Oracle Night by Paul Auster

If you’ve never read Paul Auster, be warned that his work is always a little surreal.  His novels read like a mixture of fantasy, mystery, and a ghost story.  Pay attention to the details because some of them will weave their way deeply into the story and some are loose threads.  The random encounters are rarely random, and even if a character seems like he hasn’t changed and/or made any kind of journey, you as the reader certainly will.

Such was my experience as I read Oracle Night.  I could tell you the jacket flap details, but it would be much more fun to tell you it’s about a writer who writes a story about a man reading the work of a long dead writer who wrote about a man who has the ability to predict the future.  If it sounds crazy, that’s because it’s a Paul Auster novel.

Still, don’t allow that to deter you from reading about writer Sidney Orr and his mysterious blue notebook purchased from M.R. Chang’s Paper Palace or about Sidney’s wife, Grace, and the nature of their relationship versus hers with fellow writer John Trause.  Factor in Jacob, John’s drug addict son, and Nick Bowen who manages to lock himself into Ed Victory’s underground bunker (The Bureau of Historical Preservation), and Lemuel Flagg, a British lieutenant blinded in World War I who has the gift of prophecy, and you’re in the multi-layered world of Paul Auster.

Some of my thoughts as I read Oracle Night included:

Every writer’s nightmare and every writer’s dream:  to write words that actually come true or at least predict the future.

What are these worlds that writers create?

Do we live in the present with the future inside us?

Are we creating futures as we write?

Is the pen truly mightier than the sword?

Such are the questions Auster’s work provokes every time I read it.  I can also recommend Travels in the Scriptorium, The Book of Illusions, Augie Wren’s Christmas Story, and Man in the Dark.  If you need a point of reference, readers of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind will probably enjoy Auster’s novels as long as they keep in mind that he will take it to the next level of wonderfully bizarre.

Tabloid City by Pete Hamill

tabloid-cityI enjoy sharing reviews for books, movies, and music in the section of my blog by the same title. Every now and then, I mention one that didn’t quite hit the mark in my opinion because I also enjoy generating discussion on the material especially if a follower disagrees with my review.

Such is the case with Pete Hamill’s novel, Tabloid City. I would never discourage anyone from reading this book because I allow people to come to their own conclusions but mostly because I’m hoping he or she will point out what I missed. Until then, I believe this novel would appeal solely to people who lived or are living in New York and/or are currently employed or retired journalists. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into those categories.

It’s not that I find New York and journalism boring, but the way both subjects were presented in Tabloid City did nothing to pique my interest regarding them. It’s not unusual for me to grab my phone while reading to Google something for reference even if it’s a subject with which I am familiar. Many of my favorite authors spur this kind of self-education in me, and I love it.

Let me also say that I adored Forever, North River, and Snow in August also by Pete Hamill, and that one mediocre book will not keep me from reading his other works. Still, I’m not sure what the author was thinking when he wrote this jargon-filled tale. I know he writes his passions into his works (New York and journalism), and while I can bestow an A for effort here, I cannot go much beyond a D- for the result.

tabloid-city-2Tabloid City is incredibly disjointed. It’s a scattering of stories that read like newspaper clippings replete with jagged backstory and each character’s knowledge of New York, other characters, events, etc. I kept searching for continuity in this laundry list of stories, something to tie them together or make me care for the characters. Slow going defines the novel until about page 104. The thin thread of a tale about a Muslim terrorist and his police officer father and another about the demise of newspapers and libraries saved the book; otherwise I’m left feeling that this was the framework for a better story handed off too soon.

Let me end on a positive note and encourage you to read the other three books by Pete Hamill I mentioned above. Also, I haven’t read the Sam Briscoe mystery/thriller trilogy written by Pete Hamill, but fans of the books will be happy to see Sam reappear in Tabloid City.

The Conjurer’s Bird by Martin Davies

the-conjurers-bird“Wonderful and heartbreaking all at once,” is how I described The Conjurer’s Bird by Martin Davies to my husband upon finishing the novel.

After I made the small mistake of starting a book about a taxidermist while eating lunch, I was rewarded with no further descriptions of the process and an incredible tale of love, loss, and discovery. The story is woven back and forth through history and includes real and fictional characters blending seamlessly.

Davies’s story is his accounting of the Myterious Ulieta Bird seen only once in 1774. He recounts the factual tale of naturalist Joseph Banks and his mistress, the elusive Miss B. Then he goes further by filling in the blanks with his version of what took place.

Interlaced with Banks’s story is that of disenchanted taxidermist, John Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is drawn into the mystery of searching for the only known specimen of the Ulieta Bird which disappeared from Banks’s collection without explanation two hundred years earlier.

Along the way Fitz and his boarder, the lovely, young Katya, unravel clues that richer, more powerful people than they are also following to discover not only the Ulieta Bird but also botanical drawings worth millions supposedly hidden within the case.

the-conjurers-bird-2Readers and admirers of A. S. Byatt’s Possession will find a similar, slightly more accessible novel following two stories that converge with a satisfying conclusion. I commend Mr. Davies for keeping the tension high right up to the end where it looks as if all the wrong people triumphed. With well-placed clues, two personal histories within John Fitzgerald’s portion of the story revealing much about the character, and a convincing cast of supporting characters, The Conjurer’s Bird is a worthy novel not to be missed.

The Incense Game by Laura Joh Rowland

the-incense-gameI recently finished book sixteen in Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro Mysteries Series, The Incense Game. I know I’m nearing the end of the series, there are only two more books, and while all good things must come to an end, I hate to see it actually happen.

I started several years ago with book ten, The Assassin’s Touch, and made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t go back to the beginning of a series that I really didn’t have time for. Even though book ten read like a stand-alone novel, I fell in love with Sano and the cast of characters. Combined with my love of all things Japanese, I immediately broke my promise, started reading from book one, and now own all of them except for the final book.

Most of the mysteries I have read are because I stumbled upon them in a library where they had been mislabeled as regular fiction. Book ten of Ms. Rowland’s series was on the new book shelf, and the picture of a Japanese woman with a fabulous dragon tattoo drew me in. As someone who usually bypasses the shelves of mysteries, I was hooked.

All the books are rich with history from the era of the shoguns. Ms. Rowland seamlessly blends historical figures and events with fictional ones to create believable storylines. She adds a dash of the mystical martial arts to ramp up the tale without coming across like a poorly dubbed foreign film.

Sano is a realistic hero because he suffers trials and tribulations as well as successes. Of course for Sano, either situation constantly places him in a good light with his allies and a bad one with his enemies. The tension and struggle is real, and often frustrating, as the reader will want Sano to act in such a way that looks like it would resolve all his problems. However, he is bound by obedience to bushido which governs his every move.

There is always a bad person behind the mysteries Sano investigates, but the best antagonist throughout the novels has been Yanagisawa who, on top of everything else Sano endures, is constantly trying to get rid of him by whatever means necessary. No scheme is too diabolical for Sano’s archenemy including attempts on the life of Sano’s wife and children.

The cast of peripheral characters—Sano’s wife, children, friends, retainers, the Shogun—add to the depth of storytelling I have come to love from Ms. Rowland. The one character I hated to see go by the wayside was a love interest for Sano in an earlier novel. I would have liked to have seen Aoi, a beautiful woman trained in the ninja arts, to make a reappearance in a later book. This worthy character definitely would have heated things up especially if she returned after Sano married.

If you haven’t read Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro Mystery Series, I strongly suggest you do. Take it from someone who is extremely picky about her mysteries, you won’t be disappointed.

It’s a Mystery to Me

its-a-mystery-to-meMy first encounter with Agatha Christie was her novel, Murder on the Orient Express, which I read for one of my book clubs. I’m not usually a reader of mysteries unless by accident. John MacLachlan Gray’s two Edmund Whitty novels and Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro series are among those happy accidents. Of course, there are the three Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels my mother gave me for Christmas which prompted the purchase of the complete stories, so perhaps I occasionally, intentionally read a mystery.

With that being said, I approached Murder on the Orient Express with a titch of bias. I expected Agatha Christie’s writing to meet the standard set by the above-mentioned authors. In Mrs. Christie’s defense, I have read only one of her novels, and by the time I wrote this blog post, I also completed the short story, “Witness for the Prosecution.”

Charming but dull was the phrase that continually came to mind. Hercule Poirot didn’t do anything for me as a protagonist except manage to be cute and annoying at the same time and fusty even in the era for which he was created. The peripheral characters weren’t memorable; I had to keep re-reading their bios at the beginning to keep them straight. Only one of them had an interesting twist, and for all Poirot’s intelligence, how he managed to miss it until the end didn’t lend very much credibility to his detective skills.

I kept comparing Poirot to Lord Peter, who is more aware of his eccentricities, Chamberlain Sano, who accepts bad situations with great humility and presses on, and Edmund Whitty, who is a likeable loser right from the start. They are more believable as protagonists and detectives, more human in character and actions.

Then there was the prejudice of the author that comes through in the way she handled foreigners and the lower classes. Some of the things Mrs. Christie wrote would be considered intolerable today and were clearly the general opinion of her class. Dorothy L. Sayer’s tiptoed in this direction occasionally, but in my opinion, with much less offense. However, in the hands of someone like John MacLachlan Gray, these types of comments read harshly yet brilliantly. Perhaps this is because he’s writing an historical mystery, and I can trust he’s not wielding them for shock value.

As for the conclusion that everyone was guilty, I couldn’t accept that as a solution. Too many people who know the details of a secret are bound to screw it up without the help of Mother Nature. If not for the snowstorm, am I to believe all the suspects would have succeeded with their scheme? And perhaps I’ve watched too much Law & Order and Criminal Minds to accept that the head of the railway line, with Poirot’s apparent blessing, has the authority to let everyone off the hook because the man they killed was a kidnapper and murderer. Maybe I just wasn’t interested in debating the issue of justice in a book that in all other ways was simple and unengaging.

I probably wouldn’t have picked up another Agatha Christie book if it weren’t for the fact that my other book club is also doing Agatha Christie. My next purposeful attempt at a mystery will also be for book club. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles is on the schedule. I’ll be interested to see how he measures up to the other mystery writers.

Dripping Ink – Questions for Self-critique

The Writer Has the Last Word

It is my very great pleasure to share an article by Caroline Totten of The Greater Canton Writers’ Guild, Inc.  The following article was featured in the September newsletter.  Information regarding the Guild can be found at:  http://cantonwritersguild.org/

Dripping Ink by Caroline Totten

Questions for Self-critique

Do your demons imitate the gods by grabbing and holding attention? (Your demons are ideas that keep poking you in the eye. If the idea arouses laughter, tears, paranoia, fright, curiosity or indignation, etc., you have acquired a point of view, which may boil into a plot.)

Does the plot offer an opportunity to provide fresh insight into the theme? (Ideally, the plot begins with a distress signal in the middle of the story. The action is already in progress and tinged with an emotional element in the main character. Usually, the setting fits the character and supports the viewpoint.)

Is the character(s) consistent in the context of the plot? (Draw the emotional tone from your personal experience and place it in the persona of the protagonist, the main character. The conflict may be psychological, physical, or ideological, or a combination of these elements.)

Here are a few aspects of the reader/author relationship to keep in mind. By being a writer, or hoping to become one, your entire self becomes an instrument to observe and record human experience. When you extrapolate heartache, joy, fear, whatever, and put them into your character, you are actually putting the reader in touch with his emotions. (Numbness, repression, or suppression are emotional factors.)

Psychologically, mystery, or suspense stories excite the mind of the reader.

Horror stories, by a circuitous route, help the reader release his fear.

Adventure stories encourage bravery.

Love stories release hormones that tenderize the heart.

Fantasy encourages imagination by offering another way of perceiving the resolution of conflict even though at the outset, the reader may be looking for escape.

Humor may release attitudes that might otherwise be socially rude or crude.

Actually, stories that contain violence, corruption, and greed may contribute to the reduction of these elements and/or act as a catharsis for the reader.

Reading fiction is not an idle past time. Its factual component may differ from nonfiction, but the result is similar. The point of view alters the reader’s perceptions.   Effective writing heightens awareness of the subject by allowing the reader to participate in the physical and mental experience of the character. Most effective stories show the character in action. In some cases, “thinking” by the character rather than dialogue or confrontation may be the entrance into a story. The approach depends on the genre, your style, and editorial desires. (At times, magazine and book editors don’t know what they want until they see it.)

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