Category Archives: Fiction

Auralia’s C. from William D.

Overstreet’s Auralia’s Colors gains a review from Mr. D.

There are two ways to write fantasy, which I’ll call the realistic way, and the fabulous way. The Lord of the Rings is an example of the first, as is George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and its sequels. . . . The fabulous way is less often attempted, and seems to be much harder to do. Examples would include Tolkien’s own Smith of Wooton Major, and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter.

Auralia’s C. would be . . .

Dark of the Moon, by John Sandford

I’ve been a fan of John Sandford’s for a few years now. He writes a gripping, fast-moving story, with interesting characters and lots of verisimilitude. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a Minnesotan (he’s really the journalist John Camp) and sets most of his stories in our (his and my) state. (I have this odd delusion that places aren’t really important until there are stories about them. The places I enjoy visiting, or want to visit, are generally places where stories I like took place.)

But I’d gotten a little disillusioned with Sandford’s recent work. Lucas Davenport, hero of the Prey series, started out as a fascinating madman, a borderline psychopath cop (who also happened to be a video game millionaire) so passionate about hunting down serial killers that he often crossed the line into “judge, jury and executioner” territory.

The problem was, it was clear Davenport couldn’t go on like that indefinitely. If he kept doing his police work in that manner, eventually he’d either get caught or lose his mind entirely. So Sandford, discovering he had a hit series on his hands, took the rational course of finding Davenport a good woman, getting him married, and settling him down.

The downside of that was that Davenport got a little dull. Sandford appears to have compensated for that by making the crimes more appalling; adding an increased level of horror to his stories. It works to an extent, but I don’t like the series as much as I used to.

So I’m happy to report that Dark of the Moon, starring the spin-off character Virgil Flowers, is much less edgy. Its main appeal comes from fully realized characters and an intriguing mystery. Continue reading Dark of the Moon, by John Sandford

The Ugly Duchess

New research indicates that “The Ugly Duchess,” a famous painting in England’s National Gallery, and the inspiration for some of John Tenniell’s illustrations in Alice in Wonderland, is probably an accurate portrait of its subject, according to this report in The Guardian. The unidentified woman in the painting apparently suffered from a rare form of Paget’s Disease.

Hat tip: Mirabilis.

The Writing Life or Lack Thereof

Mr. Ravenhill suggests artists are essentially setup by the time they are thirty; afterwards they refine their vision or prove their inability. “Great artists such as Bacon and Beckett distil; lesser artists become self-referential and self-conscious as their work goes on. A personally defined landscape can easily become an enclosed and introverted prison, referring only to itself.” When he picks up a novel that begins with a writer struggling over his novel, he pitches it. (via ArtsJournal)

Havana, by Stephen Hunter

Stephen Hunter’s most popular books are the two series about Earl and Bob Lee Swagger, father and son. It started with Point of Impact, in which he introduced Bob Lee Swagger, a decorated sniper from the Vietnam War whose highway patrolman daddy had been murdered in his childhood. Then Hunter started giving Daddy Earl stories of his own. This creates continuity problems, as Hunter attempts to shoehorn incredible adventures (I suspect he may like Earl as a character even better than Bob Lee) into the short lifespan decreed by the first book. Sometimes continuity breaks down, and a new book contradicts a previous one. Hunter cheerfully admits this fact in the Acknowledgements, but he makes no apologies. Each book, it would appear, exists in its own alternate universe.

Hunter is very canny in writing his thrillers. His politics (or so I heard him say in a radio interview) are libertarian/conservative, but he makes sure to be evenhanded with his heroes and villains. The Swaggers seem to be pretty conservative (they’re certainly NRA members), but the villains of this book are the thuggish police of Batista’s Cuba, and cynical CIA agents.

Havana begins in the year 1953. The CIA is looking for a sniper to assassinate a dangerous revolutionary in Cuba. (Several U.S. corporations and the mob are also concerned.) At the suggestion of a young agent named Walter “Frenchy” Short (whom we know from the novel Hot Springs), they select Marine veteran and Medal of Honor winner Earl Swagger, persuading him to travel to Cuba as a bodyguard for a goatish Arkansas Congressman.

This is Batista’s Havana, a year-round Carnivale for Americans with money to spend, and there’s plenty of opportunity for humor as the upright Earl, a solidly reformed alcoholic and relentlessly faithful husband, observes it all but keeps his distance. Continue reading Havana, by Stephen Hunter

Last Call for Blackford Oakes, by William F. Buckley

It’s been longer than I thought since I’ve read a Blackford Oakes novel. Stuff has happened in Blackie’s life that I wasn’t aware of, and I fear some of the information I gained in Last Call for Blackford Oakes will take away some of the suspense when I read the ones I’ve missed.

On the other hand, I’ll probably forget.

I wrote a few days back that the late William F. Buckley’s novels are a quiet pleasure for me. The Oakes books are my favorites in that group. It’s nice to read about a spy who knows which side he’s on, and isn’t tortured by doubts about whether democracy or a police state are superior systems. And instead of shadowy puppetmasters in darkened rooms, Oakes’ bosses are the actual, historical people who ran the CIA. A number of other historical figures also make appearances.

Chief among these are the British defector Kim Philby, about whose character Buckley (and Oakes) is/are in no doubt. There is no romance in Buckley’s portrait of Philby.

In this final book of the series, Oakes is a senior agent, something of a legend in the CIA. In the first chapter, in December, 1987, he’s called in to meet with President Ronald Reagan. There are rumors of an attempt to assassinate Soviet Prime Minister Gorbachev, and Reagan wants Oakes to look into it. Continue reading Last Call for Blackford Oakes, by William F. Buckley

Meeting Long John

From chapter 8 of Treasure Island:

When I had done breakfasting the squire gave me a note addressed to John Silver, at the sign of the Spy-glass, and told me I should easily find the place by following the line of the docks and keeping a bright lookout for a little tavern with a large brass telescope for sign. I set off, overjoyed at this opportunity to see some more of the ships and seamen, and picked my way among a great crowd of people and carts and bales, for the dock was now at its busiest, until I found the tavern in question.

It was a bright enough little place of entertainment. The sign was newly painted; the windows had neat red curtains; the floor was cleanly sanded. There was a street on each side and an open door on both, which made the large, low room pretty clear to see in, in spite of clouds of tobacco smoke.

The customers were mostly seafaring men, and they talked so loudly that I hung at the door, almost afraid to enter.

As I was waiting, a man came out of a side room, and at a glance I was sure he must be Long John. His left leg was cut off close by the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about upon it like a bird. He was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham–plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling. Indeed, he seemed in the most cheerful spirits, whistling as he moved about among the tables, with a merry word or a slap on the shoulder for the more favoured of his guests.

Now, to tell you the truth, from the very first mention of Long John in Squire Trelawney’s letter I had taken a fear in my mind that he might prove to be the very one-legged sailor whom I had watched for so long at the old Benbow. Continue reading Meeting Long John

Nuremberg: The Reckoning, by William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley’s novels have always been a quiet, minor pleasure, at least for me. Buckley wasn’t a great novelist. He was a fine writer, and his books are well-researched and informative. But they lack strong characters, and everybody in them talks like William F. Buckley. Not a bad thing in itself, but it plays hob with T.W.S.O.D.*

I learned interesting things about the Nuremberg Tribunals in the reading, but I never worked up a whole lot of personal concern for the characters.

The main character in Nuremberg: The Reckoning is Sebastian Reinhard, a young German-born American. The book opens with a prequel, showing Sebastian’s father, an architect, as he works desperately to get his wife and son out of Germany. He succeeds, but fails to escape himself. Some time later he is reported dead.

Sebastian reaches draft age just as the war is winding down. Instead of seeing combat, he is assigned to serve as an interpreter in Nuremberg, assisting in the prosecution of a fictional war criminal named Gen. Amadeus. Through Sebastian’s eyes we are able to observe the struggles of life in postwar Germany, and the complicated legal and diplomatic maneuvers involved in conducting a series of trials for which there was no historic precedent. Most of the cast of characters are people who actually lived, and there is much to learn for those who (like me) hadn’t studied the trials (or even seen the movie).

Yet somehow, when it was done, it felt unfinished to me. Perhaps that was Buckley’s intention, in view of the moral ambivalencies of the whole project, the impossibility of making the criminals suffer proportionately to the sufferings they’d inflicted; the hypocrisy of allowing the Soviets to sit in gleeful judgment on monsters not appreciably worse than themselves.

But one way or another, there wasn’t a whole lot of satisfaction here.

*The Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Footnote Evangelism

Tony Woodlief writes about Penguin Classics.

It struck me recently, however, that the editors at Penguin assume—most likely with good reason—that their readers have virtually no biblical knowledge. Thus when the Count says, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, “But a stranger in a strange land, he is no one,” the editor dutifully provides a footnote to explain that this alludes to the book of Exodus. . . . maybe this will prove to be a postmodern form of evangelism. We can’t get most intellectuals within spitting distance of a church any more, but maybe we can reach them through footnotes.

Dark Horse, A Political Thriller

In Dark Horse, political strategist and author Ralph Reed included the first African-American presidential nominee in history, a controversial black pastor that stirs up the presidential race, and a GOP nominee with strong national security credentials who has problems with conservatives in his own party. Many commentators and reviewers have noted the eerie similarities to the 2008 campaign. With the selection of Sarah Palin to be John McCain’s running mate, Dark Horse has now correctly predicted the selection of only the second woman as a running mate in American history. In the book, the character is Betsy Hafer, who like Palin had been a governor for less than two years.

The book has been out since June 3, and it appears to be a winner. I heard Reed say that if you want to know what really goes on in the back rooms of a presidential campaign, read Dark Horse.

Marilynne Robinson Talks About Home

Marilynne Robinson has another novel, Home, and talks about it with Newsweek.

The new book seems less like a sequel than a sort of Faulknerian return to Gilead. How conscious were you of the notion that the town itself is a central character to the story? Was that the intention?

To me it seems true that towns are always characters and that landscapes are as well. Gilead has resonance for me as a repository of a certain history, and as the kind of commonplace, self-forgetful little town you might find anywhere and not even bother to wonder about. These places are full of history and full of meaning. I am not particularly interested in creating my own Yoknapatawpha, but Gilead is where these characters live, and that was the reason I returned there.

The New York Sun’s Benjamin Lytal reviews Home here, opening his article with this: “Marilynne Robinson is an anomaly in the great tradition of American literature. One of our few novelists at peace with religion, she isn’t interested in the post-Puritanical game of unmasking hypocrisy, of entering into darkness.”