Books from the attic: “The Secret Warning”

I’ve got lots of Hardy Boys adventures. I grabbed this one from the top of the stack.

Everybody knows about the Hardy Boys — the great teenage detectives and sons of the well-known detective Fenton Hardy, from whom “they had inherited his unusual keenness and with that his uncanny ability for solving mysteries.”

This case has to do with a couple of ruffians who have it in for the boys because they inadvertently scraped the ruffians’ boat, who team up with an evil guy who runs a diving/salvage company. Along with their chum Chet, the boys have to drive to Bailey’s Landing to recover important papers that their father idiotically left in his suit jacket that someone borrowed. In Bailey’s Landing they end up having many underwater scrapes as well as a multitude of secret warnings left in their hotel room, all of which are obviously left by the two ruffians or the evil owner of the diving company.

Like Tom Swift, Jr., the Hardy boys have a famous father, a mother who is a cipher (Why does she let her children stay in Bailey’s Landing week after week, where they are threatened with death pretty much every day?), and an amusing chum (Chet is fat! He thinks about food all the time!). Tom Swift, Jr. and the Race to the Moon is bad, but it’s kind of funny in its badness. The Secret Warning, on the other hand, is just bad. There’s no continuity to the plot, no attempt at characterization beyond chums and ruffians, and the requirement that every chapter has to end in some kind of climax leads to a succession of random emergencies: Watch out, Frank — the ship’s anchor has come loose and is heading straight for you! Oh no, where did that octopus come from, and how can we possibly defeat the sea monster!

Growing up I loved these books. I’m kind of disappointed in my childhood self.

Books from the attic: “Hoop Crazy: A Chip Hilton Sports Story”

Growing up, I loved the Chip Hilton books. Unlike the Tom Swift Jr. and Hardy Boys books, they had a real person identified as their author — Clair Bee, a well-known college basketball coach back in the 1940s. It seems pretty clear from the level of coaching detail in Hoop Crazy that he actually wrote the book.

Chip Hilton is a sports hero — like Tom Swift, he is blond, crew-cut, and lanky. Lankiness is apparently a requirement for these heroes. He lives in Valley Falls with his widowed mom and works at the drug store to earn money for his college fund when he isn’t playing sports with his chums Soapy and Speed and Biggie and Red.

It’s all pretty idyllic, until the stranger shows up in town.

Valley Falls is a one-industry town: pottery. The stranger knows something about pottery, and he needs money. So he decides to swindle the owner of the pottery plant, using formulas that he steals from a locked file cabinet in Chip’s basement. (Chip’s father was the head chemist at the pottery plant until he died saving a woman’s life in an explosion at the plant.) Whatever. This part of the novel is ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the stranger roils the hoop-crazy town by advocating the one-hand shot instead of the approved two-hand set shot. This is all very quaint. The book was published in 1950, and within a few years both of these shots would disappear in favor of the jump shot. Anyway, the one-hand-shot craze divides the town, wrecks team chemistry, and jeopardizes their chances of repeating as state champs.

OK, that’s also pretty stupid. But there’s also a subplot about a shy colored kid who just happens to be a better basketball player than anyone in town except Chip. How do the other players react to him? How does the town react? And the opposing teams? What happens when the Valley Falls team travels to play Southern and the kid isn’t allowed to stay in the hotel with them? This subplot comes out of the blue, and it’s actually pretty terrific. The author doesn’t know how to characterize a colored kid, who is treated as a saintly cipher. But everything else rings true, at least in the context of a Fifties YA novel.

Spoiler alert: What’s also interesting is that Valley Falls loses the big game. So we are taught a lesson about sportsmanship and accepting defeat gracefully.

Anyway, I was impressed.

Killing Commendatore

This is Haruki Murakami’s latest novel. I’ve liked Murakami’s work in the past, but not this one. Am I tired of him and the weird worlds he creates, or is this really a bad novel? It’s got something to do with the artistic process and the power of metaphors and such. A bell rings in a hole where no one can be ringing it. A character in a painting comes alive. A painter saves a girl by going on a journey to a strange underworld.

Well, that all sounds promising, doesn’t it? But none of it worked. I kept waiting for explanations, even dream-logic explanations, but they never came. Why did the painter have to go to the underworld? Don’t know. The girl was hiding in a neighbor’s house the whole time, and she snuck out when the cleaning people left the gate unlocked.

And the author leaves no stone unturned when it comes to using cliches. Did Murakami use them in the original Japanese, or was this the fault of the translators? I don’t really care. The novel was painful to listen to, although the narrator was great.

Saying good-bye to my friend’s novel

Along with my novel, this week I said good-bye (I think) to my friend Jeff Carver’s novel (now split in two), which he’s been working on (and we in his writing group have been critiquing) since 2006 or so. That’s a lot of critiquing. And writing–I can’t imagine spending 12 years on a novel. But the result is really good–probably because I made a couple of pretty good suggestions over the years, along with a lot of dopey ones Jeff wisely ignored.

Now he needs to start the next novel in his Chaos Chronicles series. And he needs to finish it in 2019, dammit.

Two books to avoid

I used to read a lot; now I don’t. Writing gets in the way. (Also working for a living.) And when I read nowadays, I often get cranky. Here are two very different books that made me cranky recently.

The Outsider is the first Stephen King book I’ve read in decades. He just wrote too damn much, and I couldn’t keep up, so I stopped trying. King has his strengths and his weaknesses, but I always thought the strengths outweighed the weaknesses. But I didn’t enjoy The Outsider. The setup annoyed me: It’s structured as a police procedural, but the police procedures don’t work because the actual perp happens to be some kind of shape-shifting life-force-sucking evil monster, not the poor suspect whose body and DNA he replicated. So all the police work falls apart. Then everyone goes into monster-hunting mode, and King expends a lot of effort setting up the ground-rules about what powers the monster has. These ground-rules seemed utterly arbitrary to me–put in place so he could give us a thrilling climax. I wasn’t thrilled. Meh.

On the other end of the spectrum is Wuthering Heights, which is one of those novels that any self-respecting English major should have read before graduating from college. But I didn’t get around to it till last month. Here’s a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time where it shows up at #46; this seems pretty typical. If I’d been younger when I read it, I probably would have contemplated Bronte’s depth of characterization and reinvention of the novel’s form and maybe ignored the fact that everyone in this novel is freaking insane. The me who read the book on his well-earned vacation got increasingly annoyed at this fact.

Maybe it’s just me.

Paperback versions of Dover Beach and The Distance Beacons

Turns out we now have paperback versions of my very fine novels Dover Beach and The Distance Beacons(An old, used paperback of Dover Beach is also available, but I don’t get any money when you buy one of those copies, so where’s the fun in that?) The covers look remarkably like the covers of the ebooks:

So now, along with Where All the Ladders Start, you can buy paperback versions of all three of the very fine novels in my Last P.I. series. Need I point out that a series of private eye novels set in a dystopian future after a major societal breakdown would make the perfect gift for that special someone on Valentine’s Day?

Also, I can get you these novels cheaper than you can get them from Amazon, so if you need a few, let me know.

Killing off your characters

A while back I listened to a podcast about Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novel North and South. The panelists made a persuasive case that it is still worth reading. So I downloaded it and read it. The panelists were wrong.

It’s not, you know, terrible. But there’s nothing distinctive about it, and it falls too easily into Victorian attitudes even as the author sometimes seems to be pushing boundaries a bit. Dickens does the same thing, of course, but you can forgive him because he’s so brilliantly funny and inventive; Gaskell is neither. The panelists pointed out that she tries to fairly represent the points of view of capital and labor in the new industrial society that was transforming England. That’s admirable, but those points of view feel pretty dated 150 years on.

Here’s one distinctive thing Gaskell does: she shows no qualms about killing off her characters. Half a dozen major-ish characters die in the course of the novel, several of them for no apparent reason. That is to say, the plot would have worked just as well if the heroine’s mother hadn’t died, followed by her father, followed by her godfather… It’s Victorian England, of course, so it’s not unreasonable for someone to cash in his chips without any warning in his mid-fifties. But it happens enough in this novel that it feels like an authorial tick.

I’m intrigued by this because I’m approaching the climactic scenes of the novel that I’ve been working on. I’m clear on the general direction of the plot, but I haven’t worked out the details–like who’s gonna die. A bad guy or two, surely, but what about the good guys? It seems unlikely that they’ll get off scot-free. Unlike North and South, in my novel people are actually fighting each other (to be fair, there was a pretty good union-busting scene in North and South, but no one died in it). But which good guys? At this point I’m pretty fond of all of them.

I’m interested in finding out how this all turns out. Which is why I haven’t been blogging much lately.