Scriptorus interruptus. So, my agent put me in touch with an editor in the UK, one Jane Johnson, who is an author in her own right. Jane very kindly offered to read what I had written so far of Silk and Song, and cast her pearls of wisdom before this humble writing swine. (That would…
Today it’s autobiographies, the story of a life from the first-person viewpoint of its main subject. There is no story like an eyewitness story--ask any cop.
First up, The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald. The author of the beloved Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle children’s books marries and moves to a chicken ranch on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state in the 1930s. She is not a happy farmer, and she writes of everything and everyone from Stove to goeducks to the indigenous population both white and Indian with fearless sensibility and a hilarious eye for detail. This was a book written before the invention of political correctness, and it’s worth reading alone for her ruthless depiction of her neighbors, Ma and Pa Kettle. Yes, the Ma and Pa Kettle movies starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray were inspired by this book.
At the same time MacDonald was hating chicken farming in the US, Nevil Shute was building a dirigible in England. Before he wrote the post-apocalyptic classic On the Beach and the Australian romance A Town like Alice, Shute was an engineer working at the cutting edge of aviation. In Slide Rule, among other things, he tells the story of the British government sponsoring the simultaneous building of two dirigibles, one by private industry and one by government subsidy. The results are exactly what you might expect. A, you should pardon the pun, riveting read.
While MacDonald was coping with chickens and Shute was building zeppelins, Bill Mauldin was growing up in Arizona. You’ll remember Bill Mauldin for his iconic Willie and Joe cartoons, those two American GI’s slogging through the European mud of World War II. Many of those cartoons are reprinted in Mauldin’s autobiography, The Brass Ring, a grunt's-eye view of war. Mauldin’s prose style is as descriptive as his drawings. The interview with General George S. Patton, and Patton’s pit bull, is priceless.
Lastly I recommend Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane, an astronaut veteran of three shuttle flights. Funny, candid, detailed, with an easy prose style, Mullane has opinions about the shuttle program, NASA bureaucracy and the exploration of space, and he knows how to use them. He was a friend of fellow astronaut Judith Resnik, who died on Challenger, and he writes honestly about the pain of that loss. He is also very frank about the unpaid service of astronauts’ wives, and you will end this book thinking his own should be canonized. Riding Rockets is the best book by an astronaut since Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire. Reading both back to back is a full history of the US astronaut corps.
Hard to believe, but T. Jefferson Parker just wrote a book better than Silent Joe. I hate him so much.
Iron River is the third in Parker's Charlie Hood series, which began with L.A. Outlaws and continued with The Renegades. One of the things I like about Jeff's Charlie Hood novels is that he lets Charlie have a past. I like a series that doesn't dismiss what came before, where the characters remember their own history. I do, why shouldn't they? And even if he did kill off my favorite character in the very first book, I'm willing to forgive Jeff anything for the recurring totem of this series, which is, believe me or believe me not, the actual head of Mexican American heartless killer or Robin Hood (pick one) Joaquin Murietta, which floats in a large, liquid-filled glass jar and is handed down to Murietta descendants, who appear as major characters in the Hood novels.
Iron River is about an almost biblical battle between beleaguered US law enforcement agents and seemingly invulnerable and unstoppable Mexican drug lords, with two actual battle scenes that will have you on the edge of your seat. The first one occurs early on, California/ATF cops against drug dealers, at night, across the border in a Mexican countryside where they have to watch out for rattlesnakes as they're sneaking up on the hacienda while trying not to be skewered on the cactus. The bad guys have flame throwers. No lie. Later on there is a scene where our heroes ride into a village that is reminiscent of one of the early Man With No Name films. (In my imagination Charlie's starting to look a little like Clint Eastwood.)
Later, Parker carries on the good-vs.-evil theme when Charlie has a close encounter with someone who may be the devil (I'm sure he is, but Charlie is unconvinced.). The devil even has a handmaiden. Later still, I was horrified when I realized I wanted the gunsmith to get away, just another example of Parker's great characterization: I'm rooting for all the wrong people. That will pull you up with a jolt.
Great characterization, epic plot and as always that wonderful Parker ability to put you right down in the southern California countryside, recoiling from the cholla spines. Jeff never fails to remind me how glad I am to live in Alaska. I'll take a grizzly bear over a rattlesnake any day.
I didn’t used to be that big with the fantasy, because after Oz, Middle Earth and Hogwarts, what was there?
Well, how about Chicago? Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden advertises in the present-day Chicago Yellow Pages under “W.” You know, for Wizard. He's got a skull named Bob as a sidekick, werewolves and a Knight Templar with a magical sword for backup, the White Council and The Red Court of vampires both on his ass, the Wizard Enforcer for a godfather and a real live fairy for a godmother. Butcher's almost got me believing in magic, these books are that good. Dead Beat, the seventh in the series, is still my favorite, but you should begin with the first, Storm Front.
It's been a long time since a book kept me up all night, and then I get four in a row, George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones and its three sequels. Instant addiction, that's what these books are, a mesmerizing epic fantasy of the family Winterfell, with marvelous characterizations (in particular the two girls, Arya and Daenerys, and the dwarf lord Tyrion), and a plot with more twists and turns than a sidewinder. There is love and lust, loyalty and betrayal, noble houses rise and kings fall, and let's not forget the creepiest boogeymen ever, known simply as "the Others." A wonderfully realized world, I can't wait to get back to it.
The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson is a great sword-and-sorcery novel featuring the valiant Jim Eckhert, whose love Angie is aported (not teleported, no, no) by mad scientist Grottwold into an alternate universe peopled by knights, dragons and really big rats. What's a hero to do? Why, go immediately to her rescue, only, of course, you guessed it, something goes ever so slightly wrong, and...but you should read it for yourself. The crankiest wizard of all time, one S. Carolinus, and then there is the Accounting Department.
You'll never feel safe in the woods again after you read Bitten by Karen Armstrong. Although you might not care if you thought you might meet Clay in there. Yum. The best book in the werewolf subgenre of fantasy fiction, great characters and a great you-are-there world of werewolf society, such a small and exclusive club. Armstrong poses some nice moral conundrums as well--it's hard to reconcile Clay the love interest with Clay the supremely selfish guy who wanted Elena so bad he'd actually---but no, I'll give it away.
The original fairy tales were dark and terrifying. You know how Cinderella’s stepsisters made their feet fit into the glass slipper in the original story? They cut their toes off. In The Godmother, author Elizabeth Ann Scarborough hauls them into the present day, in Seattle of all places, where it turns out fairy tales are no less dark or less terrifying. All the usual suspects appear, Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and through all their lives the guiding hand of the Godmother. Imaginative, well-crafted, and, well, enchanting.
Some fun links from my Facebook page this past week– On Monday I posted this photo of a scarf I knitted from Astrid Bear’s Clown Barf yarn.Mostly, I admit, so I could put the words “Clown Barf Scarf” together in a sentence. And then a bunch of people chastised me for knitting instead of writing.…
Specifically, Regency romances, that subgenre set in England between 1811 and 1820, when George III went mad and his son, the Prince Regent, later to become George IV, assumed the powers of the throne. These are the days of Napoleon, Wellington, and Waterloo, Beau Brummell, and dresses with waists so high women went in danger of their breasts falling out of their bodices.
It is also the time of (sound of trumpets here) Jane Austen, who wielded one of literature’s sharpest and wittiest pens. I heard someone say once that the saddest words in Pride and Prejudice are “the end.” What he said. The novel itself is always and ever your first stop, but Pride and Prejudice has also been made into film at least seven times. My favorite is the BBC series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, but my guilty pleasure is Bride and Prejudice, director Gurinder Chadha’s Bollywood musical based on the novel. It’s as funny and smart as the original novel, which is saying something, and I defy you not to get up and dance in your pyjamas to “No Life Without Wife."
That I lived when Georgette Heyer wrote is a gift for which I will be ever grateful. Start with The Unknown Ajax, with dueling valets Polyphant and Crimplesham and of course the incomparable Lady Aurelia, continue with Frederica and the only definition of romantic love that has ever made sense to me, and then for a change of pace read A Civil Contract, her most serious and I think her best novel. Sandringham, the British equivalent of West Point, used Heyer’s An Infamous Army to teach cadets about the battle of Waterloo, and I recommend reading the three books leading up to it, too: These Old Shades, The Devil’s Cub and Regency Buck. These are characters made of flesh and blood, this is dialogue sharp enough to cut yourself on, and these books are nothing less than a time machine that will transport you directly to Regency England. Accept no substitutes.
Well, okay, except for…
Jude Morgan’s novel Indiscretion is simply delightful, a book even Georgette Heyer would love. The plot is tried and true; the destitute Miss Caroline Fortune (a self-fullfilling name if there ever was one) accepts a position as paid companion to holy domestic terror Mrs. Catling, but this plot is elevated by a prose so delightful as to transcend the genre. Let the book fall open to any page and you are sure to encounter a paragraph you positively must reread, all the better to keep laughing, as on p. 33, "The Colonel, on his deathbed, urged me to retire to Bath when he was gone. I informed him that as I was neither decayed spinster, ambitious tradesman or disreputable fortune-hunter, I could not fall in with his wishes. He was not in a condition to laugh, but I flatter myself there was amusement in his respiration." This, this is how the thing is done. A must read for any Heyer or Jane Austen fan.
A, what else, Google map of places books were banned in the United States in 2008-2009. South Dakota and New Mexico, please note, banned no books during this period. Also, please note, Alaska and Hawaii nowhere to be found. (That’s okay, we’ll be hanging off the coast of California during the evening weather report on…
[Don’t blame me, Frank Gerjevic started it over at the Anchorage Daily News.] Signs of Fall Termination dust. Fresh moose tongue. Dark red fireweed. Stars back. Dividend. [Personal message to John Straley: You have to be pleased with all those seasonal references.]
[written for Vibrant Nation in January. Worth reprinting now that we’re officially into fall.] I’m an expert in cold nights, and in ways to keep warm during them. A fire in the wood stove. Irish coffee made with Jameson’s. Hugh Jackman on the television screen. Any one of those’ll get the job done. So will…
I love book clubs. At one time I belonged to four. One was a crime fiction book club at a book store, one I ran from this website, a third I hosted on the radio, and I belong to a book club that just celebrated its twenty-second year. We are eight women who get together…