Pushing Back on a Recommended Reading Selection

A parent who is also a writer (one of the more dangerous kinds) wrote a long letter to his daughter’s teacher about a book on the recommended reading list for ninth-graders to read on their own. This comes from his response to the teacher’s reply.

The idea that Green and his novel Paper Towns is a good example of “the way the world operates” and “is the world we live in today” and that not reading them insinuates “ignorance as a remedy” is not defensible on any level. One of the things every generation does throughout history, especially the last 100 years of American popular culture, is maintain the erroneous belief that they invented sex, cuss words, drugs, and whatever sort of rebellious behavior that angers one’s parents. They always think they are the first to crack open a “modern world” to the stuffy, naive elders around them. We are still of the age that just can’t stop giggling about Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

S.J. Dahlstrom, “Coarsening is not education”

‘West Oversea’ reviewed

Blogger Mary J. Moerbe continues her series of reviews of my work. This one is West Oversea:

The thing that makes me so enamored with Erling Skjalgsson is that he is a man with a real chance of being honorable and lordly. His pagan setting and background highlight how difficult it isto do the right thing and cut through expectations in pursuit of a higher wisdom and trust. All of which makes him a really powerful Christian figure!

Read it all here.

‘Clearinghouse,’ by Randall Schanze

Full disclosure – Randall Schanze is a Facebook friend, whom I met through blog-crawling quite a few years back. We’re not close, but I read his previous book Ice Cream and Venom, and liked it pretty well. So I tried his new story collection, Clearinghouse.

Clearinghouse is a collection of stories Schanze has written since the start of his career. The backbone of the assemblage is a series of stories set in an alternate history where the NASA Moon and Mars projects are not cancelled in the 1970s. Tragic, heroic, and funny events happen. Science ain’t my long suit, but the technical details seemed authentic and plausible.

Not all the stories relate to that cycle. There are far future stories, fantasies, and even farces. The majority of the far future stories are tied together and involve a radically altered human situation. But each NASA story is followed by a “Frame” sequence, in which author Schanze communicates with a fan (implied to be his only fan), who keeps urging him to write more while he himself hangs back, discouraged by his lack of publishing success. Such a device might be expected to come off as self-indulgent, but it worked for me, and added a certain piquancy and unity to the whole exercise.

I’m not a Science Fiction fan myself, but I enjoyed Clearinghouse and recommend it.

‘what Lies Beneath,’ by Bill Kitson

In a Yorkshire tarn (a mountain lake), a fisherman snags a human skull. When divers are sent in, they find two skeletons, both of young girls. Skeletal abnormalities indicate that they were sexually abused for a long time.

Detective Inspector Mike Nash, who recently relocated from London to Yorkshire, is on the case, though distracted by concern over his girlfriend, who is hospitalized and paralyzed. It’s soon apparent that they’re dealing with international human traffickers, which brings a visit from Russian police, including a very attractive – and ruthless – woman. Their Anglo-Russian alliance will be up against a criminal conspiracy led by well-financed and very dangerous men. Men for whom human life is meaningless, and no atrocity out of the question.

That’s the premise of What Lies Beneath, first in a series of novels I’ll be following up with. Author Bill Kitson sets a good scene and does good prose. I liked his characters and got caught up in the suspense. The plot had some holes, it seemed to me, but (as in a movie) things moved along so quickly that this reader just went along with it.

Mike Nash is unusual as a fictional detective in that he has prophetic dreams. He doesn’t always understand them, and he insists he’s not psychic. I am prejudiced against this sort of thing, but it does add to narrative interest.

More character descriptions would have been welcome. There’s one character named “Viv” who is only revealed to be a man after some pages, and only revealed to be black toward the end of the book.

Imperfect but cinematically engaging, I enjoyed What Lies Beneath. I was also horrified by some of the details of the human trafficking industry, which the author claims are genuine. Cautions for shocking content, plus the usual.

‘Until the Debt Is Paid,’ by Alexander Hartung

When Berlin police detective Jan Tommen wakes up in bed with his girlfriend, to discover he’s completely forgotten the last two days, that’s annoying. But when he’s arrested for the torture murder of a judge with whom he clashed in the past, it becomes terrifying. His worst fear is that he might have done the crime – he can’t recall a thing.

But (in the great tradition of improbable detective heroics) he makes a plan to escape from custody with the help of a friend who lives on the margins of Berlin’s underworld. He recruits two more friends, a (gorgeous, of course) female medical examiner and a computer geek (obligatory in every thriller) to figure out what happened. There are further murders from the same culprit, so he knows he’s not guilty – but his police colleagues don’t.

That’s the premise of Until the Debt Is Paid, first in a series by Alexander Hartung, translated from German by Steve Anderson.

First, I’ll say what I liked about it. Until the Debt Is Paid was not what I expected. When I pick up a European mystery, I pretty much assume dark, nihilistic stuff in the tradition of Scandinavian Noir. This book was nothing like that. Jan Tommen is a throwback to older German stereotypes – he’s cheery and optimistic and enjoys life. He has his dark moments, but he snaps back. This was refreshing, especially since the story involves some extremely shocking elements. And the final solution was a surprise (at least for this dull reader).

What I disliked was that the police procedures seemed (to me) more 1970s TV than real life. I don’t believe the German police are this loose in their disciplines and security. I don’t think Jan Tommen would have remained free for more than a few hours in the real world. Also, at one point he foolishly plays around with a gun in a way no professional ever would.

And (without dropping a spoiler) one plot element that pleased me in terms of my values went horribly bad.

As for the translation, I’d call it good. It starts out excellent – I was impressed as a translator myself – but it lost some luster as it proceeded, slipping at times into dull literalism. But I can’t really fault that. I know from experience that translating a whole manuscript is a lot of work, and you sometimes run out of time, so you make sure the first few chapters are polished up nice, hoping you’ll have won the readers’ good will by then.

My takeaway: Not bad, and distinctive as a departure in tone from genre tropes. But poorly researched and lacking in plausibility.

‘Not George Washington,’ by P. G. Wodehouse

Before I had been in Walpole Street a week I could tell by ear the difference between a rejected manuscript and an ordinary letter. There is a certain solid plop about the fall of the former which not even a long envelope full of proofs can imitate successfully.

P. G. Wodehouse began his very long writing career more than a century ago, in the first decade of the 20th Century. It follows that a number of his earlier works have fallen into the public domain. Among them is his novel Not George Washington, which I read in one of the several collections of his out-of-copyright works available for Kindle.

One can detect the nascent signs of later genius in this book, but if he’d been hit by a bus in 1908, we probably wouldn’t remember him on the basis of this work (which was written in collaboration with one Herbert Westbrook).

The story, narrated by several point of view characters, starts on the Channel island of Guernsey, where a young woman named Margaret Goodwin, an island resident, meets James Orlebar Cloyster. The couple fall in love, and though her mother approves, they agree he needs to go to London to pursue his career as a writer before they can marry. He can’t hope to support a wife without achieving some success.

We then follow James to London, where he makes his fortune fairly quickly (his career follows Wodehouse’s own – Wodehouse wrote the “On the Way” column for the Globe newspaper, while Cloyster writes a column of the same name for a paper called the Orb).

At this point Cloyster finds himself in a quandary. He realizes he doesn’t really desire married life. Even his feelings for Margaret have faded. He wants to continue as a footloose London writer, but his growing fame will surely be noticed in Guernsey.

He then hits on a scheme. He pays three friends a ten percent commission each to submit literary works written by him, but under their names. Thus he can pretend to Margaret that he’s still struggling.

All of this eventually blows back in his face, as anyone but a fathead would have expected (channeling the spirit of one of Wodehouse’s later aunt characters).

As I said, there are foreshadowings of later genius in this work – especially in the employment of impostership in the plot. Otherwise, Not George Washington is a pretty minor work.

But Wodehouse fans (like me) will want to add it to their list of works read.

‘On Eden Street,’ by Peter Grainger

I pulled out all the stops and actually paid full price for the latest Peter Grainger mystery novel, On Eden Street. The DC Smith books hold a special place in my regard. Alas, this novel marks the point in the saga where Smith himself – now retired and recovering from injuries – has only a small part to play, though he does show up.

It takes a pair of new officers, DCI Kara Freeman and an organizational genius named DI Greene, to replace Smith at the head of a new team, the Kings Lake Central Murder Squad. Most of Smith’s own team are still on hand, along with some new officers. DCI Freeman is planning to spend their first day as an operational unit doing team-building exercises and reviewing cold cases. But then a body is discovered. One of the local homeless has been found dead in the doorway of a Chinese restaurant. On examination, the man proves to have been stabbed to death.

Although the narrative point of view shifts between various characters, the main protagonist in this one is DS Christopher Waters. Waters’s investigation brings him into contact with a blind woman who runs a florist shop, and romance… blossoms. Meanwhile, the dead man, who claimed to have been a war veteran, turns out to have been an impostor. So was he the murderer’s actual target, or was it a case of mistaken identity? If so, where is the real veteran, who seems to have fallen off the grid?

Peter Grainger is a solid and rewarding writer, and I enjoyed reading On Eden Street. My only complaint is that Smith is mostly out of the picture. Nobody can replace Smith.

Amazon Plus Video Review: ‘Blandings’

I didn’t have high hopes for the BBC miniseries Blandings (2 seasons available on Amazon Prime). Comments from members of the Wodehouse group on Facebook were unenthusiastic or downright hostile. I myself found it wanting in certain areas, but better than I feared.

Deep background: Most people have heard of Jeeves and Wooster, but P. G. Wodehouse had other story cycles, notably Blandings Castle (which now and then intersected with J&W). Blandings is an idyllic stately British home in the county of Hampshire. The theoretical master of Blandings is Clarence Threepwood, Lord Emsworth. Emsworth, however, is an amiable idiot, barely sentient, obsessed with gardening and his prize pig. So actual power is wielded by his formidable sister Constance – one of Wodehouse’s legendary “Scaly Aunts.” Constance dominates both Emsworth and his son Freddie, who is as mutton-headed as his father, but more active. A man about town (member of the immortal Drones Club), Freddie divides his activities between losing money gambling and falling in love with girls whom Constance finds unsuitable.

The two seasons of Blandings consist of six and seven episodes respectively. All are based on actual Wodehouse stories. I didn’t follow them line for line, but going by my memory they kept fairly close to the original plots. (The main differences between the two seasons are that George Cyril Wellbeloved, the pigkeeper, is unaccountably dropped in Season Two, and Beach the Butler is recast.)

The adaptations were funny; I’ll grant that. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, as they should be. However, they seemed to me to be differently funny from the original stories. The colors are louder, the comedy broader, more slapstick. Perhaps that’s a good way to compensate for Wodehouse’s essential authorial voice, but it sometimes seemed a tad over the top. The old Jeeves and Wooster series with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie handled things better.

Young Freddie Threepwood is a case in point. Jack Farthing plays him pretty broadly, and his garish wardrobe and exaggerated quiff of hair are perhaps what Bertie Wooster would have exhibited, had Jeeves not put his foot down.

The big problem in the casting is with Clarence, Lord Emsworth (Timothy Spall). I think I speak for all Wodehousians when I declare that this is some Imposter (of course, Imposters are an important element of many Wodehouse plots). Clarence in the books is usually described as tall and thin, sporting pince-nez glasses. He prefers to dress shabbily, having no sense of personal dignity. However, the Emsworth we encounter here looks like a madman. His hair stands on end. He doesn’t seem like the kind of man who’d wear pince-nez at all. And he’s fat. He’s funny enough, but he’s wrong.

I was happy, in Season Two, to see the arrival of Uncle Galahad Threepwood, (played by Julian Rhind-Tutt, a name almost worthy of Wodehouse himself). “Gally” is an elderly roué, as at home in the city as his brother Clarence is in the country. He’s much smarter than Clarence, though, and an inveterate schemer. He’s written and acted well, and he sports the requisite monocle. However, Julian Rhind-Tutt, though elderly on close examination, has bright red hair which makes him look too young from a distance. Gally’s hair should be white, though his eye is not dimmed nor his natural force abated.

The most faithful performance, I think, is that of legendary comedienne Jennifer Saunders as Aunt Julia. She perfectly portrays a woman of Strong Opinions who takes no nonsense from the idiot men around her. Without her firm guidance, the whole estate would fall to pieces, and she knows it. Saunders is able to convey, however, that Constance loves her family deep down, and wishes the best for them – though her idea of “the best” is looking respectable and marrying the Right Sort of People.

Blandings is worth watching, and will give you some laughs. But go to the original stories afterward, and see it done properly.

‘Escape,’ by John W. Mefford

Now and then I start reading a book I can’t finish, because it annoys or offends me in some way. Most of the time when that happens, I do not review it. I figure being a bad writer is punishment in itself for the authors of those books.

But sometimes a book really annoys me, and I have to register a protest. I worked my way through about 2/3 of John W. Mefford’s Escape (which I got through a Kindle deal), and I need to vent.

First of all, I doubt that author Mefford cares about my opinion. He seems to be doing very well in book sales. It’s for him to look down on me, as far as pleasing the reader is concerned.

But I found Escape impossible to finish.

Escape is Book 7 in the “Ball and Chain” series. Judging by this particular specimen, it’s about a man and a woman, Cooper Chain and Willow Ball, who are involved in an endless search for Willow’s father. For some reason, which wasn’t apparent in this book. She doesn’t even like him much. Yet they put their lives at risk over and over to follow the obscure clues the old man leaves behind.

Obscure clues. This is the main thing that bothered me. You’re familiar with Hitchcock’s concept of “the Macguffin,” the object, worthless in itself, which becomes the center of the plot because all the characters are after it. (I’ll admit I’ve never entirely understood this. Nothing in a fictional story, including the characters, is of any worth in the real world, because they’re all imaginary). This book is a multiple macguffin story. In which the object of the hunt leaves convoluted puzzle clues that have to be figured out by the heroes. Like the National Treasure movies, which also annoyed me. I raise my barbaric yawp to the world – This never happens in real life. Never. And certainly not repeated times. It’s just a trick by the author to jack the suspense up.

What is worse, the beginning of the book finds our hero in a position in which he obviously was left in a cliff-hanger at the end of the previous book. Which means this book will most likely also end with a cliff-hanger.

I am not going to plow through this implausible plot to be left with a cliff-hanger. That’s an incivility to the reader.

The story starts somewhere in the South (I forget where; numerous insults are slung at southerners as a group), and then follows Ball and Chain to New York City, where a character who used to be their enemy suddenly becomes their friend and they get involved in a side job helping him. It doesn’t make much sense, but this series’ numerous fans seem to like that sort of thing. Bless their hearts, as they say in the South.

I’m out of it. I’ve Escaped.

Another Review: ‘Blood and Judgment’

Mary J. Moerbe continues reviewing my novels with a glowing review of Blood and Judgment:

But then Blood and Judgment adds a few more layers, as weak men must choose between courage and complacency,  humanity and survival. A few Norse Old Ones pop up. Doors between worlds are opened and closed. Viking Hamlet, Amlodd, cannot feign madness and so agrees to gain a feigning mind, effectively switching bodies with one of the actors! Oh, it was delightful!

I think she liked it. Read it all here.

‘The Year of the Warrior’ Review

Lutheran writer Mary J. Moerbe (who happens to be the daughter of Dr. Gene Edward Veith) has reviewed my novel, The Year of the Warrior at her blog, Meet, Write, & Salutary:

The descriptions hit me very powerfully. I mean, normally we would talk about world-building in a piece of fantasy, but this book may have made me even more engaged into my own world, allowing me to see it through re-opened eyes and a broadened perspective.

Read it all here. Thanks, Mary.

Is the Novel on Life-Support?

We hardly lack for prose in this online age. Digital entertainments aside, English- language genre fiction has blossomed into a startling new maturity. Popular biography conveys lessons the novel once delivered — as do popularly presented sociology and ‘New Journalism’, which uses techniques of novel-writing for essay-length reporting. Still, the novel is moribund. Its failure signals an end of confidence about the past values and future goals of what conceived itself as Western culture. The signs of a weakened, diffident and timid culture are written in the dust on the unread books of our library shelves.

Joseph Bottum writes about the decline of the novel in a book by the same name, excerpted in this month’s Spectator. He doesn’t appear to go in the direction you may expect, so read the whole thing. As I read it, I kept wondering if his point is simply a bit beyond my grasp as an ignorant student or is he measuring by a standard I don’t value as much. (via Prufrock)

‘Silent Retribution Man,’ by J. Sato

I’m reading a greater variety of authors these days, as I follow bargain offers on Amazon. This brings me into contact with more poorly written books (which I endure with greater patience than in my palmier days), but now and then I encounter something interesting.

This one, for instance. It isn’t often I encounter a book I consider a genuine original. But Silent Retribution Man by J. Sato was unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s not without flaws, but it was a fascinating exercise.

The Amazon review says the narrator’s name is Lionel Seaver, so I suppose that name must have cropped up somewhere in the text. But mostly he calls himself Silent Retribution Man. Once an ordinary lawyer and family man, his life got demolished in a day. He then found his “purpose in life” (quoting Steve Martin in “The Jerk.” He can barely express himself without quoting movies and TV shows) in getting revenge on the creeps of the world. Not the ordinary run of rude and obnoxious people, but those egregious types who take pleasure in cruelty, or ruin others’ lives for personal gain. Silent Retribution Man finds simple ways to give them a taste of their own medicine. Sometimes his activities are rather pleasant to observe, sometimes shocking. But always effective.

Until the day it goes wrong.

He tells his story to a journalist. There’s a reason why he’s seeking this publicity, and I did guess that reason before it was officially revealed. But the details were fascinating, and the ending something of a surprise.

The book had flaws. There were spelling problems, as is so often the case in novels today. And the whole story is morally problematic – but that’s kind of the point. We’re forced to confront our assumptions about what’s fair and right and just. There are no easy answers.

I enjoyed Silent Retribution Man, and recommend it for adults. Worth your time.

Ragnarok: Where It All Begins

Movie poster for Netflix series Ragnarok (2020).

Erik (teacher): Why is it of particular interest to talk about the old Norse gods? Especially right here in Edda? Gry?

Gry: Because was Edda was the last town in Norway to become Christian. Ah, and to give up faith in the Norse gods.

Erik: Yes, that is correct. One could say it all happened right here. Ragnarok. The end of the world. The final clash between the gods and the giants.

If I had seen the promotional tagline you see on the poster above, “This is where it all begins,” I might have watched Ragnarok, Netflix’s new six-episode series, in anticipation of an open, unfinished story — a part one. The series does have good character arcs and bring things together at the end, but it doesn’t wrap them up nearly as I was expecting. I kept thinking our hero would have to really lower the hammer in the next episode, but the final showdown isn’t, you know, the end of the world.

Norse myth fans will easily recognize names and characters as they appear: Odin and Frigg, Thor and Loki are represented in the old man with an eyepatch with the oddly serene, oddly prophetic wife, the mischievous brother, and the kind, justice-minded son. And the villain is named Vidar (Lars can tell us what that means).

Ragnarok is set in Edda, another nod to the myths, but it moves as methodically as any high-school superhero origin story might. Magne arrives with his family in this new town, which is his hometown but they had moved away after his father’s death several years ago; his mother’s new job at the undefined industry that supports Edda has brought them back. He befriends the “greenpeace” girl, Isolde, and learns that official accounts of the pristine nature of their town and country don’t fit the evidence they draw from the river.

Continue reading Ragnarok: Where It All Begins

‘Green Light,’ by Tom Barber

Sometimes, even in my reading life, I come across something that reminds me I’m a native of another century. Green Light by Tom Barber is such a book. Rousing, but for me it skipped over the interesting parts.

Sam Archer, hero of the series of novels of which this one is the seventh, is an Englishman working in the New York City Police Department. (The author is clearly English, as he has his Americans employing English colloquial expressions, and the spelling and orthography are uniformly English.) Think Chris Hemsworth for Sam, which is probably what the author has in mind, because if any book was ever written with an eye to making an action movie, it’s this one.

Following a high-octane chase and shootout, Detective Archer and his colleague/girlfriend, Alice Vargas, stop to pick up food at a convenience store. In the parking lot, they observe a young woman being attacked by two thugs. They rush to help, but the thugs pull guns, kill the girl, and shoot both cops who, though caught unprepared, are wearing their ballistic vests. Sam gets away with bruises, but Alice is wounded and rushed to the hospital.

Sam then gets sandbagged, suspended, and even arrested thanks to a police superior who hates him. But he’s gotten a whiff of a conspiracy involving human traffickers and high-level blackmail, and he won’t let up until he finds the men who shot Alice. He’ll have to tangle with more powerful criminals than them, though, before he gets to the heart of the conspiracy. Thankfully, he has friends in the department who’ll go the extra mile for him.

My problem with Green Light was that it was 90% action and 10% character stuff. I like to take time over the course of a story to get to know the people. The human interactions here, when we were allowed to observe them, were perfectly fine. I liked the characters. But they rarely got a minute to rest. And I can’t help thinking (old horse that I am) that even strong young people can’t handle that level of violence indefinitely.

You may like Green Light more than I did, especially if you’re a young reader. Cautions for violence and language.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture