Out on a Limb

If you read and enjoyed Richard Powers’ 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Overstory, which I finally got around to and mentioned here in November, then you probably know by now that the Patricia Westerford character in the novel was inspired by British Columbia forest sciences expert Suzanne W. Simard.

Our understanding of soils, roots, and the communication and nutrient sharing of trees is based primarily on Simard’s lifelong work. She’s written papers, given TED talks, and worked as a leader with TerreWeb. Now, with her book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (May 2021), she brings her research to the public in a well documented and accessible book that will enhance our understanding of the forest society.

I really don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when I saw that Finding the Mother Tree will win a Pulitzer Prize.

Considering he impact of forests on our lives, this is an essential book in the world’s library of resources in that it brings groundbreaking scientific studies to a world heretofore posited by mystices, philosophers, and the often-mocked tree huggers.

Excerpt from the Publisher’s Description

Suzanne Simard is a pioneer on the frontier of plant communication and intelligence; she’s been compared to Rachel Carson, hailed as a scientist who conveys complex, technical ideas in a way that is dazzling and profound. Her work has influenced filmmakers (the Tree of Souls of James Cameron’s Avatar) and her TED talks have been viewed by more than 10 million people worldwide.

Now, in her first book, Simard brings us into her world, the intimate world of the trees, in which she brilliantly illuminates the fascinating and vital truths–that trees are not simply the source of timber or pulp, but are a complicated, interdependent circle of life; that forests are social, cooperative creatures connected through underground networks by which trees communicate their vitality and vulnerabilities with communal lives not that different from our own.

Simard writes–in inspiring, illuminating, and accessible ways—how trees, living side by side for hundreds of years, have evolved, how they perceive one another, learn and adapt their behaviors, recognize neighbors, and remember the past; how they have agency about the future; elicit warnings and mount defenses, compete and cooperate with one another with sophistication, characteristics ascribed to human intelligence, traits that are the essence of civil societies–and at the center of it all, the Mother Trees: the mysterious, powerful forces that connect and sustain the others that surround them.

From the NYT Review

This book is a testament to Simard’s skill as a science communicator. Her research is clearly defined, the steps of her experiments articulated, her astonishing results explained and the implications laid bare: We ignore the complexity of forests at our peril. Simard began her career shy, as many who are called to study nature are. Those who seek solitude in mountains and under the shadows of pines often do not wish to command a room. She published her results and spoke at conferences, but did not often directly engage her detractors, the policy silverbacks who ridiculed this young woman and her ideas about trees cooperating rather than competing. – New York Times.

If you love forests, this book is a joy to read and, I would say, gospel.

Malcolm

Ooooo Child!

I’m glad my first book didn’t land on the New York Times bestseller list for 216 weeks like John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I wouldn’t know how to answer the question, “What are you doing to do next?”

The answer probably would have been “nothing.” I couldn’t live up to my debut any more than an actor or actress winning an Oscar for their first movie. Well, I guess Marlee Matlin did that in 1987, but that would be too much pressure for me.

Museum Shop » Telfair Museums » Savannah, GAI placed the following quote on Facebook yesterday and nobody knew who said it or where it came from: “Tell me something honey, how come a white boy like you is drivin’ a old, broken-down, jiveass bruthuh’s heap like this?” Okay, even with 216 weeks on the bestseller list, fame is fleeting even if you’re a saucy drag queen named “Chablis”

This comes to mind since I’m re-reading the novel and it’s just as funny as it was 27 years ago. Berendt wrote The City of Falling Angels ten years later. One reviewer said the book was pretty good but didn’t have a compelling core story. See, this is what I’m talking about. His first book was too good.

Okay, but I think I’ve turned out enough novels to say that I wasn’t ruined by the response to my first book,–or my second, &c. So I’ve escaped the curse of a fantastic successful first novel. Now that I’m safe, I’m ready for the big time, and by golly, I’m going to work toward that without a character who walks an invisible dog or a drag queen who often exclaims, “Ooooo child!”

Malcolm

While Malcolm R. Campbell doesn’t include invisible dogs in his novels, he’s okay with a cat as a narrator. After all, his three cats talk all the time.

Mystery/Thrillers with ancient secrets

Looking at the novels by James Rollins, Dan Brown, and Katherine Neville, one finds a common thread that includes ancient secrets, modern-day conspiracies, hypothetical explanations for gaps in recorded history, and experts with a lot of knowledge to explain to the reader and many of the characters the significance of what is being found and how dangerous it is for the world if the secrets turn out to be worse than we thought.

The Last Odyssey: A Thriller (Sigma Force Novels Book 15) by [James Rollins]James Rollins The Last Odyssey focuses on Homer’s stories and suggests that the events really happened and, worse yet, that the powers of the gods were actual and, if found, would tip the balance of power today.

While I enjoy reading these novels and playing “what if” on a huge, global scale, the research involved just to nail down the known facts is more than I want to tackle.

Consider the research you woul have to do if your “what if” is “What if Leonardo Da Vinci drew a preliminary version of today’s F-150 pickup truck and that ‘the bad guys’ stole these plans and made a protetype that used Greek Fire as for fuel”?

Typically, the story might begin when a mechanical genius who is researching old records of the Ford Motor Company and uncovers “something odd about” the F-150’s predecessor truck, the 1950 model F-3. Let’s say that its revelopment moved along faster than it should, based on the scienceof the times. This leads the researcher to the personal libraries of the truck’s designers and one of them had a passion for Da Vinci.

As you’ll see after reading many of these novels, thbe minute somebody finds about about the designer’s passion for Da Vinci, massive forces and organizations will appear to steal the records, destroy the records, or use them as the basis for negative technology that might alter the universe. There are gun fights, people are captured, reseachers travel to Rome and gain entrance to the Vatican library, etc. Needless to say, finding the true nature of the Ford F-150 and its predecessor  Bonus Built trucks is a race against time.

Feel free to take this idea and run with it. If you end up writing a successful novel with a title like “Found On Road Dead,” good for you. Please mention me in the acknowledgements. It’s all yours because I just don’t have the patience to do the research. Goodness knows, my four hoodoo books set in the 1950s Florida Panhandle required more fact finding than anyone might guess.

I can see, though, why books in this genre (whatever it might be called) are popular. People love conspiracies, knowing secrets, and being the first to solvce old mysteries. Especially those that show us that old myths really weren’t myths.

Malcolm

Gift ideas for your smart, discerning friends and family

Books Make Great Gifts

My family makes Christmas lists because we live so far apart, it’s hard to keep up with what we’re reading. So, we go out to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and find suggestions for each other. In addition to that, here are a few ideas:

My books are published by traditional publisher Thomas-Jacob and are all available in paperback, hard cover, e-book, (Kindle and Nook) and audiobook. Ingram tells us that supply chain problems may impact the delivery of hard cover editions, so if you want those, order them earlie rather than later.

Satire

  • Special Investigative Reporter. For your friends who like satire, puns, and who may be a little bit weird. Reporter Jock Stewart doesn’t respect authority, especially when it’s inept, so he says and writes what most of us wish we could get away with.  He writes all the news that’s fit to print–and some that isn’t.
  • A riveting great read from first page to last, “Special Investigative Reporter” showcases author Malcom R. Campbell’s impressive narrative storytelling talents. Certain to be an immediate and enduringly popular addition to community library Contemporary General Fiction collections. – Midwest Book Review

Mystery

  • Fate's Arrows (Florida Folk Magic Stories Book 4) by [Malcolm R. Campbell]Fate’s Arrows. For your friends who like mystery/thrillers. Pollyanna is a bookkeeper at the mercantile in a small Florida town in the 1950s. Quite possibly, she’s more than she seems. The KKK has been a problem in this town for years. Now, somebody is fighting back with one calling card: an arrow with a hunting head.
  • The plot moves at a nice pace and the twists and turns pack lots of surprise. Tension runs high as the Klan exerts their power over the town of Torreya. The archer is an unknown entity fighting the good fight but never killing. Pollyanna is a different story, she can be deadly when pushed to her limits. – Big Al’s Books and Pals

Magic

  • Conjure Woman's CatConjure Woman’s Cat. For your friends who like magic and sneaky–and often deadly–ways of teaching the bad guys a lesson. A conjure woman and her cat in this small Florida Panhandle town in the 1950s represent two forces to be reckoned with, especially for the Klan and its supporters. When they set a spell, they don’t look back.
  • Wanda J. Dixon’s warmth and gorgeous singing voice are superb in this story about Conjure Woman Eulalie, which is told through the voice of her cat and spirit companion, Lena. Dixon zestfully portrays Eulalie, who is “older than dirt” and is kept busy casting spells, mixing potions, and advising people–that is, when the “sleeping” sign is removed from her door. – AudioFile Magazine earphones award winner.

See my page in the Thomas-Jacob catalogue for more ideas.

DOJ files an antitrust suit to block the purchase of S&S by Penguin Random House

“The U.S. Department of Justice has sued to block Penguin Random House parent company Bertelsmann’s proposed acquisition of Viacom CBS subsidiary Simon & Schuster, arguing that it “would result in substantial harm to authors.” The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on November 2. With it, the DoJ alleges that the proposed acquisition would “enable Penguin Random House, which is already the largest book publisher in the world, to exert outsized influence over which books are published in the United States and how much authors are paid for their work.” (Penguin Random House is the world’s third largest publisher, but its largest trade publisher.) The full lawsuit can be read here.” – Publishers Weekly

I wish things were as simple as the 15th century Gutenberg letter press shown in the graphic.

I hope the merger is successfully blocked because consolidation reduces competition and is generally viewed as harmful to authors and readers. Among other things, media conglomerates (books, news, films) reduce options, a negative scenario in any era but especially bad at a time when public sentiment is leaning toward diversity in both news coverage as well as entertainment. And,  of course, the corporate home of the proposed company remains Bertelsmann, placing more U.S. media assets under the control of a multinational German corporation.

Franklin Foer, writing in The Atlantic, believes that “as book publishing consolidates, the author tends to lose—and, therefore, so does the life of the mind. With diminished competition to sign writers, the size of advances is likely to shrink, making it harder for authors to justify the time required to produce a lengthy work. In becoming a leviathan, the business becomes ever more corporate. Publishing may lose its sense of higher purpose. The bean counters who rule over sprawling businesses will tend to treat books as just another commodity.”

The big five already control 80% of U.S. book sales. If the DOJ suit fails, we’ll have the big four and, some say, we’ll lose a few more small presses and a few more publishing jobs.

Foer believes that the real problem in the mix is Amazon, and I agree. But that’s a discussion for another post other than to say that publishing conglomerates believe size will make then less vulnerable to Amazon control.

Writing for the New Republic (Pretty Soon There’ll Be Just One Big Big Book Publisher Left),  Alex Shephard says, “Further consolidation won’t just lead to layoffs, it will also likely put authors in a worse position, as they have fewer potential buyers to negotiate with. Though it is not solely responsible, the bottom has fallen out of the market for midlist books over the last decade, creating a system in which bestselling authors are making millions, while publishing’s middle class has been decimated. The conglomerate publishing industry’s increasing obsession with bestsellers has also left many more adventurous projects to wallow.”

I’m not sure who to blame for this mess.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

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

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.

–Malcolm

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.

–Malcolm

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

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.

Malcolm