Category Archives: Fiction

Blogging through LOTR: Anglo-Saxon echoes

Anglo-Saxons

‘Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?’

‘A man may do both,’ said Aragorn. ‘For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!’

I’ve been looking for Norse elements in The Two Towers. Of all the LOTR books, I think this one is richest in Scandinavian echoes – or at least Anglo-Saxon, which is as close as makes almost no difference, when you’re thinking of the Age of Beowulf (who lived in what is now Sweden, after all). Because the Rohirrim are plainly modeled on the Anglo-Saxons (though I suspect a tribe of horsemen would have developed the kite-shaped shield by this point, as the Normans did when they took to fighting on horseback).

There’s the boat-burial of Boromir, similar to the classic (mythical) Viking burial. Although most people think of ship burials at sea as a Viking custom, it’s actually undocumented in history or archaeology. Where it comes from is a passage in Beowulf (fully legendary), and the funeral of Baldur in Norse mythology (fully mythical). But it works well for the kind of high fantasy we’re involved with here. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: Anglo-Saxon echoes

‘Ricochet Joe,’ by Dean Koontz

I took another brief break from The Two Towers to read this new release from Dean Koontz. It wasn’t a long break. This is a Kindle Single, little more than a short story, and correspondingly inexpensive.

Fans of the Odd Thomas books will find Ricochet Joe evocative. The hero is Joe Mandel, an ordinary young man living in a small town. He goes to college, dreams of writing a novel, and volunteers for community clean-up projects. One day he picks up an empty rum bottle and feels a sudden, irresistible compulsion to run to a particular Corvette automobile. Touching the Corvette leads him to a further goal, until at last he’s in a position to stop a mugging. He also meets Portia Montclair, the beautiful young daughter of the local chief of police. She understands what’s happening to him, and soon Joe finds himself conscripted into a cosmic battle between good and evil – a battle that will cause him to make a heart-wrenching sacrifice.

The book is enhanced, if you read it on a Kindle device or app, by illustrations featuring built-in animation. The enhanced pictures are cool, but I don’t know that they added a whole lot to the reading experience. But hey, they came at no extra charge.

Ricochet Joe is not the greatest of Dean Koontz’s stories. It’s over too soon to really engage the reader. But it’s Koontz and it’s entertaining, and there’s another supernatural dog, and I recommend it. It won’t cost you much.

Blogging through LOTR: “Write what you know”

The Fellowship of the Ring

Frodo felt that he was in a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness. When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among the Elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlórien.

I have finished my latest re-reading of The Fellowship of the Ring (don’t ask me how many times I’ve read it; I haven’t kept count. I know many a geek has surpassed me in that department).

The last time I read the Trilogy was in the wake of the releases of the Peter Jackson movies. I remember that I had to struggle a bit to override the film images in my imagination (as I’ve mentioned before). This time through, although the “struggle” remained, it bothered me less. I found that I relished the depth and scope of the book, compared to film with its many limitations (even in wide-screen with special effects).

Continuing my theme from last night’s post, I was most struck by the sense of time in the book – an impression of a comprehensive history, often only hinted at but lurking behind every corner. You can learn much of that greater history in the works that Christopher Tolkien has given us, but frankly I’ve never had the patience for all that. I don’t need to know the details. I just need to know it’s there, adding a deeper perspective to the epic narrative.

This is a lesson to writers.

Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” And that’s good advice, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “Write only about your own life and experiences.” You can know many things outside your experience. Tolkien writes with such authority about the Third Age of Middle Earth (which, if you didn’t know, corresponds to the Norse term for our planet in mythological terms – Midgard) because he had put in a lot of hard work creating a coherent world with a coherent history, including languages. All those things were imaginary, but he “knew” them because he’d spent so much time with it all. That’s what we really mean when we say, “Write what you know.” We mean know your basic material, even if you’re making it up. Do your spade work before you plant. We live in the golden age of research – the internet gives you access to resources the greatest scholars of the past could only dream of. Take advantage of them.

Blogging through LOTR: A matter of time

Beside the standing stone Gimli halted and looked up. It was cracked and weather-worn, and the faint runes upon its side could not be read. ‘This pillar marks the spot where Durin first looked in the Mirrormere,’ said the dwarf. ‘Let us look ourselves once, ere we go!’

Happy New Year to you. In this season we think about time, which “like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.” That makes this a good day, I aver, to discuss the question of time in The Lord of the Rings. At least some aspects I’ve noticed.

I’ve been looking for hints of Norse influences in The Fellowship of the Ring, which I’m still reading (almost done now). One such element seems to be the runestone that Gimli visits, shortly after the escape from Moria (excerpt above).

But the stone is illegible, thanks to time and weather. And that got me thinking about time and the concept of ancient things in the Trilogy. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: A matter of time

Blogging through LOTR: The pictures in our heads

The Fellowship of the Ring

In recording my Lord of the Rings reading impressions, I keep reminding myself that I’ve got to let the movies go. The web is full of criticism of the films. I can add nothing useful.

But let me say this. I read visually. I stage the scenes in my head, and watch them (more or less) like movies.

The real world movies are hard to get free of. Humans are visual creatures. Things we see inevitably supersede things we imagine, however vividly. As I read (I’m on The Fellowship of the Ring now), I consciously attempt to recall to myself the actual book descriptions, but the actors and sets of the films keep washing over them. (For instance, Frodo is described in the books as “fair,” meaning blond. Doesn’t look much like Elijah Wood at all). For that reason I appreciate the undramatized sections of the novels even more. They are unadulterated, so to speak.

Not that I’m complaining. The movies have many excellencies which I enjoyed. But when I’m reading I want to engage with Professor Tolkien himself. Since the movies came out, they are my main deceivers. But I had deceivers before then – mainly my own misunderstandings.

For instance, on my first reading I got the elves completely wrong. I was in high school at the time, and I still thought of elves as “little” people. I don’t know how I missed the description at the banquet in Rivendell, where both Glorfindel and Elrond are described as being taller than Gandalf. But I did. I imagined elves as basically like dwarves (even to having beards), but better looking. When at last I was disabused of that fallacy (I think my college roommate might have done it), I abandoned it with pleasure.

That was around the time I met a girl who was very like Goldberry. I see her still, in my imagination, every time I read the books. I’m glad no movie actress has superseded that image.

Blogging through LOTR: Concerning dwarves

Seven dwarfs

Continuing blogging my reading of The Lord of the Rings. Still on The Hobbit.

I have an idea that, if J. R. R. Tolkien had gotten the chance to see the Peter Jackson movies, he would have found the Lord of the Rings movies acceptable in parts. But he would have disliked the Hobbit movies intensely.

One of several things he would have hated in the Hobbit movies is the appearance of the dwarves. Both Tolkien and Lewis were keenly interested in dwarves (or dwarfs), and had definite opinions about them. Lewis writes (in Surprised by Joy, I think) about how he loved dwarfs as a boy, “before Disney vulgarized them.” He describes dwarfs as having long beards and wearing hoods. The dwarfs in the Narnia books are always dressed that way. Likewise, Tolkien’s dwarves always wear hoods except when they wear armor.

Peter Jackson, or his costume designers, apparently disliked hoods. Gimli never wears a hood in the movies. I think a hood or two shows up in the Hobbit films, but they’re gotten rid of fairly quickly. Maybe actors won’t wear them because they put their faces in shadow. Aragorn was supposed to wear a hood when traveling as Strider, too. But it’s almost never up.

Tolkien (and by Tolkien, I mean me, because I’m assuming he’d agree with me) would have hated the Dwarf-Elf romance, and the necessity of making one of the dwarfs “sexy” in order to achieve the unlikely goal of attracting a goddess-like Elf. I don’t think he wanted Thorin to look as heroic as the movies make him, either. Tolkien’s assessment of dwarves’ characters is interesting.

There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.

That passage is interesting in light of the fact (I don’t know its source, but it’s commonly cited as authentic by Tolkien scholars) that Tolkien modeled his dwarves, at least in part, on the Jews. The passage above parallels pretty well the opinion of a broad-minded Englishman of Tolkien’s time, when pressed on the subject. It sounds condescending to us, but in that day it was commendably tolerant. It’s consistent with the Professor’s famous retort to German publishers when they queried him about his pure Aryan ancestry.

The Hobbit movies went wrong in so many ways. I’ve heard that somebody’s done a cut that reduces them to one movie, excising all Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit Helper” extensions. I’d love to see that. Tolkien and Lewis might even have tolerated it.

Netflix’s ‘Bright’

Watch a trailer for the new Netflix movie Bright and you’ll see exactly what the movie is, a buddy cop story within an urban fantasy world. As such it stands up well, but, boy, I wish they had shown restraint in the usual content areas.

Will Smith is veteran cop Daryl Ward who has been given rookie cop Nick Jakoby, played by Joel Edgerton, as a diversity hire to meet Los Angeles’s political requirements. Jacoby is an orc. As he described it, his people chose the wrong side long ago and have been paying for it ever since. In a couple conversations, we hear of the nine races who were brought together 2,000 years ago to defeat the dark lord. Now some bad elves want to bring him back, so naturally that’s not going to fly.

The essence of the story is the Ward coming to terms with his bigotry against Jakoby and Jakoby persevering through that and everything else without losing hope. That part is painfully realistic.  Everyone on the force hates him despite his eagerness to please them and be a good cop. They refuse to believe he will remain loyal to his partner or the force at large when pressured by other orcs.

It’s a straight-up buddy cop story. From what I can tell, it follows the pattern set by many similar movies. Perhaps that’s the mindset that gave us 200 f-words for this 117 minute movie (I’m guessing, not counting). When the big bad guys show up, our heroes make a run through a strip club and the bloodshed skyrockets.

So I can’t recommend Bright, even though I like the concept and the big idea. But if you want to see this and have not watched the trailer, I recommend skipping it. It doesn’t spoil the story, but it does take the edge off of all the most dramatic moments.

Reading report: ‘The Hobbit,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hobbit

I keep bellyaching about having a difficult time with my latest Erling book. And this continues to be the case. I make progress – don’t get me wrong – but it’s kind of like punching my way through sand.

So I said to myself, maybe I haven’t spent enough time with fantasy lately. Maybe it’s time to read The Lord of the Rings again, to get my mind onto a different track.

And behold, I did even according to my word. Reading the Trilogy and its prequel, of course, is a time-consuming project. And it’s a little late in history to review the books. So I figured I’d blog my way through them. I can’t compete with the real Middle Earth geeks who’ve memorized Bilbo’s genealogy and know how many miles it is from Buckleberry Ferry to the Grey Havens. But perhaps my modest expertise in Norse mythology and legend may help illuminate one or two points for you, rendering the exercise not entirely worthless to mankind.

I’ve made it through The Hobbit already. There are definite Norse elements in this book. Some of the ones that struck me on this reading were these: Continue reading Reading report: ‘The Hobbit,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

‘Sleeping in the Ground,’ by Peter Robinson

Sleeping in the Ground

I reviewed a previous Inspector Banks novel by Peter Robinson some time back, and my review says I liked it. But I never read another for some reason. I purchased Sleeping in the Ground to try him again. My reaction follows.

On a beautiful day in northern England, outside an ancient church, a wedding party comes under sniper fire. Several people are killed, others injured. Inspector Alan Banks and his team come in to investigate, and soon settle on a suspect – a quiet local man who belonged to a gun club and owned a rifle. When he is found dead in his cellar from a self-inflicted gunshot, the case seems closed.

But it isn’t. Banks’s superior (and others) want to learn why this uncomplicated man – none of whose acquaintances can believe he would kill anyone – could have gone off the rails so. The trail leads to an old murder and a resentment long cherished. Continue reading ‘Sleeping in the Ground,’ by Peter Robinson

‘Code of Silence,’ by Sally Wright

Code of Silence

The sixth book in Sally Wright’s Christian but not preachy Ben Reese mystery series is a prequel. In Code of Silence, we get to see Ben – university archivist and former World War II Army scout, in 1957, handling his first civilian mystery. We observe him enduring the wrenching loss of his wife in childbirth, and watch as his friend Richard West looks about desperately for some project that will help Ben re-engage with the living.

That project appears in the form of a letter and a package from Carl Walker, a man Ben barely knew. Nevertheless, Carl knew something of Ben’s background, and sent him a letter, books, and the key to a code. Ten years before, Carl had been in love with a linguist who worked for American intelligence. She died, and it was marked down as suicide. Carl was certain that she was murdered by a Russian double agent. Carl knew who the man was, but lacked sufficient evidence to prove it. Now the man has reappeared, and Carl has disappeared.

Suffering from both grief and a head injury incurred early in the story, Ben is nevertheless drawn into the mystery. Before it’s over it will become more than an intelligence cold case, but a race for life to save two innocent people.

I think Code of Silence was my favorite of the entire Ben Reese series to date. Ben’s an interesting character, and the story is suffused with moral indignation over the very real acts of treason performed by a number of known American traitors during the 1950s.

Cautions for mildly intense scenes involving torture. Highly recommended.

‘A Fatal Deception,’ by P. F. Ford

A Fatal Deception

The eleventh entry in P. F. Ford’s Slater and Norman series has recently been released. Ford wrote, in an e-mail to his fans (which I received) that the publication date had been delayed due to certain family problems. Sad to report, the problems show in the book, A Fatal Deception.

The last book was pretty much all English detective Dave Slater, with almost no appearance by his former partner, Norman Norman, who is now a private investigator. In recompense, this book follows Norman (with his new partner, Naomi Darling) as they search for Jenny Radstock, Dave’s former girlfriend. Jenny has been living off and on in hiding, as a homeless person, for some time, and Norman and Naomi travel to the town where she was last seen. What they find is pretty ugly.

I remain a fan of this good-hearted mystery series, but A Fatal Deception shows all the signs of a rush job. There are a number of grammatical errors (though Ford has always been weak in that department). Bits of dialogue are rehashed twice or even, sometimes, three times. In our introduction to one character, we are treated first to a description of his personality, and then a scene where he demonstrates that description point for point. Which makes the initial description entirely redundant.

And not only was the conclusion a downer, but threads were left untied. As if author Ford couldn’t be bothered to finish the story properly.

Ford makes up for the short length of the novel by appending a novella devoted to Norman Norman celebrating a lonely Christmas. This story was more satisfactory, and left behind a pleasant, heartwarming feeling. So I don’t feel entirely cheated.

But A Fatal Deception is not up to the usual standards of a series more memorable for its likeability than for its literary qualities in the first place.

‘Well of the Winds,’ by Denzil Meyrick

Well of the Winds

This is more like it. I was disappointed with Denzil Meyrick’s previous DCI Jim Daley novel, The Rat Stone Serenade (reviewed a little south of here). But Well of the Winds is (to my taste) a much better novel, showcasing the strengths of this engaging police series.

On the island of Gairsay, near Daley’s town of Kinloch, a Jewish family has lived for years. They came as refugees during World War II, and settled well into community life. But one day the mailman arrives to find them all vanished. Shortly afterward the body of the oldest of them, the grandmother, is found washed up on a beach in Ireland.

When Jim’s sergeant Brian Scott goes to investigate, he discovers a hidden cellar under the house – concealing a trove of old documents in German, apparently Nazi in orientation. Who were these people, really?

Although Special Branch and MI6 rush in to take over the investigation, Jim’s new superior, Superintendent Carrie Symington, insists that they carry on their own inquiries, in secret. Jim himself is contacted by a mysterious stranger, who gives him an old journal dating back to 1945. It was written by one of Jim’s predecessors in Kinloch, a detective named Urquhart who disappeared mysteriously in the wake of an unsolved murder. As Jim studies the journal, old secrets come to light.

Unlike the overblown and overcolored previous book in the series, Well of the Winds keeps the story smaller, simpler, and more local, as well as more character-driven. I liked it a lot, right up to the end, which was somewhat frustrating – but probably on purpose, to prime us for the next installment. Some skepticism about the European Union seems to be in evidence here, which doesn’t lose the book any points with me.

Recommended, with the usual cautions.

‘Empty Nets and Promises,’ by Denzil Meyrick

Empty Nets and Promises

Author Denzil Meyrick takes a semi-departure from his series of Jim Daley novels to conduct us back in time in the same location as those books – the picturesque Kintyre village of Kinloch, Scotland. The year is 1968, and Empty Nets and Promises offers only one of the regular cast of characters – Hamish the drunken fisherman with the second sight, a man in his prime at the time of this story.

Hamish, first mate on a fishing boat, is concerned like all his friends about the bad catches that year. Never have they taken so few herring in any man’s memory. He and his friends have a theory as to the cause – it’s the supersonic test flights coming from a nearby Air Force base. It’s Hamish himself who comes up with a “brilliant” plan to stop the tests, which involves getting a couple pilots drunk and taking them away to a remote croft so they’ll be AWOL.

Well, it makes sense to them.

But they don’t reckon with the local fisheries inspector, who suspects them of smuggling whisky, and the skipper’s wife and daughter, who suspect them of planning to play a trick on the daughter’s fiancé on the eve of the upcoming wedding.

What follows is an amusing comedy of errors that almost leads to nuclear war.

Empty Nets and Promises is a funny story, full of vivid, idiosyncratic characters and well-painted landscapes. It’s somewhere between a short story and a novella, and good value for your book-buying dollar at the price. Minor cautions for language.

‘The Rat Stone Serenade,’ by Denzil Meyrick

The Rat Stone Serenade

I’m quite enjoying Denzil Meyrick’s DCI Daley series of rural police procedurals. So I’m sorry to say that The Rat Stone Serenade was a little disappointing.

Our hero, Detective Chief Inspector Jim Daley, has decided to resign his post and leave police work altogether. It’s partly weariness after the mayhem he’s been witnessing, and partly because he’s grown desperately in love with a subordinate, Sergeant Mary Dunn (with whom he had an affair earlier), and he wants to save his shaky marriage for the sake of his baby son.

His final duty is to help with security for the Annual General Meeting of the Shannon Group, “the world’s largest corporation,” which sprang originally from an estate in a nearby town on the Kintyre Peninsula. Once a year the Shannon heirs and other corporate officers meet at the great manor house on the cliff. It’s a haunted place, cursed by a blacksmith from whom an ancestor stole the land, and by the mysterious, unsolved abduction of the heir apparent years ago, when he was a small boy.

What follows is kind of a mess, in my opinion. There are so many plots and counterplots going on, so many double-crosses, so many generational secrets to be revealed one after another, that it’s pretty much impossible to keep up. (Also there’s a convenient once-in-a-century snow storm to isolate most of the cast of characters. And a sinister ancient blood cult, in case things get dull.) I found it all pretty unconvincing.

And I didn’t care for the direction Daley’s relationship with Sergeant Mary took (although a surprise is coming there, too).

I like the series and plan to continue with it, but The Rat Stone Serenade was built a couple stories taller than building codes ought to allow.

Cautions for language and sexual situations.

‘The Heretics of St. Possenti,’ by Rolf Nelson

The Heretics of St. Possenti

Not what I expected, that was what Rolf Nelson’s The Heretics of St. Possenti was. I figured it for a military sci fi novel, set in a dystopian future. In fact it’s a utopian story of a sort, set in the present or the very near future.

By “utopian story” I mean the kind of story that proposes a major societal change and tries to demonstrate how well it will work. The books of this sort I remember best are Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. I suppose Ayn Rand’s novels are the same sort of thing (quite close to the kind of story this is), but I’ve never read Rand.

The Heretics of St. Possenti introduces us to Bishop Thomas Cranberry, who through misadventure spends a night in jail and is then given a leave of absence by his archbishop. Intrigued by the complaints of the men he’d met in jail – who said the Church offered them nothing that was of use here and now – he decides to get to know some of these “marginal” men. In a dojo and in a bar he meets military veterans, many of them suffering from PTSD, who can find no place in the world. They encounter nothing but Catch-22s in the VA, the welfare offices, or drug treatment centers. They can’t get work with a living wage. Many are deeply in debt. Continue reading ‘The Heretics of St. Possenti,’ by Rolf Nelson