Monthly Archives: July 2013

SECRETS AND LIES

The publishing world was rocked recently with the news that the super famous, super successful and super rich  J.K. Rowling had actually written a book that no one knew about. The book, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, had been published in the spring and had gotten wonderful reviews. But it was not even close to being a blockbuster, it barely made a ripple in the sea of publishing. She did write the book, but she wrote it using another name—Robert Galbraith.

When I heard this news I was shocked and thrilled. I love that she did this and I feel bad that she could not have fooled us for a little longer. Apparently, she wanted to keep this a secret, as she had plans to write a second book as Galbraith. There was no grand plan to reveal the author behind the curtain, Rowling wanted to get no publicity for this new series of books, as J.K. Rowling, she wanted Robert Galbraith to get the credit.

Just imagine that you are J.K. Rowling. After the first Harry Potter book came out, readers were pumped up and ready for the next one and the next one. She then had to deliver the goods. I have no idea how she deals with pressure, but I can believe that she must have felt some pressure to be as good as her last book OR be even better. She had rabid fans who devoured her books and were literally turning the last page and already waiting for the next book. To her credit, she delivered again and again. Not only were the Harry Potter books financially successful, the critics praised them and most importantly, her readers loved them. And then she was done with the series. People did not know what she would write next or if she would ever write again. She is one of the wealthiest people on the planet. She does not need to work for the rest of her life. She could buy an island and have little umbrellas in her drinks…forever.

But she did write again. This time, an adult novel called THE CASUAL VACANCY and it did very well. The critics gave her generally good reviews. Some loved it and some did not loooove it, but liked it. Personally, I really liked it a lot and enjoyed reading it. I really like her as a writer. But more than anything, I admire the fact that she wrote this book, that she wanted to challenge herself as a writer. She was saying to us “I have more stories to tell”.

Some people may think that Rowling planned this big reveal, that it was a publicity stunt to sell more books. I don’t think so.  She has voiced her displeasure at how the news got leaked, as she trusted her law firm, and why not? She said that only a few people in her life knew that she had written THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, and most of her friends and family were quite stunned to hear this news.

Can you just imagine the freedom she must have felt to write this book? It must have been very liberating for her to write an adult mystery and not worry about comparisons to Harry Potter. Here was this massively successful writer who had a new book come out and it was NOT a bestseller. Here was this critically acclaimed novel that did not make big news and Rowling was okay with that. Because she knew that Robert Galbraith had more stories to write and maybe the fan base would grow. And maybe, just maybe, she would grow as a writer. But it is no surprise to hear that since the news broke, the book sales are through the roof. What does this say about really good writers who are not household names? Robert Galbraith is a mystery writer that got good reviews, but low sales. Along comes Rowling’s name, and now the book sells like crazy. It is all about the name.

I am happy that Rowling is still writing and that she will continue to give us more stories. But I really do wish that she could have kept this secret for a little longer, it would have given her this rare chance to be a nobody. When you have been famous like she has, there is something to be said about not being recognized. Rowling has dealt with pressure before and done very well, so I am not worried about her talents being blocked by this controversy. I just can understand how much fun it must have been for her, temporarily, to not be the creator of Harry Potter. For a few moments, she was this new writer who wanted his first break in the publishing world. And boy, did he get it. By the way, Robert Galbraith has a website and Rowling answers many questions about him, the book and why she did what she did. Some interesting facts are revealed, like the reason why she chose that name and that there are copies of THE CUCKOO’S CALLING that are signed by the author. Just think about that for a second.

Recommended viewing: Netflx has come out with some excellent original dramas. I really loved their version of House of Cards (the first one was British) starring Kevin Spacey. The first season is now on dvd. And now there is a fabulous new series called Orange Is The New Black and I urge you to check it out. This series is compelling and very funny.

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JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini
Ten years ago, the first novel of an unknown author was published. Let’s just say it made a big impression. THE KITE RUNNER was not only a critical hit, but was a reader’s favorite. Five years later, Khaled Hosseini published his second novel, A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS. Again, Hosseini was hailed as a master storyteller and readers were already wanting more. We now have his latest book, AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED, and I can only say he has done it again.
I am a book nerd, there is no doubt about it. I am the kind of person who gets nervous for the writer. I worry that they feel this huge pressure to follow up their latest book and I also worry that the new novel will disappoint me. You then wonder how a writer does what he does, how can he write perfection over and over? Maybe Harper Lee was right, maybe writers only have one book in them. But we know that is not true, as writers get better and better, and Hosseini is an example of this.
AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED covers three continents and sixty years. It is about love, betrayal, friendship, parenting, and memory. It has a variety of voices, places and stories and they all work wonderfully together. Hosseini is so good at creating characters that are filled with depth and have such realistic voices. For me, this new novel did not have the big emotional impact as the other books did, but that is absolutely fine. Khaled Hosseini is who you want sitting around a campfire telling everyone a story. The good news is that this is a fabulous novel, the bad news is that we will likely have to wait another five years for his next novel. But what a novel it will be!
ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO by Jonathan Tropper
And now for something completely different….I have been a Jonathan Tropper fan for many years. His lead character is always a bumbling, sad sack sort of guy who you end up rooting for. In his latest novel, Drew Silver seems like a major loser. He lives in residential hotel, he used to be a rock star for a few minutes, he is now a drummer in a wedding band, he has a beautiful ex- wife and a teen age daughter who he barely knows, and he just finds out that he has a life threatening illness. Sound like fun? You will smile and laugh at times and then it just tugs at your heart.
If you have not read Tropper’s earlier books, I encourage you to do so. His books are great for a summer read or just a good break from a heavy duty story. He has a great ear for humor and family drama and it all works out in the end. You will enjoy this read.
Recommended reading—I have just read my first Maeve Binchy book and it was her last one—A WEEK IN WINTER. I completely enjoyed it. A perfect book for the summer, a nice break for the really “dramatic” books I read. Drink some lemonade, go to Ireland and relax with Binchy.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE

It sounds like a scene from a big action film: two people popped out the ceiling tiles in a closet and dropped to the floor. They then stole 27 school exams. These were the end of the year exams that determined your final grade or if you were getting into a university. There were 27 different types of exams, on all subjects and all levels of difficulty. Every school in The Netherlands had these tests and they were supposed to be locked up in a vault, but whatever their security measures were at this particular school, they failed.

The school is a secondary school, like a high school, in Rotterdam. These exams were copied and then sold to students. Most of the students who used these exams were pupils at this one school, but a few other students from other cities also used the tests. How was this scandal revealed?  A man posted the French exam online and that was all that was needed. That was not a very smart move or excuse le mot!

Six pupils at the school have been arrested and then two more people were arrested this past week. The police have requested an interview with 58 students from the school. 5 were already on vacation and 2 failed to show up, but the police did speak to 51 students. Those questioned are believed to have used the stolen exams.

The school has made the entire student body take another exam. Obviously, a new exam was given, but all students had to take this new test. This was not welcome news for some students, especially for those who honestly studied and did not cheat. By the way, they were given only three days to take the new exams.  Some had to come back from holidays or change their flights, etc. just to take this test.  Of those who are under suspicion, the school has given them a second chance. They can take another test and continue their education, but if they do not take the test and pass, then they have to repeat the entire school year.

This is the worst case of exam fraud in Dutch history. It has been greatly investigated on local and national levels, and there is no evidence that any other school had a similar problem. But I imagine that there will be stricter guidelines in place by next year. Don’t forget that there is a criminal investigation going on, and the students could still be prosecuted.

As I write this, I am reminded of that musical classic by The Osmonds “One bad apple”. Again and again, we see the actions of a few people affect a whole community. For those kids who did not cheat, they have had to sit for exams again. Was the theft for money, for greed? Or was it because the thieves were desperate to pass the exams and knew that they could not if they did not cheat?  Just a short time ago, I had to take an exam in my Dutch language course. I was extremely stressed about it. I had Dutch verbs posted on the kitchen walls and I even posted some Dutch words in the bathroom too. I studied and studied for that exam, to the point that I would dream Dutch words and wake up with Dutch words floating in my foggy brain. I almost hyperventilated on my way to school that night, I was that nervous. The exam was long and hard and I believed that I had failed. But I was wrong…I passed. The idea of having to take another exam because a group of students cheated, would not make me a happy camper either.  And as much as we know there are bad apples in every bunch, as Donny sang, we also know that there are a lot of fabulous apples. The honest people will win.

Recommended viewing: there are so many wonderful films about being in school and I will choose just one for now. It is one of my favorite films and performances—The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie starring Maggie Smith. If you have not seen this film, please do. If you are a fan of Downton Abbey and of Maggie’s character, then you too will have a treat by seeing her as a much younger woman.

BIG BUSINESS

I have previously written two posts on this blog about the Utrecht red light district: HOUSEBOAT and MIDNIGHT RUN. Those two posts have proven to be very popular with readers from around the world. Many people use Google searching with a specific subject and they are not looking for a blog, let alone one by me. But these searches are interesting: Utrecht red light district, Utrecht prostitutes, Utrecht houseboats and my personal favorite—directions to the red light area of Utrecht. That one comes up a lot, by the way. And no, I do not provide directions or even a map.

Americans are very interested in the things that are legal here, like prostitution, smoking pot and euthanasia. Most of the questions from friends are about the uniqueness of this country, not about the windmills, the tulips or even the museums. It is the red hot neighborhood in Amsterdam that seems to get people all excited. Most people don’t even know about the Utrecht prostitution business, and I find that one more interesting. I encourage you to read the earlier posts, as it will give you a good idea about the houseboats and how business is conducted.

But I am writing today to give you an update. If the city has its way, this whole area will be closed by the end of July. This area, known as Zandpad, has 98 houseboats and  there are 17 additional rooms in the city center. A total of 200 prostitutes are working in the city (we know this because they have registered with the city). You must understand that the city has set up regulations and the owners of these establishments must follow them in order to keep their permits. The city believes that many rules have been broken. They maintain that there is much criminal activity going on, that there is human trafficking and basic bad management. The city has the authority to shut down the entire operation and they have clearly said that if things do not improve, it will shut down at the end of July.

These are serious charges, as the city is trying to be protective of the rights of the female workers. The big concern is that young women have been brought to this country for one reason, and that they are not consenting to this work. Somehow, the “owners” have had to prove in the past, that their employees are freely entering into this business. But now, it seems that the city has some valid concerns about that.

All I can tell you is that the red light area is constantly busy. There is always a steady flow of cars driving by the houseboats, at any time of day. The economy is really hurting in The Netherlands, but it seems to be doing really well in this area of the city. I assume the same is true in Amsterdam. This is no longer just some fun place to go on your list of tourist stops, this brings up some serious issues, especially for young women. I hope there is a full investigation and that only legal and consenting adults will be working in this business after July. I will keep you posted.

JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

It is so much fun to read great books! And it is even more fun when there are three in a row. Maybe you will want to read one of these….

City of Women by David R. Gillham

It is 1943 and Berlin is a city of women, as most of the men are at the front. On paper, Sigrid seems like the typical German housewife. She is working at a low level job to support herself and her mother in law, while her husband is fighting the war. Her only escape from her routine is going to the movies. There she meets her future Jewish lover and later on, a new friend who will introduce her to a life she did not know existed. Sigrid faces a significant change in her life and she gets involved with the resistance movement and risks her marriage and her life for this cause.

This is a fast paced drama and also a thriller, as readers will get caught up in the danger that Sigrid is in, it becomes quite a page turner. I highly recommend this.

Alys, Always  by Harriet Lane

Frances works for a London book magazine and feels like her career is going nowhere. She lives alone and has no real social life. But one night everything changes as she comes across a car accident and comforts the driver while emergency services arrive. The driver dies, and Frances eventually meets the grieving family. She makes connections with each of them, and slowly her life starts to change.

This is a short novel that is filled with lots of tension and fun. The best description of this book was from the New York Times when they described it as “Howards End meets All about Eve.” This is Lane’s first novel and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

This book has received impressive reviews and it is not surprise as it is from Kate Atkinson. But this is not her usual fare, and she once again proves how gifted a storyteller she is.

Ursula is born on a snowy night in 1910 and throughout the book, she is born and dies again and again. We follow her life and then we start over again. All the circumstances of her life come into play, from the night of her birth and all through the over days in her life. It is all about who is in your life, the choices we make, the historic times and sometimes it is just plain good or bad luck. Or is it?

This is just one of the most fascinating books I have read in years, and I was never bored, I was constantly connected to this story and its characters. I honestly have no idea how Atkinson wrote this novel, but I would love to get into her brain one day. This is being touted as one of the best books of the year, and I agree it should be put on a top ten list somewhere.

Recommended viewing: one of my favorite novels for young people is The Goats by Brock Cole. It has finally been made into a film. There are two titles, so look for both of them when searching for this wonderful film: The Goats or Standing Up.