A fictional pandemic even more horrifying than the real one? Yikes!

I can’t say I necessarily had any reservations about reading Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers (2019) right now, as our current global pandemic is ramping itself back up into nightmare territory. I figured the story of a group of people who out of nowhere turn into unresponsive sleepwalkers who leave their homes and form an ever-increasing block on the road to … somewhere … wouldn’t ring many bells with the reality of Covid-19 and its maddening variants.

And that was mostly true, although there are enough similarities to be disturbing. On the other hand, disturbing readers is kind of what the horror genre is all about, so caveat lector and all that. And putting aside whether it’s a little too on the nose right now, I found Wanderers to be a compelling read.

The parade of sleepwalkers begins with a single teenager, who is unresponsive to attempts to talk or interact with her, relentlessly putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to deviate from her route. When her sister tries to intervene and stop her march, the wanderer undergoes alarming physical changes that quickly discourage any further attempts to divert her. People come out of their houses as she passes by, in the same catatonic state, and join her. No one knows why it’s happening, how people are “infected” by the sleepwalking illness (if that’s what it is) or how to stop it. As the walkers continue on their way, some of their loved ones form a support group that travels with them to make sure they are safe. Other people, without any family or friends among the afflicted, become hostile to something they don’t understand. Conspiracy theories abound as to the cause and the ultimate outcome, none of which have any effect on the wanderers themselves, who seem to have a definite destination in mind but are unable to communicate in any way with the unafflicted.

It took a while for the narrative to reach its full velocity, but it does get there eventually and once it does, I was helpless to stop reading. There may have been a few too many subplots, which led to spending more time with secondary characters than I would have liked, but that’s a minor quibble. I wasn’t surprised to find that the parts of this science fiction novel I enjoyed the least were the parts that hit a little too close to current events — the demagogue presidential candidate, the white supremacist militias, and so on. I prefer my horror to be a little less grounded in reality, thanks.

Nevertheless, I appreciated the plot twists that I at least did not see coming. I was less appreciative when the story ended on a semi-cliffhanger that made it clear there will be another book to truly finish off the plot. Having said that, I’m pretty sure when the next installment is published, I’ll be ready to revisit the Wanderers universe once again.

Homage or sendup? ‘The Eighth Detective’ is above all a puzzle

Reading The Eighth Detective (2020) by Alex Pavesi was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. It started promisingly, then got to the point where I thought I hated it, then became intriguing again, and ended with me contemplating re-reading the whole thing in light of knowing the ending. I didn’t do that, but I’m left feeling unsure how to characterize it.

The book is structured as a series of short mystery stories, purportedly written many years ago by a mathematician to prove his thesis that mysteries have a finite structure and can be reduced to just seven variations. Each of the seven stories in the collection are meant to illustrate one of the ways that the essential character types — victim(s), suspects, detective(s), and murderer(s) — can be mixed and matched. As the mathematician explains to Julia, the publisher who wants to sell a new edition of the stories:

”We mustn’t forget that the central purpose of a murder mystery is to give its readers a handful of suspects and the promise that in about a hundred pages one or more of them will be revealed as the murderers. That’s the beauty of the genre.”

Pavesi intersperses the seven short mysteries with chapters that recount conversations between Grant and Julia. She reads each story aloud to Grant and then they discuss it, with Julia pressing for explanations of inconsistencies she has noticed, and Grant playing coy about whether they are mistakes or deliberate. Those chapters also serve up another mystery: Why did this successful mathematician retreat to a Mediterranean island and become a virtual hermit? Why doesn’t he want to talk about his previous life?

I found the individual mysteries themselves mediocre at best, and for all I know that’s intentional on Pavesi’s part. After all, they are meant to have been written by a mathematician, not an experienced author. The more interesting bits are the dialogues between Grant and Julia as they discuss the previous story within the framework of the seven possible permutations Grant originally devised. The mystery of Grant’s origins is probably what kept me reading to the end, just to find out why he was being so secretive. And the surprise twist-within-a-twist ending was clever, but I finished the book feeling a bit unfulfilled, like eating a rice cake when what you really want is a big bowl of ice cream.

But I know a fair number of people who enjoy thinking about how mystery writers structure their stories, and would be intrigued by the idea that all mysteries can be reduced to a finite set of variations. Those folks might want to read samples of each supposed type along with an overarching mystery that promises a surprise. If that’s you, The Eighth Detective may be just what you were looking for.

Literary Links: July 30, 2021

photograph of stylized metal chain links, with text "Literary Links" superimposed on top.
Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I read a lot every week, and it’s not all in books! Here’s a roundup of some of the best articles I read this week about books, reading, and words.

Top Writers Choose Their Perfect Crime

Sorry in advance for adding to your TBR list! Some of the recommended books here I’ve read and enjoyed (Rebecca and Mystic River in particular were standouts for me) and lots more to look for next time I’m at the library. (via The Guardian)

The Soft Radicalism of Erotic Fiction

I last read a Jackie Collins novel back in junior high, when it seemed a daringly transgressive act. I think her work is generally perceived to be trashy (hence the transgression) but I like this re-evaluation of her work as a feminist icon. And when you really think about it, why does Philip Roth get to be considered a serious author for writing about his own penis but a woman who writes unabashedly sex-driven characters is trash? Hmph, I say. (via The Atlantic)

‘You Don’t Have to Be Disabled to Write About Disability, But You’d Better Get It Right’

’m not familiar with the work of Jarred McGinnis, but he has some really thoughtful things to say from the perspective of an author with disabilities about books that he believes handle portrayals of characters with disabilities well. (via The Guardian)

A Brief History of the Word ‘Fuck’ in The New York Times

You might be surprised how often the NYT (a newspaper with such a reputation for prim stuffiness that its nickname is The Gray Lady) actually prints the sweatiest of swear words, most recently in this week’s reporting on the Congressional subcommittee investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection. (via Gen)

Don’t let the sun go down on you in small-town Maine

I’m a fan of Stephen King, both his flat-out horror (IT and The Shining come to mind) and his “the real world is scary enough” sort of books (Misery and The Stand). It’s hard for me to think of many other writers who have such a conversational style that draws me immediately into the narrative, as if we were sitting around a campfire together.

Before drifting away entirely, he found himself reflecting—not for the first time—on the peculiarity of adults. They took laxatives, liquor, or sleeping pills to drive away their terrors so that sleep would come, and their terrors were so tame and domestic: the job, the money, what the teacher will think if I can get Jennie nicer clothes, does my wife still love me, who are my friends. They were pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek and jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hope of perfect understanding but another child. … The same lonely battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood.

I read ’Salem’s Lot (1975) many years ago and remembered being thoroughly creeped out. So when I came across it as I was rearranging my bookshelves, I decided to take it for another spin and see if my reaction has changed over the decades.

Um, no. Still thoroughly creeped out, still pleasurably horrified by this tale of a small Maine town colonized by a vampire. This was only King’s second published novel, but many of the touches that would later become hallmarks of his work were present: Ordinary people behaving in extraordinary ways, the reader having just enough of an edge to get scared before the people in the book do, and of course, the heroics of a child. It seems clear that King sees children as the real heroes in this world, as in this passage.

If reading about vampires and the terrible things people do under pressure isn’t your bag, that’s totally understandable, and you should give this one a pass. But if you’re nostalgic for some good old-fashioned horror, you could do much worse than make a visit to ‘Salem’s Lot, Maine. Just make sure you leave before the sun goes down.

Drama abounds at the Supreme Court in ’While Justice Sleeps’

It’s not as far out of left field as you might think for Stacey Abrams — who lost a close election for Georgia governor in 2016 and who has since kept herself busy more or less saving democracy in the state since — to write a legal thriller. Abrams has written several nonfiction books about politics, most recently Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America. And she has long had a not-so-secret secondary career as a writer of romances under the pen name Selena Montgomery. But While Justice Sleeps (2021) is her first attempt at combining the two genres, crafting a political thriller centered on the Supreme Court and cutting-edge medical research.

As thrillers go, While Justice Sleeps is pretty well paced. I can’t speak to the plausibility of the biotech aspect, but the idea of a coverup becoming worse than the original crime is a familiar one. I also can’t speak to the authenticity of the way that Wynn leaves clues for Avery disguised as chess commentary, but it didn’t seem outlandish. The main weakness for me was the writing. It’s certainly not unreadable, but the pedestrian and sometimes clunky prose and dialogue were not on a par with the brisk plotting or deft characterization.

That’s when the queen became the most powerful piece, but still in service to a king. What do you think of that?”
“Of what, sir?”
“Of the queen being responsible for saving the king, but that only his life is sacred. Should offend your feminist sensibilities, no?”
Avery grinned. “My feminist sensibilities are not offended. In a game of strategy, the king is a figurehead, unable to save his own life without the aid of others. The queen is powerful and dynamic. She will protect the king, but not because of weakness. It’s because that’s what she’s supposed to do.” She added, “It was in the tenth century that the queen replaced the vizier on the chessboard. Vizier meant leader, and in the next five hundred years, she became the most powerful piece on the board. A nice evolution.”

I also appreciated the graceful way that Abrams populated her story with a diverse set of characters who inhabited their roles without calling undue attention to the specifics of their identity. It’s a fine example of the adage “Show, don’t tell.”

One of the best scenes in the book is a flashback to a conversation between Justice Wynn and his clerk, which in retrospect is laying the foundations for Avery to be able to follow the clues he will leave her to uncover the scandal surrounding the merger case. Once again, chess is the language through which Wynn communicates:

Political thrillers these days have a tough row to hoe. The outlandish plots that normally capture the imagination of the reading public can seem like small beer in the face of our extreme contemporary politics. I’m not convinced that Abrams has succeeded in overcoming that reality, but if nothing else, it is certainly a relief to read about a horrifying situation that isn’t true.

‘Neither Here Nor There’ is neither terrible nor great

Look, I enjoy Bill Bryson’s writing quite a lot. The first Bryson book I ever read was Notes from a Small Island (1995), an account of an American man’s travels around Great Britain. I remember finding it ripsnortingly funny at the time, and also on a subsequent re-read a few years later. I went on to enjoy quite a few of his other humorous travelogues over the years, as well as his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (2006).

So over the past few years I’ve found more enjoyment in his more straightforward histories, such as At Home: A Short History of Private Life and One Summer: America, 1927(2010 and 2013, respectively). But when I found Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe (1992) forgotten on my bookshelves, I decided to give it a try before donating it to the library book sale.

Neither Here nor There has some funny passages, to be sure. The book opens with Bryson’s nearly futile quest to see the Northern Lights in the far north of Norway without freezing to death in the process. But other sections are a little too freighted with an unattractive provincialism, as when he disparages a Swedish clerk in a train station for not speaking English, apparently forgetting that he is the one visiting her country who did not bother to learn even the most rudimentary Swedish phrases to ease his travels.

So, yeah. If you’ve enjoyed Bryson’s other travelogues and don’t find them to be distastefully xenophobic, I suspect you’ll enjoy this one as well. The themes here are well established in his other work; only the names and places have changed.

They Said It: Stephen King

Before drifting away entirely, he found himself reflecting—not for the first time—on the peculiarity of adults. They took laxatives, liquor, or sleeping pills to drive away their terrors so that sleep would come, and their terrors were so tame and domestic: the job, the money, what the teacher will think if I can get Jennie nicer clothes, does my wife still love me, who are my friends. They were pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek and jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hope of perfect understanding but another child. … The same lonely battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood.

— Stephen King in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975)

’The Chessmen’ is a satisfying trilogy finale

I read The Blackhouse (2009), the first book in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy a few years ago, and I thought it was a solid police procedural whose main attraction was the setting: The beautiful but desolate Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The detective, Fin Macleod, is currently stationed in Edinburgh, but the return to his hometown is complicated by tragedies both past and present. I made a mental note to check back in with the trilogy at some point.

The Chessmen (2014) brings some closure to Fin’s story, while leaving the reader enough hints to project into the future for the people on the Isle of Lewis. May once again pulls past mysteries together with the present to create a web of memory and danger that doesn’t seem to care who it ensnares. In this case, Fin takes a job investigating a privately owned hunting estate’s poaching problem. His task is complicated when he learns that a childhood friend may be the responsible party, and another childhood friend, long missing, turns up quite definitely dead and murdered to boot. I found the by-now-familiar melding of past and present storylines to be well-paced, though there’s a bit more jumping back and forth in time than is my usual taste.

Ultimately, I finished The Chessmen feeling satisfied with the story that May had told across all three books. They fit together beautifully, managing to advance the storyline without too much rehashing previous events. The only unanswered question I was left with was when I’ll be able to make my own visit to what sounds like a beautiful part of the world.

Literary Links: July 16, 2021

photograph of stylized metal chain links, with text "Literary Links" superimposed on top.
Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I read a lot every week, and it’s not all in books! Here’s a roundup of some of the best articles I read this week about books, reading, and words.

When Women’s Literary Tastes Are Deemed Less Worthy

If you want to argue that people in and out of publishing are sexist, you won’t get much of an argument from me. (As this recent article in The Guardian points out, only 19% of the readers of the Top 10 bestselling women authors are men.) But I’m not sure this article makes its case effectively. Rather, it does more to confirm the idea that, as the author puts it, “the authors who sell don’t get taken seriously and the authors who get taken seriously don’t sell.” Which is also a sad state of affairs. (via The Atlantic)

What Mystery to Read Based on Your Favorite ‘Clue’ Character

I played countless games of Clue as a kid, and my favorite character was Miss Scarlet. But this article draws on the characters from the 1985 movie adaptation, so there are some names that don’t show up in the board game (like Yvette the maid). I’ve never seen the movie so I don’t know who my favorite character in that context would be, but frankly, my dear, all the books sound like ones I’d like. (via Murder & Mayhem)

A Glowing Shrine to the Printed Word

The main circulating branch of the New York Public Library (meaning the one that actually checks books out to patrons rather than housing books and documents for on-site research) has gotten a facelift and despite what this snooty architecture critic says, I think it looks smashing. “The airy daylight-filled ground floor is appealing but focuses too much on the checkout desk, where those who have chosen their books online “grab and go. Wouldn’t (the architect) want patrons to linger?” is a sentence written by a man who has never had to dash in to grab his reserved books and then run to catch a bus or subway train, if you ask me. (via The New York Times)

How Marginalized Authors Are Transforming Gothic Fiction

This article caught my eye because I read [Mexican Gothic] earlier this year, and I’ve also enjoyed what I’ve read from Octavia Butler. I’ve also enjoyed some of the classics like [Dracula] and [The Picture of Dorian Gray] but I like the idea of the genre being expanded by a range of diverse voices. Of course, I could say that for just about any genre you could name. (via Tor.com)

Why Are There So Many Holocaust Books for Kids?

The headline on this article startled me, because surely we can all agree that it’s important for the most consequential historical events to be passed down to new generations? But reading the article, I can see the author’s point that the near-exclusive focus on the Holocaust denies young readers a richer understanding of all aspects of Jewish religion, and culture. Her caustic comments about [The Boy in the Striped Pajamas], in particular, were eye-opening. I don’t think she’s arguing that no books about the Holocaust should be written for younger audiences, but rather in favor of a balance between what all too often is either completely ahistorical or uncomfortably akin to torture porn and books that celebrate Jewish life in full. (via The New York Times)