Thanks to the ever-beguiling Vickie, who blogs at Beguiling Hollywood, for the best online laugh in quite a while! She turned her readers on to Dr. Sparky, who offers 21st century literary summaries and analysis at Thug Notes. Watch his take on Jane Eyre and see why it leaves Cliff Notes in the dust!
I am one of the millions who couldn’t put The Da Vinci Code downwhen it was published in 2003. Dan Brown’s breakout thriller went on to become the second best selling book of all time, trailing only The Bible. Yet after reading his next offering, The Lost Symbol (2009), I swore off the author for good. Information overload and a two dimensional, comic strip villain made it a disappointing read.
Time weakened my resolution, and happily so. With Inferno, published this month, the author has found his stride again. Weaknesses remain, but Dan Brown can tell an enthralling story.
The code that Robert Langdon must decipher this time comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and especially the first book of that trilogy, TheInferno. It’s safe to say that everyone in the western world, Christian or not, has been influenced by The Divine Comedy, which gave us our graphic geographies of hell, purgatory, and paradise. Artists then painted Dante’s vision, shaping the devils and angels that still lurk in imagination.
One of those paintings, Botticelli’s “La Mappa dell’Inferno” or “Map of Hell,” is a key to the mystery Langdon must decipher in his race to stop the release of an engineered plague designed to “cull the human herd” and prevent over population from destroying us all.
La Mappa dell’Inferno by Botticelli
There aren’t many thrillers with stakes higher than this, and all the elements of it are real. The threat of ever more people struggling for fixed or diminishing resources can hardly be exaggerated. The threat of bio-terrorism is here. Will genetic engineering open the gates of heaven or hell? Into this nail-biting mix, drawn from the headlines, Brown adds a pretty and brilliant sidekick for Langdon, an equally brilliant mad scientist, and black-uniformed spooks in pursuit. We have all the elements of an engrossing thriller, but Dan Brown has ways of subverting himself.
His most obvious flaw is excessive information dumping. Inferno has two primary speeds, fast-forward chase scenes and slow motion data uploads. When the pacing is off, both can become tiresome.
In one scene, Langdon searches for a clue in the 25th canto of Dante’s Paradiso. He borrows an iPhone from a tourist to google the relevant passage, but then, although all the police in Florence and a surveillance drone are on his tail, the action stops for a treatise on different translations of Dante. Robert Langdon, aka Brown, should take a page from Sherlock Holmes and not crowd his head or ours with facts that do not bear on the case at hand.
I also had a problem with several late-in-the-story surprises. In any good thriller, things and people are not what they seem. Sometimes it takes a magician’s sleight-of-hand and clever misdirection to pull off major twists with characters whose thoughts we have shared all along. Several of Inferno’s revelations were clunky in a “What the…?” kind of way.
Even with these flaws, I can recommend the book. It had been a long time since I’ve found myself carried away by a work of fiction; as I read, I put everything I could on hold to keep turning the pages.
Dan Brown, 2007, by Phillip Scalia, CC-By-SA-3.0
Reading Dan Brown convinces me yet again of the absolute primacy of story. I had the same reaction after a pilgrimage to the home of Jack London, a writer I loved when I was young. George Orwell, among others, described London’s writing and use of language as “poor,” yet more than 50 movies have been made from his novels and stories. Not bad for a writer whose life was over at 40.
Fortunately for everyone who enjoys a gripping tale, Dan Brown, like London before him, has every reason to continue following his own star and forget the whining of critics like me. If he does, he will likely continue to bring us supremely engrossing fiction.
As I worked on a recent post, Favorite Fictional Detectives, I realized I didn’t remember the details of Skinwalkers, a key Tony Hillerman novel that I read soon after it was published in 1986. I read it again and found it to be a thoroughly satisfying mystery. I offer this brief review to encourage others who may not know Hillerman’s work to give it a look.
Officer Jim Chee, of the Navajo Tribal Police, tosses and turns one night in the airstream where he lives in the desert. When his closest neighbor, a feral cat, shoots through the pet door, Chee gets up to peer out the window at what might have scared it so badly. Probably a coyote, he thinks. For a moment, thinks he sees a shape in the darkness. Then the night explodes. Three shotgun blasts tear holes in the trailer just above the bed where Chee was sleeping moments before.
In the morning, as he cleans up his trailer, Chee makes a frightening discovery. Among the shotgun pellets that litter the floor is a small bone pellet. Navajo witches, or skinwalkers, inject bone into the bodies of people they want to kill. The bone produces the fatal “corpse sickness.” This bone fragment links three apparently separate killings that Lt. Joe Leaphorn, a senior tribal detective, has been trying to solve without success. When Leaphorn and Chee join forces, their first problem is persuading anyone to talk, when tradition holds that speaking a skinwalker’s name will attract his harmful attention.
Chee is learning to be a traditional Navajo healer. With a background in college psychology classes, he understands his role to be restoring people to the core Navajo values of beauty and harmony. Skinwalkers have fallen away and try to take others with them.
Leaphorn is not a believer, but he learned by hard experience that other people are. Early in his career, when he ignored talk of witches, three murders and a suicide were the result. As he and Chee grope through the dark, a very real menace is watching from a direction they do not expect.
This book represents fine storytelling, with characters and a setting that are outside our normal experience. It’s one of the best mysteries I’ve read, and I suspect it will make you want to read more of Tony Hillerman’s work.
I started reading The Alchemist soon after its publication in 1988, but I didn’t finish it then, for reasons I don’t clearly remember. I picked it up again after author and writing friend, Amy Rogers, recommended the book for its affinity with the folk and fairytales I’ve recently spent so much time writing about.
She was right. This time the story drew me in with its “Once upon a time” feeling. It is not a fairytale by any measure; it’s far too sophisticated, yet it’s filled with folklorish magic. The hero, Santiago, is named just once, when we meet him. Through the rest of the tale, he is simply “the boy.” Ironically, this generic quality, so typical of fairytales, allows us to identify with his journey, project our own yearnings into his far more closely than a modern, “three dimensional” characterization would have allowed. In addition, the plot twist that ends The Alchemist is drawn directly from a folktale that appears around the world.
The Alchemist is a tale of spiritual self-realization. From the start, Santiago tries to follow his “personal legend,” a term taken from alchemy. At first, it is an instinct. His search becomes explicit after a gypsy tells him his treasure lies near the pyramids. A “chance” meeting with Melchizedek , the mysterious priest and king mentioned in Genesis, sets him on the path after he witnesses the unrequited longing of those who abandon the quest for their legends for the sake of expediency. In order to follow his personal legend, Santiago learns to listen to the Soul of the World in his heart. The world soul, or Anima Mundi is one of the key principles in the alchemical manuscripts that survive.
Anima Mundi, or Soul of the World, in alchemy
Paulo Coelho was born in 1947 in Rio de Janeiro. When he was a teenager and told his mother he wanted to be a writer, she praised the steadiness of his father, an engineer, and asked if he knew what it meant to be a writer. After research, Coelho concluded that a writer, “always wears glasses and never combs his hair” and “has a duty and an obligation never to be understood by his own generation.”
At age 16, because of his introversion and refusal to follow a traditional career path, his parents had him committed to a mental institution from which he escaped three times before his release at age 20. He agreed to attend law school but dropped out to become a hippie and travel through South America, Mexico, North Africa, and Europe. Upon his return to Brazil, he worked as a song writer, an actor, journalist, and theatre director.
In 1986, he walked the 500 mile pilgrimage road of Santiago de Compostela to the cathedral where St. James the apostle’s remains are believed to be buried. Since the middle ages, it has been one of three major Christian pilgrimage destinations, along with Rome and Jerusalem. On the way, Coelho had a spiritual awakening, which he described in his autobiographical novel, The Pilgrimage, 1987. He published The Alchemist the following year, with a small Brazilian publisher that ran 900 copies and decided against a reprint. Sales now total 65 million.
Paulo Coelho, 2012, by Sylvia Feudor. Copyright free.
I do not clearly remember why I disliked The Alchemist when I first read it more than 20 years ago. I suspect, to put it in Santiago’s language, that at the time, I feared I’d lost hold of my own personal legend. I’m glad I picked up The Alchemist again. Our world is darker, harder, and more cynical now, and more than ever I think we need Coelho’s gentle parable. However difficult it may be, it’s good to try to remember this conversation between King Melchizedek and Santiago:
“What’s the world’s greatest lie?” the boy asked, completely surprised.
“It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”
Half the storefronts are empty in Chambers, Ohio. Abandoned steel mills stand as silent monuments to a past that will never return. Two brothers, Kent and Adam Austin, work in two of the biggest industries that remain in the town – high school football and bail bonds. Their careers, like most everything else in their lives, were defined the night someone kidnapped and murdered their sister when the three of them were in high school.
The brothers have hardly spoken during the 22 years since their sister was taken. Kent is a local hero, a winning football coach and a man of faith, who talks of God and family to murderers in his prison ministry. Adam drinks too much, aches for revenge, and lives so close to the Chambers criminal element that differences often blur.
A man who calls himself “the prophet” slips into town. His passion is murder and something more: “Bring him the hopeful and he will leave them hopeless. Bring him the strong and he will leave them broken. Bring him the full and he will leave them empty.” When a 17 year old girl is murdered, one whose faith Kent had tried to nurture, both brothers understand that that the killing is personal. Someone has come to town to rip the old wound open and threaten them with new ones.
Michael Koryta (pronounced koo-ree-ta) decided he wanted to be a crime novelist at the age of 16. While still in high school he interned with a private detective. His first novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye (2004) won the St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best First Novel prize before he was 21. He had four more crime novels under his belt when he took a stunning turn by injecting supernatural elements into his thriller, So Cold the River (2010), which I reviewed here http://wp.me/pYql4-8W. He followed this up with two more books in the same vein, The Cypress Househttp://wp.me/pYql4-xF and The Ridge in 2011.
The Prophet has no overt ghosts, though people are haunted, and Adam regularly talks with his dead sister. The prophet is flesh and blood, but his menace lurks in every shadow. The “un-natural” and the “super-natural” are so “natural” in Michael Koryta’s novels that his evil terrifies more than it does in most horror stories. We never know much about the killer, but we do see, in his memory, his methodical method of stalking and killing a bird when he was 11. That’s enough to make him more chilling than Count Dracula.
In crossing genre boundaries at will, Koryta’s new book delves deeper into the 21st century human condition than mystery and horror novels usually do. A chill wind blows through this rust belt town, under gray and threatening skies, as well meaning men and women find redemption and renewal elusive – and yet, heroism, loyalty, faith, and family all matter. As the high school football players learn, you get back on your feet and back into the line because there is nothing else you can do.
There are very, very few authors whose books I will buy they day they come out. There are few books these days that I find I cannot put down. Once again, Michael Koryta did not disappoint. I downloaded The Prophet the morning it came on line and put everything else on hold until I had finished. You may well find yourself doing the same.
Here is a recent interview in which the author discusses The Prophet:
A tweet from Hannah-Elizabeth, who blogs at The Last Classichttp://sonnemann.wordpress.com inspired this post. She follows my book reviews and recently asked for a recommendation on something to read.
The other inspiration was the Olympics opening ceremony, which got me thinking of English novels and stories. My greatest literary pleasures, from the first read-alouds I heard as a child until now have come from England. The riverbank, the Shire, and Baker Street have become the landscapes of my soul.
There’s one key distinction to make: when I talk about favorite novels, I don’t mean breakout, thrilling, or dramatic novels – necessarily. I mean stories with characters and worlds I want to live with and visit again and again. When I started The DaVinci Code, for instance, I couldn’t put it down, but when I finished, I traded it in for credit at the local used bookstore. I can’t imagine reading it again.
So here is a list, probably not complete and not in order of preference, of some of the story treasures British authors have given me. To set the mood, let’s begin with this beautiful hymn that every diehard fan of Masterpiece Theater knows and loves. “Jerusalem” was inspired by William Blake’s poem, “And did those feet in ancient time,” which was based on the legend that as a youth, Jesus visited England and Glastonbury with his uncle, Joseph of Arimethia.
Favorite English books.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. I reviewed it here: http://wp.me/pYql4-19a. Try to get the edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham, which really gives a feel for the rural England of rivers, forests, and fields that were so soon to disappear in the new century .
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Here was a man who spent his life giving shape to our spiritual homeland – The Shire and Rivendell. His son said he suffered from bouts of depression all his life. Understandable when you reflect that the summer this gentle dreamer graduated from Oxford, he was thrown into the maelstrom of the Somme. There he saw the Shire, the rural England he loved, along with his college classmates, evaporate in the fires of Mordor, aka, the western front.
The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I read these detective stories again and again, even though I know who done it. Who doesn’t sometimes dream of life on Baker Street, sharing a pipe with Holmes before the game is afoot again? I could argue that Holmes was an early superhero, using uncanny intellect and powers of observation to save the world from uber-villain, Moriarity.
The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix. Nix, a former editor, has written a number of middle grade Arthurian adventures for boys. In the Abhorsen tales, he gives us two fine female protagonists. In doing so, he inspired my first novel, whose main character, Emily, is a lot like Lirael, the heroine of the second and third books of the trilogy. Nix lives in Australia, but the map of his Old and New Kingdoms looks a lot like the Scottish border, and everyone acts quite British, sometimes to the vexation of the good guys.
T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909 – 1950 I’ve been reading this book since I took a class on Eliot as a college sophomore. “The first gate” into the world of imagination and dream is an image at the opening of Eliot’s “The Four Quartets,” my favorite poem of all time. Eliot was an American who spent his writing life in London.
Agatha Christie Mysteries. Few authors create two characters as compelling as Hercule Poirot, star of 33 novels, and Miss Marple, featured in 12. When Christie killed off Poirot in 1975, a year before her own death, the little Belgian detective became the only fictional character to receive an obituary in The New York Times. Books like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, will stand with any mysteries ever written. Here is free download, in all ebook formats, from Project Gutenberg, of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920, the first Poirot mystery. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/863
In the spirit of things. Yours truly at Avebury, 1991
The Narnia Tales by C.S. Lewis. Tolkien told Lewis not to publish the Narnia stories, saying Lewis would “embarrass himself.” Just goes to show the master of middle-earth didn’t know everything. Mysterious old wardrobes will always be objects of interest to fans of Lewis’ series.
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. A small patch of primeval forest, one of the last in England that dates from the last ice age, is actually a “mythogenic zone,” a region which manifests the creatures of the deep human psyche and racial memory. They deteriorate at any great distance from the wood, but near and in it they are very real – sometimes dangerously so. in 1946, when Stephen Huxley returns from the service, both he and his older brother Christian, strive to enter the wood with the aid of a mysterious journal (don’t you just love those!) left by their father. Both Stephen and Christian fall in love with Gweneth, who lives deep in the forest. When his brother begins to assume the attributes of the dreaded “Outsider,” you know Stephen’s journey will not be easy. Published in the US in 1986, this book had a profound effect on my outlook on fantasy literature.
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling. I don’t think this needs any explanation
The Mabinogian Anonymous. Welsh tales, full of strange and sometimes ominous magic, that were already ancient when they were written down in the middle ages. Joseph Campbell and Heinrich Zimmer discussed some of these stories. They are best approached with poetic imagination as Fleetwood Mac did with the goddess, Rhiannon, who figures in two of the tales.
Rhiannon riding in Arbeth. Illustration from “The Mabinogian” by Lady Charlotte Guest. Public domain in the US
The Amelia Peabody Mysteries by Elizabeth Peters. Here are some great British mysteries written by a yank. Ms. Peters, now 84, was born in Illinois and received her PHd in Egyptology from the University of Chicago. There’s the connection. Her protagonists – Amelia Peabody, Amelia’s husband Emerson, their brilliant but incorrigible son Ramses, and in later stories, Amelia’s daughter in law, Nefret, are unconventional British archeologists who excavate in places like the Valley of the Kings when they’re not solving murders. There are twenty books in the series, spanning the decades from 1895 through the first world war against the background of mystery and intrigue in the turn of the century middle east. These are among the best beach reads I’ve ever found. Check them out at Ameliapeabody.com. http://ameliapeabody.com/bookshelf.htm
I hope this excursion through some of my favorite books leads you to something enjoyable to read. Lists are fun. This was a small list, so next time I’ll post some with hundreds of titles to choose from. Stay tuned!
A year ago, I wrote a post on Harry Potter fan fiction, http://wp.me/pYql4-14b. My information came from an article in Time on the occasion of the release of the final Potter movie. I had no idea how popular fan fiction had become, since my only prior experience was with its 20th century incarnation as cheaply printed fanzines on the magazine racks at Tower. I sometimes skimmed but never bought.
All of that has changed. The genre was featured last Friday in a Wall Street Journal article, “The Weird World of Fan Fiction.” No wonder the Journal took notice. E.L. james, author of the Fifty Shades of Gray erotic trilogy, which sold 15 million copies in three months, got her start writing fan fiction based on the Twilight Series (Edward as a powerful CEO and Bella as his sex slave).
The article mentions other well known writers whose first work was fan fiction. Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries began writing Star Wars stories when she was 11. Naomi Novik, author of the Temeraire series, which has been optioned by Peter Jackson, continues to write fan fiction. For her it is play, and she has more than 400 stories online, set in the worlds of Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, and The Avengers.
In addition to fan fiction writers who have broken into the mainstream, some have gathered huge numbers of online readers at sites like fanfiction.net or wattpad.net. One story based on The Hunger Games has been read two million times.
Fan fiction isn’t new. Conan Doyle fans in the late 19th century wrote their own Sherlock Holmes stores as authors continue to do. The theme for an upcoming TV series with a female Watson appeared first on fanfiction.net. One can argue that both Homer and Shakespeare in his histories, created stories akin to fan fiction; they used pre-existing worlds, situations, and characters.
The Journal gives a sense of the wild playfulness of fan fiction authors. There is Pride and Prejudice in Space. We have Alice and the Mad Hatter battling zombies, and The Lord of the Whiskers, which populates Middle Earth with cats. Male-male romance appears to be common, with Kirk and Spock, and Harry and Draco among readers’ favorite couples. There are character cross-over stories too, like characters from the TV series, Glee, winding up in Middle Earth.
Published authors are mixed in their response. Some, like J.K Rowling and Stephanie Meyer welcome the spinoff stories. Others like George R.R. Martin and Anne Rice are dead set against fan fiction, and threaten lawsuits, though suits are seldom launched except when fans try to move borrowed worlds into mainstream publication. Orson Scott Card was initially opposed to fan fiction but has come to embrace it. This fall he will host a contest for Ender’s Game fan fiction. Fans can submit works to his website, and the winning stories will be published in a anthology. “Every piece of fan fiction is an add for my book,” Card said. “What kind of idiot would I be to want that to disappear?”
I understand the draw of fan fiction. My first real literary effort was a sequel to The Wind in the Willows that I wrote in the fifth grade because I didn’t want the story to end. In college I was seized with great, “What am I going to do now?” angst when I finished Lord of the Rings. One of the things I did was work with a group of independent filmmakers on a 20 minute epic entitled, Billy the Kid Meets the Wizard of Oz
The word, “amateur” comes from the Latin, amare, to love. With that in mind, I look forward to checking out some of the web sites where these amateurs post their work.
Those who have followed thefirstgates for a while will be familiar with Dr. Amy Rogers.
I reviewed her excellent first novel, Petroplague, in September, 2011 http://wp.me/pYql4-1ep. In March of this year, she contributed a two part guest post detailing some of the rapid changes in today’s publishing landscape, an issue she follows in depth http://wp.me/pYql4-1MR. Last Friday, Amy gave an updated presentation on publishing options to the Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club during our monthly breakfast meeting.
Not long ago, there were only two publishing choices: traditional publishing and the so called vanity press. Now we have a spectrum of possibilities which keep getting harder to navigate. Hybrid arrangements are multiplying: traditional agencies offering ebook options, and agented independent publishing companies.
Rogers began her presentation by stressing the importance of every writer evaluating their individual goals. Why do we want to publish this particular book? How will we measure success?
Do we seek the implied approval that selection by a traditional publisher confers? If so, do we have the time to invest in the process, knowing there is no guarantee of ultimate success?
If we choose to go the independent route, are we ready and willing to spend the time and/or money on five key tasks required for any book to be successful: editing, cover design, layout, getting an isbn number, and marketing/distribution?
With a sense of our goals, Amy Rogers presentation, posted in full on her blog, will prove especially valuable. A downloadable pdf version, is available too http://tinyurl.com/739ga5s.
After reviewing the presentation, take the time to explore Ms Rogers’ website, ScienceThrillers.com. With a Ph.D in immunology, teaching experience in microbiology, and a writing career that began in grade school, Amy is uniquely qualified to write and review thrillers involving the depredations of “wee beasties.” ScienceThrillers has grown to include reviews of books in multiple genres, publishing news, book giveaways, notices of writing contests, and her own quarterly newsletter. It’s a site I’m very happy to recommend.