‘Extraordinary People,’ by Peter May

Extraordinary People

I’m becoming a fan of Scottish writer Peter May. Extraordinary People, which seems to be the first book of a new series, only added to my enthusiasm.

Enzo MacLeod (half Italian, half Scottish) is the father of two daughters. One, whose mother died, adores him and lives in France. The other, whose mother he divorced, will not speak to him. However, she too lives in France.

Enzo used to be a forensic scientist for the police, but now he teaches biology at the University of Toulouse. As a sort of a lark, he makes a bet with a friend, a journalist who’s writing a book on unsolved disappearances. Enzo bets him that he can solve the disappearance of a famous professor, public intellectual, and film critic about ten years before.

Quickly he is able to identify a skull discovered in a metal case in the catacombs of Paris as that of the missing man. Along with the skull various items were found, and Enzo believes they are clues to the motive and murderer. He begins to run the clues down, using the resources of the internet, which did not exist when the man was murdered. Along the way he gradually learns that someone is following his investigation, someone willing to kill him and those he cares about to keep old secrets.

The form of this mystery is one I don’t generally buy into – the serial puzzle mystery, where the detective has to solve a series of obscure riddles to solve the crime. Such things happen in real life, I think, never. In outline, this story resembles the National Treasure movies, which I found contrived and unconvincing.

But May plays the game at a much higher level, and while I recognized the implausibility of the plot, I still had a good time following it. Enzo is an ambivalent character who can sometimes repel the reader, but his growth in maturity and self-knowledge is part of the story.

Cautions for the usual stuff, plus a couple naive comments in the Dan Brown line. But overall I enjoyed Extraordinary People very much.

Memoirs of a Viking amnesiac

Well, that was dumb. I just erased all the photos I took at the Midwest Viking Festival this weekend. I’ve been having increasing trouble getting the reader for the smart card in my camera to communicate with my computers, and in the course of grappling with it I managed to erase the card.

There’s another picture I do have, of me sitting under my awning at the festival. But it was taken by a stranger who was kind enough to e-mail it to me, and I don’t feel right publishing her work in this space without her permission. I could e-mail her and ask, but I won’t be doing that tonight. I’m running behind in my chores. Maybe I’ll have it for you later.

Anyway, I made the four hour trip to Moorhead for the festival at the Hjemkomst Interpretive Center. It was not without challenges. Moorhead has invested heavily in road repairs this summer, and has blocked two of its I-94 overpasses, while also blocking off several of the main streets. The festival put us up in a motel south of the highway, and the venue is some blocks north of the highway. I don’t think I traveled between the two points a single time without getting lost.

Alzheimer’s seemed to be the theme word for the weekend, for me. I discovered that I’d forgotten my Viking belt and pouch at home. And the first day I left my belt knife and scramasax in the motel, and believe me I wasn’t about to drive back to get them. I muddled through, however, with a spare belt of my own, and a pouch I bought from a vendor. Continue reading Memoirs of a Viking amnesiac

‘Death in Nostalgia City,’ by Mark S. Bacon

Death in Nostalgia City

I almost feel guilty writing this review. To an extent, it’s a minor exercise in vindictiveness.

But I’m pretty sure I disliked the book before I figured out I didn’t care much for the author, either. So bear that in mind when evaluating my evaluation.

Death in Nostalgia City is the story of Lyle Deming, a burned-out former policeman who’s found a much more pleasant niche for himself. He drives a vintage taxi cab in Nostalgia City, a theme park in Arizona designed to recreate the Baby Boomers’ childhoods. So he’s reluctant to get involved when the park’s tycoon owner asks him to investigate a series of acts of sabotage in the park. The owner is in a precarious financial situation, and if these incidents impact the business, the evil insurance company that holds his notes may foreclose on it.

I fear that the main reason I actually read this book through to the end was so I could honestly tell you how much it annoyed me. I found the writing… slack. Not awful (though it does include infelicitous sentences like, “’Let’s see who our guests are,’ Lyle said, nodding toward the wallet he’d extracted from the wounded man.’” Extracted? With a surgical instrument, perhaps?), just not at all gripping. The dialogue has zero sparkle or wit. The characters are cardboard, and they all talk alike. The plot tension fails to ratchet up until the very end. And the villains are predictable (except for one surprise, which I’ll admit did fool me).

As icing on the cake, progressive political opinions find their way into the story in a couple places. Which will play well with some audiences, of course.

Anyway, I don’t recommend this book, but it doesn’t cost much, if you want to double-check my prejudiced verdict.

Read the Bible in Whole Books

When we change the Bible into a chapter and verse Bible, plus added all these other modern additives — cross references, section headings, footnotes, all the other stuff that we put in Bibles — we have really made it hard for people to just flat out read the Bible. And one of the things I contend in my book is we should be reading first and studying second and actually doing our study in the context of having read whole books, because that is really what authors intended. Their central unit is not a verse, is not a chapter, it is a book.

Tony Reinke of Desiring God talks to Glenn Paauw, the Executive Director of the Biblica Institute for Bible Reading, on how the Bible came to be designed the way it is today. Paauw says practical considerations simply built on each other so that while we’ve done much to help people reference the Bible, we’ve also hindered them from simply reading it.

Who Once Destroyed Harold Bloom

Cynthia Ozick, who is now 88 (“piano keys,” as she sprightfully said when I [Giles Harvey] congratulated her on her recent birthday), has not ceased from the mental fight in the intervening years. She remains a crusader, a missionary or, as she recently put it to me, “a fanatic” in the cause of literature. With one hand she has written some of the strangest, most intellectually daring and morally intelligent fiction of recent times, including “The Shawl” (1989) and “The Puttermesser Papers” (1997); with the other she has produced a prose brick of lit crit, essay after essay on subjects ranging from the Book of Job and Gershom Scholem to Helen Keller and Susan Sontag. You could furnish a room with the prizes she has won, and yet the embrace of a wide readership and extraliterary fame has proved elusive; and no wonder. Public demand for the exacting insights of practitioner-critics, never high, has been in steady decline for a good while now.

Harvey begins his profile of Ozick with a remarkable story of how she punked critic Harold Bloom in a public discussion 30 years ago.  “She beat the crap out of him,” one editor said afterward. (via Prufrock News)

Kirkus Interview with Ken Liu of ‘The Grace of Kings’

Kirkus Reviews did an interview with author Ken Liu earlier this year, in which he shares good thoughts about writing and his novel The Grace of Kings.

I wouldn’t consider myself a very fast writer. Almost every other writer I know can draft and revise faster. I have found, however, that the solution to almost any kind of temporary setback in a writing career is to write more, and keeping that in mind has allowed me to keep on writing even when I was not feeling “on.”

The Grace of Kings is your first novel. What are the main differences between writing short fiction vs. long fiction, either in how you envision the story or its construction? 

I think on the practical side, there’s a lot more bookkeeping that must be done with novels: dates, plot points, character traits, worldbuilding details, etc. And decisions you make early on can have consequences hundreds of pages and months or years later. Since I’m not a natural planner when it comes to writing, I’ve had to learn to use various technologies like wikis and timelines to keep all this stuff straight. I suppose in a sense, writing a novel is a lot more like architecture while short fiction feels more like sculpting.

He goes on to describe his use of “silkpunk,” which is “a blend of fantasy and technology inspired by prototypes from East Asian antiquity.”

Gone a-Viking, again

Midwest Viking Festival

I refuse to say I’ll be “out of pocket” for the rest of the week. I dislike that turn of speech; it makes no sense to me. “Out of pocket” is a term having to do with spending money.

Anyway, I’ll be away for the next few days. I’ll be participating in the Midwest Viking Festival at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minnesota. The Hjemkomst Center is a museum devoted to preserving a replica Viking ship which was built beginning in the 1970s and sailed to Norway in the early ‘80s. Its chief builder was a regular guy named Bob Asp, who sadly died before the launch. There’s also a lovely replica stave church.

I’ve been to the Hjemkomst Center before, but this will be my first time at this particular event. It will probably be the largest Viking event I’ve ever attended. There’ll be a few friends and acquaintances there, so I won’t be wholly on my own in a sea of strangers, though. I’ll have some books to sell. Drop in if you’re in the neighborhood.

I just finished loading my car, and was amazed at how easy it was without hip pain. It’s like growing ten years younger all of a sudden. It occurs to me that I must be kind of tough. I’ve been playing hurt for more than two years.

‘A Mint Condition Corpse,’ by Duncan MacMaster

A Mint Condition Corpse

I’ll confess I picked this book up because I like the author’s blog. Duncan MacMaster is the proprietor of The Furious D Show, an excellent movie blog. In spite of the handicap of being Canadian, MacMaster writes with authority and wit on the business of Hollywood (though, like so many blogmeisters, he’s been posting less and less lately). But the more I read A Mint Condition Corpse, the more I liked it for its own sake, and the more fun I had.

MacMaster’s knowledge of Hollywood provides a great background for this story, which deals with comics fandom and movie making. His hero is Kirby Baxter, a famous comic book artist who has been out of circulation for a couple years. On the same day he was fired from his job, he won the lottery. After collecting his riches, he fled to Europe. There he got involved in a couple criminal investigations, employing his expertise in reading people’s faces, which he learned from a magician uncle who did a mind reading act. His contributions to police operations earned him honorary status as an Interpol consultant, and the loyalty of a giant Czech former policeman, who became his constant, protective shadow.

Now he’s decided to reconnect with his old friends and fans. He flies to Toronto to attend Omnicon, a huge comics convention. He runs into Mitch, his diminutive, dirty-minded old buddy, and Molly, a fellow artist whom he helped get started in the business. He also meets a supermodel turned actress who has been cast in an upcoming superhero movie and is at the convention to promote it. She turns out to be every geek’s dream – she’s a fan of his work, and sends out clear signals that she’s interested in him personally.

And then there’s a murder. Employing his people reading skills, Kirby assists the police in cutting through a tangle of personal and business motives (here the author’s knowledge of the movie industry adds a lot to verisimilitude), putting his own life in danger.

In description, the plot sounds like fanboy wish-fulfillment fantasy. But what makes A Mint Condition Corpse work is the way the author brings the characters to life and laughs (in an affectionate way) at the quaint customs and mores of the subcultures represented in the story. I really liked these characters, and cared about them. The book worked for me very well.

The dialogue can get a little raunchy, especially when Mitch is talking, but it’s not bad by the standards of thriller literature. I recommend A Mint Condition Corpse, and I hope we see more of Kirby Baxter.

What Americans Claim to Read

Last week, the Library of Congress opened a new exhibit called “America Reads” to “celebrate the public’s choice of 65 books by American authors that had a profound effect on American life.”

It’s a follow-up to the 2012 exhibit “Books That Shaped America.” At that time, “the Library of Congress urged members of the public to name other books that shaped America and to tell the Library which of the 88 books on the list were most important to them. Thousands of readers responded.”

We, the people of these United States, chose books such as Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, both Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Anthem, The Book of Mormon, Stephen King’s The Stand, Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Cat in the Hat, AA’s Big Book, The Feminine Mystique, and Spock’s Baby and Child Care.

The LOC reminds us, “The volumes featured in the ‘America Reads’ exhibition do not necessarily represent the best in American letters, nor do they speak to the diversity of our nation and the books it produces.” No, but it does speak to the type of people who visit the Library of Congress and respond to reading surveys with what amounts to Boaty McBoatface without the priceless publicity.

The Big Book? Baby and Child Care? How many actual people who put on pants in the morning responded to this survey? It couldn’t be thousands, unless almost everyone picked a unique title, making the three votes for Baby and Child Care a standout choice.

The exhibit will run through the end of the year.

Film review: ‘The Last King’

I posted the trailer for the Norwegian film The Last King a little while back. You might be able to see it in a theater (I did) but if not, it’s available (I believe) on Netflix. Or will be soon.

In the 13th Century, Norway is torn by civil wars. The opposing forces are the Birkebeiners (birchlegs), devoted to the current dynasty, and the Baglers (crosiers), loyal to the church, which has placed Norway under papal ban.

The young king, Haakon Sverreson, is poisoned to death by his wicked stepmother, the queen mother. When the news gets out, loyal Birkebeiners, Skjervald and Torstein, receive Haakon’s infant son, Haakon Haakonsson, from his mother in order to carry him by ski from Lillehammer to Trondheim, to keep him out of the hands of the Baglers. Their journey becomes a perilous one, as ruthless Bagler warriors pursue them over the mountains. Meanwhile intrigue in the palace in Trondheim leads to betrayal, false imprisonment, and murder.

The Last King is a competent historical action movie. It’s not as great as it wants to be, but the fight scenes and the music are pretty good (especially the music).

Historically, the film is about at the level of Braveheart, which is to say any resemblance to actual events is mostly coincidental. The Baglers (as is the practice in most historical epics) are painted as evil incarnate, capable of any atrocity in their ruthless devotion to the pope. The actual ski journey (assuming it actually happened; historians aren’t sure) was strenuous but not nearly this dangerous. The Game of Thrones-style intrigue and betrayal at the palace is almost entirely fictional. The evil Duke Gisli of this film actually never existed – he’s a place holder for a real Duke Haakon (that name might have confused the audience), who wasn’t particularly evil at all.

Worth seeing. Netflix stuff; probably not worth driving to a theater for. Subtitled.

‘The Grace of Kings,’ by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings

Divination was an ancient art in the Islands of Dara, but no Tiro state was more dedicated to its practice than scholarly Haan. After all, Haan was the favored land of the god Lutho, divine trickster, mathematician, and seer. The gods always spoke ambivalently, and sometimes they even changed their minds in the middle of your asking them a question. Divination was a matter of ascertaining the future through inherently unreliable methods.

It isn’t often that a book leaves me in awe. But Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings has me thunderstruck.

Imagine a book written on the general Game of Thrones model. But imagine it set in a Chinese-based world.

And imagine that in this story, courage is not always futile, and virtue is not always defiled.

That’s The Grace of Kings. An epic in every sense of the word.

In the world of Dura, the emperor of the Reign of One Bright Heaven is a cruel megalomaniac. Thousands die doing slave labor for his hubristic personal monuments. Almost by accident, a revolt breaks out and spreads. Soon to be caught up in it are Kuni Garu, a commoner, a former gambler and bandit, and Mata Zyndu, descendent of heroes, tall and strong and himself a figure out of legend.

The two men’s gifts are different. Kuni Garu is intelligent and humane, always chiefly concerned with the welfare of others. Mata Zyndu is obsessed with courage, heroism, and ideals. Their complementary virtues make them leaders and brothers. They win the war.

And then it gets messy.

This is a book that will reward re-reading. I’m not at all sure I agree with its message (assuming there is one, or only one), but the story is eminently worth wrestling with. Much blood is spilled, but it’s not heartless. It’s rich in complex characters and moral ambivalence, but it’s not amoral.

I’m overwhelmed by The Grace of Kings. I highly recommend it. Not for young children.

Who Could Oppose Us? We’re So Nice.

R.R. Reno suggests terrorism is not about hate, but political warfare. We aren’t threatened by a network of criminals or people who are psychologically unhinged; we’re threatened by a network of people who believe the American way of life is immoral and dangerous to the world. But our leaders ask themselves why the terrorists hate us.

Our leaders cannot imagine a rational anti-Americanism. This is due in part to the narrowing effect of multiculturalism. Paradoxically, instead of broadening our capacity to entertain ways of thinking not our own, multiculturalism has made us parochial. We compliment ourselves endlessly for our tolerance, inclusiveness, and diversity. Since we are so tolerant of others, we assume, there is no reason others shouldn’t tolerate us. Since we are never offended, we must be inoffensive.

Aren’t we the world? Aren’t we all on the same page, if we could just talk to each other? But if one of us has offended them, it must be those hatemongering Christians, who tell us to love Jesus and keep sex inside of marriage. If anything’s offensive, that is. (via Prufrock News)

Book Reviews, Creative Culture