Action or Speculation: what drives the plot?

When you read a novel like Clive Cussler’s 2021 Marauder in the Oregon Files series, you know you’re reading unapolgetic commercial fiction designed for readers of “page-turner” novels who appreciate high-stakes danger and lots of stuff that gets blown up, shot up, or shot down. I’m a fan of the books in the Oregon Files series and enjoy them for what they are: books in which action drives the plot.

I prefer suspense thrillers when they’re written by authors such as John Hart, like The Last Child and The Hush that place more emphasis on the location and the characters but still include high-stakes action. The Hush is, perhaps, one of the darkest books I’ve ever read, filled with mystery and a pervasive feeling of menace which I find more memorable than unvarnished commercial fiction.

The Hush: A Novel by [John Hart]Lately, I’ve been disappointed in several suspense books, the names of which I won’t mention here, that had interesting and compelling mysteries that might have been memorable novels had the authors not relied so heavily on speculation. That is to say, too much time was spent with the duller aspects of police work (the paperwork and the phone calls) and long chapters in which the main characters sat around over several bottles of wine and speculated about that was behind the mysterious events and what the bad guys have done and might be planning to do next. They’ve been warned not to look into these matters, but unlike the characters in Maurauder and The Hush, this danger isn’t overt or urgent.

While these speculation-driven plots might be more realistic to most of us since they focus on everyday people who are suddenly plunged into a mess, they don’t really engage the reader’s wont to be scared or to feel the rush of “nail-biting” danger. The result isn’t very satisfactory. Now, one need not sell his/her soul and fill a novel with nothing but sex and violence on every page. The characters can face other issues such as personal trials, ethical/moral questions based on their past or on what the future migh demand, family entanglements, and other plot- and theme-driven storylines that keep the reader interested and, when all is said and done, can be viewed as a substantial and satisfying book.

Sitting around and speculating about the cruel world outside the livingroom door is seldom as compelling or intersting to readers as being engaged in the cruel world outside that door–unless the characters have other kinds of challenges to face.


Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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Listen or read, and I promise to keep you interested unless you’re, well, dead.

Women’s prize for fiction goes to Susanna Clarke’s ‘mind-bending’ ‘Piranesi’

Susanna Clarke, who published her debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell 17 years ago and then was struck down with chronic illness, has won the Women’s prize for fiction for her second, Piranesi. Narrated by its eponymous hero as he explores the endless halls of a house that imprisons an ocean, Piranesi is “a truly original, unexpected flight of fancy which melds genres and challenges preconceptions about what books should be,” according to the Women’s prize chair of judges, Booker-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo.

Source: Women’s prize for fiction goes to Susanna Clarke’s ‘mind-bending’ Piranesi | The Women’s Prize for Fiction | The Guardian

When I reviewed this book on this blog a year ago, I have the novel five stars, concluding, “For those who don’t require fire-breathing dragons or the snap of lethal energies flung from the hands of protagonists and antagonists in epic battles, this book is a treasure to be savoured like fine wine.”

This is one of the most creative books I’ve ever read and a worthy follow-up to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Clarke became ill after finishing her first novel and never thought she’d recover enough to write this one 17 years later.  I’m pleased that she was able to complete it and happy about today’s news about the prize.


Briefly Noted: ‘Getting Around in Glacier National Park’ by Mike Butler

Mike Butler, who drove one of Glacier’s iconic red busses some years ago, has put together a compelling book about the park’s transportation history in the “America Through Time” series from Arcadia Publishing. Like most Arcadia authors, Butler has included a wealth of spectacular photographs: definitely a high point of the 128-page book that was released in Febuary.

From the Publisher

“Getting around in Glacier National Park was quite difficult for early travelers seeking to experience its towering mountains, deep glacial valleys, and extensive lakes. With Glacier’s location in the far northwestern corner of Montana, just getting to the park when it was formed in 1910 was a challenge for travelers. To meet this challenge, the Great Northern Railway brought early tourists to this remote location, transporting visitors to its East Glacier and West Glacier stations. From these entry stations, tour buses took passengers to majestic hotels which the Railway built at East Glacier, Many Glacier, and Waterton Lakes. Visitors seeking adventure within the park could then take horseback trips from the hotels to remote chalets, also built by the Railway. Boats plied the waters of Glacier’s lakes, taking tourists to chalets and hiking trails. Over 900 miles of trails were built across the park. Finally, as automobile travel gained in popularity, the magnificent Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed across the Continental Divide at Logan Pass in 1933.”

In his review in the Glacier Park Foundation’s newsletter, Mac Willemssen said, “The book’s chapters describe the development of the railroad, the roads, the boats, the buses, the trails, and the hotels. As such, it’s a great complement to anyone’s Glacier library. It’s very readable and easily puts the reader right in Glacier, whether in a bus, a boat, or on a trail.”

Butler is also the author of five other Arcadia titles: Around the Spanish Peaks; Great Sand Dunes National Park; Southern Colorado: O.T. Davis Collection; Littleton; and High Road to Taos. His brother David is the author of the 2014 Arcadia book Fire Lookouts of Glacier National Park.

In the Daily Interlake’s February review, Carol Marino wrote, “Getting Around in Glacier National Park is packed with historical details and over 150 photos of the park’s early years. It offers such rare glimpses into the park’s pictorial history, such as explorer George Bird Grinnell standing on a glacier in 1926 with his wife Elizabeth Grinnell. Both he and James J. Hill played a pivotal role in the establishment of Glacier Park.”

If you love Glacier National Park, this volume is a treasure.


Being on location vs. reading about the location

Christine Carbo has written a dandy four-book series of suspense novels set in Glacier National Park. Had their location been a city, they might have been called “police procedurals.” Her books focus on the work of Park Rangers, with help from personnel from local sheriffs’ offices in solving crimes within the park. I have just now finished book two, Mortal Fall after enjoying The Wild Inside.

Carbo lives in Whitefish, adjacent to the park, and her proximity to the location of her stories shows what a good writer can do when they can be on location to check specific areas and talk to rangers and others who work there. If you love Glacier and suspense novels, you will love the accuracy of these novels.

Most of you know what I worked two years in the park in the 1960s and have been back a handful of times on vacation. My love of the park drew me to set several novels set there. Two of those are fantasies, taking place in a look-alike universe accessible via the park. The other two were set back in time and stayed away from specifics that would be difficult for a Georgia writer to know about or uncover through research. So, okay, I’m not only impressed with Carbo’s work but a little jealous that she lives where I planned to live, something that didn’t pan out mostly due to the lack of large computer companies in the area in need of technical writers.

Being on location, either because you live there or because you can afford summer-long visits is night and day different from using books, Wikipedia, Google Maps, and Google Earth from the far sie of the country. In my mind, writing what you know partially depends on what you know about the places where you set your stories.

I’ve been impressed with the work of authors like Hilary Mantel (in Wolf Hall) for the accuracy of their location work about the way things were in the 1500s. Such work shows what one can do if they have the talent as well as the resources that allow them to be there.

Some experts say that the adage “write what you know” is false advice. Well, sure, if you don’t know the subject and place before you get an idea for a story, you can learn it and (possibly) come to know it by the time you start putting words on the page. Needless to say, I take exception to the notion that the old adage is false advice. Even if you’re world building a place and culture for a sci-fi novel or fantasy, you will have come to know it if your resulting novel ends up selling well and being critically acclaimed.

If I hadn’t come to love Glacier, I probably would have set all of my novels–like those in the four-book Florida Folk Magic Series–where I grew up, or possibly down the road from here I live now. But my muse insisted on the Glacier books even though I said, “But dammit, Siobhan, I live in Rome, Georgia rather than Whitefish, Montana.”

“Wing it,” she replied.


Malcolm R. Campbell

Glacier Park Novel

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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Review: ‘The Boy from the Woods,’ by Harlan Coben

I read a variety of black ops/thriller books that I generally refer to as “grocery store books” because that’s where I see them while buying milk, bread, eggs, and inexpensive wine. I know my definition is unfair because, frankly, if an author’s books are on grocery store shelves, they’re usually compelling, well-written, bestselling books. Coben’s books fit all three of those categories.

Publisher’s Description: Thirty years ago, Wilde was found as a boy living feral in the woods, with no memory of his past. Now an adult, he still doesn’t know where he comes from, and another child has gone missing.

No one seems to take Naomi Pine’s disappearance seriously, not even her father—with one exception. Hester Crimstein, a television criminal attorney, knows through her grandson that Naomi was relentlessly bullied at school. Hester asks Wilde—with whom she shares a tragic connection—to use his unique skills to help find Naomi.

Wilde can’t ignore an outcast in trouble, but in order to find Naomi he must venture back into the community where he has never fit in, a place where the powerful are protected even when they harbor secrets that could destroy the lives of millions . . . secrets that Wilde must uncover before it’s too late.

Wilde is an interesting character who will subsequently appear in a second book in the series called The Match. He lives off the grid and becomes uncomfortable if he has to come into the city too often. But he has some handy black ops skills and some very strategic common sense when it comes to solving things that aren’t what they seem.

This works well in The Boy from the Woods since most of the crimes and other strange events aren’t what they seem. The reader can only think that everyone except Wilde is probably lying. Fortunately, Wilde has some high-powered friends who believe in his abilities. That’s good, for this plot is so tangled up that even Sherlock Holmes might be tempted to say, “Watson, this time, I don’t have a clue.”

If you like thrillers, this book will probably appeal to you. You certainly won’t be bored. You might even condone the dash of schmaltz in the ending.


Jeff Shaara’s ‘Midway’ and other stuff

  • I have enjoyed all of Jeff Shaara’s books, but The Eagle’s Claw had a flaw in it, that being that Raymond Spruance, who commanded both the Enterprise and the Hornet in the battle, was not in the book. This left many questions about the last part of the battle unanswered in the novel. It seems unlike Shaara to omit a major character and/or part of a battle. So, I would have to give this book three stars if I were writing an Amazon review.  As always, I enjoyed the book and the approach to the story.
  • Thank you to those of you who went over to Facebook and chipped in a few dollars in my birthday fundraiser for Sun Kissed Acres Equine Rescue. My modest $300 goal was met by your generosity, plus, I got a nice thankyou note from the farm.
  • My actual birthday is tomorrow. No need to send lavish gifts or cash because that might push me into a higher tax bracket. (Yeah, right.) My wife made a cherry pie, my favorite, and we cheated by having some of it last night.
  • I have given up getting the rights to my audiobooks, Emily’s Stories and Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire assigned to me now that my former publisher is out of business, leaving all of us seeing our books still being sold with the sellers keeping the royalties. There should have been a clause in the contract and I kept pushing for it, but my former publisher was lazy in many ways about such things. My current publisher keeps up with her authors!
  • I’m reading an interesting suspense novel by Christine Carbo set in Glacier National Park called The Wild Inside. For a Glacier fan, it’s fun following a story set in a place one knows well. She lives in a town next to the park, so she knows the territory. I might just have to read a few more from her “Glacier Mystery Series.”
  • Yes, I’m still working on another novel set in Glacier, but at my advanced age, I type very slowly. This one is a contemporary fantasy, like The Sun Singer and Sarabande. It’s been fun returning to the Montana mountains.


Book discussion groups: heaven or hell?

They should he heaven, but somehow, many of them just don’t quite work. Publishers pretend that they work because they (the publishers) often include discussion questions in the back of he books.  Nothing starts an argument faster that choosing what the club will read during the year. Some want all Nora Roberts. Some want all Tom Clancy. Some want a mix of mainstream bestsellers. Others want prize winners.

How do you choose?

Logistics are a problem. Some people want the latest books off the press while others can’t afford to buy them until they’re finally issued in mass market paperback a year later. The public library may or may not have enough copies for everyone in the club.

The best clubs seem to be focused on a specific genre, one that’s decided upon at the begining of the year. That way, the members know what they’re getting into and nobody has to feel put-upon when it comes time to read and discuss books they don’t like or care about.

Staying on the plan is difficult when–as often happens–most of the people in the club are behind on their reading. Sometimes they skip meetings because they’re embarrassed and sometimes they skip because if they’re on chapter 3 and most of the club is on chapter 7, the discussion will be filled with spoilers. And then, too, those who keep up with their reading often get ticked off at those who can’t keep up due to numerous real and imagined excuses.

Discusssing the books one likes sounds like fun, like a good way so spend the evening, but then when it’s time to start talking, it turns out that reading really isny a priority in people’s lives. After all, the statistics are pretty grim when portraying reading habits. Trying to make it a priority seems like having to go back to school and being saddled with homework.

What’s your experierience? Have you been a member of a club that really worked? If so, what did the moderator do to make it work?


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy and magical realism stories and novels.

Great books are like high-octane fuel

The Night Watchman: A NovelI began reading Louise Erdrich’s novels with Love Medicine in 1984, thought about what might have been when her 2009 novel The Plague of Doves was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and thought “about time” when The Night Watchman won the Pulitzer this year. I’m reading it now, a little over halfway through, and I have to say that like all of her books, it’s a parched drinking of high-octane fuel to my system.

I think a lot of writers, and readers as well, react to wonderful writing and important themes this way. Just what happens is difficult to describe. It’s more than inspiratiion, though it is that. What it is is transcendent, a reader recognizing heretofore unknown needs within himself/herself that are met by the book. Or, like a high-performance automobile that’s finally given high-performance fuel. Now body and soul are running on all cylinders.

I remember then in 1953 the subject of terminating Native Amerian Nations of the governmental support that had been mandated to them by treaty. (Andrew Jackson’s nasty spirit was still at work.) Among other things, it was a land steal, not the emancipation the governemtn claimed.  What exactly was at risk? In part, this:

“The sun was low in the sky, casting slant regal light. As they plodded along, the golden radiance intensified until it seemed to emanate from every feature of the land. Trees, brush, snow, hills. She couldn’t stop looking. The road led past frozen sloughs that bristled with scorched reeds. Clutches of red willow burned. The fans and whips of branches glowed, alive. Winter clouds formed patterns against the fierce gray sky. Scales, looped ropes, the bones of fish. The world was tender with significance.”

If you know your history, you know how the battle against termination ends. If you don’t and if you plan to read this book, I won’t tell you here, for that would be a spoiler. Yet, nothing really can spoil this book except (momentarily) blurbs that just don’t work, like this one from the  Boston Globe: “Thrills with luminous empathy.” What the hell does that even mean?

Okay, I think I’ve gotten past reading that blurb now and can absorb the wisdom of this novel. As the Tampa Bay Times wrote, “No one can break your heart and fill it with light quite like Louise Erdrich.” In this story, she’s not only writing about her Chippewa people, but her family. And that comes through the words, I think, and makes then dear and sad with no sentimentality, but raw power.



Review: ‘Camino Winds’ by John Grisham

Camino Winds brings back many of the characters from Camino Island, a novel the New York Times aptly decribed as “a delightfully lighthearted caper.” Camino Winds begins with wind, the monster hurricane Leo that takes aim at the Florida Island with deadly intentions and mind-numbing accuracy.  In her blurb, author Delia Owens (Where the Crawdads Sing) calls this second book in the series a “wild but smart caper.”

The novel is easy to read but the most exciting part of the caper is provided by the hurricane, and this is where we find the book’s most effective writing. A man is killed during the story, purportedly by falling tree limbs, but bookstore owner Bruce Cable of Bay Books doesn’t think so. The local police don’t seem interested, so the caper aspect of the novel begins when Bruce and his friends start trying to find out what really happened.

They begin by disturbing the crime scene, borrowing the dead man’s car, and appropriating the food and liquor in his kitchen that will dertainly go bad if left for any forensic techs who might one day show up. The dead man, an author named Nelson Kerr–among those who hung out at Bay Books–won’t miss the food and probably wouldn’t begrudge the amateur sleuths a great meal and all the high-priced drink they can handle, which turns out not to be a lot.

Kerr as apparently writing a novel about something that somebody didn’t like so, probably–the amateur sleuths speculate–the killer was mixed up in the pièce de ré·sis·tance crime Kerr plans to thinly diguise as fiction in his new thriller. If so, they no doubt wanted to stop him before (a) he finished the book, or (b) the book get to a publisher if he did finish it.

Bruce, et. al. have some good ideas, the kind that just might get them killed. If they (the sleuths) were black ops types, they dould take the next step and go after the bad guys with enough gear that woud make Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler exited. But they aren’t, so they can’t, and they don’t. For the reader, this means a lot of time is spent listening to the characters’ pondering which, fortunately, is punctuated with a few laughs, scares, and dicoveries along the way.

They mean well. They’re likeable. And they keep pushing on whoever they can influence until heavy hitters become involved and the crime is solved. Until then, nothing much happens. When the pros show up, a considerable amount of time is spent describing how the bad guys scammed the government out of a lot of money while hurting everyday people. Yes, we suspect this kind of thing is true. But how they (the bad guys) do what they do takes the focus of the story simultaneously closer to its climax and farther away from the main characters.

This is an unsatisfying plot solution. The characters who begin the caper really need to end the caper. If you read every Grisham novel, you’ll nonetheless have fun reading this one. If you don’t, you won’t.


Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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Book jacket descriptions aren’t that great

When you read enough book jacket copy—that’s the stuff on the back of the book or inside the jacket flap, telling you what to expect within—you start to notice strange patterns. Books from one of the big four publishing houses will have a line or two promising that the latest in literary fiction is a sober look at our current dilemma/modern age/social media addiction/technological approach to dating. If the copywriter is feeling bold, maybe they’ll let us know that the writer is a “dazzling new voice,” or that the release of this debut novel is “heralding a brave new voice in fiction.” From there, a frustratingly vague description of the plot usually contains a foreboding line letting us know the protagonist needs to go on a journey to another country to find herself, or that a man will try to save his marriage or family. End with a reminder that this book is very important and/or brilliant. Just like every other book.

Source: Book jacket descriptions for titles like Luster and The Silence are terrible.

Book jacket copy is so bad, that I’ve come home from the store with a greatly anticipated new book that it turns out I’ve already read. Or, I waste time at the store trying to figure out whether–if I haven’t read the book–is it something I want to read. It’s hard to know when the jacket copy makes most books sound like the same book.

This is what happens when droids are allowed to write the jacket copy.