Tag Archives: novel

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)

In Praise of The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale has become a significant artifact of North American postmodern culture. It’s hard to imagine, for example, the myriad of shelves dedicated to young-adult fiction at your local Barnes and Noble without the influence—however indirect or incorrect—of The Handmaid’s Tale. After all, in our age of intellectual stagnation, who better to destroy patriarchal oppression than a noble and brave teenage girl, a postmodern Joan of Arc?

But this is a most superficial reading of the novel. In reality, the story is as complicated as anything Huxley or Orwell wrote.

Bradley J. Birzer of Hillsdale College writes about the virtues of Margaret Atwood’s most-loved novel. (via Prufrock News)

Nothing to Hide by J. Mark Bertrand

She rolls her eyes. “The Song of Roland. Don’t get me started. That was the first one we had to read. If that’s chivalry, then you can have it. That book infuriates me.”

“Really.” I flip through the pages, many of which are underscored. I’m familiar with the story, of course, though I can’t recall having actually read the poem. In fact, before now I’m not sure I realized it was a poem, with all the stanzas and verses. “He’s supposed to blow the horn to signal the ambush, is that it?”

“He’s supposed to blow it if they need help. Only Roland’s too proud for that, so he waits and waits until everybody’s basically dead. Does that sound like heroism to you?”

Bertrand’s third thrilling novel in his Roland March series begins with a body dumped in a recreational park. The head is missing and the hands, one of which is pointing, have been ‘degloved,’ which is a clinical word for skinned. March’s partner on the case, Jerry Lorenz, suggests the hand is pointing at something, maybe the missing head, and March nearly breaks his back looking for it. No dice.

I don’t care to outline the plot any further, because I enjoyed jumping into this novel having forgotten almost everything I’d heard about it. It’s a fun story, as are all of Bertrand’s March novels. Personal moments are filled with dialogue like the above interchange on The Song of Roland, showing Bertrand’s appealing bookish style. This brief description of the poem absolutely foreshadows the plot, which is exactly the way they do it in the movies, which reminds me how someone should be throwing money at Bertrand for the honor of taking his March trilogy to the big screen.

March isn’t any kind of super cop or brilliantly quirky detective. He’s a seasoned professional, like many homicide detectives on the force today. He has overcome the difficulties of his past, put numerous criminals behind bars, and continues to seek (and question) trust from his colleagues. He solves his cases by hard, honest work: asking questions, following leads, and pressuring forensics to cough up the right evidence. Like the title suggests, Nothing to Hide drives its story to a bold climax where all cards are on the table and everyone’s exposed.

Nick Hornsby on Scripting Other People’s Books

Author Nick Hornsby has been neglecting writing novels in favor adapting other people’s novels for the screen. “First there was An Education, which earned Hornby an Academy Award nomination; then Wild, based on the Cheryl Strayed bestseller, which also yielded acclaim; and now Brooklyn, opening November 4. It’s becoming more of a practice than a habit,” Ari Karpel writes.

All that has him shifting his sense of who he is as a writer. “One interesting thing I’m just kind of getting my head around,” [Hornsby says,]  “is that most of this work is not self-generated. Once you’ve done a couple [adaptations] and they’ve worked out, people come to you. Then you find you have two or three things stacked up and that’s all taking up time and imaginative energy, whereas novels are entirely self-generated and you need to clear a space and say, I’m not going to do anything [else] for a year.”

The D. C. Smith novels, by Peter Grainger

It’s been a week or two since I finished reading the D. C. Smith mystery novels, and I’d better review them before I forget them completely. Not that they’re forgettable — they were quite impressive.

D. C. Smith is an interesting continuing detective character, and has been compared to another English police detective, Inspector Morse, by reviewers. But after reading An Accidental Death, But For the Grace, and Luck and Judgement, I would say that a closer parallel would be the American TV cop, Columbo. Smith is the kind of man who tends to be underestimated by suspects, witnesses, and even other cops. He’s small, shabby, and unprepossessing. He knows this and uses it to his advantage. In fact he’s generally the smartest person in the room, and has commando fighting skills. He also plays a mean rock guitar, though not often since the loss of his beloved wife to cancer.

His name is kind of a joke. “D.C.” in English police slang means “Detective Constable.” This is what everyone calls him, but he’s actually a Detective Sergeant. He used to be a Detective Inspector, but voluntarily took a demotion to be closer to street-level puzzle solving.

As is my wont, I was more interested in the character than in the mysteries as such. I found the D. C. Smith books very enjoyable. No great moral lessons here — Smith the character is an open skeptic about religion, and But For the Grace deals with the question of assisted suicide in a pretty ambiguous manner.

One odd thing is that I found the books very slow in places. Sometimes I wanted to tell the author to just move things along. Nevertheless, I liked the books and stayed with them to see what Smith would do next. I recommend them with the usual cautions.

Klavan and the Imp of the Perverse

Today, Andrew Klavan announced the release of his new young adult thriller, Nightmare City. In an interesting post on his approach to writing for that market, he makes some cogent points:

Criticize the selling of self-destructive behavior to the young and you’re “puritanical,” or “slut-shaming,” or being “unrealistic about the modern world.” But in fact, this effort to normalize the degraded is itself perverse in the extreme. It’s the incarnation of that imp within who urges us to do ill to what we love the best: ourselves and our children. The people who peddle this trash curse those who dare to criticize them so loudly precisely because they know they are doing wrong and can’t stop themselves. Believe me: the person who accuses you of “slut-shaming,” is herself deeply ashamed.

The term “The Imp of the Perverse” is a reference to story by Poe.

Killer in the Wind, by Andrew Klavan

See, I’d seen that look before. That wrinkled nose, that laughing sparkle in the eyes. In the movies, evil guys laugh out loud. Bwa-ha-ha. Or they chuckle suavely, swirling their drinks in their glasses. But this is the real deal, the real look most monsters have. A sort of cute, dainty, delicate recoil from speaking the thing out loud. The forbidden joke of it.

Are we being naughty now?

I know you’re used to seeing me review Andrew Klavan’s books, and I know you’ve come to expect me to praise each one to the skies. Nevertheless, I want you to believe me when I say that it’s been a long time since I actually stayed up late in bed with a book, unable to put it down except by a strong effort of the will.

Killer in the Wind is one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve ever read.

The hero, Dan Champion, is a former commando, a former New York City police detective, and a certified hero. Now he’s part of the police force in a small town in downstate New York. He’s dating a local waitress, a nice woman whose love he’d like to return. But he can’t commit. He can’t commit for a reason he himself knows is crazy. Three years ago, in the course of an undercover investigation, he had a hallucination under the influence of drugs. In the hallucination he encountered a woman named Samantha, whom he can’t get over. Even though he knows for a fact that she doesn’t exist.

Except that one day Samantha shows up in the flesh. She says one thing to him – “They’re coming after us” – before disappearing again.

Is this a real-world mystery, or a supernatural thriller? The borderline seems vague sometimes, and that’s no accident. Klavan likes to explore those boundaries. Some of the reviews on Amazon suggest that certain readers don’t get this. They take the uncertainty as over-the-top storytelling. But it’s not. It’s the author’s way of exploring the wonder of life itself – that all of us are living in an improbable world, a world impossible to explain by purely rational methods. For good and evil.

My own reaction to Killer in the Wind may not be yours. I’m pretty sure I was emotionally affected by the way it dealt with areas of human evil of which I have some personal experience.

But even if that’s the case, I can still recommend Killer in the Wind without reservation. It’s a tight, tense, deeply moving thriller with characters as real as your own family.

Cautions for rough language, sex, and violence.

Eat like a Viking, regurgitate, repeat

In case you’re wondering how I’m doing on the Virtual Book Tour I’ve been working on for my publisher, I think I can say it’s been going well. I’ve finished one blog post and several interviews for various literature-related blogs. And yes, I’ll let you know where to look for them, once they appear (assuming I find out myself).

I’m nearly finished with the first batch of interviews. I understand more are coming. Today the publicist asked me how I felt about writing a food-related post for a blog that talks to authors about their favorite recipes.

Now on the surface that doesn’t make much sense, me being a certified microwave-dependent bachelor (though I do make a mean scratch chocolate chip cookie when the fit is on me). But the idea of writing about Viking food, and relating it to West Oversea (buy it here) is intriguing. I’ve decided to do it, and I’ve made arrangements to borrow a recipe from a reenactor friend.

(And yes, in case you wondered, I will give her credit for it.)

I feel confident I can produce a post unlike any this particular blog has seen before. A hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners exposé of genuine Viking cuisine, featuring such delights as rotten shark (a delicacy in Iceland which reportedly made that Chef Gordon Ramsey throw up), and sheep’s head (also popular in Iceland. The eyeballs, I’m told, are especially relished). Many is the joke that’s been made about lutefisk over the years, but the Norwegians’ beloved lutefisk is just a pale, ghostly remnant of the true Nightmare On Elm Street mealtime horrors of the Scandinavian past.

Because we’re talking about a marginal economy, where taste places a far distant second to survival.

People sometimes ask me whether I wish I had been born in the Viking Age.

My answer is no, for three reasons.

One, I was a sickly child who would in all probability have been exposed on a hillside for the wolves at birth.

Two, the plumbing was awful.

Three, the food was inedible to the modern palate.

I’ve written a time travel book (still unpublished at this date) in which a father and daughter get the opportunity to go back to Viking Age Norway and stay there. She points out that if they did, they’d never get to eat chocolate again.

I call that an excellent point.

Beyond the Summerland, by L.B. Graham

Summary: The son of a nobleman journeys to a beautiful southern city for extensive training and is caught up in an adventure which appears to be the harbinger of an epic war.

Beyond the Summerland, the first of five in the Binding of the Blade series, is a fairly exciting story once you get into it. Joraiem, the son of one of the nobles who rule Kirthanin, is of the age to go to the Summerland for the political, physical, and academic training that all of the young nobility receive. Along the way, he meets several interesting people who will also be trained for leadership, the most interesting being a large warrior who carries an ancient sword and is mystically connected to a tiger. A dozen or so men and women train in the Summerland for weeks before the danger increases and all of them feel compelled to risk everything on what may be a doomed mission.

This is L.B. Graham’s first novel, so perhaps I should ignore some stylistic matters, but those matters are the reason Beyond the Summerland takes some patience. The prologue or opening chapter should be 2/3 shorter due to needless detail. Throughout the book, the story bogs down in a few paragraphs of narrative which don’t sound unnatural to me but are unneeded. For example, Joraiem may think through a situation and give the reader no more understanding than that a few story points are being made too obvious. Despite this, it’s an enjoyable story, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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