Category Archives: Fiction

West Oversea, by Lars Walker

I’m hesitating a bit on how to review Lars’ latest adventure. You’ve seen several other reviews both light and heavy on details, so a straight-forward review like the last one I wrote isn’t appropriate. It would not advance the storyline, as it were. I’m also tempted to write something very silly such as a long-winded ramble about my daily life, barely touching on the book itself, or a review promising full spoilers and offering none. I don’t care to write either of those.

West Oversea by Lars Walker

If you are not already convinced by reading it yourself, Lars has written a darn good story in “Westward Ho” (see, I can barely stop myself). It begins strong; the conflict which prompts Erling Skjalgsson to sail west comes upfront. New problems emerge along the way, both small and large, and just when you start to wonder if the heroes will ever return home, the battle flames hot again. But this is what you already know. Let me write about other things, making this a review supplemental (though you already got some of that in the Q&A we posted before).

West Oversea is written within a beautifully rich framework. It is like an actor who does not break his character, even when everyone else goes off-script. Several decisions the characters make are not fully explained to the modern reader, making the story more believable and less of a teaching tool. So many Christian works of fiction seem to want to teach more than tell stories, but if they were to follow Shakespeare’s example, much as West Oversea does, their stories would be better and their readers may have more to talk about. I’m thinking of how Hamlet dies at the end of his play, not because it’s more dramatic for him to bite it along with the others, but for the sake of justice. He had murdered Polonius, therefore his life was justly forfeit—a life for a life unjustly taken, the essence of capital punishment. Does Shakespeare ever spell that out to us? No.

In a similar way, Lars’ tale has characters acting within their worldviews and not necessarily talking it through for the reader’s sake. That may be the narrative style. Father Aillil, who relates the adventure to us, does not wallow in his emotions, even when he is deeply stirred. He gives us no soliloquy on the merits of living as Hamlet does. Many times, he merely acts.

But the theme of the book is not at all opaque. Erling speaks it clearly in the beginning when he must decide how to deal with the overarching conflict of the book. “One kind of right is simple. You do what the law says. You keep your vows though it beggars you. The other kind of right is knottier. It means asking what action will bring the best fruit. . . . Looking at it that way, a man might persuade himself it was right to break the law; right to break his vows.”

Is there a good cause greater than one’s duty to the law? Yes, if the law is unjust, but how much does it take for a man to argue the injustice of inconvenient law? That is Erling’s position. He says, “I think any crime and dishonor might be justified” once a man allows himself to believe his desired end is the greater good.

West Oversea is a fantastic book and deserves to be one of many in a long series. Men like Erling Skjalgsson ought to spring readily to mind when men and boys think of heroes from the past. Let me close by quoting Erling from The Year of the Warrior, a passage which shows something of the man’s character:

“We went a-viking in Ireland,” said Erling, “my father and I. I saw a man—a priest—die for Christ. We were holding him and others for ransom, and some of the lads were having a lark and thought it would be sport to make him eat horsemeat. He refused, and the lads took offense at his manner. They tied him to a tree and shot him full of arrows. He died singing a hymn. I thought he was as brave as Hogni, who laughed while Atli cut his heart out. My father said not to talk rot, that a man who dies over what food he’ll eat dies for less than nothing.”

“I’ve never seen a true martyrdom,” I said. “I’ll wager it wasn’t like the pictures.”

“No,” said Erling. “It looked nothing like the pictures in the churches. Martyrs die like other men, bloody and sweaty and pale, and loosening their bowels at the end.”

“So I’d feared.”

“What of it? The pictures are no cheat. Just because I saw no angels, why should I think there were no angels there? Because I didn’t see Christ opening Heaven to receive the priest, how can I say Christ was not there? If someone painted a picture of that priest’s death, and left out the angels and Christ and Heaven opening, he’d not have painted truly. The priest sang as he died. Only he knows what he say in that hour, but what he saw made him strong.

“I saw a human sacrifice once too, in Sweden. When it was done, and my father had explained how the gods need to see our pain, so they’ll know we aren’t getting above ourselves, I decided I was on the Irish priest’s side.”

New Books by Dead Authors

Slate’s Juliet Lapidos reports she has read the unauthorized sequel to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and that we needn’t bother with it. “California’s allusions contain little charm, but his original material is far worse,” she says.

That isn’t really a book from a dead author. In fact, Salinger isn’t dead and doesn’t like the book. But a real dead author has a new book coming. An unfinished work by Graham Greene, newly discovered at the author’s archive in the University of Texas, will be released in The Strand as a serial, and someone is to be commissioned to write the ending. The Strand has published other lost works previously. (via ArtsJournal)

Crossing the Lines by Richard Doster

Sports reporter Jack Hall didn’t see any problem with black athletes, especially if they were good, but he didn’t want his friends to think he was chummy with them or any Negro person. That would be crossing the line. His friends felt the same way. Playing baseball was fine. It’s not like those people were sitting in the same classroom or dancing with our children.

And Jack and Rose Marie Hall had a personal interest in avoiding desegregation issues. In the previous year, 1954, their home had been bombed by someone who didn’t like Jack’s public stand in favor of the Negro player on the local team. Now, the Halls have moved to Atlanta, and Jack’s new boss, Ralph McGill, wants to look into the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks. Jack is the only reporter at a meeting of community leaders who choose then-unknown-preacher Martin L. King to lead the boycott. That frontline position gets King’s house bombed within a few months, and the Halls feel a new link to a family they would rather not befriend.

Crossing the Lines is loaded with historical detail, even some casual references from the characters which are not explained to the reader. It lead me to wonder if certain characters I took as wholly fictional creations were actually based on living people. Continue reading Crossing the Lines by Richard Doster

From the Publishers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Quirk Books is comes a remarkable new Jane Austen classic adapted for modern readers: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. There’s a fun trailer available. Ben Winters, a writer from Brooklyn, is the one who added the extra bits to the established story. From the press release: “As our story opens, the Dashwood sisters are evicted from their childhood home and sent to live on a mysterious island full of savage creatures and dark secrets. While sensible Elinor falls in love with Edward Ferrars, her romantic sister Marianne is courted by both the handsome Willoughby and the hideous man-monster Colonel Brandon.”

Tell No One, by Harlan Coben

Notice of personal appearance: I’ll be at the Norway Day celebration in Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis, with the Vikings on Sunday, from about 11:00 to 4:00 or so. They say the weather will be nice.

I appreciated Gone for Good so much
that I immediately launched into reading Tell No One, which Harlan Coben wrote just before it. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be a little let down. There’s nothing at all wrong with Tell No One. It’s a gripping, fast-paced thriller with engaging characters and plenty of surprises. But for some reason (perhaps just a subjective identification with one main character over another), I didn’t like it quite as much.

There are actually a lot of similarities in the set-ups of both stories. Gone for Good’s hero was a gentle do-gooder, a volunteer who works with the homeless, whose girlfriend disappears and who soon comes under the suspicion of federal investigators. In Tell No One, the hero is Dr. David Beck, a young physician who has voluntarily chosen to work with charity cases in Manhattan. Three years ago, he was gravely injured when his wife, Elizabeth, was abducted and murdered by a serial killer. But now he starts getting e-mail messages that seem to be coming from Elizabeth herself. Meanwhile, the FBI has suddenly decided that he must have murdered Elizabeth, and they’ve got a warrant for his arrest. But David has an appointment to meet with Elizabeth—or whoever’s pretending to be her—this afternoon, and there’s no way he’s going to be sitting in a cell when that happens. So he runs.

Very good story. I’ve got no complaints. The language is not bad for the genre; the violence (some of it quite horrifying) is mostly off camera. There is a lesbian couple with a child who are highly sympathetic characters, so you might (or might not) want to be warned of that.

I liked it, and I’ve got no legitimate complaint.

Questions on West Oversea

For those of you who waste your time on the Interweb playing on Facebook or doing who knows what, Lars had a great book published recently called West Oversea. I asked the author, Lars, who blogs right here if you haven’t noticed, a few questions about the book, which is also called “Westward Ho.” These questions may be more interesting to those who have read the book, “Go West, Young Viking,” but even if you haven’t, I hope the following will pique your interest a little more, assuming the strong reviews have not piqued it enough already. And if this introduction has just confused you . . . so let’s get to the questions.

  1. One of the major tensions in West Oversea comes from a magical object called The Eye of Odin. Is that object entirely your creation or did you pull it from one of the old myths? If it was from a myth, did the story you give in the novel about it’s origin come from the same myth?

    A: The myth says that Odin plucked out his own eye in return for a drink from Mimir’s well of foreknowledge. He dropped the eye into the well, and we know nothing more of its history. I suspect I may be the first person to wonder about it.

  2. In both this novel and The Year of the Warrior, Odin or the power of Odin is a major villain or evil force. Is that just the way it worked out? Did you weigh Odin against other Norse gods when planning stories?

    A: I find it impossible to think of heathen gods as having any real existence other than as evil spirits. C. S. Lewis hinted at some order of good daemons, at least in the past, but that’s kind of rarified for my ideas of the spiritual world. In any case, Odin has always been a sinister figure. He can look kind of noble and ethereal in a kid’s book, but in the poetry of the period he’s associated with corpses and hanged men and carrion-eating ravens. He routinely betrays those who put their trust in him.

    Thor’s a little more sympathetic, and I treated him more kindly in THE YEAR OF THE WARRIOR. So I guess I’m doing the good daemon thing anyway. I imagine I’ll be sorry someday.

  3. At one point in West Oversea, Father Aillil has a vision of the future with several distinct figures speaking from their viewpoints. Did you have specific people in mind for those figures? I tried to peg one of them as Sigmund Freud, but I’d have to study them a bit before making my final guess.

    A: Some of them are meant to be well-known people, some are just representatives. But I’m not going to spell it out. That would spoil the fun. Or the irritation, as the case may be.

  4. I could ask the same question of the American natives you describe later in the novel. Did you have specific tribes or people groups in mind there?

    A: I did some research on pre-Columbian Eastern Woodlands tribes. But our information on their cultures that far back is limited, and I made a lot of guesses. I think I vaguely meant the “nice” Native Americans to be Algonckians, or their ancestors.

  5. At one point, Erling, the hero of many and admired figure for many in that time, explains one of the things it takes to be a good leader. As a novelist, do you think you understand different types of people, at least academically if not more so, even if you couldn’t emulate them yourself?

    A. I observe leaders and brave men with considerable interest. The novelist’s working question is always, “What would I be like if I were like this person?” We’re very different from one another, we humans, but we’re not so different as to be mutually incomprehensible–in most cases, at least.

  6. Have you thought about writing a novel in the same time period with a different focal character, say Olaf Tryggvason or someone in his court or maybe St. Olaf after him?

    A: I hope to extend the Erling series into the reign of St. Olaf, and to do a St. Olaf-only book to cap the series. And I hope to write a non-Erling Viking book sooner or later. Maybe several.

Gone For Good, by Harlan Coben

Oh my goodness, Gone For Good is a splendid novel.

I hate to blaspheme Andrew Klavan by calling it the best suspense novel I’ve ever read, but I’ll go so far as to say I’ve never read a better one.

Will Klein, the hero and narrator, is a do-gooder. He works in New York City for Covenant House a (real-life) humanitarian organization that tries to reach out to street kids and (when they’re lucky) help a few of them escape that world before they’re irreparably damaged (which doesn’t take long).

He lives with his girlfriend, Sheila. She’s his “soul-mate,” and he’s planning to propose soon. The only reason he put it off was because his mother died of cancer recently, and life got complicated.

It didn’t help that, shortly before her death, his mother told him his older brother Ken was still alive. Obviously she was just raving.

Ken had been Will’s hero as a boy, up until the day his girlfriend (Will’s former girlfriend) was found murdered, and Ken disappeared. The official assumption has been that Ken killed her and ran.

Believing his brother innocent, Will has always assumed he was also murdered, his body never found.

Then Sheila receives a mysterious phone call, leaves a note saying, “Love you always,” and vanishes completely.

Will has always been a passive guy (I identified with him heavily). But now, the weight of personal loss becomes too heavy to endure, and he sets out (with the help of his friend “Squares,” a millionaire yoga guru) to find the woman he loves. Quickly he learns that it has something to do with his brother’s disappearance. And we are given just enough glimpses (in Hitchcockian fashion) of the plans and deliberations of his enemies to understood the extreme danger he’s walking into. Very powerful, very ruthless people are interested in the whereabouts of Ken Klein. But even this information leaves plenty of surprises along the way. The twists come relentlessly, right up to a jaw-dropping revelation at the end.

What I loved about Gone For Good was that the plot and the surprises all rose from believable, complex characters. Coben understands Solzhenyitsin’s dictum that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Every character in this book is flawed, but also well-meaning (by his own lights). The wide disparity between the things that individuals consider right and necessary is almost a part of the background scenery, like the Grand Canyon.

Outstanding. Recommended highly for adults.