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Norse Mythology
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Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

As a child I loved myths. Magical stories that existed beyond my world and outside of time, they just were.  In my post Return to Tanglewood,, I wrote about my love for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales, classical myths for children. My love for Norse mythology came a few years later and captured my imagination more profoundly.

While sunny Olympus endures forever, snowy Asgard lives in the shadow of Ragnorok, the death of the gods and the destruction of the world. Having lived through my parents’ violent divorce, I could imagine an inevitable and cataclysmic battle that destroys the world.

I don’t remember what books of Norse myths I read back then, but the stories riveted me. But the books I encountered as an adult seemed flat and academic. I figured the problem was me, that my adult self had outgrown the enchantment of Norse mythology. But when I reread the Tanglewood books, Hawthorne’s narrative rekindled my childhood delight.

A myth, like any other story, needs a skilled storyteller.

The Norse myths have found their storyteller in Neil Gaiman.

I rediscovered the magic of the Northern myths listening to the audio version of his Norse Mythology. Gaiman reads the book himself, with a wonderful understated expressiveness that never strains for effect. I listened every night in bed before off to sleep—like having my own personal reader of bedtime stories.

I remembered some of the myths from childhood—the fleet-footed peasant boy who can’t outrace Thought, the frost giant who tricks Thor into trying to drink the ocean, the time Loki vanishes Sif’s beautiful hair and leaves her bald.

Of all the characters in Norse mythology, my favorite was Loki, the trickster.

From my middle school perspective, Loki was like the class clown, always pranking the other gods. He can talk anyone into anything. He changes his shape at will. I failed to understand fully the darkness in Loki. His malice seemed containable because he fears the wrath of his fellow gods enough to undo the damage he causes—for a time, anyway.

Punishment of LokiI forgot the dark conclusion of Loki’s story, perhaps because I liked him so much. In the end, his envy and malice overwhelm fear of punishment. He contrives the death of the god Baldr. For that crime he’s doomed to suffer torment, bound in a cave while poisonous serpent’s venom drips on him, until the coming Ragnorok frees him to fight with the armies of darkness.

Norse Mythology captures all the grimness, heroism and humor of the Northern myths. Neil Gaiman has drunk deep of the Mead of Poetry.

 

Transformation in two horror stories

Two paragraphs into Joe Hill’s novel Horns, I thought the author must have been influenced by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Both stories begin with a dramatic transformation. You may already know how Kafka’s novella opens:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

Hill’s novel opens with a transformation as well:

Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances . . . [W]hen he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept.

Like Gregor, Ig has uneasy dreams before his transformation. Later in the story, we learn about the dreams and their connection to the “terrible things” he has done.

Why Gregor becomes a cockroach

Gregor is confined to his bedroom. At first his family grieves over his misfortune and takes care of him, but gradually he becomes a burden and they neglect and ignore him. When he leaves the room to join them, they chase him back in. He concludes rightly that they find him repugnant. In the end he dies.

To understand what all this means, it helps to consider the title. A metamorphosis is a creature’s radical change in form as it moves from one stage of life to another. For instance, a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. It’s a natural change, to be expected. Readers might wonder whether Gregor has been an insect all along. An insect disguised as a man. His life hasn’t exactly been bursting with meaning. He has plodded through one day after another, working in an office to support his family, and their love for him dies when he’s no longer earning a paycheck.

Why Ig becomes a devil

Ig is a devout Christian until his girlfriend is raped and murdered. Suspicion falls on him, but his wealthy father hires a lawyer and forensic evidence is destroyed in a mysterious fire. Although never charged in the murder, Ig remains a suspect. Paralyzed with grief, his life drifts into meaninglessness.

The horns change everything. Under their influence, every person Ig encounters is moved to confess their deepest feelings and desires. He discovers that his priest and his family secretly believe that he did the murder and wish he would just disappear—except his brother, who has been protecting the real killer.

Embittered and angry, Ig sets out to punish the guilty man. Vengeance is what he’s wanted since his girlfriend died. His transformation into a devil makes vengeance possible by giving him the power to fight a ruthless psychopath. The transformation is rooted in his sinful life although it’s unclear why until the novel’s end. He isn’t altogether innocent of the murder of his beloved.

Horns and The Metamorphosis

Hill’s lengthy novel obviously lacks the economy of Kafka’s novella. Horns certainly lacks the mystery and thematic richness of The Metamorphosis. Hill keeps pointing to the novel’s religious symbols as if afraid you’ll miss something and trip over it.

What happens to Gregor is more profoundly horrifying—forced to choose, I’d rather be a devil than an insect—but the horror in Horns is riveting. While Gregor sickens and dies quietly in a mundane apartment, Ig is drawn into terrifying conflicts that make him doubt his sanity. He suffers brutal violence that would kill an ordinary human.

The germ of both stories is the same—a fantastic transformation that turns out to be less absurd than it seems at first. Maybe Gregor and Ig don’t deserve their fate, but each character’s metamorphosis makes sense in the context of his life. The inevitable next stage of his existence, the transformation reveals his true character and renders his inner reality visible.

By the numbers? Reviews of two thrillers

Recently I read two thrillers, Robert Bailey’s The Professor and Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye. When I related the plot of Connelly’s latest to my husband, he remarked, “Seems like it’s pretty much by the numbers.”

“By the numbers” alludes to the old-time hobby kits in which a painting—usually a famous one—is reduced to a schematic of numbered parts that correspond to its colors. Using paints included in the kit, the hobbyist dabs the correct color on each part to reproduce the painting in all its glory. Well, kind of. No matter how carefully the hobbyist applies the paint, the reproduction lacks the magic of the original.

“By the numbers” is a disparaging way of describing a novel that mechanically reproduces a plot line, tropes, or characters common to its genre.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye

I bristled at hearing The Wrong Side of Goodbye described as a “by the numbers” crime thriller. Okay, it’s not my favorite Harry Bosch novel. Like all of Connelly’s recent books, its sparseness leaves little room for contemplation or emotional resonance. Still, I enjoyed the story and cared what happened to the characters, who have enough complexity to be believable.

Forced into retirement from the LAPD and working as a private detective, Harry is hired by a billionaire to find the illegitimate child that the billionaire fathered with a Mexican cafeteria worker in the 1950s. The billionaire wants to leave his money to this child, his only offspring. Harry uncovers the heartbreaking and inspiring story of this woman and the son she bears. I anticipated much of the story (but not the rather neat twist at the end).

Harry Bosch—one of the great detectives of fiction

After a dozen or more books, I feel as if I know Harry, a stubborn man with a troubled past, a quick temper, and even quicker mind. He’s changed a lot since the beginning of the series. He’s much less hotheaded these days. When he receives a profanity laden email from a cop angry at him for suing the LAPD, he pounds out a sarcastic reply . . . and then deletes it.

Being a single father has also changed Harry. He’s become more patient and sensitive, as shown when he and his daughter negotiate where to meet for dinner. She wants to try a new Vietnamese restaurant. Harry’s blunt refusal offends her. Being a man who keeps his feelings under wraps, he’s not used to explaining himself. But his need for her understanding overcomes his macho reticence. He explains that he had to eat Vietnamese food every day while fighting in the Vietnam War:

“You smell like what you eat. In enclosed spaces. It comes out in your pores. My job—I had to go into tunnels, and I didn’t want the enemy to know I was there. So I ate their food every day, every meal, and I can’t do it anymore. It bring it all back to me.”

The Wrong of Goodbye isn’t “by the numbers.” It’s original Connelly.

The Professor

Thomas McMurtrie, protagonist of Robert Bailey’s legal thriller, is a former star football player and now a venerable law professor at the University of Georgia. Tom is forced into retirement thanks to the machinations of the weaselly dean and Jameson Tyler, a hotshot attorney and one of Tom’s former students, whom he had considered a friend.

An old flame comes to him for help. Her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter died in a collusion with a semi. The driver was speeding and the old flame wants to sue the trucking company for negligence. Tom refers her to Rick Drake, another former student. Although definitely not Tom’s friend, Drake grew up in the town where the accident occurred and the case will be tried.

Enter the villains

The case becomes thorny when Jack Willistone, the owner of the trucking company, hires Tyler to defend his company against the suit. Willistone is a small-time tycoon whose hirelings commit arson and threaten and bribe witnesses.

It’s revealing that he sends the psychopathic thug Bone to intimidate the characters who are low on the social ladder. If they talk to the lawyers, Bone threatens to rape their wives and/or daughters while they watch and other fun stuff. Willistone feels he can have them killed and get away with it. But with the wife of the gas company, he goes after her reputation. He has pictures proving that her dead husband was gay and will make certain that her teenage boys see them unless she keeps her mouth shut.

That old-time machismo

This thriller is saturated with Southern machismo. The women are so hapless. They’re not incompetent, just unable to fend for themselves. They need the men. Even Dawn the law student needs help from Tom. And there’s lots of football stuff about loyalty to teammates and friends, playing to win, and never wussing out. Not that it’s unbelievable or wrong or anything. I just got tired of it.

In addition, I couldn’t buy into the moral simplicity. It’s always clear what’s right and wrong. Wrong actions in one aspect of life indicate a moral rottenness that infects every other aspect of a character’s life. The amoral attorney Tyler dates two women at once, so of course he ambushes his old friend Tom with the charges that cost him his teaching position, and he breaks his promise not to make public the supposedly compromising photos of Tom and Dawn.

Is The Professor “by the numbers”?

The plot rolls along at a brisk pace with the familiar tropes of legal thrillers: the surprise witness, evidence that surfaces at the last minute. But the setting is vivid and the characters transcend their stereotypes. I won’t forget Tom McMurtrie and might pick up another novel in the series sometime.

All thrillers are written “by the numbers” to some extent since writers follow the rules of the genre. I suspect that the term is a way of disparaging genre fiction in general. When critics dismiss novels as “by the numbers,” it means they dislike genre fiction—and not much else.

Easy ways to write a book review #AugustReviews

In this post, reviewer Rosie Amber does a solid for authors by encouraging readers to leave book reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. She gives some helpful tips to make the process easier. All of us authors rely on feedback from readers, not just to help sell books but to let us know where we get it right and where we fall short.

Authors WANT  Reviews

Simple! How many times have you read pleas on social media for readers to write reviews? – Probably Loads.

Does the thought of writing a book review send you racing to the hills? – I can see plenty of you nodding in agreement.

WHAT holds you back?

Reading Soft edge

6 common replies:

I can’t write.

I can’t write paragraphs about a book.

I don’t know what to write.

I’m afraid of what people will think of my review.

I’m an author and don’t want a backlash on my own books.

I don’t have the time.

Let’s turn this around

I can’t write – I bet if you can read, you can write.

I can’t write paragraphs about a book – Good News, Amazon accepts one sentence reviews now as do many other sites.

I don’t know what to write – Ah! Quick Question – Why did you like or Dislike the book? Got an answer? Then you have a starting place.

I’m afraid of what people will think of my review – Facing fears is part of life, it is hard, but I bet you’ve faced much harder challenges. Authors LOVE reviews, other readers also like to read them to see if they agree or disagree. Every reader will get something different from their experience. An honest review from someone who genuinely read the book IS REALLY APPRECIATED.

I’m an author and don’t want a backlash on my own books – This one STOPS TOO MANY AUTHORS from writing book reviews and it shouldn’t. In fact if you are an author, one way to hone your writing skills is to READ, READ, READ and from this you will be noting what works, what doesn’t and you will have all the skill sets to write a review. IF YOU WRITE WITH HONESTY AND COMPASSION I can’t see an author would want revenge or to be labelled a TROLL, these are far and few amongst the millions of authors who GENUINELY WANT A REVIEW.

I don’t have the time – time is what you make of it and those who have this as their reply probably won’t have time to read this post, so we’ll say no more.

So BE BRAVE – make a promise that the next book you read you will write a review.

Read the rest for useful tips on how to write a review.

Book Reviews – The Bullet and Playing with Fire

I don’t post many negative book reviews. When I’m not connecting with a book, for whatever reason, I stop reading unless I’ve committed to reviewing it. And I don’t feel comfortable judging books that I haven’t finished. I liked Mary Louise Kelly’s The Bullet and Sherry D. Ficklin’s Playing With Fire enough to finish them. Despite their differences, the two thrillers share one quality that always draws me into a story: an engaging first person narrator with a distinctive voice.

Playing With Fire

This YA novel centers on Farris Burnett, a teenage hacker whose father is a Marine Corps officer. The story begins as he assumes command of Cherry Point air base and she enrolls in a new high school. When someone hacks the base computers and begins wreaking havoc, Farris sets out to find the culprit.

Playing with Fire CoverFarris has a strong voice, and the secondary characters are complex and interesting. Overall the writing is good, but the book could have used better editing. The author uses principal in a context that calls for principle, and there are a few confusing sentences.

The main problem with the novel is the plot structure. The hacking problem begins almost halfway into the story. Everything up to that point involves Farris’s life—her dead mom, her somewhat distant relationship with her father, the unfair ostracism she faced at her last high school, the challenge of making friends at the new one, the dilemma of liking two guys who hate each other. The characters introduced in the first half do play important roles in the hacking plot, but the author could have told readers what they needed to know in half the space.

The upshot is that Playing With Fire is more teen high school drama than it is thriller. This might not be a problem for the novel’s teen audience, but the book description led me to expect more suspense and less romance.

The Bullet

Caroline Cashion, a professor of French at Georgetown University, discovers that she’s adopted and has a bullet in her neck. The bullet has been there since she was three years old and her birth parents were shot and killed. I struggled with the premise. This woman is in her 30s and none of her doctors ever noticed the bullet lodged against her spine until it began causing symptoms? And her adoptive parents never told her anything about her origins? I was willing to give the improbability a pass because the first-person narration hooked me from the start.

The Bullet Cover 2Caroline flies to Atlanta to find out who her parents were and what happened to them. She learns that they were killed in their home and that the bullet passed through her mother before entering her. Removing it from an infant would have been too dangerous. The killers were never found.

While she’s busy talking with reporters and the detective who worked the case, her doctor shows up at her hotel. He’s flown all the way from Washington because he’s smitten with her. They strike up a romance. Later she finds out he’s married, making the subplot even more irrelevant than it already was. I have nothing against romantic subplots if they somehow advance the story. This one is mostly filler. It shows an aspect of Caroline’s character, that’s about all.

A reporter in Atlanta also tries to seduce Caroline, but he’s not as attractive as the doctor. He writes a story about her, though, and soon after her return to Washington, someone breaks into her apartment with the clear intention of doing her harm. Events escalate from there.

Caroline’s later actions surprised me since they seem to contradict her character. Readers are supposed to believe that the revelations about her past have changed her profoundly, but there’s nothing about her life beforehand that makes her behavior believable. Not to mention the unlikelihood of someone intelligent and mature traveling around the country shortly after dangerous surgery.

The story is well told, but the credibility issues and pointless romance put a drag on its momentum.

The Locksmith’s Secret – A Rich Narrative Tapestry

In The Locksmith’s Secret, Tahlia Newland has woven several narratives into a complex story about the joys and pitfalls of love and the enduring power of the imagination.

Writer Prunella Smith, whom readers may remember from Newland’s last book, Worlds Within Worlds, has found love with Jamie Claypole, an English transplant to Australia. The two are happy together, but Ella knows little about Jamie’s past. The gaps in her knowledge become apparent when Jamie is summoned home after his brother’s sudden death. All at once he becomes secretive about his family and where they live and how long he intends to stay with them.

The other narratives reiterate in various ways the problem Ella faces: whether to pursue Jamie and uncover his secrets or to reclaim the solitude she lost when he came to live with her.

Memories of unhappy past experience with a lover who abandoned her overshadow Ella’s hope for happiness with Jamie. Ella had been a ballerina with a promising career until a back injury forced her to give up ballet. Her lover, who was also her onstage partner, promptly discarded her once they could no longer dance together.

A Buddhist, Ella mediates regularly, and during meditation she’s transported into the world of Daniela, an Italian nun. On the brink of taking her final vows, Daniela finds herself attracted to the man who tends the nunnery’s garden. Like Ella, she faces an unexpected choice about the direction her life will take.

In addition, Ella has a recurring dream featuring a locksmith who may or may not be Jamie and who holds the secret to unlocking doors into countless other worlds, a metaphor for the creative and spiritual freedom that she seeks. She pursues the locksmith, but he seems always just out of reach.

Although troubled by Jamie’s secretiveness, Ella keeps writing fiction. Woven into The Lockman’s Secret is a steampunk novel that has taken hold of her imagination. The chapters appear as she writes them, and the story of intrepid reporter Nell and her efforts to uncover the villainy of Lord Burnett generates as much suspense as the main narrative. Like Ella, Nell values her independence and strives to prove her worth in the professional world. She worries that marriage to her employer’s son will mean the end of her career.

Newland interweaves all of these threads with consummate skill. Not once do they get tangled. Not once does the suspense flag, which is especially impressive in a contemplative novel like The Locksmith’s Secret. The credit goes to Newland’s mastery of narrative structure, to her concise and transparent prose that is eloquent without ever drawing attention to itself, and to her wonderfully varied and complex characters.

The worlds of Prunella Smith have a clarity and power that you won’t soon forget.

Cover Locksmith's Secret

A clone in the world

I decided to fill in one of the millions of gaps in my education by reading a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for Remains of the Day, the one about the butler, but Never Let Me Go is about clones. Surely, I thought, a novel about clones had to be a little exciting.

The thing is, Never Let Me Go is about people who happen to be clones. The narrator, Kathy, tells the story of growing up at a special school with others of her kind. The children vaguely understand they’re destined to be donors, but they don’t comprehend what it means. The plot centers on the complex relationship between Kathy and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy.  There is a love triangle, jealousy, and betrayal as well as loyalty and affection. In the usual course of things, the conflict might have resolved as the characters became adults and went their separate ways, but since these three share the same destiny, they remain entangled to the end.

As science fiction, Never Let Me Go is pretty much a bust. In its world, cloning was developed just after World War II, so the story unfolds in the later Twentieth Century. To be convincing, this sort of alternate history needs details and explanations that the author seems to have no interest in providing. Readers learn only what Kathy learns about the process of cloning and organ harvesting, which is next to nothing. Near the end of the novel, Kathy and Tommy visit one of their former teachers and find out a bit about the politics of this world, but it’s nothing the reader hasn’t already inferred. The novel’s world is subjective. It rings true because Kathy’s voice and sensibility ring true.

At times it irked me that she and the others accept their fates so passively. But they’re playing the only role they know. No other possibilities have been shown to them. Their dreams never extend beyond a “deferral,” a few years of grace before their bodies are taken apart. When I discussed the novel with Joe, he pointed out that even sheep struggle as they’re led to slaughter. But sheep can’t be taught and conditioned the way people can. Most of us want to believe in free will, but society makes its demands and exacts its price.

Many years ago, sitting in jail on a drug charge, I had an epiphany. Society sets boundaries. The people who ignore them are eventually relegated to prisons and mental hospitals. You might flout the boundaries and elude punishment, but you better not forget they’re there. If this great discovery seems a bit simpleminded, keep in mind that I was twenty— just a few years younger than Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy when their lives are supposed to end.

Imagine always being imprisoned. Imagine believing those boundaries to be the end of the world with nothing beyond them. That’s the reality of Kathy and her friends.

The larger boundary, one that imprisons us all, is certainy of death. The clones are killed because their body parts are needed to keep the “normals” alive awhile longer. Yet mortality is absolute. The normals will eventually die too. They justify the killing by believing clones have no souls, but maybe they’re taking their own souls too much for granted.

Never Let Me Go Cover

Gifted Thief will steal your heart

The protagonist of Helen Harper’s urban fantasy Gifted Thief lives the first eleven years of her life without a name. An orphan among the Highland Sidhe, she’s so despised that no one bothers giving her one. She lives in a castle, the ward of a nobleman, ignored or bullied until she escapes to the world of human beings. There she makes a life for herself with the help of a newfound human friend, Taylor. She names herself Integrity.

Taylor is a thief, so Integrity enters that profession.

Years later, she’s working with him and a team of magical characters, each with specialized skills. They look for high value targets, so when Taylor hears about a rare sapphire kept in a bank vault, he dispatches the team to acquire it. Integrity and her friends scale the building and break into the vault — only to find the sapphire isn’t there! Worse, Taylor has been lured into the debt of dangerous people. He needs money fast.

Then the trap closes. The debt and the elusive jewel are part of a Sidhe plot to force Integrity back to their lands. But why? For years they haven’t bothered coming after her.

Except in the prologue, the story is narrated by Integrity, and one of the novel’s attractions is her voice. She’s a funny, insightful, and self-deprecating narrator — the most likable protagonist I’ve encountered in a while. The band of thieves are endearing in their kindness and loyalty to one another. And then there’s the comical genie trapped in the letter opener.

Overall, the story is a bit too sweet for my tastes until the Sidhe show up. They come off as arrogant, vain, and treacherous — an entrenched aristocracy interested only in wealth and power.

With one or two possible exceptions.

Byron, the handsome son of a clan leader, may be hiding goodness beneath his jaded playboy exterior. He’s attracted to Integrity and offers to help her. Although she’s attracted to him, she refuses to give him her trust. He’s a Sidhe and she despises them all. Worse, he’s one of the Sidhe who made her childhood miserable. The romance between the two follows a predictable course of miscues and misunderstanding.

But once she returns to Sidhe lands, Integrity needs his help. She can’t be choosy about her allies as it becomes clear that the clan leaders mean to kill her once they have no more use for her.

Despite the danger, her return finally gives her an opportunity to find out about her parents and who she truly is. The search for identity is a central theme in literature, and Integrity’s quest adds weight to a story that occasionally seems frivolous.

I began Gifted Thief thinking it was pleasant fluff. But Integrity changed my mind. She likes to crack silly jokes, but she’s serious about defending herself and protecting her friends. By the end I loved her and hoped for her eventual triumph.

Gifted Thief is the first book of Harper’s Highland Magic series. The next one, Honour Bound, will be released on February 29.

The Threshold – urban fantasy at its finest

I’m always on the lookout for a good urban fantasy. I found a great one in R.L. King’s The Threshold, the third book in a series chronicling the adventures of mage Alistair Stone. Alistair is a white mage; he doesn’t power his spells by siphoning the life force of other human beings.  In The Threshold, Alistair and his companions, Verity Thayer and her brother, Jason, are battling an extra-dimensional enemy called the Evil that feed on human emotions and seek world domination. The trio must find and destroy the portals through which the Evil are invading this world.

As incorporeal beings the Evil can possess the bodies of most humans, but not the bodies of mages, although a few black mages allow themselves to be possessed  in exchange for the power the Evil  gives them. A mysterious group known as the Forgotten are also immune to possession. The special abilities of the Forgotten come with a downside: — they suffer from various mental disorders that make it difficult for them to function in society. Most of the Forgotten are homeless.

The story moves briskly without sacrificing the descriptive detail so necessary to this genre. The author weaves the magic seamlessly into a very concrete everyday reality. The extra-dimensional portal in the basement of an Indian restaurant, aptly named A Passage to India, seems as real and believable as a broom closet.

Alistair and his companions are altogether sympathetic. I prefer antiheroes, so this threesome is a bit too white magic for me. But their quirks and passions keep them from being bland. Englishman Alistair comes across as a typical college professor, unconventional and sometimes acerbic. His mysterious past makes him intriguing. Teenager Verity is both Forgotten and a mage. Apprenticed to Alistair, she is discovering her abilities as she wrestles with the problems of adolescence. Jason’s only gift is the ability to power Alistair’s spells without depleting himself, a kind of magical battery, but his fierce love for his sister makes him stand out.

Secondary characters are well-drawn, even those who make only a brief appearance. Eleanor Pearsall, the white mage in the opening chapter, is so sweet that it hurts when she’s ambushed by the Evil. And gray mage Trevor Harrison is so compelling that I wish he had a larger role in the story.

Later books in a series are tricky. Often the beginning gets bogged down by exposition or the story cannot stand on its own. King avoids both these pitfalls. She gives just enough information so readers can understand what’s going on. At times the Evil seems like an abstract menace, though, and the trio’s history with the Forgotten feels thin. After finishing The Threshold I backed up and read The Forgotten, which filled in everything that was missing — and more. The first book, Stone and a Hard Place, tells a separate story featuring Alistair Stone.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, you don’t want to miss this series. You can read The Threshold first, like I did, but for the optimal experience, start with The Forgotten. Or better yet, Stone and a Hard Place. Once you enter the world of Alistair Stone, you won’t want to leave. And you won’t have to. The Source: Book Four of the Alistair Stone Chronicles, is coming soon.

 

 

The Threshold Cover

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Finding another way

In her novel The Wife, Meg Wolitzer tells the story of a talented writer who sacrifices her own career to marry a man who becomes a famous novelist. Or rather, Wolitzer lets Joan tell her own story, beginning with her decision to leave her husband, a narcissistic philanderer, as the two of them are flying to Helsinki, where Joe will accept a prestigious award. The couple are in their sixties, their children long gone from the nest. Their comfortable golden years await.

After one or two pages I was already wondering why Joan stayed so long. The novel provides a complicated answer, a tangle of circumstances and character.

In a series of flashbacks, Joan relates how she and Joe meet and fall in love back in the 1950s while she’s a student at Smith. He’s her creative writing instructor (what a surprise), married with a newborn daughter (even less of a surprise). Their affair discovered, they flee the college in disgrace and begin their life together in a shabby Greenwich Village apartment. Joan goes to work to support Joe’s ambition to become a successful novelist. Although she has considerable talent as a writer, she sees little point in trying to pursue a career of her own.

In the 1950s the literary establishment was dominated by men and the stereotypical male novelist — a lusty, macho guy who wrote sprawling novels. Think Normal Mailer and James Jones. With a few exceptions, women’s writing was undervalued.

While at Smith, Joan attends the reading of Elaine Mozell, a writer whose first novel had good reviews but dismal sales. At the party afterward, Elaine warns Joan she cannot hope to win the attention of the male reviewers and editors “who decide who gets to be taken seriously, who gets put up on a pedestal for the rest of their lives.” These gatekeepers make sure “women’s voices [will remain] hushed and tiny and the men’s voices loud.”

Elaine Mozell’s warning echoes in Joan’s head for years afterward, a reminder that she would have failed anyway.

In the 1970s the literary landscape begins to change, but by then Joan has settled into the marriage. She has three children. She thinks it’s too late. So she stays in the marriage and puts up with Joe’s preening and fooling around with other women. By the end of The Wife, the extent of her sacrifice becomes clear. It’s heartbreaking.

Despite the sad story, The Wife is often savagely funny. Wolitzer gives her protagonist acute vision, cutting wit, and rage all the fiercer for having been suppressed. Of her once sexy husband Joan says:

Now he was old, with a humbling bio-prosthetic heterograft porcine valve (however you slice it, it’s just pig meat) stuck like a clove into his heart, and pig memories somehow looped into his brain: happy images of rooting around among old nectarines and tennis shoes.

Wow. Joe is sleeping beside a razor and doesn’t even know it.

Days after finishing The Wife, I’m still pondering Elaine Mozell and the role she plays in Joan’s choice. Elaine speaks the truth without regard for the damage it will do. I guess that’s a good thing. Better than lying, anyway. But it’s truth shaded by bitterness. Come to think of it, Elaine never tells Joan to stop writing, only to forget about impressing the men. She says, “Find some other way.” Advice so buried in negativity that Joan doesn’t understand it for decades.

I want to believe there’s another way — always — and failure won’t happen unless I give up. But I know too much about the intractability of life to think it’s that simple. Sometimes there are no good choices, only bad and worse ones. I’ve gone the wrong way more than once. And probably will again. I value Joan’s story, with its less than happy ending, for showing how even a terrible choice may be redeemable if one can face the truth.

A Clone in the World

Novel by Kazuo IshiguroThis week I decided to fill in one of the millions of gaps in my education by reading a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for Remains of the Day, the one about the butler, but Never Let Me Go is about clones. Surely, I thought, a novel about clones had to be a little exciting.

The thing is, Never Let Me Go is about people who happen to be clones. The narrator, Kathy, tells the story of growing up at a special school with others of her kind. The children vaguely understand they’re destined to be donors, but they don’t comprehend what it means.  The plot centers on the complex relationship between Kathy and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy.  There is a love triangle, jealousy, and betrayal as well as loyalty and affection. In the usual course of things, the conflict might have resolved as the characters became adults and went their separate ways, but since these three share the same destiny, they remain entangled to the end.

As science fiction, Never Let Me Go is pretty much a bust. In its world, cloning was developed just after World War II, so the story unfolds in the later Twentieth Century. To be convincing, this sort of alternate history needs details and explanations that the author seems to have no interest in providing. Readers learn only what Kathy learns about the process of cloning and organ harvesting, which is next to nothing. Near the end of the novel, Kathy and Tommy visit one of their former teachers and find out a bit about the politics of this world, but it’s nothing the reader hasn’t already inferred. The novel’s world is subjective. It rings true because Kathy’s voice and sensibility ring true.

At times it irked me that she and the others accept their fates so passively. But they’re playing the only role they know. No other possibilities have been shown to them. Their dreams never extend beyond a “deferral,” a few years of grace before their bodies are taken apart. When I discussed the novel with Joe, he pointed out that even sheep struggle as they’re led to slaughter. But sheep can’t be taught and conditioned the way people can. Most of us want to believe in free will, but society makes its demands and exacts its price.

Many years ago, sitting in jail on a drug charge, I had an epiphany. Society sets boundaries. The people who ignore them are eventually relegated to prisons and mental hospitals. You might flout the boundaries and elude punishment, but you better not forget they’re there. If this great discovery seems a bit simpleminded, keep in mind that I was twenty – just a few years younger than Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy when their lives end.

Imagine always being imprisoned. Imagine believing those boundaries to be the end of the world with nothing beyond them. That’s the reality of Kathy and her friends.

The larger boundary, one that imprisons us all, is certainy of death. The clones are killed because their body parts are needed to keep the “normals” alive awhile longer. Yet mortality is absolute. The normals will eventually die too. They justify the killing by believing clones have no souls, but maybe they’re taking their own souls too much for granted.

Never Let Me Go wasn’t a thrill ride, but it was a compelling and haunting story. It enthralled me as much as any suspense novel. And I cried at the end.