Category Archives: Fiction

“Gifts of the sea”

Sumbergh Head, Shetland. (Photo credit: Joe DeSousa.) This is one of the locations in Scott’s The Pirate.

I’m currently reading Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate. This is a pleasant thing, for several reasons. First, it’s a fairly enjoyable read, for anyone who can handle the old novel style. Second, it’s public domain, hence cheap. Third, it’s very long, reducing my book buying expenses. Fourth, it’s set in Shetland, and thus full of Norse tradition and custom. The main problem is that it forces me to think creatively about what I’ll blog about, until I finish the interminable thing and can review it.

But the book solves that problem too, by dropping topics in my lap, through its many long digressions. Tonight: the curious Shetland taboo against rescuing shipwreck victims.

As Scott tells it, the Shetland Islanders had a strong cultural prohibition against rescuing anyone from a shipwreck. This seems peculiar for Christians, especially in light of Acts 27 and 28, which describe St. Paul’s shipwreck in Malta, and praise the kindly Maltese who took the victims in.

Nevertheless, I can believe this story about the Shetlanders. Not that they’re bad people. But due to reasons I learned when I visited Iceland.

As Scott tells it, it was the firm belief of the Shetlanders that if you rescued anyone from a shipwreck, it would bring disaster on you. And that disaster would come through the very person you rescued. So if the sea took someone, that was their fate – one in which you dared not interfere.

The cause of this was the Shetlanders’ economic situation. These were poor people, dependent on subsistence farming and fishing. When a ship broke up on their shores, they (like the southern islanders with their cargo cults) saw it as a gift from God. But if God had sent the flotsam, what of the previous owners? Their deaths must also be God’s will. If they survived, their property claims would be a major inconvenience.

When I visited Iceland, the guide told us is that for a very long time, the Icelanders refused to build lighthouses on their coast. The reason was the same – loot from shipwrecks formed an important, sometimes a lifesaving, supplement to their economy. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn they had a similar superstition.

This is a caution to all of us. I like to think I have a pretty good grasp on biblical morality, and submit my personal interests to God’s commands. But nothing blinds you like the cares of this world.

The Lighting of the Beacons

I’m sure you recognize this clip from The Two Towers, in which the beacons are lit in Gondor, to call for help from Rohan.

I believe (I could be wrong) that the inspiration for this plot element in The Lord of the Rings was the following passage from Heimskringla (here in Lee Hollander’s translation) and the Saga of King Haakon the Good:

After this battle King Haakon incorporated into the laws for all the land along the seas, and as far inland as the salmon goes upstream, that all districts were divided into “ship-levies”; and these he parcelled out among the districts…. Along with this it was ordered that whenever there was a general levy, beacons were to be lit on high mountains, so that one could be seen from the other. It is said that news of the levy travelled from the southern-most beacon to the northernmost borough in seven nights.

If anyone knows of an earlier example of such a beacon signalling system, which might have inspired Tolkien, let me know.

‘Origami Man,’ by Matthew Fitzsimmons

The Origami Man, blank as paper, only folded into the shape of a man.

Years ago, Gibson Vaughn, (former Marine and current master computer hacker) was nearly hanged to death by a remorseless assassin, the same man who had murdered his father. This set off a series of events that resulted in Gibson’s becoming an international fugitive.

Now that assassin, the Origami Man, the kind of man who will hide inside a wall for five weeks in order to murder a family, has reappeared in Gibson’s life. He hands Gibson an encrypted thumb drive. The drive, the assassin says, was taken from a Russian crime boss who double-crossed him. He wants Gibson to unlock it for him. Gibson’s motivation is to be that it contains data on a massive industrial hack. He doesn’t know the details, but he knows that if it’s allowed to proceed, hundreds of thousands of people will die. The Origami Man doesn’t care about the deaths, but he wants payback.

Gibson would rather take a bullet than cooperate with this affectless, amoral man, a figure who still haunts his nightmares. But lives are at stake, and he and his team of fugitive friends, who are making a tenuous living as security specialists, agree that the frog will have to be swallowed, so to speak.

So begins a quest that will see them making unlikely alliances and balancing loyalties and treacheries against each other. An old Russian gangster trying to redeem a few of his sins will be the joker in the game. The action will move from Ireland to Switzerland to Germany, and it will be a close-run thing.

I enjoy the Gibson Vaughn series immensely. The stories are exciting, the characters multifaceted and sympathetic, the prose extremely good. I highly recommend Origami Man (as well as the whole series) with mild cautions for language and intense situations.

‘Serenity Stalked,’ by Craig A. Hart

We move along now to book two in Craig A. Hart’s “Serenity” series, set in a fictional town in Michigan. In Serenity Stalked we find our hero, ex-boxer and ex-“fixer” Shelby Alexander, continuing his affair with Carly, a much younger woman. When Carly tells him she’s being pestered by an old boyfriend, who happens to be married, Shelby (against Carly’s wishes) decides to have “a little talk” with him.

When the old boyfriend turns up murdered shortly thereafter, along with his family, the local sheriff – who does not like Shelby at all – makes him his prime suspect.

But the real killer is watching. He’s an accomplished serial killer, and now he’s focusing on Carly as his next victim. The reader will spend considerable time in his creepy company as he makes his plans to eliminate Shelby and take Carly for his own purposes.

True to the form of the first book, Serenity, Serenity Stalked is a fairly straightforward story, opting for action and suspense over mystery. Our hero is reactive in his actions, but fortunately for everyone his reaction time is fast and his fighting skills superior. And there’s a nice surprise at the end. For the action fan, Serenity Stalked offers value for money.

I may read the next one. Haven’t made up my mind yet.

‘Vanish Without a Trace,’ by Bill Kitson

The adventures of Yorkshire Detective Inspector Mike Nash continue in Vanish Without a Trace, the second book in the series by Bill Kitson.

When a young woman named Sarah Kelly fails to return home after heading out to a nightclub one evening, her mother contacts the police. Although such missing persons reports usually come to nothing, Mike Nash is impressed with the mother’s story. But as time passes, no trace of the girl is found, except for her purse, lying in an alley.

A chance comment gets Mike thinking about other disappearances. Some research reveals that there has been a string of similar disappearances all across the north of England – and in each case, the missing girl looks like a sister to all the others. Is it even possible to identify and stop a killer who leaves no clues, leaves no bodies, and moves all over the map? Mike and his team will try, but the threat will come very close to home.

Vanish Without a Trace was a little less high-tension than the previous volume, What Lies Beneath. That’s OK with me; I prefer mysteries to thrillers. My problem with this series is an element I’d hoped would be a one-off with the first volume – Inspector Nash gets clues from prophetic dreams. To my mind, this moves the books into the realm of Paranormal Fiction, against which I’m prejudiced. So I won’t be reading any more of the Mike Nash books, though they are fascinating and highly readable.

Your mileage may vary. Cautions for the sort of thing you’d expect.

‘Serenity,’ by Craig A. Hart

This book is not to be confused with the science fiction TV series, “Serenity.” However, you could plausibly cast Nathan Fillion as the hero.

Shelby Alexander, hero of Serenity, is a former prizefighter. After that he became what he calls a “fixer,” solving people’s problems through the application of violence. Finally, in his ‘60s, he has returned to his home town of Serenity, Michigan (northern Lower Peninsula) for a more peaceful life.

Not going to happen.

One night Shelby looks out his window and sees a human figure huddled in the snow by his barn. He finds a woman there, a local character named Jenny Ellis, mentally retarded and the only well-liked member of her family. The Ellises are local outlaws, known to be involved in the drug trade. Jenny dies before help can come.

Then, to his surprise, Shelby gets a visit from Jenny’s brother Harper, the head of the family. He wants Shelby to investigate Jenny’s death. Bigger criminals from Detroit are moving into the area, trying to take over the Ellis drug operations. Shelby has no desire to work for the Ellises, but he did like Jenny, so he agrees to look into it.

Before long he’s got people shooting at him, and the new sheriff – very possibly corrupt – is trying to frame Shelby for murder. But Shelby has handled worse.

What you’ve got here is a pretty simple story. This is not a cerebral mystery. In fact, Shelby Alexander never once deduces anything – he reacts to events and generally solves problems with his fists. Action is the watchword here, and in those terms the book is pretty good. There were also moments when Shelby expressed opinions on the social conservatism side, so I liked that.

Serenity is pure entertainment, probably aimed at male readers, and I recommend it after its kind. Cautions for the usual.

‘West Oversea’ reviewed

Blogger Mary J. Moerbe continues her series of reviews of my work. This one is West Oversea:

The thing that makes me so enamored with Erling Skjalgsson is that he is a man with a real chance of being honorable and lordly. His pagan setting and background highlight how difficult it isto do the right thing and cut through expectations in pursuit of a higher wisdom and trust. All of which makes him a really powerful Christian figure!

Read it all here.

‘Clearinghouse,’ by Randall Schanze

Full disclosure – Randall Schanze is a Facebook friend, whom I met through blog-crawling quite a few years back. We’re not close, but I read his previous book Ice Cream and Venom, and liked it pretty well. So I tried his new story collection, Clearinghouse.

Clearinghouse is a collection of stories Schanze has written since the start of his career. The backbone of the assemblage is a series of stories set in an alternate history where the NASA Moon and Mars projects are not cancelled in the 1970s. Tragic, heroic, and funny events happen. Science ain’t my long suit, but the technical details seemed authentic and plausible.

Not all the stories relate to that cycle. There are far future stories, fantasies, and even farces. The majority of the far future stories are tied together and involve a radically altered human situation. But each NASA story is followed by a “Frame” sequence, in which author Schanze communicates with a fan (implied to be his only fan), who keeps urging him to write more while he himself hangs back, discouraged by his lack of publishing success. Such a device might be expected to come off as self-indulgent, but it worked for me, and added a certain piquancy and unity to the whole exercise.

I’m not a Science Fiction fan myself, but I enjoyed Clearinghouse and recommend it.

‘what Lies Beneath,’ by Bill Kitson

In a Yorkshire tarn (a mountain lake), a fisherman snags a human skull. When divers are sent in, they find two skeletons, both of young girls. Skeletal abnormalities indicate that they were sexually abused for a long time.

Detective Inspector Mike Nash, who recently relocated from London to Yorkshire, is on the case, though distracted by concern over his girlfriend, who is hospitalized and paralyzed. It’s soon apparent that they’re dealing with international human traffickers, which brings a visit from Russian police, including a very attractive – and ruthless – woman. Their Anglo-Russian alliance will be up against a criminal conspiracy led by well-financed and very dangerous men. Men for whom human life is meaningless, and no atrocity out of the question.

That’s the premise of What Lies Beneath, first in a series of novels I’ll be following up with. Author Bill Kitson sets a good scene and does good prose. I liked his characters and got caught up in the suspense. The plot had some holes, it seemed to me, but (as in a movie) things moved along so quickly that this reader just went along with it.

Mike Nash is unusual as a fictional detective in that he has prophetic dreams. He doesn’t always understand them, and he insists he’s not psychic. I am prejudiced against this sort of thing, but it does add to narrative interest.

More character descriptions would have been welcome. There’s one character named “Viv” who is only revealed to be a man after some pages, and only revealed to be black toward the end of the book.

Imperfect but cinematically engaging, I enjoyed What Lies Beneath. I was also horrified by some of the details of the human trafficking industry, which the author claims are genuine. Cautions for shocking content, plus the usual.

‘Until the Debt Is Paid,’ by Alexander Hartung

When Berlin police detective Jan Tommen wakes up in bed with his girlfriend, to discover he’s completely forgotten the last two days, that’s annoying. But when he’s arrested for the torture murder of a judge with whom he clashed in the past, it becomes terrifying. His worst fear is that he might have done the crime – he can’t recall a thing.

But (in the great tradition of improbable detective heroics) he makes a plan to escape from custody with the help of a friend who lives on the margins of Berlin’s underworld. He recruits two more friends, a (gorgeous, of course) female medical examiner and a computer geek (obligatory in every thriller) to figure out what happened. There are further murders from the same culprit, so he knows he’s not guilty – but his police colleagues don’t.

That’s the premise of Until the Debt Is Paid, first in a series by Alexander Hartung, translated from German by Steve Anderson.

First, I’ll say what I liked about it. Until the Debt Is Paid was not what I expected. When I pick up a European mystery, I pretty much assume dark, nihilistic stuff in the tradition of Scandinavian Noir. This book was nothing like that. Jan Tommen is a throwback to older German stereotypes – he’s cheery and optimistic and enjoys life. He has his dark moments, but he snaps back. This was refreshing, especially since the story involves some extremely shocking elements. And the final solution was a surprise (at least for this dull reader).

What I disliked was that the police procedures seemed (to me) more 1970s TV than real life. I don’t believe the German police are this loose in their disciplines and security. I don’t think Jan Tommen would have remained free for more than a few hours in the real world. Also, at one point he foolishly plays around with a gun in a way no professional ever would.

And (without dropping a spoiler) one plot element that pleased me in terms of my values went horribly bad.

As for the translation, I’d call it good. It starts out excellent – I was impressed as a translator myself – but it lost some luster as it proceeded, slipping at times into dull literalism. But I can’t really fault that. I know from experience that translating a whole manuscript is a lot of work, and you sometimes run out of time, so you make sure the first few chapters are polished up nice, hoping you’ll have won the readers’ good will by then.

My takeaway: Not bad, and distinctive as a departure in tone from genre tropes. But poorly researched and lacking in plausibility.

‘Not George Washington,’ by P. G. Wodehouse

Before I had been in Walpole Street a week I could tell by ear the difference between a rejected manuscript and an ordinary letter. There is a certain solid plop about the fall of the former which not even a long envelope full of proofs can imitate successfully.

P. G. Wodehouse began his very long writing career more than a century ago, in the first decade of the 20th Century. It follows that a number of his earlier works have fallen into the public domain. Among them is his novel Not George Washington, which I read in one of the several collections of his out-of-copyright works available for Kindle.

One can detect the nascent signs of later genius in this book, but if he’d been hit by a bus in 1908, we probably wouldn’t remember him on the basis of this work (which was written in collaboration with one Herbert Westbrook).

The story, narrated by several point of view characters, starts on the Channel island of Guernsey, where a young woman named Margaret Goodwin, an island resident, meets James Orlebar Cloyster. The couple fall in love, and though her mother approves, they agree he needs to go to London to pursue his career as a writer before they can marry. He can’t hope to support a wife without achieving some success.

We then follow James to London, where he makes his fortune fairly quickly (his career follows Wodehouse’s own – Wodehouse wrote the “On the Way” column for the Globe newspaper, while Cloyster writes a column of the same name for a paper called the Orb).

At this point Cloyster finds himself in a quandary. He realizes he doesn’t really desire married life. Even his feelings for Margaret have faded. He wants to continue as a footloose London writer, but his growing fame will surely be noticed in Guernsey.

He then hits on a scheme. He pays three friends a ten percent commission each to submit literary works written by him, but under their names. Thus he can pretend to Margaret that he’s still struggling.

All of this eventually blows back in his face, as anyone but a fathead would have expected (channeling the spirit of one of Wodehouse’s later aunt characters).

As I said, there are foreshadowings of later genius in this work – especially in the employment of impostership in the plot. Otherwise, Not George Washington is a pretty minor work.

But Wodehouse fans (like me) will want to add it to their list of works read.

‘On Eden Street,’ by Peter Grainger

I pulled out all the stops and actually paid full price for the latest Peter Grainger mystery novel, On Eden Street. The DC Smith books hold a special place in my regard. Alas, this novel marks the point in the saga where Smith himself – now retired and recovering from injuries – has only a small part to play, though he does show up.

It takes a pair of new officers, DCI Kara Freeman and an organizational genius named DI Greene, to replace Smith at the head of a new team, the Kings Lake Central Murder Squad. Most of Smith’s own team are still on hand, along with some new officers. DCI Freeman is planning to spend their first day as an operational unit doing team-building exercises and reviewing cold cases. But then a body is discovered. One of the local homeless has been found dead in the doorway of a Chinese restaurant. On examination, the man proves to have been stabbed to death.

Although the narrative point of view shifts between various characters, the main protagonist in this one is DS Christopher Waters. Waters’s investigation brings him into contact with a blind woman who runs a florist shop, and romance… blossoms. Meanwhile, the dead man, who claimed to have been a war veteran, turns out to have been an impostor. So was he the murderer’s actual target, or was it a case of mistaken identity? If so, where is the real veteran, who seems to have fallen off the grid?

Peter Grainger is a solid and rewarding writer, and I enjoyed reading On Eden Street. My only complaint is that Smith is mostly out of the picture. Nobody can replace Smith.

‘Escape,’ by John W. Mefford

Now and then I start reading a book I can’t finish, because it annoys or offends me in some way. Most of the time when that happens, I do not review it. I figure being a bad writer is punishment in itself for the authors of those books.

But sometimes a book really annoys me, and I have to register a protest. I worked my way through about 2/3 of John W. Mefford’s Escape (which I got through a Kindle deal), and I need to vent.

First of all, I doubt that author Mefford cares about my opinion. He seems to be doing very well in book sales. It’s for him to look down on me, as far as pleasing the reader is concerned.

But I found Escape impossible to finish.

Escape is Book 7 in the “Ball and Chain” series. Judging by this particular specimen, it’s about a man and a woman, Cooper Chain and Willow Ball, who are involved in an endless search for Willow’s father. For some reason, which wasn’t apparent in this book. She doesn’t even like him much. Yet they put their lives at risk over and over to follow the obscure clues the old man leaves behind.

Obscure clues. This is the main thing that bothered me. You’re familiar with Hitchcock’s concept of “the Macguffin,” the object, worthless in itself, which becomes the center of the plot because all the characters are after it. (I’ll admit I’ve never entirely understood this. Nothing in a fictional story, including the characters, is of any worth in the real world, because they’re all imaginary). This book is a multiple macguffin story. In which the object of the hunt leaves convoluted puzzle clues that have to be figured out by the heroes. Like the National Treasure movies, which also annoyed me. I raise my barbaric yawp to the world – This never happens in real life. Never. And certainly not repeated times. It’s just a trick by the author to jack the suspense up.

What is worse, the beginning of the book finds our hero in a position in which he obviously was left in a cliff-hanger at the end of the previous book. Which means this book will most likely also end with a cliff-hanger.

I am not going to plow through this implausible plot to be left with a cliff-hanger. That’s an incivility to the reader.

The story starts somewhere in the South (I forget where; numerous insults are slung at southerners as a group), and then follows Ball and Chain to New York City, where a character who used to be their enemy suddenly becomes their friend and they get involved in a side job helping him. It doesn’t make much sense, but this series’ numerous fans seem to like that sort of thing. Bless their hearts, as they say in the South.

I’m out of it. I’ve Escaped.

Another Review: ‘Blood and Judgment’

Mary J. Moerbe continues reviewing my novels with a glowing review of Blood and Judgment:

But then Blood and Judgment adds a few more layers, as weak men must choose between courage and complacency,  humanity and survival. A few Norse Old Ones pop up. Doors between worlds are opened and closed. Viking Hamlet, Amlodd, cannot feign madness and so agrees to gain a feigning mind, effectively switching bodies with one of the actors! Oh, it was delightful!

I think she liked it. Read it all here.

‘The Year of the Warrior’ Review

Lutheran writer Mary J. Moerbe (who happens to be the daughter of Dr. Gene Edward Veith) has reviewed my novel, The Year of the Warrior at her blog, Meet, Write, & Salutary:

The descriptions hit me very powerfully. I mean, normally we would talk about world-building in a piece of fantasy, but this book may have made me even more engaged into my own world, allowing me to see it through re-opened eyes and a broadened perspective.

Read it all here. Thanks, Mary.