‘Firefly Lane’ by Kristin Hannah

Best I can tell, we really escaped 2020 and are now slogging our way through 2021. If this true, then I’m 12 years behind the times reading Firefly Lane.

It’s a well-written story about two schoolgirls who, though opposites in many ways, become close friends and make a pact to remain best friends forever. One  (Tully) becomes a rich and famous news anchor. The other (Kate), who showed a lot of promise as a writer, ended up having a busy family life as a stay-at-home mom.

There’s a lot of realistic push-me/pull-you between Tully and Kate because their lives unfold quite differently, leading to differences of style and opinion, including the question of whether or not Kate is overprotective when it comes to her daughter. Tully and the daughter think so.

If you read Hannah’s afterword, you probably understood why she ended the book as she did. She handled it well. Nonetheless, I didn’t like it. I saw it as adding insult to injury insofar as Kate’s role in the story was concerned. Kate’s life was rather that of the Biblical Job and the ending made her a tragic character rather than a gracefully aging mother contentedly watching her children grow into adults partly in spite of Tully and because of Tully.

Worth reading,  but it needed something different and less predictable in the final chapters. I haven’t watched any episodes of the Netflix series.

Malcolm

Some readers wanted a bombastic ending to “Sarabande.” I chose a minimalist approach that reflected, in my view, who the character was and how she had changed.

‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’

In the hoodoo tradition, good magic is best performed between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, and evil magic is best performed between midnight and 12:30 a.m. Hence we have the rationale behind the title of John Berendt’s 1994 bestseller, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the inspiration behind the 1997 feature film.

When the book came out, I refused to read it. The odd thing now is that I no longer remember why. Perhaps it was the hype. Perhaps it was the mix of fiction and nonfiction. Or perhaps it was because I was always more of a Charleston person than a Savannah person. The film didn’t do well, a surprise since Eastwood generally does fine work. Had it been a success, I might have seen it. But it wasn’t so I didn’t.

Here’s what seems to have happened. Somebody or something has put a hex on me forcing me to read the book. Okay, that’s enough of an incentive. Makes no sense, though, but who am I to question the origins of hexes or even to ask my Tarot cards about which side of midnight the hex was cast. So, the book is now on order.

If lightning strikes one of the two ancient trees in the front yard on the day the book arrives, I’ll destroy the book.

The same if crows or raven gather in nearby pine trees and raise one hell of a ruckus.

If you read the book and suddenly went over to the dark side, please warn me.

Since this may be a bumpy ride, I’ll need a volunteer to hold my beer.

Malcolm

Maybe after writing four hoodoo novels, I can safely read the book I have a notebook filled with spells including protection spells.

Panic Grass – a writer’s dream name

Wikipedia photo

I love double meanings. That’s why I like the name “panic grass.” It has nothing to do with panic–that comes from Panicum–but the use of the word when describing an environment where (in your story) things are going wrong is a nice subliminal trick.

The common or regional names of many plants will help you create the kind of ambiance you want. Perhaps that’s cheating.  But I don’t care as long as the name is factual and also likely to be used in the place where my story is set.

If you have a good plant or wildflower guide for your state or region, you’ll find a lot of “local color.” I have these guides for both Florida and Montana. They not only help me describe the location but support my addiction to puns and words with double meanings such as “spurned panic grass.”

The guidebooks also ensure that the flowers in your stories are blooming at the time of the year when they bloom in “real life.”

–Malcolm

Do as Diana Gabaldon does, not as I do

Those of us who were members of the former CompuServe Literary Forum witnessed the birth of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. She uploaded snippets of the work in progress, encouraged discussions about them, and later when she became a successful author continued to support the forum and answer our questions about the art and craft and business of writing novels. Her gracious support of other writers included her writing a blurb for my novel The Sun Singer.

In our craft discussions, she and I disagreed on one thing. And that was, should the author stop writing while completing a gap in the research, or should s/he continue writing and fill in the correct information later?

She said: “Keep writing.” I said: “Stop writing.”

She argued that when the author was on a roll, stopping to fill in historical or other information would simply derail the flow of the novel and the author’s daily writing process.

I argued that writing while something is still unknown could very well send the novel down the “wrong road” and necessitate a lot of needless rewriting later.

She preferred to put a “placeholder” in the manuscript, reminding her that she still had some facts to verify before submitting the book to her agent.

I preferred (and still prefer) to know the facts–whether they apply to history, geography, customs, or whatever–before I write the next scene or chapter.

It goes without saying that her Outlander series of books–and their spinoffs–have been infinitely more successful than my novels. So, I suggest you follow her advice and keep putting words down on the page even if you’re not finished verifying your information.

The fact that I’m eight years older than Diana doesn’t mean that I have more wisdom. It simply means that I’m eight years more set in my ways. I’ll freely admit that as I continue pausing my writing while checking my facts.

If you’re not set in your ways, putting a placeholder in our MS is probably the smart thing to do until you have time to look up what you still need to lookup.

Malcolm

My novel-in-progress, “Weeping Wall,” sat for several months while I verified the geological information I needed in the first paragraph.

On re-reading Smiley’s ‘Duplicate Keys’

I first read this 1984 book in the mid-1990s after enjoying Jane Smiley’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner A Thousand Acres. I was disappointed because I expected more spooky police work and/or big-city thrills and chills. As a film noir fan, I’m used to harsher and darker crime stories

Publisher’s Description

Alice Ellis is a Midwestern refugee living in Manhattan. Still recovering from a painful divorce, she depends on the companionship and camaraderie of a tightly knit circle of friends. At the center of this circle is a rock band struggling to navigate New York’s erratic music scene, and an apartment/practice space with approximately fifty key-holders. One sunny day, Alice enters the apartment and finds two of the band members shot dead. As the double-murder sends waves of shock through their lives, this group of friends begins to unravel, and dangerous secrets are revealed one by one. When Alice begins to notice things amiss in her own apartment, the tension breaks out as it occurs to her that she is not the only person with a key, and she may not get a chance to change the locks.

Jane Smiley applies her distinctive rendering of time, place, and the enigmatic intricacies of personal relationships to the twists and turns of suspense. The result is a brilliant literary thriller that will keep readers guessing up to its final, shocking conclusion.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t ready for the “enigmatic intricacies of personal relationships” in 1995. Or perhaps I’ve either mellowed or become more eclectic in my reading since then.  Even so, I’ll probably never really grok the characters because they’re New Yorkers who enjoy subways, walking, lots of people, and all the other strangenesses I experienced whenever I visited NYC.

(I lived briefly in Syracuse as a kid, one of my brothers was born there, and then I went back there for grad school, but it’s on a different planet than the big city.)

The book is keeping my attention this time which says a lot for keeping books on one’s shelves and trying them out again later.

Malcolm

My novels include Fate’s Arrows (magical realism) and Sarabande (contemporary fantasy). Both novels are available in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and Nook.

‘The Hush’ by John Hart

As I read this powerful novel for the third time, I wonder why I didn’t review it in February of 2019 when it was published as a sequel to Hart’s The Lost Child. The book is dark, features a forbidding land of swamps and woods where outsiders get lost or killed, is fawned over by hunters and a family who has gone to court to extract it from owner Johnny Merrimon, and is as close to Johnny as his psyche.

“The Hush” refers to a hush arbor, one of many places where slaves worshipped in private to avoid trouble with their owners. The lives of slaves and the Merrimons are tangled together on this property in ways that even the current generation don’t know–though stronger and stronger dreams are hinting at the sins of the past.

I’ve read many of Hart’s books. All of them are strong–visceral, almost–and well written. This one–for me–is the strongest novel because of the linkage between the land, the people, and the folklore.

“The Hush,” wrote Washington Post reviewer Bill Sheehan, “is a harsh, inimical landscape in which disorientation rules and trees, paths and familiar landmarks seem to shift and disappear. It is a self-contained world in which unwelcome visitors are sometimes driven to madness and sometimes destroyed, and Hart evokes that surreal landscape with a power and economy worthy of the great British horror novelist Ramsey Campbell. ‘In that first hour, the forest was still,’ Hart writes, ‘but as light strengthened, a dawn chorus rose around them, a symphony of catbird and Carolina wren, of mourning dove and cardinal and the deep-throated gunk of green frogs in the pocosins that fingered up from the distant swamp.’”

In this novel, the reader doesn’t escape from the land which, perhaps, is the real protagonist, though most of the townspeople see Johnny as more an inexplicable anomaly than the land he owns–to the extent anyone can own such land as this.  His best friend Jack, who suffered through the past with him in The Lost Child, risks everything to help him. That might prove impossible.

Multiple readings of novels tend to bring out secrets we didn’t notice the first time through. When it comes to The Hush, those of us who seek out the mysteries of land and people may be too close to see the real from the unreal.

Highly recommended for readers of dark fantasy.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Fate’s Arrows,” magical realism set in the Florida Panhandle during the days when the KKK ruled the world.

Hardcover edition woes

The pandemic has screwed a lot of supply chains as various manufacturing and retail operations shut down.

The shutdown problem is impacting my hardcover books, all of which are listed on Amazon (and possibly elsewhere) as out of stock. These come from a different printer than the paperback editions which are still available. The Kindle editions are also available.

I apologize for the inconvenience to those of you who have been perplexed about the missing hardcover editions of Conjure Woman’s Cat, Eulalie and Washerwoman, Lena, Sarabande, and Special Investigative Reporter. Let’s hope they return soon.

Malcolm

Looking back at Pat Conroy’s ‘Beach Music’

Beach Music (1995), Conroy’s sixth book, is the story of Jack McCall, an American who moves to Rome to escape the trauma and painful memory of his young wife’s suicidal leap off a bridge in South Carolina. The novel is wide-ranging in its historical and geographical scope, and in its treatment of the Holocaust, Russian pogroms, and southern poverty, among other themes; it is generally recognized as Conroy’s ambitious—and perhaps darkest—work.Pat Conroy Web Site

Beach Music began as a 2,100-page manuscript which his publisher’s staff trimmed down. My mass market paperback is 800 pages. By today’s “standards” of shorter and shorter novels, this book is huge.

Like Conroy’s other novels, Beach Music focuses on a broken southern white male who’s the product of a dysfunctional family that grows up in the beautiful–and lyrically presented–South Carolina Lowcountry.

Excerpt: “It enclosed us in its laceries as we watched the moon spill across the Atlantic like wine from an overturned glass. With the light all around us, we felt secret in that moon-infused water like pearls forming in the soft tissues of oysters.”

The novel’s length comes, in part, from the backstories of many of the other characters as well as childhood reminiscences between protagonist Jack McCall and his brothers.

If we were to extract a basic plotline, it would be this. McCall leaves the Lowcountry with his two-year-old daughter Leah and moves to Rome after his wife Shyla commits suicide by jumping off a bridge. McCall is, of course, blamed for this; his wife’s parents claim McCall is unfit to raise Leah, but fail to prove their case in court. He severs his relationships with his family to the point of keeping his address and phone number secret. Slowly, family members work their way back into his life and communications begin to open up.

Part of his understanding of his extended family comes from considering their dark backgrounds, including the Holocaust. His mother’s background is especially bleak and is almost too horrible to comprehend. My belief is that these divergences, while well written and very dark, are too long.

The darkness is balanced out somewhat by the fact that McCall and his brothers take a devil-may-care approach to life. They’re likely to say or do almost anything, proper or not. On McCall’s first trip back to the states, somebody asks him who’s watching his daughter in Rome while he’s gone. His response is that Charles Manson got paroled and needed the work.

While sitting with his brothers in the hospital room where their mother is in a coma, somebody mentions that they should be careful what they say because people in comas can hear what’s being said at one level of the mind or another. Jack responds by saying something like, Mama, this is Jack. I’m the one who loves you. My brothers think you’re trash and don’t care about you at all. When it comes to your children’s love, it’s always Jack.

My favorite Conroy novel remains Prince of Tides, also filled with Lowcountry beauty and a family’s dysfunctions. I’ve read Prince of Tides multiple times. This past week was the first time I re-read Beach Music since it came out. It remains in my view, a stunning book in part because of its flaws.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

Ad Hoc Writing Research

If I were writing historical novels, I would probably do a lot of research before I even committed to writing each book. My novels are written without an ourline or any idea how they will end up. This means I do the research for each scene when I get to it. While the novel in progress is set in 1955, the fact that I was an elementary school kid in that year doesn’t mean I know a lot about the time period.

So, it’s time to Google everything.

  • The last scene took place at a grocery store. Okay, when somebody entered the store, what kinds of posters, die-cut signs, and hand-written specials did they see on the window sill or window? I found a great Noxzema suburn cream sign, a nice Planters Peanuts poster, and a list of the meat prices per pound.
  • The current scene takes place in the backyard of some well-to-do people. While we had cheap pre-Weber metal barbecue, the fru fru people often had barbecue grills made of brick, 44 inches wide are larger.
  • What are they having to eat? I knew part of this already, but did a bit of online checking. The menu: porterhouse steak, corn, collards with ham hocks, baked potatoes, corn bread, and macaroni salad. The men are drinking either Jax Beer or Old Overholt Rye whiskey. I would enjoy all of this except for the Rye which I never liked.
  • The family wanted music. So, after verifying that long playing records were, in fact, available in 1955 AND that RCA had a three-in-one (78, 45, and 33 and 1/3 rpm) record player, I needed to make sure they had something to listen to. Since the men in the family are KKK members, they won’t be listening to jazz, blues, or gospel. Glenn Miller seemed like a safe choice.
  • Now, if I can, I’d like to find out how long each of the tracks is so I can time the action with which song would be playing at five minutes into the dinner and ten minutes into the dinner, etc.  (I did this once before when I timed the cuts on a Scott Joplin CD with a ride between Tallahassee and St. Marks, Florida. Probably nobody checks these things, but I wanted to know what song would be playing as Emily and her father (in Widely Scattered Ghosts) reached various landmarks along the way. Heck, I even check the weather reports for the dates and cities where my novels are set to make the weather in the novel the same as it was in “real life.”

Okay, I only have one more thing to check. What happens if somebody gets shot in the arm with a target arrow? There’s so little history taught in med school, that doctors can’t tell me what they would have done in 1955. I was e-mailing back and forth with a medical museum curator who admitted that doctors seem to believe that their speciality “rose like a Phoenix out of the ashes of ignorance” just before they got out of medical school. So, on treatment, I need to skirt around the specifics I don’t know. I’m not happy about that, but as Vonnegut always said, “so it goes.”

Malcolm

 

 

Review: ‘Iron House’ by John Hart

Iron HouseIron House by John Hart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Hart’s books are among the darkest I’ve read, and “Iron House” is no exception. The story begins with an orphanage where the amenities are few, care and supervision is lapse, and groups of bullies rule the corridors and terrorize the weaker children. The darkness doesn’t begin or end here. The story features an assortment of characters nobody will like, the cruel upbringings where they were reared, and the violent lives many of them wore like armor in order to survive.

Michael has lived on the streets of New York as part of an organized crime organization that is feared above all others. When he falls in love with Elena, he wants a fresh start. However, his “colleagues” don’t want him to have any rest other than a grave. Michael is efficient, practical, and savvy, but as the plot turns in on itself with dark secrets falling like dominoes, he may not be strong enough to solve the mysteries that stand between him and saving those he loves–including Elena.

I’ve given the book four stars because I think some of the descriptions of violence and torture are excessive. However, those scenes do show the total inhumanity and animal nature of the bad guys, so they’re not totally out of place in the novel. The novel has two strong points in addition to the strong characters. First, it keeps the reader guessing because the mysteries and secrets get deeper and darker as the complex plot unfolds; second, the main characters, Michael, Elena, and Michael’s long-lost brother Julien are always at risk–and with each breath of air, the risk becomes greater as the story proceeds.

The novel shows the worst of human nature on many fronts–and perhaps the often misguided best.

View all my reviews

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” “Lena,” “Special Investigative Reporter,” and “Sarabande,” all of which you can find on Bookshop.org.