Review: “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry”

I like fairy tales. I also like fairy tales re-imagined, but not all of them. For instance, I hated Gregory McGuire’s “Wicked.” I thought it disrespected Baum’s innocent vision of Oz, though obviously I am in the minority, and Gregory McGuire is now a rich man. On the other hand, I loved McGuire’s “Lost,” which skillfully weaves together Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” shades of Jack the Ripper, and some other goodies into a gripping ghost story.

“My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry,” by Fredrik Backman, is a rare jewel. It is a fairy story that combines several related fairy stories and reveals the truth behind them. And it’s completely original, in that it doesn’t rehash older source material. (Not that I’m saying it’s wrong to rehash source material. What would we do without it?)

Elsa, our protagonist, is seven years old and precocious, but I am happy to say she is precocious in a believable, seven-year-old way. Her grandmother is a character, to put it mildly. Among other things, Elsa’s grandmother has taught her a secret language and told her stories of the several kingdoms of the Land of Almost-Awake. Her grandmother is her super-hero, and Elsa adores her. In fact, Granny is Elsa’s only friend, because Elsa doesn’t think much of the kids at school who don’t understand great literature. Like “Harry Potter.” And Marvel Comics.

Elsa, her mother, her grandmother, and her stepfather live in a kind of a boarding house. Some of the tenants are very much in full view, like Britt-Marie, who bosses everyone around about signs in the laundry room and strollers in the stairwell. Others are never seen, including the mysterious “Our Friend,” as Granny refers to him. Elsa’s mother works all the time, her remarried father is not a strong presence, and she resents her stepfather. Her grandmother is her rock.

And then Granny dies. But before she does, she asks Elsa to deliver a letter. Elsa does, and sets off a chain of events that reveal the true nature both of Granny’s stories and of the people in Elsa’s life. Bit by bit, she comes to understand who these people are and how they came to be who they are. She also discovers her grandmother’s hidden connection to every soul in the boarding house.

Elsa eventually discovers a mother who loves her unconditionally, a stepfather who’s actually okay, and a father who turns out to be important after all. She even makes a friend. She learns some things about adults that in the end, she knows she just has to forgive.

While the protagonist of “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” is a child, this is not a children’s story. The heartache and sadness are all-too-poignant, and the adults’ stories are, well, adult. The story is about a child finding her way through the complexities of life by relying on herself and her memories of her grandmother. She learns the truth behind the tales, and adult truth is sometimes difficult and scary.

Fortunately, there is enough humor in Elsa’s take on things that the book never becomes dreary—and I was pleased that the humor never condescended, even though the lead character is a child.

I had a hard time deciding whether to categorize “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” as a fantasy or mainstream, even though the only fantasy elements in the story are Granny’s stories. It’s a fairy tale, but although it has a happy ending, it is a realistic ending. Granny doesn’t come back to life. Britt-Marie was never a princess. “Our Friend” is not really a wurse from the Land of Almost-Awake. And yet, the fantasy carries the story. Read it and decide for yourself.

 

Review: “Fishing for Stars” by Bryce Courtney

Spoiler Alert: This review is for “Fishing for Stars,” by Bryce Courtnay. It is a sequel to “The Persimmon Tree.” I will be discussing elements of both books. If you haven’t read “The Persimmon Tree,” I highly recommend that you do. And then skip “Fishing for Stars.”

“The Persimmon Tree” is how I discovered writer Bruce Courtnay. Born in South Africa, he had a notable career in advertising before retiring, moving to Australia and becoming a highly successful novelist. “The Persimmon Tree” was a complete surprise to me. It is the story of a young boy, Nick Duncan, and Anna Till, his first love, and it opens at the beginning of the Japanese invasion of Indonesia in WWII.

Nick escapes on a sailboat that belonged to Anna’s father and after run-ins with the Japanese, winds up in Australia, now of combat age. He has an affair with an older woman, Marg Hamilton, fights at Guadalcanal with the Americans, and much later, rediscovers his lost Anna.

Anna’s story is weirder and more harrowing. She is forced to become a “comfort woman” by a high-ranking Japanese officer, Konoi Akira, forcibly addicted to heroin to keep her under control, and trained in the art of kinbaku, a ritualized form of rope bondage and sexual torture. This is why the officer wanted her—to perform kinbaku on him.

Long story short, Nick finds Anna (still addicted) running a kinbaku house in Australia, and decides to take her for a heroin-free cruise on her father’s former sailing ship, in an effort to help her go cold turkey. (Not Anna’s idea, by the way.) They sail into the sunset at the end of “The Persimmon Tree,” leaving us hopeful for their future.

Though I read this book years ago, it made a huge impression on me. It was tightly plotted and pulled me right through the story without a pause. I cared about the characters and rooted for Anna and Nick’s happy reunion.

I subsequently read Courtnay’s magnificent “Potato Factory” historical trilogy based on the life of Ikey Solomon, the model for Dickens’ Fagan character in “Oliver Twist,” plus several other tales. I enjoyed every one of them, even the last one he wrote, “Jack of Diamonds.” I didn’t think it was his best, but he was dying of stomach cancer while writing it, so I thought he deserved a pass.

Which made reading “Fishing for Stars” all the more dismaying. It is, in my opinion, a hot mess. Anna did not respond well to the amateur intervention and stays addicted. She has morphed into a skilled businesswoman with an insatiable appetite for more. Mostly more money, and she isn’t overly choosy how she makes it. She and Nick are lovers, but she won’t allow any touching below the waist as she suffers from vaginismus—a painful cramping of the vaginal muscles. She believes her power lies in preserving her virginity.

Nick admits to being completely satisfied by Anna’s sexual ministrations, but he chunters on ad nauseum about his “need to possess her fully” for YEARS. If I were Anna, I would have dumped him.

Marg Hamilton, the woman with whom he has an affair in his youth, reappears, newly widowed. After several years, she consents to sleep with him again. (I don’t know any men that patient. Do you?) Marg has become a green activist in direct opposition to most of Anna’s commercial activities. The two women call each other “the green bitch” and “Princess Plunder,” and settle down to really despising each other’s guts.

The first third of the book sets the scene and fills in the background for those who haven’t read “The Persimmon Tree.” Not brilliant, but readable. The second part of the story is an action-filled, well-plotted visit to Japan, where Anna confronts her old nemesis Konoi Akira. We get into Yakuza, the Shield Society, kidnapping, Manga porn, murder and mayhem, and it’s all pretty interesting.

The third part of the book is about Marg and her conservation efforts. It is essentially a long and tedious history of the Green political movement in Tasmania and I almost gave up.

In the end, Marg screws Anna (metaphorically), and Anna screws Marg. Nick spends the whole book as a sort of pingpong ball being batted between these two women.

I have always admired Courtnay’s portrayals of women. They are always three-dimensional, strong portraits, contrasting dramatically with the way men often write female characters. However, the way Marg and Anna are written in “Fishing for Stars” turns them into two equally unpleasant viragos—an impression heightened by the narrator, Humphrey Bower. (I listened to the audiobook.) Bower—who is brilliant at accents, from southern Black American to Japanese­—plays Marg as an unusually sniffy school librarian, and Anna as a bitch.

In the final analysis, “Fishing for Stars” is a bad book by a good author, and a very disappointing finale to the characters I loved in “The Persimmon Tree.” I strongly encourage you to read Courtnay’s other work, in particular “The Persimmon Tree,” “The Potato Factory Trilogy,” and “Brother Fish.” You won’t be disappointed.

Cover Reveal: Fire in the Ocean

As I have mentioned before, my second novel, “Fire in the Ocean,” is coming out from Diversion Books in February 2018. Diversion’s art department came up with a spiffy new cover for “The Obsidian Mirror,” which will be re-issued along with the debut of “Fire in the Ocean”:

New cover for “The Obsidian Mirror”

“Fire in the Ocean” is the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror,” and features the same cast of characters. New twist, though–the book is set in Hawai’i on the islands of Moloka’i and Hawai’i (the Big Island).

Why, you might ask, Hawai’i? When I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror,” I drew upon strictly New World mythologies, folk tales and traditions–Native American, MesoAmerican and Voudún, avoiding the supernatural traditions that essentially migrated to the Americas from Europe. I started it as a kind of experiment after reading one of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” novels. I just wanted to see if a fantasy could be crafted that entirely eschewed the standard fantasy tropes of caped adventurers, swords and sorcery–elves, vampires and trolls need not apply.  To my surprise, the experiment turned into a book.

Although I wanted to continue the adventures of Sierra and her friends, I didn’t want to repeat the setting, plot, or other key elements of “The Obsidian Mirror.” So I picked Hawai’i as the venue for the sequel because: 1) I love Hawai’i ; 2) Hawai’i is also “New World,” and therefore fit into the strictures I had placed on myself; 3) it was an excuse to go back to the islands to do research. (And an amazing and wonderful trip it was, as those of you who have followed my blog for a while know!)

Why Moloka’i? Well, it turns out that Moloka’i in ancient times was known as the island of sorcerers. The island has its own take on the mythology and its own unique legends. Moloka’i proved to be a rich source of information and experiences, most of which were incorporated into “Fire in the Ocean.” As for why I chose the Big Island for part of the story–you’ll have to read the book.

Diversion Books just sent me the cover design for “Fire in the Ocean.” What do you think?

Cover Design for “Fire in the Ocean”

Warning: This Post Contains Shameless Self-Promotion

New Cover

Recently I finished editing the first draft of “Fire in the Ocean,” the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror.” I sent it off to my alpha readers and editor, and I can finally relax and think about something else for a while.

Such as promoting “The Obsidian Mirror.” While I was in the throes of writing the sequel, I did next to nothing about promoting my published work. A writer’s work is never done, I guess.

Why should you read “The Obsidian Mirror”? Short answer: because it’s a fun read. I read largely for entertainment. I like books that take you away and let you live someone else’s life for a while. I wrote “Obsidian” to be that kind of book: a diversion, a book I would love reading myself. It’s probably not a coincidence that the second publisher of the book is Diversion Books—they specialize in just that kind of novel.

Another reason to read “Obsidian” is because it is based on the mythologies and folklore of the Americas, which makes it a bit different. The idea occurred to me after finishing one of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” novels. I loved the book, but started wondering why so much fantasy is based on proto-European, pre-Industrial Age tropes such as elves, faeries, dragons, and caped adventurers. The Americas have thousands of mythologies, folk tales and traditions that are largely ignored by fantasy writers.

I began writing “The Obsidian Mirror” as a kind of personal experiment. Meso-American gods and Coyote the Trickster, an Inuit ice demon and a mannegishi named Fred are some of the characters. What I did not anticipate is that I would fall in love with my characters and be driven to finish the book. Having done that, I felt compelled to get it published.

I don’t have much to brag about. I’m not a best-selling author. I have won no prestigious awards for my fiction writing. But I do have one thing that gives me modest bragging rights.

I have heard authors talk about receiving hundreds of rejection slips. One writer said he had a drawer filled with 450 rejection slips for his novel. That didn’t happen with “The Obsidian Mirror.” I approached perhaps 10 publishers and/or agents before AEC Stellar agreed to publish the book. When AEC Stellar bit the dust, I approached about five publishers before Diversion Books picked it up, re-published it and agreed to publish the sequel.

So I may not have sold a million copies, but I never had any problem finding a publisher. As a matter of fact, years after I originally submitted the manuscript to their slush pile, Baen Books got back to me and said they were interested in it. The early bird gets the book, Baen.

So why am I proud of this? Because I have some independent assessments that people will enjoy reading my novel. Add to that, the several four- and five-star reviews on Amazon, and you might conclude that you would enjoy it, too. To make it super-easy for you to find the book, here it is: http://amzn.to/1MQBvkd

I did warn you.

 

 

The Vengeance of El Niño

It’s been a while since I have shared what I am working on. I blogged extensively about my research visit to Hawai‘i in January of 2015, but I’ve been on radio silence about work ever since.

Part of that is because if I say too much about the story, why would you want to read it when it is published? Another issue is providing detail about a story that might very well change so drastically in the writing process that it becomes unrecognizable.

I did mention that it has been much easier writing with a plot outline than without one. And that was certainly true until I wrote up to the intended climax of the story—and discovered that it wasn’t actually the climax after all and I needed to extend the story (for which no plot outline yet existed).

Part of the problem was that I hit the putative climax at about 65,000 words into the story. That means that I would have wrapped it up in about 75,000 words, which is a bit light for a novel like this. “The Obsidian Mirror” was about 100,000 words, and I am aiming for a similar length for this novel.

So I hit a rough patch as I floundered around trying to figure out what comes next in the story. I hesitate to call it “writer’s block” because I wasn’t blocked. I knew where the story was going, I was just missing a piece. Sort of like Indiana Jones crawling across a rope bridge across a steep chasm and there’s ten or fifteen planks missing in the middle. And crocodiles (my publishing contract and deadline) waiting below.

And then there was getting sick. Then the holidays. El Niño came for a visit last week and flooded the basement, soaking our family photos, my oil paintings, family historiana, and a lot of other stuff. I spent this past week gently prying apart photographs and arranging them on every available surface to dry, turning them over, grouping them, and tossing the ruined ones away. I did no writing at all.

Among the things I found was a packet of letters, all dated around 1879. They were written by someone named Carrie to her cousin, William Smith of Roxbury, NY. (Mr. Smith was one of my ancestors, which is how I came by the letters, but I haven’t looked him up to determine exactly what the relationship is.) They were written in a delicate copperplate hand, very legible, the India ink still clear and sharp despite their age and the complete saturation of the paper.

I reluctantly decided I would have to throw them out. There were so many of them, and my priority was rescuing my thousands of family photos before they stuck irretrievably together. I read a few of the letters and they were fairly mundane, though written with clear affection for the recipient. I felt guilty. They had been kept perfectly for 110 years, and I was the one who trashed them.

However, I found a poignant little poem in Carrie’s spidery copperplate. Here it is:

You I will remember

And in this heart of mine

A cherished spot remains for you

Untill (sic) the end of time.

 

Remember I

When this you spy

And think of me that is very shy.

 

Remember me

When this you see

And think of me that thinks of thee.

 

Remember Carrie

Where ‘ere you tarry.

And think of me

That will never marry.

 

The last stanza was enclosed in brackets. What do you think? I don’t mean Carrie’s gifts as a poet, which are slight, but the heart of it. I think Carrie was in love with William. I have at least saved her poem, which must have cost this shy woman a great deal to share with her adored cousin.

That much of Carrie I am keeping, safe for now.

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Carrie’s Poem

Getting back to my current book, I am firm on the title of “Fire in the Ocean.” It is set in Hawai‘i, which was built—and is still being built—by fire in the ocean: volcanoes. It also touches on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where billions of tons of particulate plastic are swirling around out there like peas and carrots in alphabet soup. Hawai‘i is smack dab in the middle of it. The slow dissolution of chemicals from the plastics is another form of “fire in the ocean,” poisoning sea life. And, of course, Pele, the goddess of volcanic fire, is a featured character in the book. Those of you who followed my blog from Hawai‘i know why I couldn’t leave Pele out of the story.

I am back on the job writing. El Niño is paying another visit, but we have pumps going and sandbags. All my rescued photos are safe and dry now and my oil paintings are drying out in the bathtub. Good time to write!

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“The Burden” This is one of my oil paintings, now residing in my bathtub. It won a first prize somewhere obscure.