28 May 2013


The rereading wasn't intentional this time. I was at the last day of the Northfield Hospital Auxiliary used book sale. Everything was half priced. I picked up a Laurie R. King novel from 2007 for a buck. It didn't look or sound familiar.

However, the opening chapter of The Language of Bees seemed vaguely familiar. Maybe it had been a teaser appended to the end of a previous book??

Most of the first third of the book seemed new. Then there was a section about flying around the Scottish islands in 1924. That rang some memory bells. But the ending seemed all new to me.

Once again, looking out the window at the shores of the little lake named Blake on a cool, cloudy weekend promoted reading. Between naps and gardening and cleaning, I read the book.

My memory must be going or The Language of Bees just wasn't very memorable. I wrote about reading it in the spring of 2010. I wasn't terribly impressed then. I'm not terribly impressed now. Go back and see what I said then. I agree with myself. I am still ready for Laurie R. King to write about people other than Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes.

13 May 2013

Some thoughts from Down Under

Bird Loomis has been doing the visiting scholar bit in Australia, so his has been a year without a winter. Along with lecturing, writing, and observing, he's also been reading and visiting galleries down under. I don't know what he's been doing in the galleries, but here are some of the things he's been reading.

Long-running series:.  Just finished the last two C. J. Box books, with Joe Pickett as the central character. Force of Nature is #12 in the series, Breaking Point #13.  And I recently finished Ian Rankin’s latest John Rebus book, Standing in Another Man's Grave.

The Rankin and Force of Nature were pretty good, but not great. Both represented late-series books that were more than a bit formulaic.  At some point Pickett’s domestic tensions and his buddy Nate Romanowski’s super-human exploits grow wearisome, as does Rebus’s drinking, smoking, and listening to a who’s who of jazz. Still, Box and especially Rankin are skilled authors, and even an average outing is not bad, especially when you can download it on a Nook in 30 seconds. 

This brings us to Box’s latest book, Breaking Point, which has been discussed a bit here previously.  Given its cartoonish treatment of the EPA specifically and governmental regulations in general, I was prepared not to like it at all. I checked out Amazon and found lots of very positive reviews, and a devastating critique of its treatment of bureaucracy.  Still, I’m sitting here in Australia, and my wife Michel has gone home. So I’ve got hours to fill in the evening. Well, there is a lot of excellent wine… In any event, I ordered Breaking Point yesterday and started reading.  And all the folks on Amazon were right. It was riveting and cartoonish in its depiction of bureaucrats.  But by the end of forty pages, the story has won out. I suspended my disbelief and let go.  Great read. Virtually no Nate and no domestic issues for the last half of the book, just a fast-paced set of story lines.  C. J. Box and Joe Pickett still have some juice. I’ll still be a bit suspicious, but will look toward #14 with more optimism. 

I also recently finished Adrian McKinty’s The Cold, Cold Ground, introducing a Belfast Catholic detective during “the Troubles” of the early 1980s. McKinty is a young, but prolific, author, who I saw discussing his trade in a TV recording of his presentation at Adelaide’s Writer’s Week discussions (which took place in March). McKinty was a good talker, and he stated his suspicion of series, even one as consistently good as Mankel’s Wallander set.  McKinty's done a couple of short, three-book series, and was just starting with his new detective, Sean Duffy, in Belfast (a Protestant stronghold, of course). McKinty is good (based on my one-book reading). His Belfast was great, in that he’d grown up there. The tensions of being a Catholic cop in a Protestant city, during a violent time, are well-developed. I already have pre-ordered the next volume, due out in the next couple of days

McKinty argued that he had nothing more insightful to say about his characters after three books.  I’m still thinking about that. But it does make one think of whether a long-lasting  series offers much beyond predictable narratives.  I think that Breaking Point does it pretty well, but most later books in long-running series are likely to be written and read with formulaic expectations.  Maybe McKinty is right, but you need to be highly confident in your own abilities and willing to turn a deaf ear to the entreaties of your editor and publisher.

Have you read C. J. Box recently? Have you read the latest Rebus novel? How about McKinty's The Cold, Cold Ground? Do you agree with McKinty that authors have little new to tell us after three books about the same characters? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you think.

09 May 2013

Slipping into another mind

One of the books that Nancy added to my Nook before it became a Christmas present was The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. What a great gift.

Elizabeth Moon
If you've read enough of these postings, you know I like stories. Usually that means a series of events. While there are events in this little book, it's really not a story. The book is about a person. Most of the book is an interior monologue or dialogue, if you'd rather.

The reason it's so fascinating is that the character isn't normal. He's autistic. He's several giant strides ahead of Raymond Babbitt, the charater played by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, but nonetheless, he's not normal. Using the language of his therapist and boss, he calls the non-autistics the normals and wonders constantly how they know the things they do and how they know how to do the things they do.

If anyone were really paying attention, they would ask the same questions about Lou Arrendale, the primary character in  The Speed of Dark. Only a couple people come close to asking, but they do so too timidly and too late.

Most of the people Lou interacts with are other people with autism at work. They work in a special division, hired as people with disabilities. But they are valued as people with very special analytical skills by the company.

Lou also interacts with some "normals" in a fencing club and at church. He's threatened and attacked by a rival from his fencing club. He feels attracted to a woman in the group, but has no idea how to act on those feelings. He almost gets close enough to the couple who run the fencing club to get advice on acting on those feelings and the "hinge" of the story.

A new division leader is hired at work. He resents the accomodations provided to the little group of autistic analysts and he's anxious to make a big name for himself. His ladder to fame and fortune and a route to eliminating the workplace accomodations is to get these "not normals" into an experiment to test a procedure for curing people of autism. His attempts amount to blackmail and they're foiled by a supervisor.

Lou is recognizing some development in his mind as he processes the attack, works with a police detective, and tries to figure out why he's entranced with the bright reflections from the hair of one of his fencing opponents. He tries to decide whether to volunteer for the experimental treatment and wonders who he'd be if he became "normal."

Elizabeth Moon wrote this book when her low-functioning autistic son was a teen-ager. I have no idea how accurate her portrayal of a high-functioning autistic mind is, but it's fascinating. Her perceptions about his thought processes seem very insightful. The guy she describes is someone I'd like to get to know -- especially if he were as insightful as as Moon makes her character. Thinking back, I am sure I missed my chance to get to know people like that a couple times. (Metaphorically, I kick myself at this point.) Of course, I had enough trouble getting and keeping myself on a near-normal track. If I had spent the time and effort to get to know someone like Lou Arrendale, I ...  I would have been a different person. (Talk about a "hinge" event.)

I was entranced with Moon's character and the bits of story and dilemmas that surrounded the guy. I highly recommend this book.

Have you read The Speed of Dark? How did you react to it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

If you're curious, Elizabeth Moon is a proflific science fiction writer and The Speed of Dark is set in a near future, so there's some science fiction projections in it.