‘Murder at Dead Crags,’ by Bruce Beckham

Turns out I’d missed a couple books in the Inspector Skelgill series by Bruce Beckham. But no matter. The continuing characters and Cumberland setting remain much the same, barring Skelgill’s gradual retirement from his fell running hobby, which just leaves him more time for his fishing.

Murder at Dead Crags seems to be a sort of tribute to The Hound of the Baskervilles. Antonia Crow, co-owner of a wild animal zoo, has been found dead at the foot of Dead Crags, an ill-omened local landmark. Antonia is the descendent of Piet Crow, a big game hunter who long ago returned from South Africa to establish the zoo. He owned a terrifying large black dog, and local legend says the dog still walks the fells, seeking to waylay nighttime walkers.

When Antonia’s sister Vivienne is nearly killed by a high caliber rifle bullet, Inspector Skelgill looks for more prosaic motives and perpetrators. There are a couple bidders who’d love to get their hands on the Crows’ land, and an animal rights group has set up a camp to protest the zoo itself (Skelgill’s female subordinate, DS Jones, is working undercover among them). When the culprit is revealed, both their lives will be in peril.

The Skelgill books are a lot of fun, though Skelgill can be a tad annoying – especially in his denial of his mutual attraction to DS Jones. I would say the animal rights people don’t come off terribly well in this book, but on the other side of the balance there’s a predatory real estate developer who is clearly a caricature of Donald Trump. So we’re all even, more or less.

Recommended, and the author himself admits he edits his dialogue to soften bad language.

Everyone Loves Food

“While I was writing The Lost Family, I cooked a lot—to meditate on the day’s writing as well as to kitchen-test all the recipes I then featured on the book’s menu. Some of my favorite lines for the book would bubble up that way, as if from a Magic 8-Ball, and one of them was ‘vegetables have no language.’ I revised this slightly for the novel, but it means that food is universal. The produce and spices will vary from country to country and cuisine to cuisine, but if you love food, you have a vast family out there. We can all communicate about how our beloved dishes are different—and how they are the same.” – Jenna Blum, The Lost Family

Crystal King, whose book about Vatican chef Bartolomeo Scappi, The Chef’s Secret, came out this year, quotes eleven authors on including food in their writing.

“Writing, in a way, is an extension of my cooking, and vice versa. Cooking taught me how to create, that I needed to create.” – Phillip Kazan

Photo by Jonathan Borba from Pexels

Canticle Holds Up

Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz holds up after sixty years.

“The most miraculous thing about this book, however, is that it offers a profound critique of the extremists at either end of our so-called crisis of liberalism and serves as a stark reminder that these debates are nowhere near as new as some think,” writes Daniel Kennelly for The American Interest. (via Prufrock News)

‘Death in Transit,’ by Keith Moray

Keith Moray’s Torquil McKinnon series is a pleasant and atmospheric set of “cozy” police procedurals that play out on the fictional island of West Uist in the Scottish Hebrides. I’ve been following them with enjoyment, and Death in Transit was an enjoyable addition.

This time around, the remote island is once again the center of international attention, due to an astronomical event, “the conjunction of Venus and Mercury and the transit of Mercury,” clearly visible from there. The phenomenon attracts an odd assortment of outsiders – media people, a noted astronomer, and a motley group of New Agers with astrological pretentions. But the discovery of a murdered body floating in the harbor dampens the excitement, and a further murder raises apprehensions. Pressured, as always, by his unsympathetic off-island superior, Inspector Torquil McKinnon will have to uncover old secrets, resentments, and rivalries before the true killer is revealed.

There was nothing very novel about Death in Transit, which put the likeable regular cast through its usual paces among fondly described characters and locations. But it was fun, like all the books in the series. Recommended, with no important reservations for language or content that I can recall.

Back from Minot

Got back last night from my more-or-less annual trip to Minot, North Dakota for the Norsk Høstfest. I haven’t made as much of it this year — sorry if you were curious — but everything went fine. As one of my friends said, “Nobody got hurt and nobody yelled at anybody.” And I sold most of the books I bought.

My heart wasn’t really in it, though, for reasons I won’t explain here. (Don’t ask in Comments; I won’t discuss it publicly). Enough to say that I’m looking for a side gig again. Suggestions welcome.

Back tomorrow with a book review.

McCarthy: How to Write a Science Paper

Novelist Cormac McCarthy has edited the work of many scientists at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. A couple of them distilled McCarthy’s advice into a list, published here by Nature. Much of this list is straightforward, so here are a few standouts that may make you say, “But I thought I was writing a science paper.”

  • “Don’t slow the reader down. Avoid footnotes because they break the flow of thoughts and send your eyes darting back and forth while your hands are turning pages or clicking on links. Try to avoid jargon, buzzwords or overly technical language. And don’t use the same word repeatedly — it’s boring.
  • “And don’t worry too much about readers who want to find a way to argue about every tangential point and list all possible qualifications for every statement. Just enjoy writing.
  • “When you think you’re done, read your work aloud to yourself or a friend. Find a good editor you can trust and who will spend real time and thought on your work. “

This third point is advice many writers need to consider: give an editor time to work with you. When a writer hires an editor to clean up his work and asks for it returning as soon as possible or a week earlier than normal, he is asking his editor to let things slide or focus on only on essentials. With time an editor can highlight a paragraph as confusing and ask the writer to rework it or point out other things that need work and have no set fixes.

(Link via Karen Swallow Prior; Photo by Jeremy Bishop from Pexels )

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

This has been the longest year of my life, and it’s not yet October. I could tell you the details, but I usually shy away from that; I mean, we’ve never shaken hands, bought each other coffee, or sung a hymn together. We wouldn’t recognize each other if we were in the same room. But I don’t mind talking about books with you, and that brings to this 800-pager.

My hardbound copy is like this but red.

I started reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Suzanna Clarke early in the year, and though I liked the story, I put it down in favor of — I don’t know, maybe I was making money at something (that’s a nice thought). The story progresses slowly, not diverting onto rabbit trails so much as taking time to set new stages and bring in dialogue. There was a chapter toward the end I thought could be cut to a couple sentences, but most of the time I wished the pace would pick up even though I was enjoying the scene before me.

Of course, I’m not like Lars. On Monday he can tell you he’s reading a 3,000 page book that will take him a while to review, and on Friday you’ll have that review. I take eight months to get through 800 pages. That’s not a tweetable goal. Follow me on Goodreads; you won’t be inspired.

The novel begins with Mr. Norrell, who wants to crush the dreams of all would-be magicians and remake English magic after his own image. He is naturally a stuffy academic in his manner of thought and speech, but his passion is to use magic properly and practically, keeping it away from theoretical magicians who do nothing but talk over poorly written books. He opposes people like the president of the York Society of Magicians, who says, “Magicians … study magic which was done long ago. Why should any one expect more [that is, to do magic today]”?

Norrell gains a good reputation and important connections in London before Strange shows up, and in advancing his career he sets the plot of the whole book in motion. This is an laudable point in Clarke’s storytelling. She could have had the rise of Norrell and Strange’s fame in England be the provocation for the villains that come; instead she has Norrell conduct a work of magic he knows to be risky that opens the door to a great deal of trouble.

Continue reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Lucas Doesn’t Like New Star Wars Stories

From what I’ve read about them, George Lucas’s original plan for eps. 7-9 of the Star Wars series would have been more like eps. 1-3. An ancient order of the Whills as a force behind the Force would be explored, likely through a thrilling sequence of talking, chin stroking, talking, and sitting.

Slashfilm has a little of what Lucas liked about plans and artwork for episode 7, but the movie didn’t develop in that direction. According to Disney CEO Bob Iger in his newly released memoir, Lucas didn’t like that direction.

When Disney bought the franchise and Lucas’s outlines for the new episodes, they stated their freedom to develop them as they wished. “George knew we weren’t contractually bound to anything,” Iger wrote, “but he thought that our buying the story treatments was a tacit promise that we’d follow them, and he was disappointed that his story was being discarded.”

Lucas wanted something new with each movie, but Iger and his team wanted something Star Wars, “to not stray too far from what people loved and expected.” He doesn’t directly disagree with Lucas, but I’m glad the sequel films are not more like the prequels.

I remember enjoying The Force Awakens; I reviewed like this.

No photo description available.

That pretty much sums it up without the slightest hint of a spoiler.

Do Celebrity Book Clubs Sell Books?

Reese Whitherspoon has taken up the challenge of recommending books to fans and followers. Vox says it is an extension of her personal image. “Witherspoon’s star image is based on the idea of Witherspoon as smart and driven and bookish — in a funny way, a likable way.”

Some of her selections have sold hundreds of thousands, which is very exciting for those select authors; but this article has a remarkable detail about the book industry as a whole. It says that with 300,000+ new titles published in the US every year and 2,200,000+ published worldwide, readers want to get recommendations from celebrities they trust.

But here’s the shocker. Though sales of selected books soared when Oprah picked them, the overall sale of books that year stayed within expectations. “Exactly as many people bought books as were already going to buy books.” More readers are reading certain books, but apparently more people are not reading. Or at least they are not buying books to read.

In 2018, Pew Research reported that three out of four Americans read one book in any format last month, and that rate has been steady since 2012.

‘Bury the Dead in Driftwood,’ by Scott William Carter

The gray sky, which often broke up or dissolved by midmorning, remained as solid as fresh paint.

I had read and reviewed a previous novel in Scott William Carter’s Garrison Gage mystery series, and decided not to read any more. I don’t clearly recall why; it likely had something to do with the main character’s open (though not obnoxious) atheism. But Bury the Dead in Driftwood sounded intriguing, and I bought it. I have to admit, it was pretty good.

Garrison Gage is a small-time private eye who relocated to Barnacle Bluffs, a town on the Oregon coast, to get away from his past. He walks with a limp (often with a cane), due to an old knee injury. A widower, he has adopted a daughter, who is now away in college. He finds, to his amusement, that he’s become a local character, “the detective.”

He didn’t know Harriet Abel, the high school teacher whose body was found under a pile of driftwood on the beach. But she had his name on a piece of paper in her possession, and apparently wanted to hire him. Gage is curious what she wanted from him, and impressed with the universal respect she seemed to command. So he decides to investigate, even without a client.

Property and development money will appear as motives, but things aren’t as simple as they appear. Amusingly, Gage finds beautiful women – including the police chief’s daughter – throwing themselves at him in an almost embarrassing way. A mysterious professional killer appears to make chilling threats. And the one woman Gage cares about more than life itself – his adopted daughter – refuses to keep a safe distance.

I enjoyed Bury the Dead in Driftwood far more than I expected. The one scene involving religion – in a syncretistic Universalist church – took no skin off my nose. The multiple women with Gage in their sights worked up to a very funny scene of embarrassment. And at the end, Gage was able to deliver a fairly non-PC defense of a man’s sense of obligation to protect women.

Mark Twain said of Huckleberry Finn that he had attempted to do a book without weather. Bury the Dead in Driftwood is nothing like that. The weather and geography of coastal Oregon are active characters in this book, beautifully described. Readers will feel as if they’ve been there.

Cautions for the usual, including one “sex” scene that actually involves no sex at all. Pretty good.

Reviews Are not Strictly Evaluations

John Wilson of Books & Culture, the Christian review of books published bi-monthly 1995-2016, talks about book reviewing with FORMA.

Is it harder to control the “gush” for a book you really like or the harshness for a book you think has major problems?

Wilson: Ha! It’s not so much a matter of “controlling” gush (just say no); it’s rather a matter of finding a way to single out a really good book at a time when people are acclaiming “masterpieces” right and left, cheapening the conversation. I don’t often review books that I think are terrible, or that are entirely uncongenial to me, but a reviewer who’s never critical—sometimes sharply so—is letting the side down.

But having said that, I’m reminded of another widespread misconception: that reviews are all about “evaluation,” the reviewer—from his or her lofty perch—saying “5 stars” or “2 stars” or whatever. There’s so much more to it.

‘Bad to the Bones,’ by James Harper

I took a chance on the first novel in an unfamiliar detective series, Bad to the Bones, Book 1 of James Harper’s Evan Buckley series.

It held some interest, but didn’t work for me.

Private Eye Evan Buckley (I never really noticed where he lives) suffers a shock and vows to end his meat and potatoes work – investigating unfaithful spouses for divorce cases. His original motivation for becoming a PI was to find missing people, like his own wife who disappeared without explanation. A (surprisingly) friendly police detective refers him to a woman whose son and husband both disappeared some years earlier. She believes the police found an easy explanation and dropped the case without really solving it. Evan vows to discover the truth for her.

Which he does. But the journey to the explanation seemed weird to me. Character relationships struck me as unrealistic – people start by snarling at each other, then suddenly become bosom buddies. The police don’t operate like real police at all.

And the final “resolution” was so horrific that I couldn’t at all comprehend the sense of closure we’re supposed to believe both Buckley and his client feel at the end.

So I don’t really recommend Bad to the Bones. I saw potential in the author, so maybe the following books will be better.

‘Mission Critical,’ by Mark Greaney

There really isn’t much to say about a new Gray Man novel, except that it’s a Gray Man novel. One knows what to expect – rising levels of implausible, cinematic action, improbable endurance of injuries by the hero, and a running cast of characters who, if not profoundly portrayed, are interesting and amusing.

Mission Critical (Number 8 in the series) offers a couple fresh elements – new developments in the Romeo-and-Juliet-with-guns romance between hero Court Gentry and the former Russian agent Zoya Zakharova, and the introduction of a new villain whom Court, with all his skills, actually fears.

Court is catching a ride on a CIA transport flight when a covert team transporting a hooded prisoner comes on board. Later, when the prisoner is being transferred on a tarmac in England, the team is attacked by unknown foreign agents – Court kills some of them, and is then sent by his handlers to try to retrieve the prisoner.

Meanwhile Zoya, still being “debriefed” in a safe house in the US, learns that her Russian spy father, whom she had believed dead, is still alive. She makes a snap decision to escape and find him – thus narrowly avoiding an attack on the house by hired assassins. Now she’s in the wind, and the CIA is uncertain whether to consider her friendly or hostile.

There’s a big plot underway to deliver a devastating blow to the intelligence services of all the English-speaking nations at a conference in Scotland. It will take all Court, Zoya, and their teammates can do to stop it – and there will be a price to pay.

Mission Critical was as good as any book in the Gray Man series, and they’ve all been good. High in entertainment value. The usual cautions apply for language, violence, and sexual situations.

Milton Wrote in Margins of Shakespeare Folio

After Shakespeare’s death his works were collected into a folio and printed. Two hundred thirty-three editions out of the seven hundred fifty originally printed still exist, and some of them have notes and marking from early readers. Now a Cambridge fellow believes he has compiled enough evidence to identify one annotator’s handwriting as belonging to the great John Milton.

Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren made the discovery in response to research conducted by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. Naturally he hesitated to suggest this, because it’s too easy to see what you want to see.

But he soon found that other scholars were agreeing with him. “Not only does this hand look like Milton’s, but it behaves like Milton’s writing elsewhere does, doing exactly the things Milton does when he annotates books, and using exactly the same marks,” said Dr Will Poole at New College Oxford. “Shakespeare is our most famous writer, and the poet John Milton was his most famous younger contemporary. It was, until a few days ago, simply too much to hope that Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare might have survived — and yet the evidence here so far is persuasive. This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times.”

Book Reviews, Creative Culture