Hello, everyone. I wanted to take the opportunity to wish all a great and happy Christmas, Holiday Season or whatever nomenclature you would prefer. Me, I have to go with the old-fashioned “Christmas”. But anyway, here’s hoping yours is excellent and truly memorable.
To bring all up to date, I’ve finished the second part of the I Travel By Night tetralogy, entitled Last Train from Perdition: I Travel By Night 2, and of course The Border will be out sometime (I believe) in the Spring or Summer of 2015. I’m hard at work now on the next book of the Matthew Corbett series, entitled Freedom of the Mask. A friend of mine up in Vancouver made a comment years ago that included that phrase, and I said then that it had to be a title for a “Matthew book”. So, God willing, it shall be.
I’m asked very often what books I read and what books I would say were “really good”, but of course that is a very subjective opinion.
Just for giggles and maybe some speculation, I’d like to list my “magnificent seven”. These are books I come to again and again because I know I’ll always find something new in them, or else in my subjective opinion I think they’re so good in some special way that I have to share them.
There will be some surprises, some head-scratching and some “Oh no, he didn’t say that” in this list, starting with:
Number Seven: Roy Rogers and the Ghost of Mystery Rancho, written by Walter A. Tompkins, published by the Whitman Publishing Company in 1950.
Whitman did a series of books for “young readers” starring Roy Rogers. I’ve read them all, and none of them come within miles of this extra-good western adventure. I get a hankerin’ for a good Western now and again and I prowl either Ebay or the local Mom and Pop bookstore for them. Usually I wind up with five or six paperbacks, but none of them have ever stood up to Ghost of Mystery Rancho. To say this was written just for “young readers” does the book a huge disservice, because it really was written by a masterful author. What grabbed me about this book is the fact that from the first page it puts you Right There. You feel the leather of the saddle and hear its creaking, you are Right There on the “cliff-rimmed sink”, reined up in the “sparse shade of a smoke tree” overhanging the Old Spanish Trail. You feel the heat, you “cuff back” your “dusty gray Stetson” and scan the untamed beauty of the badland. And that’s just the first two pages. I don’t know anything about Walter A. Tompkins, but he was a master at describing the elements of nature. This first scene quickly pulls you in and the story takes over from there. I call this book “magnificent” because it so completely feeds the senses, and what’s better than that? Oh, and it also has Roy Rogers and Trigger, of course. Roy is described here as a “picture of rugged, leaned-down fighting power”. Ahhhhhh, yes!
Number Six: The Auctioneer, by Joan Samson. I used to have the hardback of this, but I forget who published it. The paperback was published by Avon Books (my first publisher) in 1981.
Many, many writers I know have read and enjoyed The Auctioneer. It’s a quiet book that leads to an explosive ending made more powerful by its quiet. An auctioneer named Perly Dunsmore comes to the sleepy town of Harlowe in New Hampshire. The book, as I say, starts slowly and gathers speed as it moves along. Perly begins to auction off more things that are dear to the inhabitants of Harlowe, until basically he has stolen the entire town and is auctioning that off to the higher bidder to build an upscale community. One might say Perly is a demonic spirit who talks people into giving up what they hold as important in their lives…small things first, of course, but isn’t that how evil always works? One of the creepiest elements of this book is Perly’s dog Dixie, a Golden Retriever that is oh-so-gentle to all, but has a brief scene of turning into a snarling beast when the master is revealed. But every devil must have its familiar, yes?
This book is on my “magnificent list” because it says so much with so little. It’s a slim volume and a fast read, but it does beckon you back again and again. If you want to open a book and smell “woodsmoke”, this will give it to you. Again, a book with a remarkable sense of place and great craftsmanship in the characters. Sadly, Joan Samson only wrote the one book and died of cancer around the time of first publication.
Number Five: The Eyes of the Overworld, subtitled Quest at the End of Time, by Jack Vance, paperback published by Ace Books in 1966.
Where to begin with this one? Okay…Cugel the Clever, a loveable thief you would wish to murder in real life, offends Iucounu the Laughing Magician and is teleported halfway across the Dying Earth on a quest to find the Eyes of the Overworld and return them to Iucounu. To coax Cugel along on his task, a creature half-crab and half-scorpion named Firx has been magically implanted into our hero’s liver and delights in pinching and stinging his insides to keep the cunning but unlucky Cugel moving forward.
Which does not even begin to scratch the surface of what this rowdy and raucous book is about. Cugel travels from land to land and strange situation to one stranger still, leaving disaster—and many corpses—in his wake. He is always one step ahead of the wreckage he leaves behind, which in a way makes him an endearing figure struggling against the bonds of Fate though he has definitely brought this ordeal upon himself.
Monsters weird and awesome roam the pages of this book. What makes it a magnificent read is Jack Vance’s incredible imagination and his writing ability. Again, it’s a slim volume and a quick read, but it’s not one you’ll want to read quickly…if you’re like me, you’ll want to savor this as long as you can.
Another standout in the qualities here is the masterful use of color. Vance uses it to emphasize details, down to the lizards with their “blue tails”. The descriptions in this book are just beautiful. Eyes of the Overworld can be read again and again, and like a magic and glittering jewel, something new can be discovered in its one hundred and eighty-nine pages.
Number Four: The Shining, by Stephen King, published by Doubleday in 1977.
This is The Complete Book. It has everything. It captures a small space of time for a family in crisis, but it really encompasses the entire lives of those involved. The creation of these characters and this situation is absolutely magnificent, and this has the best scene of an alcoholic who is “on the wagon” seeing the “flaws” of being “on the wagon” that will probably ever be written. The malevolent spirits (and Guiding Spirit) of the haunted hotel aside, this is just a great book about a man trying to hold his life and family together. This is so rich in description, symbolism and themes that you’d have to write a book praising the book. And of course, one of the central elements is timeless, that of an Evil force finding a weakness and exploiting it. That was ever true and will be true until the end of time.
I will digress here for just a minute and say that The Shining would not work nearly as well without multiple viewpoints…the Omniscient Third Person (or “God”) viewpoint. On looking up “Omniscient Third Person” on the Net, you find a description that says this viewpoint technique is most identified with novels of the nineteenth century. In other words, according to this description, it’s considered creaky and old-fashioned.
What the &***???????
I recently saw George Martin on TV defending his use of the Omniscient Viewpoint in Game of Thrones. Again…I’m puzzled. What’s so troubling about the God viewpoint? I’ve had my own run-ins with editors over this, and I can’t figure it out. A book with many characters and a lot going on can’t be written without multiple viewpoints. It simply adds to the richness of the book. Is it the reader now who can’t handle multiple voices? The editors? It seems to me that trying to consign the God viewpoint to the “old-fashioned” trashbin is a way of saying, “Modern writers don’t use that technique.” And…honestly…someone has said that to me.
Never in my wildest dreams or nightmares would I have thought that a writing technique I depend upon to tell a story would be considered a liability. I am told that “modern” readers can’t keep the voices and viewpoints of the characters straight. Is that true? I do know that many of the novels we as a society consider classics were written in the Third Person Omniscient. What is this denouncement of TPO saying about our society now?
Well, I may have just answered my own question. By writing “TPO” instead of “Third Person Omniscient” to save time, I may have rolled over the rock to reveal that many readers now are so pressed for time so they want to get done with it as quickly as possible (the benefits of selling a book as “a fast read” and “action-packed”). I’ve done the same thing myself in describing Numbers Six and Five above.
I don’t know, I’m just wondering out loud about this. It is certainly true that a book with Third Person Omniscient will be more complex than one written in Third Person Limited. Maybe real life is so complex that it’s too hard to keep up with multiple character viewpoints in a book? Or at least book editors think that’s true?
Why anyone would think this is a problem escapes me. I’ve heard the Third Person Omniscient described as “jarring”. I don’t get this at all.
Anyway, The Shining is certainly written with multiple viewpoints and many of King’s other works are too. I don’t know if anyone’s ever pointed out this being a “problem” to him, but there I was sitting watching George Martin defend it on TV, and that’s a fact.
Number Three: A Bridge Too Far, by Cornelius Ryan, published by Simon and Schuster in 1974.
This magnificent book of military history first puts you in the planning room of the ill-fated Market-Garden operation in Holland in 1944. It takes you all the way to British paratroopers defending their position at one end of the Arnhem Bridge against a convoy of armored cars to the last bedraggled group of paratroopers trying to cross the Rhine river under fire…and the boats don’t come. As one commander says to another to sum up the entire operation, “Nothing’s right.”
Everything that can possibly go wrong goes wrong, in spectacular and devastating fashion. The power of this book is manyfold, but here are two of its powers: one, the ability to show that even when those in authority realize they have made a mistake they will ignore it no matter the consequences, and two, the ability to put the reader in those shell-blasted buildings with the British troopers and hunker down for the long fight even if it means total destruction.
This is one of those You Are Right There books, composed of multiple stories and multiple viewpoints, written not as a dry history of facts and figures, but as a series of events involving flesh-and-blood people who come vividly to life on these pages. The noise, the chaos, the desperation, the blood and the heroism too…it’s all here.
I will recount a passage of this book that has, strangely, stayed with me for the many years I first read it. I didn’t ask permission of Simon & Schuster to run this, but I’m sincerely plugging the book, so here goes.
The paratroopers are pinned in several buildings in Arnhem by a tremendous artillery barrage that goes on and on.
“Climbing to an upstairs room, (Chaplain) Pare knelt beside a badly-shocked young trooper. ‘Padre,’ the boy said, ‘will you tuck me in? I get so frightened with all the noise.’ Pare had no blanket but he pretended to cover the trooper. ‘That feels fine, Padre. I feel very well now. Will you do me one more favor?’ Pare nodded. ‘Say the Lord’s Prayer with me.’ Pare did. He soothed back the young man’s hair. ‘Now close your eyes,’ Pare told him. ‘Sleep well. God bless you.’ The trooper smiled. ‘Good night, Padre. God bless you.’ Two hours later a medic came for Pare. ‘You know that lad you said the prayers with?’
Pare asked, ‘What’s wrong?’
The medic shook his head. ‘He died just now. He said to tell you he couldn’t stand the noise outside’.”
This is a fantastic book and a magnificent achievement in telling a story about men at war.
Number Two: The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith, published in hardcover by Knopf in 1977 and as a paperback with a flashy but very cool silver cover by Avon in 1982. Set in Chicago during the Korean War, a madman is crossing the city leaving corpses in his wake, and Detective Arnold Magnuson is on the hunt. Unfortunately, Detective Magnuson is on the verge of mental collapse himself, and so this book becomes a weirdly phantasmagoric contest of wills between the two men. It’s a long book with many memorable (and sometimes bizarre) characters, but the magnificence of this novel is that it brings Chicago to life in these two antagonists. They stand for both the dark and light (or less dark, as the case may be) sides of the city. And the city itself becomes a character, and never has a city been so blessed or cursed by a writer’s eye and hand as this one is. The sounds, smells, grit of the streets, the bloody juice dripping from meat in the butcher’s shop, the din of traffic, the rattle of the ‘L’ and the smoke of infernal chimneys drifting in yellow waves across Carl Sandburg’s City of the Big Shoulders… it’s all here, and nearly too much to absorb. This is a book that has to be read slowly, as the madman—the son of a rich man’s wife who was unfairly consigned to an asylum by her husband—and the beleaguered, psychologically damaged yet noble detective are drawn closer and closer together. Is it a mystery? A novel of nerve-twisting tension? A character study? This one defies Category, offering a steel-plated chin to the fist of Genre.
Which is maybe why I like it so much. It takes huge chances and sometimes it fails. But damn it…even in its failures it exudes a haughty magnificence, an arrogance, a sheer lumbering Forward Motion Power. And maybe that’s the essence of Chicago, too?
This book is pretty dark and very complicated in its many plot progressions. It’s not for every reader, for sure. But boy, was it created by a great and courageous writer.
And my Number One is:
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, published by Bloomsbury in 2004.
Wow. And again…where to start with this magnificent masterpiece?
Okay, let me point out that when I first tried to read this book I was overwhelmed by all the detail and I had to put it aside. The second time…I don’t know, the second time it just totally charmed me. And by the time I got to the statues in the church scene, I was hooked on the magic.
This is the kind of book that a person spends a lifetime writing. It’s the book that demands blood, sweat and tears from the author, the kind of thing you hear that someone has taken twenty-five years to write and at the end of it all their creative fire has gone into lighting this flaming, golden torch. I mean, really…there’s a book (if not several) in the footnotes alone! And the footnotes go off on such delicious tangents, and stories within stories, and twisting and turning until you never think you’re going to get back to the journey of the main book again, but you have to read those footnotes and willingly be immersed in that world, because…
…well, because it’s magic.
The book is set in England in 1806, and introduces Mr Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey (very many Dickensian names in this one, to great effect) who claims to be the only remaining natural magician on the Blessed Isle. Then along comes Jonathan Strange, a mild-mannered young man who basically has the ability to spin circles around Mr Norrell with his own brand of magic, and so we have a story of rivalry yet companionship between an isolated and haughty figure and one who is a little naive and trying to find his place in life.
Yet that’s only the surface. We have here a look into the world of Faerie, which is nothing like Disney’s version. Scattered bones litter the Faerie Land, the remains of warriors who fell in the constant battles that rage there between greedy and cunning foes. And we have a veritable “history” of magic in Britain, told through many of those footnotes that nearly comprise a book of their own. Not to mention the weaving together of magical past into magical present, and how ordinary people are captivated and pulled into a mysterious (and dangerous) land that seems to lie on the dark side of every mirror.
It’s a stunning achievement, and I don’t use that word ‘stunning’ very much because it’s overused by the publishing business to the point that it means nothing.
Well, it means something here. This book is stunning. A wonderful journey…one which I nearly didn’t take because maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for it at first…but it is quite the experience.
…this was Susanna Clarke’s very first novel.
Right there’s enough to knock any writer to his or her knees.
Amazing, and magnificent.
I could add three more to make my Seven a Ten: Weaveworld, by Clive Barker; The Campaigns of Napoleon, by David Chandler; and Thorns, by Robert Silverberg.
But then I would have to add three more and three more and three more, and you would have many pages that comprise my library.
All magnificent, in their own way.
And I hope you have a magnificent season of joy, that your family is close at hand, that you have something good to eat, that the lights shine brightly where you are, that you get to sit in the warmth of a nice crackling fireplace, and that maybe your Christmas gift-receiving (or better, gift-giving) includes a book or two.
See you just around the corner, in 2015.
Best to you,