Category Archives: Fiction

Heroic fiction: Building bridges

Here’s something I meant to include in my recent review of Poul Anderson’s Mother of Kings, but left out because the thing was long enough. This way I can make another whole post out of it, which saves me thinking up a new idea.

(By the way, it just occurred to me, how come it’s “Poul Anderson” and not “Poul Andersen?” He was Danish, and the standard ending for Danish patronymics is “sen.” I suppose it can be traced back to some culturally insensitive immigration official, like the one who made the Kvalevaags into Walkers).

Anyway, I wrote that I found Mother of Kings kind of dull. I gave a couple reasons, but left one out. It involves what I consider a common problem in novels about Vikings and in heroic fantasy in general.

The book was clunky. Continue reading Heroic fiction: Building bridges

Koontz on stories

Today is Sissel Kyrkjebø’s birthday.

And no, I didn’t send her a present. She didn’t send me anything last year, and I do have some pride.

I’m currently reading Dean Koontz’ Mr. Murder, which I’m finding even more excruciatingly suspenseful than his usual stuff. Koontz has adopted the wise policy in recent books of making his heroes blue-collar workers, a tactic that’s both fresh and realistic, and I salute it. In this older book, though, he falls back on the conventional author’s timesaver of making the main character a fellow author (saves research). But it gives him the opportunity to make some dramatically appropriate comments on the idea of Story Itself. Here the hero, Martin Stillwater, talks about it with his wife:

He said, “You and I were passing the time with novels, so were some other people, not just to escape but because… because, at its best, fiction is medicine.”


“Life is so d*mned disorderly, things just happen, and there doesn’t seem any point to so much of what we go through. Sometimes it seems the world’s a madhouse. Storytelling condenses life, gives it order. Stories have beginnings, middles, ends. And when a story’s over, it meant something, by God, maybe not something complex, maybe what it had to say was simple, even naïve, but there was meaning. And that gives us hope, it’s a medicine.”

Twists and Metaphysical Turns

Sherry reviews The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesteron, but if you have not read the book, I don’t recommend read this post. She doesn’t reveal any of the story, except the final revelation which could take some of the wind out of its sails. Maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps those of you who have read the book can tell us what you think.

Also, Frank Wilson posts his review of All Hallow’s Eve by Charles Williams, which is more of a nightmare than Thursday, but one I’d like to explore in the future. More on Williams at Touchstone magazine.

Winston Churchill on Historical Fiction

In an article from April 12, 1902, reprinted in Popular Culture by David Manning White (found on Google Books), American novelist Winston Churchill comments on representing historical figures. The reporter asked him if he would present Daniel Webster, should he choose to, as he truly was, warts and all. Churchill replied, “I should consider it wrong to expose the weaknesses of a man like Webster because he is a historical ideal that should not be shattered. The same is true in regard to Hamilton; whereas, with a man like Aaron Burr, I should not hesitate to portray him exactly as he was as that would mean no loss to the historical ideal.” The editor who reprinted these comments was appalled and went on criticize public education.

What do you think of this view? Is there a historical ideal to maintain?

Television Killed the Literary Snob

A popular British TV couple started a book club four years ago, and now “the R&J Book Club accounts for 26% of the sales of the top 100 books in the UK, and Amanda Ross, the club’s creator and book selector, is the most powerful player in British publishing.” Anyone heard of this R&J pick for the summer? It looks interesting.

The Pirate’s Daughter by Margaret Cezair-Thompson (Headline Review). A multi-generational story based on the extraordinary true story of Errol Flynn‘s arrival in 1940s Jamaica. The Pirate’s Daughter follows Ida, a girl who falls for Flynn’s charms. Through the eyes of Ida and her daughter, May, it also tells the story of their home, Jamaica, before and after independence.

(By way of Books, Inq.)

History Being What One Makes It

Patrick Buchanan has written a historical argument on WWII. Adam Kirsh reviews it for the NY Sun, comparing it to Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke.”

When they look back to the 1930s, Mr. Baker’s role models are the Quakers and pacifists who believed it was better to lie down for Hitler than take up arms to fight him; Mr. Buchanan’s are the isolationists who believed that Nazi Germany was a necessary bulwark against the real menace, godless communism. But the net result of their lucubrations is the same. Both men have written books arguing that World War II, far from being “the good war” of myth, was an unnecessary folly that Britain and America should never have engaged in. And both have zeroed in on Winston Churchill as the war’s true villain — an immoral, hypocritical, bloodthirsty braggart whose fame is a hoax on posterity.

But where Mr. Baker’s book can be, and in most quarters has been, dismissed as the ignorant blundering of a novelist who wandered far out of his depth, Mr. Buchanan’s book is more dangerous.

By way of Frank Wilson, who comments on factory life.

What is this about Churchill being a villain? Here’s a bit of his argument for the war: Continue reading History Being What One Makes It

What Is the Map For?

Seriously, why do fantasy novels have maps in the front? Johan Jönsson writes about it.

The very idea that maps and fantasy belong together is of course a cliché in itself. Maps of St. Petersburg and Russia would not make much of a difference to a reader of Crime and Punishment even if the person in question had never even heard of Eastern Europe before, and the idea of a map of Britain in a novel by Jane Austen is laughable. A bleak way to look on the phenomenon is that the map is there as a crutch to help our understanding of our beloved heroes’ travels on their world-saving quest, or so that we can understand the strategic movements of armies of good or of evil. This would support the idea of the conservative fantasy reader who wants what he or she knows and who is only comfortable with innovation of the genre as long as it is kept within well-defined boundaries.

Addendum: Strange Maps. (I may have seen this before. In fact, Lars may have blogged on it, but I forget now.)

Smuckers Slurps Folgers and Other Stories

Smuckers buys Folgers from Proctor & Gamble and apparently pays no taxes on it. That’s probably a symptom of our wonderfully simple tax code which does it’s best to exact a reasonable fee from every citizen for the services enjoyed by every citizen.

In other news, Chris Ver Wiel’s novel, Starbucks Nation is too weird for James Endrst of for USA TODAY. “A slightly bitter and generally uninteresting brew,” he says.

Last Friday was National Doughnut Day. I missed it, and Krispy Kreme is a walk away from my office. Aww, and I could have gotten a free one too. What’s wrong with me?

Some folks in San Francisco enthuse over their favorite coffee roasters, while people in Bean Town are roasting their own.

An Abel Jones moment

Here’s another little snippet from an Abel Jones mystery by Owen Parry, Rebels of Babylon. I need to set the scene up a little. Jones, a strict Methodist, made a point in the earlier books of saying that he disapproved of novels, since they were made up entirely of lies, and were a frivolous waste of time. But recently he made the discovery of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and was completely won over—providing the novel was morally upright, of course.

In Rebels of Babylon he makes the acquaintance once again of Barnaby B. Barnaby, an English “gentleman’s gentleman” who had told him in Call Each River Jordan that he was a great reader—but only of one book. He read The Pickwick Papers again and again, comforted by its predictability.

In this scene, Jones tries to persuade Barnaby to try Great Expectations. (Ever try to recommend a book to a friend who wasn’t interested? I’ll bet you never got quite the response Jones gets):

Mr. Barnaby shook his head, slowly but with decision. “I couldn’t do it, sir. Really, I couldn’t. It’s all too awful and ’orrible. I couldn’t bear to undertake the experience of more suffering. And people always suffers in a novel, sir, if it’s worth the ink and paper…. I’ve even ’ad to give up reading Mr. Pickwick, I ’as. I couldn’t bear it no more, knowing as ’ow all ’is ’appiness is bound to be torn from ’is bosom. Not all Sam Weller’s wits can’t save the poor man, sir. ’E goes to ’is sufferings over and over again. Without end, sir, without end! As if that Charlie Dickens ’as trapped ’im forever in the pages, so ’e can’t never escape…. A writer fellow must be ’orrible wicked, sir, to go killing folks with ink and making everyone suffer for ’is pleasure. And for profit, sir! The scribblers takes money to make the innocent suffer in their books. It just ain’t right to do a thing like that.”

That says it about as clearly as it could be said, I think.

This is the last Abel Jones book published to date, and I wish I could get information on the next. I searched the web, and found an interview with Parry (actually Col. Ralph Peters) in which he projects a series of about twelve books. But where each previous volume ended with the note, “The adventures of Abel Jones will continue in _______________,” this one just says, “The adventures of Abel Jones will continue.” And this one came out in 2005. That’s getting to be a three year hiatus, which is too long for a series, as I can tell you with some authority.

I may have given the impression, in my previous review of Honor’s Kingdom, that these are Christian books. They aren’t. They’re books about a Christian (and sometimes the author gets the theology badly wrong), but the Christian is a likeable and admirable one, which is relatively rare in contemporary fiction.

This book goes deeper than previous episodes into an analysis of Jones’ faith, and the author makes it clear that much of Jones’ rigor rises from some deep, repressed fears. It’s possible future books may cross the line for me, and I’ll feel compelled to give up on the series.

But I’m willing to take that chance with the wicked writer fellow, for now.

Honor’s Kingdom, by Owen Parry

Honor’s Kingdom opens in the summer of 1862 in a London morgue, where a diverse group including Charles Francis Adams (son of John Quincy Adams and ambassador to the Court of St. James), his son Henry, an English Foreign Office official, a London policeman and a surgeon are gathered, along with the hero and narrator of the book, Abel Jones. Jones is a native of Wales and a veteran of the East India Company’s wars, but he’s now a major in the U.S. army and a secret agent of the American government.

He and the Adamses are there because the deceased, a Rev. Campbell (whose body was discovered in a basket of live eels), was an American. He was also (though they’re not mentioning this) another secret agent, and he had been investigating rumors that some British ship builder is building a warship for the Confederacy, in spite of the official neutrality of the government.

Ambassador Adams assigns Major Jones to find out who killed Campbell, and what it was he’d learned that got him (and two previous agents) killed.

Jones, in his methodical way, sets about an investigation which takes him from the halls of Parliament and the finest homes of West End London to the most miserable, soul-grinding slums of the city. He meets the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, as well as a colorful variety of thieves, pimps, con men, music hall entertainers and prostitutes. Eventually his investigation extends to Glasgow, which is (amazing to tell) an even more miserable place to be poor in than London. His life is threatened by (among others) footpads, East Indian assassins and a mysterious man in a red silk mask. He chances to encounter Anthony Trollope, James McNeil Whistler, Karl Marx and William Booth along the way.

It’s jolly fun—exciting, engaging and sometimes moving. Educational, too. Continue reading Honor’s Kingdom, by Owen Parry

Holding Back the Praise

The Literary Saloon is excited about a 29 word compliment of a translated crime novel in the NY Times Book Review. They can’t stop talking about it.

No doubt [reviewer Marilyn] Stasio only managed to slip this by [NYTBR] editor Tanenhaus and his eagle-eyed translation-phobic cohorts by not mentioning that Devil’s Peak was not written in English …..

(For what it’s worth: the book was written in Afrikaans and translated by K.L.Seegers — something Little, Brown doesn’t care to mention on their publicity page either (so that when Tanenhaus or one of his assistants does a quick check they won’t be scared off ?) — and which they managed to keep out of sight on the page for the book as well (as did the British publishers).)

Maybe excited is too strong a word, but I thought I would help The Saloon rejoice at this development.