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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What I'm reading (#29)

I'm a huge fan of Christopher Moore.  His loopy, ribald plots and brilliantly funny use of language combine to create books that keep you saying "One more chapter..." until finally, sadly, you realize that you just turned the last page.  I think Coyote Blue, The Stupidest Angel, and (especially) A Dirty Job and its sequel Secondhand Souls, rank up there amongst the funniest books I've ever read -- but combine the humor with lovable characters that you really, really want to win in the end.

I read his novel Fool a couple of years ago -- it's a retelling of the tale of Shakespeare's King Lear from the point of view of the character of Lear's Fool, Pocket.  It has the usual Moore brilliance, and although it wouldn't show up in a list of my favorites, it's certainly a great story.

So it was with great anticipation that I picked up the sequel to Fool, The Serpent of Venice.

And this one, for me, did a total face plant.


It's a mashup of a bunch of stories -- The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Poe's The Cask of Amontillado amongst them -- and once again centers on Lear's Fool as the main character.  But the plot is such a chaotic jumble that it's hard even to give a clear description of what happens.  Pocket and his sidekicks, the giant Drool and his pet monkey Jeff, get into all sorts of hijinks and meet up with a whole host of characters both real and literary, but there's no coherent storyline to give it any kind of overarching sense.

It has its moments:
Shylock repointed his twitching, accusatory digit at his daughter.  "You do not say such things in my house.  You -- you-- you-- you-- you--" 
"Run along, love," Jessica said.  "It appears that Papa's been stricken with an apoplexy of the second person."
And this exchange between the villainous Iago and his wife, Emilia:
"Thou mendacious fuckweasel," said Emilia, almost spitting it, disgusted now rather than hysterical. 
"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," said Iago. 
"Methinks the lady protests just the right amount," said Emilia.  "Methinks the lady is just getting fucking started protesting." 
So Moore's gift for belly-laugh-inducing dialogue is intact; it's just that the story really doesn't ever come together.  Compared to tours de force of humorous speculative fiction like A Dirty Job and Secondhand Souls, The Serpent of Venice just kind of falls flat.

It's a shame.  It won't, of course, stop me from reading subsequent books of Christopher Moore's -- it's just that I know how much more he's capable of.  I was hoping for another twisty trip through Moore's labyrinthine mind, with hefty doses of shenanigans and heinous fuckery most foul -- and this one really didn't do it for me.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

What I'm reading (#28)

I'm a real fan of books that keep you guessing, so it is no great surprise that I read A. J. Aalto's latest book, Closet Full of Bones, in a single day.  If you've read any of her Marnie Baranuik series (beginning with the hilarious and madcap thrill-ride Touched), you might be surprised when you start reading her newest release, which is dark, understated, and as intricate as a labyrinth.

The novel centers on the siblings Gillian Hearth and Frankie Farmer, who are about as opposite as sisters can be.  Gillian is cautious, thoughtful, and loyal to a fault; Frankie is flighty, irresponsible, and trusting.  This has cast Gillian in the role of protector since they were children.  Gillian has always had to watch over her sister, protect her from the consequences of her own choices, and clean up the mess when the inevitable problems happen.

When they purchase a bed-and-breakfast together, Gillian hopes that this is a sign that Frankie's troubled past is over, that she will settle down into responsible adulthood.  But the past isn't going to let them go quite yet.  Trouble crops up in the shape of a jealous former boyfriend, Travis Freeman, and the response of the sisters to this unexpected complication starts them on a long downward spiral toward tragedy.


To give away anything more about the plot would be unfair -- this is not a book that anyone should have ruined for them by spoilers.  It's a shadowy puzzle-box of a story, centering on Gillian's determination that Frankie should be saved from herself.  It's about as different from Touched and its sequels as you can get, linked only by A. J. Aalto's tight, vivid writing and brilliant skill at drawing characters.  You will be thinking about this one long after you turn the last page.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Author interview - JC Crumpton

It was my pleasure to interview JC Crumpton this week, whose chilling and captivating first novel Silence in the Garden (published by Oghma Creative Media) will hit bookstore shelves on May 25 (it's available for preorder now at the link provided!).  Enjoy this interesting perspective from a writer you're sure to hear more about.

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GB: When did you first start writing?  Tell us about how you figured out you were a storyteller.
JC: It was so long ago that I cannot even remember writing the first story that I wrote for other people.  My mother tells me I was five and it was called “The Peanut with Measles.”  Even back then, I wrote dark stories…she tells me the story didn’t have a happy ending. 
 I knew pretty much from a young age that I wanted to tell stories.  I wrote stories just to entertain me and my friends.  Things like role-playing adventures, or making up stories for my teachers when we were supposed to be keeping journals (I already did that but didn’t want to share them with the school—too many secrets).  My father served 20 years in the US Navy, and I lived in places from West Coast to the East Coast and in Europe.  I experienced so many different cultures that these stories just popped up in my imagination.  And then it helped that we spent three years in Iceland—a place where the majority of people believed in elves, and they have this incredible literary history in the Icelandic Sagas…tales of love, adventure, betrayal, murder, monsters, loyalty.  I remember traveling the country and imagining all these wonderful stories that took place across the land.  Then I spent three months in Germany with my maternal grandparents. They took us to Frankenstein’s castle, to the walled city of Rothenberg, to the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, and here again I imagined what might have happened in all these magical places.  When I graduated high school, the prophecy that was written about me was that I would be writing books in a castle in Ireland.  Haven’t been yet, but I plan to.  Everyone has always known I would tell stories.
GB: Where do you get your inspiration?
JC: Where?  I cannot tell you one specific place.  Almost everywhere.  Each morning, I send my son a word of the day along with random facts and historical events that occurred on that day.  I have a new idea for a story about a man who wouldn’t did from one of the articles I sent him.  My western serial “Field of Strong Men” came to me on a drive through southeast Kansas when I wondered to myself if there were any other cowtowns in Kansas beside Wichita and Dodge City…turns out there is a whole history of the different towns that served as the destination for cattle drives up from Texas to catch trains back east.   

The idea for my debut novel Silence in the Garden first popped into my head when some friends and I would go up to Eureka Springs nearly every weekend just to soak in the vibes from all the artists and history there.  Then the mother of one friend became the manager of the Crescent Hotel.  We would wonder through the halls looking for ghosts.  My next novel, Venus:One, got its spark when talking with a friend of mine that has his Ph.D. in Biochemistry about the feasibility that humans could be the result of generations of genetic experimentation.  So, I guess my inspiration can come from anywhere and anytime…I just need to recognize it for its potential to be a story.
GB: For you, what is the hardest thing about writing? What is the most rewarding?
JC:The hardest part is finishing.  Definitely setting down the pen or pushing the keyboard away and telling myself that it is time to wrap it up.  Every time I read something of mine, I inevitably want to edit and change it. There is a quote attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci: Art is never finished, only abandoned. 
The most rewarding? Having someone say that my work inspired them, whether it was the characters, the plot, or just one tiny thing among the words.
GB: Silence in the Garden is, at least in part, based on real historical events, although with a paranormal twist.  How much time did you put into researching the actual events you describe in the story?
JC:As I said earlier…the inspiration came to ma a long time ago.  So, I have been reading about the Crescent Hotel and Eureka Springs for over twenty years.  But the funny thing about the research is that I started writing the story before I did a single bit of digging.  When I went back to connect it to the history of the place, I learned that a lot of what I had written was pretty close to the actual events.  Maybe something was whispering in my ear?
GB: Like what?
JC: Richard Thompson, the president of the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women owned the lakeside resort the school goes to in the book.  I wrote the scene in the story, and discovered when I went down to visit it that he used to own it.  Those kinds of things strike me as more than coincidence.
GB: Do you have a preferred time and/or place to write?
JC:I actually prefer writing at night…late, when the world is quiet.  I am easily distracted…if the world is asleep and dreaming, I can work.  But that make me very tired most mornings when I get up at 6:00.
GB: What do you do when you get stuck or hit a writer’s block?  Do you have a favorite way of jarring the ideas loose?
JC: If I get stuck on a particular project, I like to work on another.  Never stop writing.  Something is bound to pop out. 
Free writing and association is one of the methods I will use to oil up the cogs in the old brain pan.  Just keep writing…you can always come back to edit.
GB:  You definitely left some openings in SITG for a sequel, especially centered around the character of Lionel Peterson – you very much give the impression that he is involved in activities far beyond what happened in this book. Are you considering turning this into the first of a series?
JC: Not originally…but when I realized Peterson had a history outside the constraints of this story, it actually became an idea for an origin story…another historical event.
GB:Tell us about your next project.
JC: I am working on more than one right now.  My next deadline is June 8, when I am to have a story turned in for an anthology.  I am also working on my first Lonford Universe novel, Venus:One.  It goes back to that idea I had talking to a friend of mine: what happens when humans find out they are the result of a genetic experiment?  Then I expanded on that and thought, what would be the social and economic impact of terra-forming Venus and making the planet Earth’s twin in more than just name?
GB: Anything else you’d like us to know?
JC: Just thank you, and I hope you enjoy Silence in the Garden.  Don’t be afraid to contact me on my Facebook author page or on my website that is currently being built if you have any questions or just want to chat about it.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

What I'm reading (#27)

It's not often that I read a book which afterwards, if someone asked me "Did you like it?", my honest answer would be, "I have no idea."

That, however, would be my reaction should anyone ask me about William Least Heat-Moon's Celestial Mechanics.  It's an odd story -- about a writer named Silas Fortunato, his intensely unlikeable wife Dominique, her sister Celeste, and a peculiar neighbor named Kyzmyt whom I was never really convinced was real.

As far as what happened in the story... well, I'm not entirely sure about that, either.  Silas and his wife spend a lot of time sniping at each other (mostly her at him).  It's clear from about page 10 that she doesn't like him much, and Silas lost a good measure of my sympathy for him when for chapter after chapter he simply let her ridicule and insult and neglect him.  (And continued to try to persuade her to stay in the marriage, or at least in their house.)

Then Dominique takes off on a business trip, and sort of... vanishes.  In case you want to read it, and I actually hope some of you will, if for no other reason to see what your reaction is, I won't tell you the circumstances of her disappearance.  But I will say if you want things tied up at the end -- if you want anything tied up at the end -- don't get your hopes up too high.


I don't mind a book that's mysterious and leaves you to fill in the missing pieces; I often write that way myself.  But in addition to Celestial Mechanics feeling like an incomplete (albeit long) story, there were two other things about it that really bugged me.

One is that there are no dialogue tags.  At all.  I know this is the current fad in novel writing, but c'mon.  Especially in the first half of the book, I lost track of the number of times I had to count backwards until I found a line of dialogue that gave me a clue as to who was talking.  I know that action phrases are better than "he said" and "she said" over and over again, but giving the reader nothing but the person's mere words to go on was pretty damned frustrating, especially given the second problem...

... which was that the characters, especially the four main characters, all sort of sounded alike.  They were erudite and glib, throwing around metaphors and literary allusions and puns and symbolism in virtually every line, only occasionally coming down out of the clouds to say something practical like "What would you like for dinner?"  (When Celeste, in response to some abstruse pronouncement by Silas, said, "I have no idea what you're talking about," I nearly cheered.)

It's a problem I have with the dialogue in a lot of television shows; after about five minutes, I'm scowling and saying, "No one really talks like that."  Nobody is that continuously clever, sardonic, and intellectual, 24/7/365.  In the case of Celestial Mechanics, it kept reminding me that I was reading fiction -- the absolute last thing you want your reader to experience.

So it was a mixed bag.  It had its intriguing moments; Dominique's repeated visions of what she thinks is the ghost of a child, Kyzmyt's peculiar witches' brews/teas, Celeste's kindness when Silas is recovering from an injury (and Celeste is far and away the most sympathetic character).  It's certainly smartly, and tightly, written.

But overall?  I can't say I liked it much.  It's a strange story about strange characters, and gives the reader little to hang on to.  All in all, Celestial Mechanics didn't really work for me.  Even as a writer of speculative fiction -- often involving the paranormal -- my main reaction is that it just didn't seem rooted enough in the real world for me to figure out what it was trying to say.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What I'm reading (#26)

Being a biology teacher, I'm understandably attracted to books from my chosen field.  I've read everything I can by Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, Lewis Thomas, Carl Zimmer, Jerry A. Coyne, Jared Diamond, and many others, and learned a tremendous amount both about biological science and also how to explain difficult concepts in an engaging manner.

It was in that spirit that I read last week Elizabeth Kolbert's wonderful book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.  I say "wonderful" because it is brilliantly written, nearly impossible to put down, and full of fascinating information (even with my background in evolutionary biology, I learned a great deal from reading it).  But if you decide to read it -- and I in no way want to discourage you from doing so -- be prepared for the fact that it's a seriously depressing book.


The premise of The Sixth Extinction is that we are now in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event the Earth has experienced -- the first five coming at the end of the Ordovician Period, the end of the Devonian Period, the junction between the Permian and Triassic Periods (this one the largest of all; by some estimates, 90% of life on Earth was extinguished), the late Triassic Period, and the end of the Cretaceous Period (this is the one that took out all of the dinosaurs except for the lineage that led to modern birds).  But, Kolbert shows, all of those events -- so sensationalized in kids' books on ancient life -- can obscure the fact that right here, right now, we are in the middle of another one, one in which the rate of species loss is something like 10,000 times the background rate of extinction.

The reason, of course, is us.  Some of the things we've done fall into the "how could you not have known better?" department -- overhunting, clear-cutting the rain forest, ignoring (or actively denying) the reality of climate change.  Others, such as the mere fact of our mobility causing the accidental spread of noxious exotic species, are less blameworthy.  (In fact, it's our around-the-globe-in-less-than-24-hours capabilities that seem to be what has caused the spread of chytrid fungi, currently wiping out amphibian species at a horrifying rate all over Central and South America.)

Kolbert, of course, ends with the question, "But what can we do?" and comes to the dismal conclusion of "honestly, probably not much."  Our sheer numbers preclude any serious notion of halting what we're doing to the natural world.  But knowledge is power; we owe it to ourselves at least to be cognizant of the effects our actions have.  Reading The Sixth Extinction might be painful at times, but refusing to turn our eyes that way is to ignore the reality of the world we live in.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

What I'm reading (#25)

I've been known at times to get suckered by a book that has an interesting title or cover even if I know nothing else about it.

Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't.  I was grabbed by both in the case of Wu Ming-Yi's The Man With the Compound Eyes, and it turned out to be a weird stream-of-consciousness story that went absolutely nowhere.  On the other hand, I absolutely loved Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which reads like an updated Catch-22 set in Pakistan under General Zia Ul-Haq.

My most recent purchase based on a title was Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop, which I found in a used bookstore.  I looked at the first pages, and it seemed well written, and (of course) the title intrigued me.  So I bought it.


I was disappointed when I found out that the bookshop of the title isn't haunted in the conventional sense; it's "haunted by the spirits of long-dead authors" because its owner is such a devoted bibliophile.  I had a moment's hope that it would turn out to be a real haunting (so to speak) when a copy of Thomas Carlyle's The Speeches of Oliver Cromwell keeps vanishing and reappearing, but the explanation turns out to be have nothing to do with ghosts (literal or figurative).

On the other hand, the story is a nice, sentimental walk through 1920s nostalgia -- a genteel New York City replete with neighborhood pubs and pharmacies and tobacconists (and man, Morley's male characters do love their tobacco).  The plot line is a little on the far-fetched side -- and I won't spoil it by telling you why the Carlyle book keeps disappearing -- but actually, it's no more contrived than many a tale by my beloved Agatha Christie.  It's engagingly written and has wonderfully-drawn characters, including a female character whose forthrightness and spirit was highly unusual in books of that vintage.

In sum, it's a fun, easy-reading period piece.  Morley tells a clever tale of New York between the World Wars, not as overwrought as The Great Gatsby nor as repressed and unhappy as Ragtime.  It's a nice diversion into a simpler time, and I did enjoy it, even if I was disappointed in my quest for a good ghost story.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What I'm reading (#24)

I have always had, for some reason, a particular fondness for non-fiction books about natural disasters.  Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions -- the sheer power of what the world can do is both frightening and compelling.  It also explains why if I hadn't become a high school biology teacher, my second choice would have been "tornado chaser."

So it's unsurprising that I picked up a copy of Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World a few weeks ago.  It's a mesmerizing account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, one of the largest quakes ever to hit North America (intensity is an estimate, given the primitive technology of the time, but it's thought to have been beaten by only one earthquake in modern times -- the mind-bogglingly huge Anchorage, Alaska earthquake of 1964, which registered 9.2 on the Richter scale and lifted some parts of the coastline by twenty feet).


Winchester's book isn't just about the event itself.  It goes into the geology of the San Andreas Fault, how it is related to the movement of tectonic plates, and how we know what we know about seismic activity.  It also delves into the history of California, giving us a vivid picture of what it was like to live in those times, and includes eyewitness accounts of people who lived through the quake itself (one of them was famous opera singer Enrico Caruso, who seemed to consider the whole thing somewhere between an inconvenience and a personal slight).

He takes us from the years before the quake, showing how San Francisco grew from a small agricultural settlement into a thriving city, and how the landscape changed on the day of the event (both literally and figuratively).  In some ways, San Francisco never completely recovered, and the hub of activity in California moved south to Los Angeles.  (Which is ironic, given LA's equal risk of catastrophic earthquakes.)

Whether or not you're a catastrophe-buff, however, I'd strongly recommend A Crack in the Edge of the World.  Whether you like geology, history, personal accounts, or drama, it will keep you reading.  Winchester has a smooth narrative style and has obviously done his research.  The result is a book that will make you feel like you're there witnessing the events he's writing about -- as awful as that would have been.