fiction

back in print (sort of), and highly recommended

Bride of the Wilderness (original cover)

Bride of the Wilderness (original cover)

One of my favorite historical novels is Charles McCarry’s Bride of the Wilderness which has been out of print forever, it seems. A review I wrote sometime ago is below.

And then I discovered (just yesterday) that it has been re-released for Kindle and in unabridged audiobook form, which is great news for everybody who hasn’t read it yet. And for the rest of us, too.

Right now if you get the Kindle edition first you get the unabridged audio for about five bucks They are promoting this as a part of the technology push that allows you to listen to the audiobook and then pick up automatically with the print version where you left off with the audio. I haven’t tried to use that feature yet, but I’ll let you know when I do, and how it works.

The older review:

McCarry is best known for his political novels and for a series of espionage novels focusing on the Christopher family (there’s a good article about him here). One day he decided to sit down and write a historical novel about the founding of that family, set in the early eighteenth century in London, Canada, and the wilderness that would one day be Connecticut. There are an abundance of well drawn and striking personalities that move this story along, as well as great events from the Great Fire of London to the French and Indian War. The title is very romance-like, and in fact there is an incredible love story (‘incredible’ just doesn’t do it, and I would insert a lot more adjectives here but I’m holding back) at the heart of this novel, but its scope is broad.

Review: The Burn Palace, Stephen Dobyns

The Burn Palace (review)

February 2013

The Burn Palace
Stephen Dobyns

  • Publisher: Blue Rider Press (February 7, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0399160876
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399160875

I had an advance copy of this novel for review purposes, and I must say I’m pleased to have been able to read it sooner than later. Because it was that good.

If you look up what information is available you may see this described as a horror novel. It is not. However, I can’t give you a cubbyhole to put it in, not even a pithy title x meets title y kind of description. So here are the basics: a small town in Rhode Island, a series of inexplicable and sometimes bizarre crimes and murders (some of the details are horrifying, but just briefly), and a healthy rumor mill that works overtime in order to come up with an explanation which will make the whole business less creepy. Because there are some creepy elements. So the stories of Satanists, baby cannibalism, orgies, Wicca excesses and shape shifters begin to make the rounds and evolve until you’ve got a town on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is the framework of the story, the engine that keeps it going. Continue reading…

talking about reading

Sandi at Fresh Fiction has posted about what it’s like for her to give up on a novel she’s reading. She feels compelled to finish, no matter how bad the match. This reminds me of the fact that I still feel guilty for reading all morning. I read and write for a living, but it was drummed into me as a kid that I READ TOO MUCH, and I can’t shake it. Even though I do, sometimes, read all morning.

As far as starting a book that doesn’t work for me, here’s my routine: I put the book-that-isn’t-working into one of three piles:

Pile 1: The problem has to do with me. It’s where I am at this moment, emotionally or in terms of work. I can see that I might like or even love this novel at a different time — or at least, that I might learn something — but that day is not today. I put the book on the “try again later” pile. On second reading, this novel may be recategorized as Pile 2 material.

Pile 2: The story is sound, but the  subject matter is inherently not a good match. Example: A few years ago there was a historical novel, the title of which I am blocking out. It had to do at least in part with the development of hypodermic syringes. It doesn’t matter if it is best book ever written, I can’t read it. It goes into the “probably worthwhile but I can’t for personal reasons” pile. I don’t read religiously-themed, cautionary novels (what are those romances called again?) for the same reason. There are most likely many such novels that are very well written and plotted, but I am not the right reader for them.

Piles 3a and 3b: There are two kinds of unreadable novels, in my view of things. One is so horrifically poorly put together that I keep reading it in the same way I would keep watching a propane truck skidding at high speed  into  backed-up traffic on the other side of the highway. I think of it as the awful-book trance. I could name three such novels without trying, but I won’t because (1) there’s nothing to be gained by hurting anybody’s feelings  and (2) there’s a lot to be lost by offending them. Offending another writer just for the thrill of it is a useless and counterproductive thing to do. It damages my  self-respect, but there’s  also the possibility that I will be launching  a wild-fire-type internet war. Some people thrive on the chaos of battle. Some people are almost pathologically  provocative and offensive (think: Ann Coulter). That doesn’t work for me. This is not to say that I never get involved in such battles; just that I avoid them if at all possible.

And finally there’s the book that I cannot find any value in, not even in the abstract.  Pile 3b contains  the ones I donate to the library, because it is possible that somebody else will find value in them. Hard to imagine, but possible.

Pile 3a is an interesting category, because any author lives on both sides of it. If I come across a novel that is really, really bad, I will not write about it here unless there is something to be learned, and I can do it in a way that it is at least somewhat objective.  I can only remember one review I’ve written of a novel that stunk, and it took me a long time to decide to write it, and a long time to get the tone right.  People who don’t write for a living but who talk about books online don’t have the same inhibitions, which is to be expected and even welcome. How else does an author get honest feedback?

Google sends me an email when somebody posts something about one of my books. I usually go have a look, and this is where I find out where other people rank my stuff.  It might be something fantastic — just recently a major author mentioned on her discussion board that she was loving Pajama Girls, for example. This is not somebody I have met or corresponded with, so it was very gratifying, because I respect that person’s work and opinion. On the other extreme, this is one paragraph in a longer post (dated June 2008) from a young woman who graduated from college a few years ago, and who is active in the theater. She did not like — really did not like — Pajama Girls. My Pajama Girls fall into her category 3b:

There are several troubling elements in this modern Southern romance. The handful of African American characters are treated like caricatures from a minstrel show. Agnostics are referred to as heathens. And “Yankees,” in general, are objects of scorn and suspicion. Local churches stage haunted houses about the dangers of birth control. Grown women are referred to as “girls.” This portrayal of the South may or may not be realistic, but it will likely inspire more irritation than amusement in feminist readers.

And that’s not the worst of it, but honest feedback means just that, and it’s sometimes pretty brutal. So what did I do?

Nothing. The author is entitled to her reading.  I may find the way she expresses herself strident and her interpretation offensive, but she’s within her rights.  It seems to me that she has not read very closely, but that’s not a discussion I can have with her. Any response from me would be seen as bellicose or self-serving or worse still, bullying.  So I didn’t respond, and I haven’t put a link here, because the idea is not to have anybody else respond, either.

I do wonder if she wrote her review thinking that I would see it, or assuming I would not. I’m not sure what either of those would mean.  For my own part, I try to remember that I shouldn’t write anything on the internet that I wouldn’t be comfortable repeating to somebody’s face. This doesn’t mean I can’t be honest in a review about a book I don’t like, but it does make me think about my tone and approach.  Which is why I keep this little reminder  on a sticky note on my computer: You can no more take something off the internet than you can take pee out of a swimming pool. (Attribution unknown)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Review

[asa book]0307269752[/asa] Stieg Larsson  wrote a three-novel series in his spare time, and didn’t think much about getting them published until just before he died of a heart attack at age 50. The series (this is the first) was published posthumously. Larsson led an interesting life. One bit from his wikipedia entry which is relevant to the novels:

In 1981 Larsson went to work for the largest Swedish news agency, Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå (TT). His political convictions, as well as his journalistic experiences, led him to found the Swedish Expo Foundation, similar to the British Searchlight Foundation, established to expose racist and totalitarian organisations and tendencies; he also became the editor of the foundation’s magazine Expo. Larsson quickly became instrumental in documenting and exposing Swedish extreme right and racist organisations; he was an influential debater, lecturer and leading expert on the subject, living for years in the shadow of death threats from his political enemies.

First, the story: The opening chapter had me worried, because it was heavy on issues of banking and economics in Sweden. My patience was rewarded though, because this is a great story. The primary characters are Mikael Blomkvist, a middle aged journalist (co-founder of a small magazine that exists to expose injustice and financial fraud glossed over by the traditional media), and Lisbeth Salander, a young woman with tattoos, a horrific family and personal background, some Aspergerish-symptoms, and a photographic memory. They are both interesting, but Salander (she is rarely referred to as Lisbeth) is one of those characters that sticks with you.

The story resolves around a thirty-year-old mystery. Henrik Vanger, an elderly former indulstrialist with lots of money and time, hires Mikael to find out once and for all who was responsible for the death of his brother’s daughter Harriet. Salander comes into this investigation through some backdoors, and finds that Mikael is one of the few people in the world who are neither intimidated nor infuriated by her. And so they set off to sort through what turns out to be a very complex story involving almost all of the viperous Vanger clan.

I’m somewhat jaded when it comes to thrillers and crime novels, but Larsson kept me interested. More than interested. It doesn’t happen very often that my mind keeps turning back to a book in progress, so that I find excuses to read for another hour. I did that with this story.

Another aspect to this novel that intrigued and surprised me was the social and political setting of modern Sweden. I should know better, but I’ve always romanticized the place. Not in terms of its looks; I could never live anywhere with a winter darker and bleaker than the one I’ve got already. But I have thought of Sweden as a kind of perfect place in terms of social justice. Most people hate the idea of living someplace with such high tax rates, but I would pay that much and more to know that everybody was fed and warm and had access to health care. So call me a socialist, I don’t consider it an insult.

What I never thought about (but should have) is that Sweden has its fair share of greedy bankers and unscrupulous industrialists and predatory authority figures. Even worse, I wasn’t aware that women are not treated well. To put it mildly. Every section options with a factoid about the lot of Swedish women, who are abused and assaulted at levels that shocked me. Violence against women, the failure of the media to do its job, the greed and corruption of big industry, and a narrow but persistent streak of racism, anti-semitism,  of fascism and Nazi-worship.

All of these less-than-savory aspects of modern Swedish culture are relevant to this story, though that won’t seem obvious at first.

The novel is (of course) translated into English from the original Swedish, and there are some passages that border on the clumsy. Nevertheless, the story is well plotted and intriguing. If you like meaty mysteries in the style of Dennis Lehane, you’ll probably like this.