More than one reader has pointed out to me that Dancing Prophet, the fourth novel in the Dancing Priest series, seems to be talking about the Catholic Church, even though the church is never mentioned in the book. And did I unfairly transfer the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal to the Church of England, even done for a fictional story?
And my answer has been yes, you’re right, but only partially.
I’ve noted before that the original impetus for the story that eventually became Dancing Prophet was the 2008 arrest and conviction Michael Devlin, a pizza shop manager who kidnapped and abused two boys, one of them for years. Devlin lived in my St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood; his apartment was on my route biking from my home to the beginning of Grant’s Trail. I cycled past the apartments hundreds of times. I likely saw one of the boys on his bike.
I was horrified. The only way to deal with it was to write a story, about 25,000 words, inspired by but unrelated to what happened in Kirkwood.
Robertson’s The Long Take, or A Way to Lose More Slowly, didn’t win the prize (that went to Milkmanby Anna Burns), but making the Man Booker short list is something of an achievement. And there’s more. The Long Takeis a poetry book, it’s a novel or something like a novel, and it unfolds like a noir movie. You’ve never read anything quite like this.
Admittedly, I was attracted by the connection to the noir genre of fiction; in fact, from what I read about it and the Man Booker nomination, I thought it was a noir novel. Only when I started reading it did I realize I had a poetry book in my hands.
If you want to read a biography or background on Charles Dickens, you have countless volumes to choose from. You have Peter Ackroyd’s mammoth biography Dickens(1000+pages) published in 1990; you have shorter and excellent studies by authors like G.K. Chesterton, Michael Slater and Claire Tomalin; and you have a wide array of specialty studies. You can even find the original biography by Dickens’ friend John Forster, published a few years after Dickens died in 1870.
One of the best short biographies I’ve come across is one published in 2016 by Jenny Hartley, entitled Charles Dickens: An Introduction, and it’s especially helpful if you want to know more about his works than his life. A small volume of 151 pages, it organizes Dickens’ writings thematically and explains why his works are still widely read today. And Hartley manages to work in the key biographical details and background needed to help understand Dickens’ stories.
She starts with what may be one of the best-known scenes in all of Dickens’ works – the skinny young boy Oliver Twist telling the fat and healthy school master that he wanted more gruel: “Please, sir, I want some more.” Hartley explores the scene and uses it to explain why Dickens became so popular – and why his popularity endured.
In five succeeding essays, she considers how Dickens used elements of his own life throughout his books (some events and situations were not known until after his death); how he used character and plot (he was a genius at character and often criticized for plots that seemed contrived); his ongoing love affair with London, what he called his “magic lantern;” just how radical he was in his causes and politics, while still supporting public order; and then his impact and lasting influence, the word “Dickensian” coming into popular usage in his own lifetime.
After A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities is likely Dickens’ most popular work. We like and remember it for is opening statement of contrasts, for the horrific mob scenes in the Paris of the revolutionary Terror, and for the sacrifice of the ne’er-do-well lawyer Sydney Carton, substituting his life for that Charles Darnay might be saved from the guillotine. And it was a sacrifice for love; Carton loved Darnay’s wife, Lucie, and he knew it would always be an unrequited love.
I first read the story in a Classic Illustrated comic book edition. Shortly afterward, our reading teacher in eighth grade included it on our reading list, a list that also included some decidedly non-eighth-grade works like Day of the Triffids and Alas, Bablyon, both about the world after great catastrophes. Prompted by some concerned parents, the principal reprimanded the teacher, but A Tale of Two Cities stayed on the list.
My personal trainer, who helps me keep my back problems at bay, often tells me that the human being is designed to walk. I take walks around my own suburb in St. Louis and the one next door to us, and when we were in London last year, I walked around St. James Park nearly every morning. (One morning, I circumvented the perimeter of Buckingham Palace. It was a good distance, but the exhaust fumes from the traffic could be stifling.) Zach Morgan at Thin Difference recommends walks for several reasons, including their meditative nature, while Jean Janzewn at Image Journalhas a poem about walking – on water in Venice.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent years in the Soviet Gulag, never thinking that he would not only outlast the Soviet system but also help play a significant role in its downfall. At The Imaginative Conservative, Joseph Pearce writes about Solzhenitsyn’s courage to be a Christian.
You’ve been planning it for years, and finally the day for your retirement arrives. You’re looking forward to pursuing hobbies and some travel. Your wife is growing her marketing and promotion business, and it looks like she’s going to get a big new contract.
Then come the curve balls. Work blows up, and it looks like everything you’ve done for the last 30 years will be tossed. Your single-father son calls from Texas, asking you if you can keep his two children while he’s deployed to Pakistan. Your wife struggles with depression, and she may be taking on more than she can handle.
So you delay the travel plans, try to hold things together at work, and take in your grandchildren, who are already struggling with being abandoned by their mother. And then your son is reported missing in action.
The Second HalfbyLauraine Snellingis the story of how the best laid retirement plans can go awry. And for Ken and Mona Sorenson, they do go awry. Ken is retiring as the dean of Students at Stone College in Wisconsin, and Mona is growing her marketing and promotion business. Their daughter Marit and her family live nearby, but Army son Stieg has been stationed in Texas, struggling with his family after his former wife left for another man and signed away all rights to the children, Mellie, 10, and Jakey, 5.
The Sorensons find themselves back in the child rearing business, and this time with two troubled grandchildren.
Snelling has published more than 80 books in the Christian fiction genre. She’s won awards for her inspirational and romance fiction, and her books relating to Norwegian heritage in America has led to her being inducted in the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame. The Second Half has a strong Norwegian-American flavor to it (and there’s a big emphasis on food and meal menus).
The Sorensons’ experience, while fictional, is not uncommon in real life. For all kinds of reasons, grandparents are often finding themselves rearing or helping rear their grandchildren. The Second Halfis a charming story that offers encouragement.
Top photograph by Julie Johnson viaUnsplash. Used with permission.
It’s an evocative image: rain, months of rain, and a funeral on a hillside cemetery. Right after the coffin is lowered into the grave, the land slips. The mourners, including Detective Jimmy Perez of the Shetland Island Police, have to run to avoid the tons of moving earth as the hill slides downward. The landslide engulfs a small house, thought to be vacant. But then a woman’s body is found in what used to be the house’s garden.
The woman did not die in the landslide. She was dead before the landslide began. Strangled.
Thus begins Cold Earth, the seventh in the Jimmy Perez mystery series by Ann Cleeves.
Perez is joined in the investigation by his deputy, Sandy Wilson, and technically has to report to Willow Reeves from Aberdeen, the detective officially in charge. While Perez is continuing to mourn the death of his fiancée, he finds himself increasingly drawn to Reeves as she is to him, adding a layer of tension to the suspense of the story.
The victim appears to be the American who owns the property but lives in New York. Then the investigators learn that the dead woman was only using the owner’s name. She turns out to have been an actress who had enjoyed a brief period of fame 15 years before. But what was she doing in Shetland, in that house?
Cleeves has published eight mysteries in the Jimmy Perez / Shetland series, including Raven Black (2008), Red Bones(2009), White Nights (2010),Blue Lightning(2011),Dead Water (2014),Thin Air(2015), andCold Earth(2017), with Wild Firepublished in September. She’s also published eight mystery novels in the Vera Stanhope series (alsoa television series), six Inspector Stephen Ramsay mysteries, and several others works and short stories. The Jimmy Perez novels are the basis for the BBC television series “Shetland.” Cleeves lives in northeastern England.
Cleeves is a fine writer, able to combine geography with mystery to the point where the landscape becomes a character (and sometimes a suspect). I guessed the identity of the murderer in Cold Earth, but I didn’t know why, because the motive seemed hidden. It comes out in the end, in a bit of back story catch-up, but that doesn’t detract from the overall story.
I’ll be reviewing Wild Fire, the last of the Jimmy Perez mysteries (Cleeves is ending the series), in a few weeks. But she’s produced a video to mark the conclusion. Farewell to Perez: Ann Cleeves’ last Shetland book
British writer Paul Kingsnorth is best known for two novels, Beastand The Wake, and a collection of essays, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. I’ve read and enjoyed Beast; it is a novel of frequent run-on sentences and no quotation marks, about a man living alone in a landscape devoid of people but with people’s artifacts remaining. I’ve started The Wakethree times, this novel of an Anglo-Saxon landowner seeking revenge on Norman invaders. It’s partially written in Kingsnorth’s version of Old English; it also lacks quotation marks and capital letters. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014, and I’m determined to make a fourth attempt to read it.
This unconventional form for his novels is of a piece with Kingsnorth’s environmental philosophy, articulated in a statement called The Dark Mountain Manifesto written with Dougald Hine in 2009. The manifesto serves as a kind of constitution for the Dark Mountain Project, self-described as “an international network of writers and artists searching for new stories for an age of upheaval.” It is a dark mountain for a dark view of what the future holds, coupled with what that future will require if individuals are to survive.
British author Claire North has something of a knack for writing science fiction novels that read like literary fiction.
She’s published five novels since 2014 and a trio of related novellas. That is, that’s the number she’s published using the pen name of Claire North. Her real name is Catherine Webb, and she published eight novels under than name from 2012 to 2010. Using another pen name, Kate Griffin, she published six novels from 2009 to 2013.
That’s 19 novels and three novellas from 2002 to 2018, published under three names. It’s almost as if she’s a character in one of her stories.
One of her best known works is The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, published in 2014. The title alone is intriguing. The story is exactly that – what happens to Harry August, born shortly after World War I in a train station bathroom, his mother a servant girl who was the victim of rape and his father a war veteran and the heir of the manor where the servant girl was employed. Harry will be raised by the manor gamekeeper and his wife. Harry lives until late in the 20thcentury, dying of multiple myeloma.
Harry will be born of the same parents 15 times. And each life will be different. Harry is a Kalachakra, which is actually a real term – a Buddhist term for time cycles. In this story, the Kalachakra are a tiny number of people who are born numerous times, usually forgetting their previous lives after a few rounds. Harry is one of an even smaller number of Kalachakra; he’s a mnemonic and remembers everything, usually be the age of six.
The Kalachakra has a place to gather – the Cronus Club, with no headquarters but premises in every major city. Their locations change; members come and go, die and are reborn. It takes Harry two or three lives to understand and accept what happens. He also discovers he can alter his own circumstances by making different choices and anticipate and plan for what he knows will happen.
Claire North, aka Catherine Webb
Somewhere about the eight life in the 20thcentury, Harry begins to see things happening that shouldn’t. Certain inventions are happening a few years earlier than they should. Other Cronus lube members notice, too. And then some start dying and are not reborn. Someone, some Kalachakra, is playing the system. And Harry decides to find out whom, and put a stop to it before he and his remaining brethren (and sisters) are destroyed.
Webb’s other works under the Claire North pseudonym are Touch(2015), The Sudden Appearance of Hope(2016), The End of the Day(2017), 84K(2018), and the three Gamehouse novellas (The Serpent, The Master, and The Thief). She works as a theater lighting designer and lives in London.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August ranges across history, philosophy, religion, World War II, Cold War politics, and 20thcentury technology. It has the added element of suspense, as Harry discovers, tracks, and gradually closes in on his quarry (it takes two or three lives to do that). And when it’s done, we’re left with a rather imaginative, creative, and dazzling read.
Top photograph by Martin Bjork via Unsplash. Used with permission.
It’s the political season. Actually, it’s the election season. The political season is no longer seasonal but omnipresent.
In 1862, Nathaniel Hawthorne traveled to Washington, D.C., to interview civilian and military leaders, and like all good writers everywhere, he wrote about what he saw and experienced, in this case for The Atlantic. He included editorial asides that anticipated conflicts with his editor. Who would have thought that the author of The Scarlett Letter and The House of Seven Gables had a sense of humor?
The Missouri statehood crisis that led to the Compromise of 1820
We’re seeing more and more stories about American historical periods when the country was so divided politically that violence often erupted. Two recent articles at The Imaginative Conservative, with different periods in mind are examples. John Horvat considers America’s descent into uncivil war. Bradley Birzer, author of a new biography of Andrew Jackson, looks at the 1810s and 1820s (that so-called “Era of Good Feeling”).
Contributing to this polarization is the belief that the people who disagree with us politically must hate us. Zak Schmoll, writing at Entering the Public Square, takes that on in “Why We Believe Our Political Opponents Hate Us.” (Confession time: I wondered this week if the Antifa people disrupting traffic, attacking cars, and threatening people in downtown Portland, while the police looked on, would happily send people like me to the Gulag.) (Actually, I was less concerned about the Antifa people and more concerned about the police merely looking on.)
Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is fundamentally changing a lot of things, one of which is the Republican Party and what it means to be a “conservative.” This story has largely been missed by the media, which tends to focus (at best) on how Trump is forcing Republicans to get in line behind him. According to George Mason University law professor F.H. Buckley, Trump is completely redefining the word “conservative.” No wonder Bill Kristol, George Will, and Michael Gerson foam at the mouth every time Trump's name is mentioned.
Rod Dreher at The American Conservative has been writing extensively about what’s known as “The Benedict Option,” the subject of his recent book which is about how (conservative) Christians can live and even thrive in an increasingly hostile secular culture. Now author Leah Libresco has written a book on practical tips for the Benedict Option, and Jake Meader at Mere Orthodoxy has a review (he likes it).