You’ve all heard the story, how someone challenged Ernest Hemingway to write a story in six words, and how he came back with “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
It is only fitting in this Twittering age that Smith Magazine, an online magazine devoted to storytelling in all its forms, would invite readers to contribute their own six-word memoirs to the website. They were inundated with submissions, and it was only inevitable that these would eventually be collected in book form, called Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs by Famous & Obscure Writers.
Paging through it, I discover that tequila is a recurring meme: “Which comes first: tequila or accident?” And “Tequila. Amnesia. Coincidence? I think not.” And “Full of tequila and bad ideas.”
Some memoirs are flavored with wry resignation. “Never really finished anything, except cake.” “I’m just here for the beer.” And “We were our own Springer episode.”
Some exhibit a fairly high level of self-preservation, not a trait you would expect from someone signing their real name to an Internet website: “It’s pretty high. You go first.”
Some speak to me directly: “Many risky mistakes, very few regrets.” Some don’t speak to me at all: “Not a good Christian, but trying.”
Some are poignant: “Followed rules, not dreams. Never again.” And “Born with glaucoma…fading to black…”
Some despair: “Became my mother. Please shoot me.” And some rejoice: “Afraid of everything. Did it anyway.”
Some are just plain spooky: “He knew her bruises would fade.”
And some made me laugh out loud. “Editor. Get it?” Yes.
There are of course now Six Word Memoirs for Teens ("Met online; love before first sight."), Six Words on the Green Life ("The meek shall inherit the garbage."), and Six Words for America ("For every bomb, build a school."). Smith Magazine's invitation to contribute your own six-word memoir on the magazine's website still stands.
Myself, I recommend you buy your own copy of the first book and put it where I did: In the bathroom next to the toilet.
"...the detective story...is particularly popular in times of unrest, anxiety and uncertainty, when society can be faced with problems which no money, political theories or good intentions seem able to solve or alleviate," she writes. "The classical detective story can work in any age provided murder is regarded as an act which necessitates the discovery of the perpetrator and the cleansing of society of its stain...I see the detective story becoming more firmly rooted in the reality and the uncertainties of the twenty-first century, while still providing that central certainty that even the most intractable problems will in the end be subject to reason."
This month sees the return of P.F. Chisholm's Sir Robert Carey series in the fifth novel, A Murder of Crows, and hooray for that! Here is the introduction I wrote for the second novel in the series, oh so long ago now...
The scene is the nebulous and ever-changing border between Scotland and England in 1592, the thirty-fourth year of the reign of Good Queen Bess, five years after the Spanish Armada, fifty-one years after Henry VIII beheaded his fifth queen. Reivers with a high disregard for the allegiance or for that matter the nationality of their victims roved freely back and forth across this border during this time, pillaging, plundering, assaulting and killing as they went.
Into this scene of mayhem and murder gallops Sir Robert Carey, the central figure (and real historical figure) of the mystery novels by P.F. Chisholm, including A Famine of Horses, A Season of Knives, A Surfeit of Guns and A Plague of Angels. Sir Robert is the Deputy Warden of the West March, and his duty is to enforce the peace on the Border. Since everyone on the English side is first cousin once removed to everyone on the Scottish side, it is frequently difficult to tell his men which way to shoot.
Sir Robert is as delightful a character as any who ever thrust and parried his way into the pages of a work of fiction, in this century or out of it. He is handsome, intelligent, charming, capable, as quick with a laugh as he is with a sword. He puts the buckle into swash. He puts the court into courtier; in fact, his nickname is the Courtier.
The ensemble surrounding him is equally engaging. There is Sergeant Henry Dodd, Sir Robert’s second-in-command, who does “his best to look honest but thick.” There is Lord Scrope, Sir Robert’s brother-in law and feckless superior, who sits “hunched like a heron in his carved chair.” There is Philadelphia, Sir Robert’s sister, “a pleasing small creature with black ringlets making ciphers on her white skin.” And there is the Lady Elizabeth Widdrington, Sir Robert’s love and the wife of another man, who is “hard put to it to keep her mind on her prayers: Philadelphia’s brother would keep marching into her thoughts.”
There is hand-to-hilt combat with villains rejoicing in names like Jock of the Peartree, and brushes with royalty in the appearance of King James of Scotland, who’s a little in love with Sir Robert himself. And who can blame him? Sir Robert is imminently lovable, and these four books are a rollicking, roistering revelation of a time long gone, recaptured for us in vivid and intense detail in this series.
The series in order:
and this month
A Murder of Crows. I was lucky enough to score an ARC and I liked it so much I did a thing I hardly ever do, I blurbed it, thusly:
Sir Robert Carey is back at last in this fifth novel in PF Chisholm's Sir Robert Carey series, with the redoubtable Sergeant Henry Dodd matching wits with Sir Robert's mother, the darling and deadly Lady Hunsdon. Well worth the wait.
Chisholm Herself, aka Patricia Finney, will appear live! and in person! this weekend at the Poisoned Pen Conference in Scottsdale. I'll be there, too, checked in to the swanky Arizona Biltmore Hotel at the bargain basement conference price of $89 a night. Lots of fun will be had therein, including a panel on Georgette Heyer that no GH fan will want to miss. Come on down!
This time I’m taking to the high seas. What child of the primordial soup doesn’t like their stories salty?
In the fall of 1991, deep wreck diver John Chatterton found a German U-boat under 230 feet of water off the New Jersey coast where no U-boat had ever been recorded sunk. According to all the history books, it simply couldn’t be there. It took Chatterton and fellow diver Richie Kohler six years, multiple dives to recover artifacts, exhaustive record searches through the National Archives and the Naval Historical Center, multiple trips to Germany, the solicitation of an endless anecdotal history from other divers, U-boat crew members, their relatives and U-boat historians, and above all a mutual devouring obsession to solve this enigma at the heart of Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers. But that’s just the plot on which hang the other, even more gripping stories, the ones about the price of friendship, the testing of character, the insanity of war, the writing of history, the human love for mysteries and the equally human need to solve them, and through it all an over-the-shoulder look into the claustrophobic and sometimes fatal world of deep wreck diving.
In Blue Latitudes journalist Tony Horwitz follows in the footsteps of Captain Cook, beginning with a week working as a member of the crew on board a replica of Cook’s ship Endeavor. I'd always thought of Cook as this stereotypical British officer, all his buttons properly polished and looking down a very long nose at all these dreadful loincloth-clad natives. In fact, Cook was born in a pigsty, was subject in his youth to a strong Quaker influence, and worked his way up from shoveling coal to captain in the British Navy. He wrote about the aboriginal people he met with respect and admiration. His name is now a bad word all over the Pacific, but in truth Cook was the best white man they'd ever meet. This already lively narrative is made more so by Horwitz’ travelling buddy Roger, one of the funniest, most cynical guys ever to walk through the pages of a book.
Did you know the last shot fired in the Civil War was fired in the Aleutians? You would if you’d read Confederate Raider by Murray Morgan, a book about the Confederate raiding ship Shenandoah, built and commissioned to disrupt if not destroy the Union’s whaling industry in the North Pacific. Built in England, armed in the Madeira Islands, the Shenandoah travels around the Cape of Good Hope and starts sinking Yankee whaling ships from the south Atlantic on. Unbeknownst to them, the war ended in the middle of their search and destroy cruise. When they discover this they are afraid to surrender to a Union ship for fear they will be sunk out of hand, so successful has been their mission, so in an extraordinary feat of seamanship they sail south, dodging homicidal Union vessels all the way, round Cape Horn and surrender to the British back in the UK, without suffering a scratch. One of the great sea stories.
In August 1914, Ernest Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven set sail from England to Antarctica, their goal to cross the last uncharted continent on foot. These guys didn’t have any kind of luck but bad. First their ship gets stuck in the ice for ten months, then the ship is crushed in the ice, and then they float on the ice for another five months before taking to the small boats. And that’s just the beginning. Given up for lost, it would be 20 months before the rest of the world knew they had survived, against every imaginable force the sea could throw at them. Whenever you think you can't do whatever it is that you must, read Endurance by Alfred Lansing.
No reading list of an ocean-going library would be complete without at least one account of a sea battle, and Garrett Mattingly’s classic The Armada will put you at Sir Francis Drake’s elbow on board the Elizabeth Bonaventure when he sails into Cadiz to singe the beard of Philip of Spain. A marvelous you-are-there book, beginning with the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots and ending with Elizabeth the First’s butt sitting more firmly on the throne of England than ever before in her precarious reign. I so want someone to make a film from this book, and make it well. Colin Farrell as Drake, maybe?
And then, of course, there is Farley Mowat’s uproarious The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, which is worth reading for the three cardinal tenets of rum drinking in Newfoundland alone. ("The first of these is that as soon as a bottle is placed on a table it must be opened. This is done to "let the air get at it and carry off the black vapors.")
As one rabid Georgette Heyer fan to another, I'm sure you'll agree that we can't go home again to Regency England often enough. Here's a couple of time machines set on one-way, non-stop...
Miss Sarah Tolerance elopes with her brother’s fencing instructor from Regency England to the continent, and when he dies returns home. Cast off by her family, she determines to make her way in the world without falling into prostitution, the usual fallback of the Fallen Woman, and instead sets herself up as an Agent of Inquiry. Setting, plot and especially character are all excellent in Point of Honor and Petty Treason by Madeleine E. Robins. Trust me, you will believe a woman can be a PI in England in 1810.
What if the Napoleonic Wars had been fought with dragons? That's Naomi Novik's thesis in Her Majesty’s Dragon and its four sequels, in which swashbuckling action mix seamlessly with serious themes like class conflict and slavery. My favorite in the series, Empire of Ivory, turns history on its head by providing Africa with a capable, charismatic leader determined to unite the continent against slavery. Imagine if that had happened in real life. Novik's 19th century British dialogue and mastery of nautical detail are absolutely convincing. A thumpin' good read. [Note: And as I post this I discover to my great joy the sixth in the series, Tongue of Serpents, comes out in July!]
Big. Fat. Spoiler. Alert. Don't read any more until you've read the book.
If I may speak of this from a personal perspective, I have done the same thing with the Kate Shugak series that Jim Butcher has now done in Changes. I took her job away, albeit off stage, I killed her lover, I burned down her house. But in Changes Butcher does it all in one book, in 438 pages he strips Harry to the bone, divesting him of every possession, including his own soul. And then on the last page, he kills him.
Except the oncoming train tells me he hasn't. And also because I went hotfoot to his website to be reassured that Butcher is still saying there are twenty books in the series and this is only number 12.
My heart failed me too many times to mention, in steadily increasing palpitations. When Harry's office exploded, not so much, he hadn't been there in a while. When the Blue Beetle got squished beyond all hope of resurrection. When his house burned down and took his lab with it. When he broke his back. When he slaughtered the Winter Knight, I actually cried out "No, Harry, no!" What will Mab do to him? It's all very well for Ebenezer (Harry's grandfather! It all makes so much more sense now! Jesus, how far ahead does Butcher plot out these novels?) to say that Harry will always be able to choose, but Harry sold himself to Mab in exchange for healing and power, and he killed, deliberately, to get them. That's a bill I'm not sure he can pay.
When Butters got shot.
And then Harry kills Susan, the one woman he has ever loved, to save their daughter and put an end to the Red Court.
He gives Harry a daughter, and then he takes her away.
And then that horrible, wonderful bait-and-switch with Karrin at the end.
There are so many great, great scenes, but let me just single out a few.
The Grey Council arriving in the nick of time, when we finally get to see Blackstaff at work. "I got another one."
Karrin with Fidelacchius.
The great rif on the Fellowship of the Ring. (I will say I knew Martin was the rift within the lute, he was too impervious to injury. I did not see coming what the soul gaze he exchanges with Harry at the end reveals. But of course it fits, perfectly.)
The best part of this book is that Butcher waited this long to write it, to give us 11 previous chapters in Harry's life, giving us that much lead time to become completely invested in his character. We feel every hit Harry takes like it's aimed at us personally.
Incredibly well done, and leaving the reader wondering how the hell Harry's going to come back from this, and if he'll still be our Harry when he does. What a great place to leave us. Bravo!!
I’m not a soldier, I’m not a politician, so the best I can do when we go to war is read about it. Lately that’s been Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile, The Dark Side by Jane Mayer, and The Forever War by Dexter Filkins.
Charlie Wilson’s War I can best describe as a tale of Robin Hood and his merry men, a bunch of Washington D.C. true believers who never got over the Vietnam War, robbing the federal government to give to what they called the Afghan freedom fighters virtually unlimited funds and war materiel to boot the Soviet’s invading army back across their own border. It is a very entertaining read, it’s well written and incredibly well researched, but reading now what happened then through the prism of current events, I’m left with a feeling of incredulity at the display of hubris on the part of Charlie and his merry men. I have also lost any faith I ever had in the oversight capability of Congress.
A much darker read is Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side, a painstaking and just amazingly detailed account of how extreme rendition (in English, kidnapping) and extreme interrogation (in English, torture) came to be public policy in the current administration. I can't say you'll enjoy reading this book, but it's a book that should be read, at the very least as a cautionary tale as to just how far things can go wrong when nobody's watching. It is reassuring to report that there are heroes, like David Brant, the head of NCIS, Alberto Mora, Counsel to the US Navy, the FBI agents who refused to have anything to do with the torture, and all those administration attorneys who, while they were hired because they had the correct conservative credentials nevertheless knew that kidnapping and torture are wrong, unconstitutional and unAmerican, and who fought the good fight against this program, some of them from the beginning, and some of whom were fired or forced to quit because of it.
The Forever War was written by Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter who has been on the ground in Afghanistan and in Iraq from the beginning, and whose prose never once gets in the way of the story he tells. Listen to this: “Sometimes I would walk into the newsroom that we had set up in the New York Times bureau in Baghdad, and I’d find our Iraqi employees gathered round the television watching a torture video. You could buy them in the bazaars in Baghdad; they were left over from Saddam’s time.” This book is as close to Iraq as you can get without being shot at, and that's okay with me.
Today it’s autobiographies, the story of a life from the first-person viewpoint of its main subject. There is no story like an eyewitness story--ask any cop.
First up, The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald. The author of the beloved Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle children’s books marries and moves to a chicken ranch on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state in the 1930s. She is not a happy farmer, and she writes of everything and everyone from Stove to goeducks to the indigenous population both white and Indian with fearless sensibility and a hilarious eye for detail. This was a book written before the invention of political correctness, and it’s worth reading alone for her ruthless depiction of her neighbors, Ma and Pa Kettle. Yes, the Ma and Pa Kettle movies starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray were inspired by this book.
At the same time MacDonald was hating chicken farming in the US, Nevil Shute was building a dirigible in England. Before he wrote the post-apocalyptic classic On the Beach and the Australian romance A Town like Alice, Shute was an engineer working at the cutting edge of aviation. In Slide Rule, among other things, he tells the story of the British government sponsoring the simultaneous building of two dirigibles, one by private industry and one by government subsidy. The results are exactly what you might expect. A, you should pardon the pun, riveting read.
While MacDonald was coping with chickens and Shute was building zeppelins, Bill Mauldin was growing up in Arizona. You’ll remember Bill Mauldin for his iconic Willie and Joe cartoons, those two American GI’s slogging through the European mud of World War II. Many of those cartoons are reprinted in Mauldin’s autobiography, The Brass Ring, a grunt's-eye view of war. Mauldin’s prose style is as descriptive as his drawings. The interview with General George S. Patton, and Patton’s pit bull, is priceless.
Lastly I recommend Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane, an astronaut veteran of three shuttle flights. Funny, candid, detailed, with an easy prose style, Mullane has opinions about the shuttle program, NASA bureaucracy and the exploration of space, and he knows how to use them. He was a friend of fellow astronaut Judith Resnik, who died on Challenger, and he writes honestly about the pain of that loss. He is also very frank about the unpaid service of astronauts’ wives, and you will end this book thinking his own should be canonized. Riding Rockets is the best book by an astronaut since Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire. Reading both back to back is a full history of the US astronaut corps.
Hard to believe, but T. Jefferson Parker just wrote a book better than Silent Joe. I hate him so much.
Iron River is the third in Parker's Charlie Hood series, which began with L.A. Outlaws and continued with The Renegades. One of the things I like about Jeff's Charlie Hood novels is that he lets Charlie have a past. I like a series that doesn't dismiss what came before, where the characters remember their own history. I do, why shouldn't they? And even if he did kill off my favorite character in the very first book, I'm willing to forgive Jeff anything for the recurring totem of this series, which is, believe me or believe me not, the actual head of Mexican American heartless killer or Robin Hood (pick one) Joaquin Murietta, which floats in a large, liquid-filled glass jar and is handed down to Murietta descendants, who appear as major characters in the Hood novels.
Iron River is about an almost biblical battle between beleaguered US law enforcement agents and seemingly invulnerable and unstoppable Mexican drug lords, with two actual battle scenes that will have you on the edge of your seat. The first one occurs early on, California/ATF cops against drug dealers, at night, across the border in a Mexican countryside where they have to watch out for rattlesnakes as they're sneaking up on the hacienda while trying not to be skewered on the cactus. The bad guys have flame throwers. No lie. Later on there is a scene where our heroes ride into a village that is reminiscent of one of the early Man With No Name films. (In my imagination Charlie's starting to look a little like Clint Eastwood.)
Later, Parker carries on the good-vs.-evil theme when Charlie has a close encounter with someone who may be the devil (I'm sure he is, but Charlie is unconvinced.). The devil even has a handmaiden. Later still, I was horrified when I realized I wanted the gunsmith to get away, just another example of Parker's great characterization: I'm rooting for all the wrong people. That will pull you up with a jolt.
Great characterization, epic plot and as always that wonderful Parker ability to put you right down in the southern California countryside, recoiling from the cholla spines. Jeff never fails to remind me how glad I am to live in Alaska. I'll take a grizzly bear over a rattlesnake any day.
I didn’t used to be that big with the fantasy, because after Oz, Middle Earth and Hogwarts, what was there?
Well, how about Chicago? Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden advertises in the present-day Chicago Yellow Pages under “W.” You know, for Wizard. He's got a skull named Bob as a sidekick, werewolves and a Knight Templar with a magical sword for backup, the White Council and The Red Court of vampires both on his ass, the Wizard Enforcer for a godfather and a real live fairy for a godmother. Butcher's almost got me believing in magic, these books are that good. Dead Beat, the seventh in the series, is still my favorite, but you should begin with the first, Storm Front.
It's been a long time since a book kept me up all night, and then I get four in a row, George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones and its three sequels. Instant addiction, that's what these books are, a mesmerizing epic fantasy of the family Winterfell, with marvelous characterizations (in particular the two girls, Arya and Daenerys, and the dwarf lord Tyrion), and a plot with more twists and turns than a sidewinder. There is love and lust, loyalty and betrayal, noble houses rise and kings fall, and let's not forget the creepiest boogeymen ever, known simply as "the Others." A wonderfully realized world, I can't wait to get back to it.
The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson is a great sword-and-sorcery novel featuring the valiant Jim Eckhert, whose love Angie is aported (not teleported, no, no) by mad scientist Grottwold into an alternate universe peopled by knights, dragons and really big rats. What's a hero to do? Why, go immediately to her rescue, only, of course, you guessed it, something goes ever so slightly wrong, and...but you should read it for yourself. The crankiest wizard of all time, one S. Carolinus, and then there is the Accounting Department.
You'll never feel safe in the woods again after you read Bitten by Karen Armstrong. Although you might not care if you thought you might meet Clay in there. Yum. The best book in the werewolf subgenre of fantasy fiction, great characters and a great you-are-there world of werewolf society, such a small and exclusive club. Armstrong poses some nice moral conundrums as well--it's hard to reconcile Clay the love interest with Clay the supremely selfish guy who wanted Elena so bad he'd actually---but no, I'll give it away.
The original fairy tales were dark and terrifying. You know how Cinderella’s stepsisters made their feet fit into the glass slipper in the original story? They cut their toes off. In The Godmother, author Elizabeth Ann Scarborough hauls them into the present day, in Seattle of all places, where it turns out fairy tales are no less dark or less terrifying. All the usual suspects appear, Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and through all their lives the guiding hand of the Godmother. Imaginative, well-crafted, and, well, enchanting.