you run into Tommy and Tuppence people. The Secret Adversary is the first book featuring the young and carefree couple (Thomas Beresford and Prudence Beresford), who seem to evoke the spirit of the ‘20s more than any of Christie’s other creations.

Rinehart's novel was revised as The Bat.

Rinehart isn’t for everyone, but her books are notable for several reasons. She’s credited with being the source of “the butler did it” (not from this book -- no spoilers!), and with The Circular Staircase began the trend that came to be known as the “Had I but known” style of writing. The book was turned into an immensely successful stage play with the addition of a character called “the Bat”, after which she rewrote the book as The Bat, incorporating the changes. Bob Kane cites it as the original source of Batman.

A later pulp edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps.

You’ve likely heard of The Thirty-Nine Steps even if you’re unfamiliar with the novel. It’s been filmed four times, including the famous Hitchcock version. Published in 1915, it’s credited with popularizing, if not inventing, the “man on the run” type of thriller that is now a Hollywood staple.

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, first in the series featuring the now-iconic villain.

The first of the Dr. Fu Manchu series (titled The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu in the UK), this book introduces the character that has become synonymous with evil criminal masterminds. He’s referred to as "the greatest genius which the powers of evil have put on the earth for centuries."

Philip Trent makes a mess of the case, but the end result is plenty entertaining.

E. C. Bentley supposedly wrote Trent’s Last Case in 1913 as an answer to Arthur Conan Doyle. Bentley was annoyed with Holmes’ perfection, so he created artist-cum-journalist Philip Trent, who is more notable for what he gets wrong. Agatha Christie called it one of the three best mystery novels of all time.

A Spanish version of Raffles' exploits.

Don’t think for a minute that the likeable bad guy is a modern invention. A. J. Raffles, “the gentleman thief”, was wooing Late Victorian-Era readers in 1899. Raffles moves in high society, plays cricket, and is also an ingenious burglar. In many ways, he’s the anti-Holmes.

One of the original illustrations for Mortmain.

This short was one of my favorite discoveries of last year, and the inspiration for the hand-with-a-mind-of-its-own that turns up in films like The Hands of Orlac and Mad Love. It’s the wacky surgeon rather than the victim that really steals the show, though, and his bizarre experiments make this a story to remember.

Frontispiece to the original French book.

While a few of the titles here were inspired by Sherlock Holmes, this one’s the opposite: the Holmes stories were at least partly inspired by Gaboriau’s Lecoq. (Holmes calls him a “miserable bungler” in A Study in Scarlet.) Lecoq himself was a spin-off character from Gaboriau’s earlier L'Affaire Lerouge, in which Lecoq is introduced as a young police officer.

Have you found any free classic mystery e-books worth noting? Please comment, so we can all share the book bounty.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What I Learned In a Sex Writing Class -- and Why Every Writer Should Take One

On a Saturday afternoon, just a few hours before I had to be at work, I found myself climbing the narrow stairs leading up to belly dancing studio. I was about to take a sex writing class. Specifically, I was about to take a class called “How to Write About Sex for Fun and Profit.”

Kali Meister's promo for the workshop. She didn't actually wear this outfit, but the board made an appearance.

While the choice of venue was probably due mostly to the logistics of finding empty studio space on a Saturday afternoon, the decor in our room was almost alarmingly literal for our purposes. The smell of incense had worked its way into the wood. There were soft cushions flung about, something that might be a pair of adult-sized wings in a corner, and a lit candle flickering on a low table. It was impossible for me to ignore the unintentional symbolism of a red lantern. I moved a guitar out of the way and settled in on a plush love seat.

I had no idea what to expect. I had spent an hour debating about what to even wear. (“What do you wear to a sex writing class?” I asked my Facebook friends. “Emily Post is strangely silent on the matter.”)

There were two reasons I decided to take this workshop, and one of them is Kali Meister. She’s an actress, a writer, a teacher, a filmmaker, and about a dozen other things. She’s hilarious and smart. My effusiveness is going to make it sound like I’m doing a plug for a pal, so I’ll be clear about the fact that I’ve only met her twice, but I definitely keep up with what she’s doing --which seems to be everything. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn she can also rebuild carburetors or can play classical music on wine glasses. I do know this: if she wanted to do either of those things, she would. And she’d be damned good at them, too.

The other reason is that, while I don’t feel like I have a problem writing about sex … I have a problem writing about sex. I have a short story that has stalled because I feel like something’s missing, and a novel project with a crucial sex scene that I’ve managed to write completely around. I’ve been telling myself that I’m saving it for last because it won’t be difficult, when in all honesty, I’m saving it for last because I don’t want to actually have to write it.

I went into the workshop looking for the fast fix. I was hoping for a list of tips, like the writer’s equivalent of an article in Cosmo -- something I could scan, pick and choose from, finding the ones that are right for me in the midst of all the goofy stuff. A part of me was also hoping for a magic formula. The setting sure seemed right for it, with the heady smells and the Oriental rugs. I half expected Kali to crook a finger, move us in more closely, and begin in a whispery voice: “Here’s what you do ….”

Spoiler alert: I wasn’t given a magic formula. And, while I did glean some useful tips, they weren’t in the form of a checklist called “100 Brand New Tricks for Super-Hot Sex Scenes You Can Write This Weekend.”

Though focused on sex writing in particular, the class wasn’t specifically about erotica, and it certainly wasn’t about writing the next 50 Shades of Grey. Kali was quick to point out the sexual content in all kinds of literature, reading excerpts from Bastard Out of Carolina and The Bell Jar. Neither were scenes meant to titillate, especially in the Dorothy Allison reading, which dealt with child abuse. It’s a disturbing bit of writing with a distinct literary voice. It’s haunting. But, most importantly for the purposes of the class, it’s also sexual. Sex is not just about what is sexy alone, we were told, and the book excerpts made that clear. Its not even just about the act itself. “You can have a sexual experience eating a cupcake,” Kali laughed.

She also talked about the fact that every person is a sexual being -- something to remember when developing characters. “Even virgins can write good erotica,” Kali said. In case we doubted the fact, she asked us to remember what it was like to be one, and the kinds of thoughts and fantasies we had. Point taken. Who else is capable of writing good sex scenes? Really bad lovers. Sex scenes don’t have to be about perfect experiences any more than sex itself is always a good experience. Kali asked us as a group, “Every time you have sex, is it a great experience?” Everyone shook their heads (with one woman alarmingly quick to shout “Noooooooooooo!”).

I won’t detail everything covered, partly because I feel like the content of an instructor’s workshop ought to belong to her, it’s her work, but I also know that each writer gleans something different in a class. What was important for me to learn may not have been what the other people in the class took with them. I do hope that everyone took Kali’s advice to try to write what shames you. “Write it,” she said, practically begging us. “Write it, write it, write it!”

What I ultimately learned is useful for any kind of writing. Between the readings and the discussions and the free-writing exercises, I took copious notes, but if I were to reduce them all to their essence, it comes down to two things.

1) Break down your boundaries.
2) Be authentic.

Fast fixes don’t work for writing good scenes any better than Cosmo lists can give you a fulfilling sex life. I made some steps toward breaking down some boundaries by going to the workshop in the first place, and I’m now armed with some ideas for next steps. Take a sex writing class, if you can find one in your area. As Kali might say: Take it, take it, take it!

Check out Kali Meister’s website, or find her on Facebook, where she dispenses wisdom and wit useful to writers, filmmakers, and interesting humans of all kinds. If you live in the Knoxville area, keep an eye out for one of Kali’s workshops.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

5 More of the Weirdest Self-Published Books

For every brilliant self-publishing success, there seem to be about a thousand books that probably shouldn’t have seen the light of day. There are so many grammatically unsound novels and deathly dull memoirs these days that it’s barely worth remarking on.

But then there are the other self-published books. Far from dull, they’re so unusual as to make you do a double take. Who wrote them? And for whom? And, for the love of Pete, why?

I’ve sifted through the chaff so you don’t have to, and here are five more standouts. If you missed 5 Strangely Specific Self-Published Book Titles, give it a look as well, especially if your head could do with some scratching.

The Bible Code: Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed by Pamela Lillian Valemont 

"Verily I say unto thee: she was six weeks pregnant."

What really happened to Diana and Dodi in that tunnel in Paris? Well, if anybody knows anything, it’s gotta be Ancient Jews. 

How to Get a Nun Into Bed by Richard Grayson 

"Let me tell you about my seminary experiences."

Props to Grayson for at least recognizing that pick-up techniques are not one-size-fits-all. Double props for using himself on the cover -- that photo’s bound to melt off a scapular or two.

The story of an American tragedy, as it can only be told by internet-lurking glam-rock nerds.

While mostly a  collection of old message board posts made by Bowie fans in the days surrounding 9-11, this book also promises “hilarious chat excerpts,” so it’s not a total downer. Don’t worry that it’s just for message board insiders, either: the description asserts that even newcomers will enjoy hearing about “how things were in the good ol’ days when BowieNet Version 2 (with the green tile motif) first came online.” Ah, the good ol’ days. Tell us more, grandpa!

"Don't look at me. SHE'S the weird one. I'm regular."

Presumably for those who didn’t glean enough from John Gray’s Men Are From a Regular Place, Women Are From Somewhere Weird.

"Paramours" is misspelled on the cover, so maybe Mr. Bond needs a dictionary, too.

This book promises to tell all about Oprah’s hidden sexual agenda and carries a warning that it’s “an adult book with graphic language.” The author notes that “You will also need a dictionary to understand this book.” If it’s that graphic, maybe he means urbandictionary. *

*I could have linked to the site’s main page, but that particular page came up in my browser history and amused me no end.

Have you come across any no-publisher/small publisher weirdness? Please share. Ain’t nobody wearin’ a feather hat.