Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Creole Belle by James Lee Burke  
Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen  
The Lonesome Heart is Angry by Paul Charles  
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

It was inevitable, I suppose. After making sterling progress in January and February towards my aim of an average of a book read per week for 2014, I came a bit of a cropper in March. Okay, so I’m still averaging a book a week for the month, but after eight books in January and seven books in February, a mere four for March seems rather poor, especially as two of them were pretty short. I’ll excuse it on the grounds that one of the books that tipped into April was very long indeed, with quite small print, and one of the March books was also pretty long, especially for a mystery novel.

Let’s begin with that book, since it’s kind of what I did. Occasionally I’ll meet would-be-writers (and, indeed, published writers) who try to avoid reading anything remotely resembling their own work while writing. I suppose they worry that they might be overly influenced by the style of the writer whom they’re reading, and I accept that this can be a real concern, especially when one is starting out. I can still spot the paragraph in Every Dead Thing that was written under the influence of too many Cormac McCarthy novels, mainly because it’s a paragraph long and entirely untroubled by punctuation, apart from the full stop at the end.

On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for reading a writer of undeniable excellence who is working in the same field as you are. At the very least, it gives you something for which to aim, and will remind you of how good the writing within your genre can be. That’s as true of mystery fiction as any other. There’s a lot of serviceable writing in the genre, but not a lot of really great prose. Some people might argue that you don’t read mystery fiction for the prose, but that’s like saying that you don’t judge your furniture by the quality of its construction. It’s enough that the table is flat, and your cup doesn’t slide off. It’s the same mindset that likes to describe mystery fiction as essentially plot-driven when, as any fule kno, it’s character-driven, or at least the best of it is.

James Lee Burke is one of the writers who made me want to be a writer. He’s one of the great prose stylists in the mystery genre, or indeed any genre, and for my money he’s the greatest living mystery writer. He’s so good that I’m always one book behind. I don’t read his next-to-last book until I have the latest one on the shelf. That way, I’ll always have one in reserve. (When I mention this at book events, it’s nice to see a lot of readers nod in understanding. I may be odd, but I’m not alone in my oddness.)

With that in mind, Creole Belle is actually 2012’s Dave Robicheaux novel, and I still have 2013’s book, Light of the World, to read. Which is nice. It was, as always, an illuminating experience to read it as I began writing the next Parker book, although, slightly worryingly, it did touch on some of the same subject matter as the novel on which I’m working. Still, that happens less often than one might expect, given that all creative endeavor draws from the same cloud of inspiration.

What’s interesting about Creole Belle – the consistency of the quality of Burke’s work apart – is the extent to which its characters are shadowed by mortality. Burke made a decision a long time ago to allow his characters to age, which has kept the books fresh. If, as I said above, all fiction is fundamentally about character, then by allowing the characters to change and develop, a writer can ensure that his or her fiction changes and develops too. I always enjoyed Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, but because Spenser never really aged, the books never really changed either. They were all basically the same, which was kind of reassuring. Sometimes it’s nice to know what you’re getting before you buy it.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Burke’s characters should have mortality on their minds. Their creator is no longer a young man, and the concerns of his characters probably reflect his own. Nevertheless, I hope Burke has many years left in him yet. For my generation of mystery writers, he remains something of a touchstone, and I personally am lost in admiration for him as both a writer and a decent, moral human being.

Oddly enough, I felt a point of contact too with Donald Fagen, whose Eminent Hipsters provided a palate cleanser between novels. I’d kind of skimmed through it before Christmas, but I wanted to return to it when I had a little time on my hands. Okay, so there’s something mildly frustrating about one half of Steely Dan writing a kind of memoir in which Steely Dan is barely mentioned, but I can only assume that he’s saving the Dan years for another book, which is fine with me.

The essays that form the first part of Eminent Hipsters are curious and amusing, but the real meat is in the tour diary that takes up most of the book. I suspect that Fagen has partly created a character called “Donald Fagen” who is marginally more curmudgeonly than he is, but not by much. He clearly doesn’t care much for traveling, yet making a living requires that he tours. He gets annoyed that the audience for his tour with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald want to hear old Dan tunes instead of the R&B and soul that is the backbone of the trio’s set, yet also recognizes that the only reason that most of them have bought tickets is because he’s half of Steely Dan. Finally, he shares with me one of my own bugbears at concerts: the apparent inability of people to simply attend a concert without holding up a cellphone and watching it on a screen as they record it. As Fagen notes, it’s as though they can’t conceive of actually being present unless they have some physical evidence to remind them.

So put your phones away, or Fagen and I will do for you.

Strangely, I read two Irish novels this month, which may be a record for me, since I have a recorded antipathy towards Irish fiction in many of its forms. The first was The Lonesome Heart is Angry by Paul Charles, published next week. I know Paul well, and am hugely fond of him: he’s a good writer, and a fine human being, but it’s always a risky business when one is asked to provide a cover quote for a book by a friend. Nevertheless, The Lonesome Heart is Angry, with its gentle but incisive examination of small-town secrets, was a pleasure to read, and almost made me reconsider my attitude to Irish fiction in general, which I find worrying.

This doubt about my own prejudices was further exacerbated by The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, which has become something of a phenomenon in Ireland, and won the Guardian First Book Award in the UK this year. It has also been shortlisted for the 2014 Impac Award. It’s a novel constructed from a series of interlinked short stories, each concerning a different character in a small Irish town, and its success is unsurprising. Ryan can write, and although I’m still not entirely convinced that a book constructed from interlinked short stories is actually a novel rather than a collection, I came away from it very glad that I’d read it, and glad too that, for once, the hype appeared to be justified.

And so we’re into April, and I’m already looking good for at least another four books this month — but two very large research tomes are calling to me, and I know that they’re going to scupper my progress eventually…


Debi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debi said...

Keep demonstrating the beauty of lyrical prose and I will continue to hear the music therein. Also for as long as you tell the stories of characters one can care about, the books will remain irresistible.

'I personally am lost in admiratiion for him, as both a writer and a decent, moral human being.'
He is not the only one of whom such generous sentiment can be written.

It is not hard to imagine doing for people during at least one show this year if their cell phones become a nuisance.

The Spinning Heart is a collection/novel to keep in mind then - as if there are not enough words already filling the 'to be read' bookcase; simply waiting . . . and waiting. No such thing as too many books though.

Distraction can be beneficial - even necessary, like play. Trust that the research will take precedence when the time is right. Works for me.



Yvonne Stoffels said...

The books. I truly like reading them. „THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS“ I read lately parallel to „Anastasia“ books, „The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden“ by Jonas Jonasson puted aside for now. „THE WHISPERERS“ I’m in the middle of it, same like with my first of your work just mentioned, parallel reading.

An ex-lady-neighbour presented to me „Anastasia“ by Vladimir Megré about two years ago. I liked it and bought the second one as well and this spring it hit me – out of the blue (no, not really) – and I ordered them all, in english. The 10th isn’t available (on the market, maybe in a friends library still is) in english anymore, so I chose the german version. The author wasn’t happy with the E translation and took it off from sale. Funny, he says that 10 is also ok for those, who haven’t come closer to the other ones yet. Naturally „we“ read what we want and when, right? Though, it fell shiny holding it in hands, it arrived first of’em all. How ever, long letter, short story, shorter message:

The rest of them took some space delivering and so I researched bright and wishing for some ‚Intermezzo books’ in english to give their part in making my days until ..

Your name fell into my eyes (never heard before)– two books crossed promising my path – like calling - at once wished to ‚taste (trusting I can say that in english)’. The side where I liked to order, my password I long had forgotten. Their web support gave me great support, as they supported via offering change for a few days of my account using one of their home sweet home password arsenal, until I figured out my own or put instead a new one (this part of the whole just for fun and fairytale, bothering you is far from my intention). Which did not work at all. Patience can be set other ways, this all went over a couple of days, yes, and nights of course in consequence. And then, I just subscribed anew. Your books immediately came into mind and I am glad they are with me now. And now.

Yvonne Stoffels said...

Quite some books joined me’ household – still live with me "spiritually" - over the years, gave them, with nice stuff and beautys away, thinking, others will be enjoying as well and I do not like having lots of material equipment myself, which may be right for other people, well, having lots of stuff. I moved quite a few times and this also means light weight and different quality, less quantity. I focus more on writing, no goals, rather allow to flow. Actually I can hardly make a border, a separation. Even if I do not sit and write, I work in some sense. Is some kind of nature, lies „in the blood“. It may look like I am not activ, still I am. In many fields – all connected. How is it with you? I am pretty much interested in how you „realize reality“. As far as it is comfortable for each one. I think you are a person who is with life „not aging“. Rather sinking into so called wisdom, never lost your inner child. Which is a good chance becoming more „youthful“.

Work in writing books was like it manifested easy. I had no particular thinking, like, I wanted to work as an author. I rather had the frame in mind. Writing has long been companion, the first book then appeared, two of five publisher gave an offer and I welcomed it. Still do. Challenging because I was used to „fight“ and struggle. Watch, learn and do it your way. Some like that.
To write is like breathing - can be light, heavy, in different facettes. Essential. Key. Bridge. Who knows what comes out of it. Creating with thought, picturing life, stories, a tale, through heart.

Yvonne Stoffels said...

....You must be a reader recognizing sentences without „reading“. This amount of books your are reading. Appreciation sharing with „us“some of the work, books, you are reading.
Sometimes I think there will come a period, without reading at all. No I mean another kind of reading. More reading nature and remember that, again, let grow, seasons. Nowadays I mix it, parallel, ja.

All in the writing. One day, books stay in their form, when we are gone into another. I love leaving some here, which might communicate, touch ones heart and mind in a „free to choose out from it“ way. My name does not matter here. No sensation.

Your work me meeting so far, truly sounds like it comes from a genuine source.
And it feels like you tell a lot and tell a lot not. Sound between the lines. Which I also like very much, let me say. Roots can have the same ground, kindred spirits. The chosen instruments and the ones maybe seeming not chosen – the style in story telling may ‚appear and be’ different, another kind of „Genre“ – can be inspiring. Substance might be very similar. Potential finds it’s way, what ever we do & let be.
I seldom contact persons via a blog or books I read written by them, yes, really. How can I put this. It feels like there is something. Truly worth giving (and taking) attention, exchanging a little. Everything we say, we show ourselves too.

Aye, humour in your books I like. Sometimes I laugh out loud a moment. Holding such story in hand, probably not many occasions for other people finding laughter, but I do have those moments and not to rare. Thank you for that as well. I like dry intelligent humour, which can come simple it’s way or less simple. Zynism and low level would not be my thing. (Hopefully you mean some sequences humouristic and if not, forgive as my humour button became touched, even pressed). Can be surprising how many faces interpretation has.
The violentic aspects do not bring bad mood here. See, when I read George Orwell’s 1984 last year, I had to stop at page 252. My whole environment startet vibrating in a everything else then nice way. My cats looked strange saying it and I felt it intensely. What I read, I realized and so started giving in to this sort of reality. I decided not to read further. Strengthen priority, reading Beauty directing life letter formations (thank*x for language patience). Life giving warmth. And realize this kind of reality in creating.
Cat stays vivid calm with your books. Me too. Environment too. That of course counts for „our souls“. Each with his, her skills, task.
And there would be more to say. (love to listen. Right now, Crickets*,-))

The letter has become long and there will be other possibilities in posting a comment for example.

During my latest book Island and Main land has a mention. Living on my island is only possible in inviting the main land as well. The island becomes existence through the main land, main land is reality through the islands.
Travel savely, sleep soundly - events enriching.

A lady friend. *x


Yvonne Stoffels said...

* Tears with the last sentence of THE BOOK OF LOST (and found) THINGS


PS: Captain o my C .. reminded me of ..'dead poets society

PPS: still in the Whisperers Beauty .. will order THE GATE soon ..


Yvonne Stoffels said...

The Gates arrived yesterday * delighted reading in it * Thank You * *x

Billy Coyle said...

Your Wrath of Angels was quite well plotted, but why did you spoil it by peppering it with blasphemies?

Yvonne Stoffels said...

The Wolf In Winter is part of a reading journey since a couple of days - enjoying *- will note some thoughts with pleasure in my next comment .. cheers .. love and laughter also to your closest.


Yvonne Stoffels said...

The Wolf In Winter is part of a reading journey since a couple of days - enjoying *- will note some thoughts with pleasure in my next comment .. cheers .. love and laughter also to your closest.


Yvonne Stoffels said...

The Wolf In Winter is part of a reading journey since a couple of days - enjoying *- will note some thoughts with pleasure in my next comment .. cheers .. love and laughter also to your closest.