Bill Bryson is an author with a fan base so devoted that his public appearances invariably are SRO, as was the case when he appeared in October 2013 for the Bee Book Club. He’d just published “One Summer,” an examination of the astounding events and curiosities that took place in the United States over five short months in 1927.
On the other hand, when “A Walk In the Woods” hit the big screen in September, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, most moviegoers had no idea it was adapted from Bryson’s 1998 memoir of his travels on the Appalachian Trail. Bill who? they wondered.
Well, the “insanely curious” travel writer-humorist-memoirist-historian, 64, is back on the scene with his 25th book, “The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain” (Doubleday, $29, 400 pages; on sale Jan. 19). The reviews are tantalizingly positive, and a flip-through of the advance reading copy made me laugh out loud.
In a way, “Little Dribbling” can be viewed as his “follow-up” to “Notes From a Small Island” (1995), a hilarious travel book that was really an homage to the British people. Bryson became a national hero in Great Britain after it was published, earning a long list of honors and awards including an Order of the British Empire for his “contribution to literature.”
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Over the decades, Bryson and his British wife have moved back and forth between England and the United States (he was born in Des Moines, Iowa). They have resided in a restored 19th-century rectory in a village near Norfolk, England, since 2003, but make frequent trips to the United States. He says of the situation, “I’m very happy to divide my time between the two countries, but in a perfect world I might spend my afternoons in England and the evenings in America.” Visit him at www.billbrysonbooks.com.
Sleuthing Dashiell Hammett’s early life
Modern crime fiction owes a debt to Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), whose sparse prose, “hard-boiled” characters and twisty plots remain influential to this day. He wrote volumes of short stories, but is best known for his half-dozen novels, especially “The Maltese Falcon” (1930) and “The Thin Man” (1934).
“The Thin Man” became a six-film franchise (1934-47) starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as hard-partying husband-wife sleuths Nick and Nora Charles, who never met a cocktail they didn’t like and who never made a move without Asta, their wire-haired terrier. The setup was so entertaining that Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk took over the roles in a weekly half-hour TV series (1957-59).
With that as some context, the new “The Lost Detective” by Nathan Ward brings Hammett into the spotlight once more (Bloomsbury, $26, 240 pages). Ward clarifies Hammett’s rather obscure early life, for instance offering insight into what moved him to transform from a Pinkerton National Detective Agency operative into a detective-fiction writer.
P.S.: Here’s a bit of Hammett trivia from the biography: The year before Knopf published “The Thin Man” and sold the movie rights to MGM for $21,000, the first chapter had been offered to and turned down by many national magazines. The reason was over the upcoming book’s “apparent hard-drinking lewdness and amorality.” Finally, Redbook bought the chapter for $26,000 and “expurgated” a “scandalous” exchange between Nick and Nora. Knopf later used the censorship issue in its New York Times ad campaign for the book, which became a hit.
Fiction to anticipate
Three upcoming titles are worth noting, all novels. “Blackjack” by Robert Knott continues his four-title homage to the late Robert B. Parker’s Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch series (Putnam, $27, 336 pages, Feb. 2).
The Old West marshals must deal with the notorious Boston Bill Black and his bunch when they show up in the growing town of Appaloosa (which was the title of the 2008 movie starring Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen). This is the most satisfying of Knott’s Cole-Hitch tales, with a shocking double-twist ending.
FYI, in 2012 the Parker estate made a deal with publisher Putnam to continue the Parker franchises, awarding them to three veteran writers. Ace Atkins has the Spenser books, Reed Farrel Coleman the Jesse Stone mysteries and Knott the Cole-Hitch adventures. Atkins will appear July 21 for the Bee Book Club.
C.J. Box, self-described “novelist of the contemporary West,” surprised everyone (but mostly himself) with the momentum-gathering success of his 16-title Joe Pickett series. Pickett is a likable but iconoclastic game warden and troubleshooter who lives in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains and, like Box, has a wife and three daughters.
The bad guys keep showing up in Pickett’s universe in “Off the Grid,” an adventure he shares with his deadly pal and sometime partner-in-crimefighting Nate Romanowski, a master falconer and former Special Forces operative (Putnam, $27, 384 pages, March 8). “I like having Joe and Nate run on different tracks (in ‘Grid’), with the assumption they’ll get together at some point,” Box said. That they do, thwarting a terrorist plot and saving the life of Pickett’s oldest daughter.
Box has appeared for the Bee Book Club. Visit him at www.cjbox.net.
Veteran novelist Gregg Hurwitz has debuted a new series with “Orphan X” (Minotaur, $26, 368 pages; Jan. 19). The orphaned Evan Smoak has been trained as an assassin since age 12, but, as an adult, deserts the clandestine government program and vanishes. He transforms into a “rogue operator” known as the Nowhere Man, a protector of innocent and vulnerable “civilians.” Now his handlers are coming after him. Film rights have already gone to Warner Bros.
Sci-fi to go
Penguin has published science-fiction novels since the mid-1930s. A cool twist is its “Science Fiction Postcards: 100 Book Covers In One Box,” a collection starring “the heavyweights of the genre as well as some of the weirdest and cult classics you may not have heard of” (edited by Brian Aldiss, $25). The foreword makes it clear: “Science fiction covers were inspired by surrealism, psychedelia and pop art.”
Mail them to your sci-fi-loving friends. Let’s see, there’s “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “The Day of the Triffids” by John Wyndham, “The Wind From Nowhere” by J.G. Ballard, “The Day After Judgment” by James Blish, “The Circus of Dr. Lao” by Charles G. Finney, and so on.
Beyond that is the latest in “The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy” series, edited by Joe Hill and John Joseph Adams (Mariner, $15, 368 pages). In his foreword, Adams writes, “The finest science fiction and fantasy are on a par with the finest works of literature in any genre, and the goal of this series is to prove it.”
Helping with that is “The Relive Box” by California’s own T.C. Boyle, first published in The New Yorker magazine. The veteran author founded the creative writing program at the University of Southern California and now is its writer-in-residence. His latest novel, the 15th, is “The Harder They Come.”