Sunday, August 24, 2014

Literary Alchemy: A King's Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman

Penman’s epic novels about the lives of English royalty are much beloved by many—and with good reason. Penman’s most recent novel completes her cycle about Richard the Lionhearted, including both Lionheart and A King’s Ransom. Penman’s novels engage in a kind of alchemy that’s worth analyzing in a review because you won’t be aware of it while you’re in the midst of reading. That’s the point—she’s so good at it you won’t notice what she’s doing—you’ll be caught in the story. She does three things as a writer that ought to make the reader draw back or slow down, and yet, they don’t. In the hands of a less skillful writer these stylistic choices would, but the magic here works. Hence my claim that Penman is a kind of literary alchemist, turning the ordinary or even disastrous in most writers’ hands into something transformed and transforming.
So what are the three things? One is the length of her books. They are big. Don’t try to hold on with one hand while balancing A King’s Ransom over your cup of tea. You will drop the book. I’ll grant there are other historical writers who draw their readers through 650 pages without slowing down, but it is a relatively rare talent.
The second aspect of Penman’s style that should set off warning bells, but does not, is the amount of historical information she includes. You’ll get the complete story of Richard the Lionheart and you’ll enter into precise details of warfare, daily life, international political intrigue, personalities of all relevant persons both famous and less so, clothing, armor—pretty much everything. She even follows thru on historical tangents that are important but not central to the main tale. Writing historical fiction well is usually all about balance—including enough period detail to persuade your reader they are there, but not too much. I’ve never felt while reading Penman’s books that there was too much. But when I step back and break the spell she’s cast, it looks suspiciously like a lot of history. How does she get so much in without weighing down the tale? I wish I knew. It’s her special alchemy.
Sharon Kay Penman, Literary Alchemist
The third bit of alchemy is the most impressive to me. Her epic arcs of history require contributions from a wide range of narrators. The ordinary writer with many shifting points of view will be told the novel suffers from confusing “head-hopping.” Somehow Penman can glide her reader from one character’s viewpoint to another without any hitches even within one scene. When I read Penman’s first novel The Sunne in Splendour, I remember being forced to put it down in order to cook dinner. I was stirring something when it dawned on me, as my thinking shifted from reader to writer/analytical mode, that I couldn’t identify who was telling the novel. I grabbed the book and scanned the scenes I’d read. When I realized what she’d accomplished, I was awestruck—seamless shifts without any awareness on the reader’s part, with no sense of disorientation. It’s a style perfectly suited to her grand subject matter. We can delve into history through multiple minds and perspectives. Each feels intimate. Each persuades. I never wonder whose head I’m in; I always know. I honestly have no idea how she does it. As the warning in ads says, “Don’t try this at home.” Unless you’re an alchemist.
Buy A King's Ransom at:
The Poisoned Pen
Visit Sharon Kay Penman on

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston

     In Hand of Fire author Starkston has pulled off a remarkable feat.  She has taken a briefly mentioned character from Homer's Iliad(whether she actually existed is debatable) and brought her to life.  Impeccably researched, this fictional realization of the Bronze Age, in all it's quotidian and cosmological aspects, ensnares the reader in a story that is both alluring in its strangeness and all too close to our own present day.
     Through Briseis, our heroine, Starkston presents an alternate view of the Iliad.  Seen through the eyes of a young woman, who because of her status, becomes a pawn in the powerful forces that raged in Troy at the time, we become privy to a version of the story that is unique.
     While Homer is a combination of history and mythology this book weds these themes in a straight forward manner that makes it all accessible to the modern reader.  I was fascinated by Starkston's view of Achilles.  We see him via the sensibility of Briseis, who loves him, while his struggles, both mythological and existential, rage within and without.
     Most readers will already be familiar with the broad outlines of Homers epic so I will forgo reiterating the plot.  For those who do not know Homers tale than this is a great place to learn about it.  What I will emphasize is that once one begins this tale one is transported back thousands of years to a time both ancient and modern all at the same time.  Reading Hand of Fire is akin to entering a time machine.  I felt the age come alive through Starkston's subtle manipulation of her research and her narrative skill.  These fully fleshed-out characters leap off the page and a time that is far away chronologically becomes all too real.  This is a wonderful introduction to both Homer and the late Bronze Age.  Any reader from teen-ager on up will find this both a fascinating history lesson and a thrilling novel.
     Judith Starkston will be appearing at the Poisoned Pen bookstore on September 10th at 7 pm to discuss and sign this wonderful novel.

Reviewed by Steve Shadow Schwartz

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Shadow versus the audio book

In a previous essay I wrote in June of 2011 entitled "The romance of the printed word", I tackled my feelings about digital versus print books.  In that year a lot of controversy was  in the air about these competing platforms. At that time it never occurred to me to even mention audio books as they were completely off my radar.  Since that time the audio book industry has experienced massive growth.
People who have long commutes listen in their cars.  Many who stare at screens all day come home with tired eyes and can close them while listening to their favorite authors.  Instead of bedtime reading with the light shining in your eyes one can lay back and enjoy the dark while still catching up with a few chapters.  Audio books also do well in our public libraries.
Despite costing as much or more than a hard-bound book, audio editions remain a value as they generally consist of superior packaging and often up to 10 CD's.  Over the years I have tried to listen to them but found the readers boring and the execution both mundane and often annoying.  However, as more professional actors and skilled verbalists are hired to execute these books, the climate has changed for the better.

I now believe this medium serves as a viable alternative to the paper book(still my favorite form) and will serve me as a welcome alternative.  As I get older and my eyes can no longer endure all day reading and writing sessions, therefore I now look forward to closing my eyes and just listening.
For example, I recently listened to five of Colin Cotterill's books featuring the Cambodian Dr. Siri.  A wonderful series of wry and arresting tales of a good man trying to survive under the Khmer Rouge.
Another audio book I highly recommend is Deborah J. Ledford's "Crescendo".  This is the third book in her series featuring the Native American police officer Inola Walela.  Aside from the fact that this is a terrific series featuring a complex set of psychological mysteries replete with utterly complete and fully rounded characters, the audio book version came as a revelation.  Christina Cox, the actress who reads the book, has uncanny control of each and every character and is able to sustain a differentiation in timbre and intonation throughout the 8CD's and over nine hours running time.
As I concluded about E-books, I now feel the same about audio books.  Each platform has a place and a use.  Anything that gets more people reading, in what ever form that "reading" takes place
can only be of benefit to us all.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014


A new voice came roaring out of British Columbia a couple of years ago and blew the crime reading public out of the water.  The Professionals was an amazing debut with a fresh conceit, a startling band of outlaws and an unusual odd couple for detectives.  The razor sharp plot and the page turning execution led to huge sales and many awards.  The affable and handsome young lion of an author took the reading public with him for his second book, Criminal Enterprise, and let everyone know that there would be no sophomore slump from this Canuck.  It has been a long wait but Mr. Laukkanen's new book is finally here.

     Kill Fee brings back the odd pairing of Carla Windermere, a black female FBI agent and Kirk Stevens, a married father and Minnesota state cop.  How they come to be working  together is skillfully portrayed in a slam-bang opening scene.  The book once again features a novel idea ripped from the headlines.
     What do we do with our damaged soldiers who are returning from a fruitless war. How do we treat the psychic wounds they carry with them?  This problem is cunningly "solved" in an unexpected way by the author.
     Like an action film that never lets up, Kill Fee wends its way through a labyrinth of clues as the two detectives find themselves embroiled in a Manchurian Candidate nightmare.  As the tension builds they find unexpected feelings rising between them and how they deal with these only keeps the pages turning.  This is a police procedural and a first-rate thriller. Do not miss it.
     Mr. L will be at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale on March 26th for an interview and to sign books.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review of Names of the Dead by Katia Lief

What would you do if a young man you knew only vaguely started work at your office, and asked you to share a picnic lunch? How would you feel if he then started to bombard you with gifts, emails and phone calls? At just what point would you decide that this was more than a crush... and needed to be regarded as serious stalking? Questions like these are the starting-point for Names of the Dead, a recent crime thriller by Katia Lief. This author is best-known for the Karin Schaeffer private eye series, but the heroine of her standalone novel, Darcy Mayhew, is an investigative journalist at the New York Times. That means the book will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading novels set in newsrooms, such as Julie Kramer's Delivering Deathrecently reviewed here at Poisoned Fiction.

A 30-something widow who has moved from Martha's Vineyard to the Big Apple to rebuild her life, Darcy is an appealing heroine. Anyone who enjoys the whole female private eye style of fiction will immediately be sucked in by her wry, humorous first-person narration, which is compulsively readable. However, as Darcy finds her home life with her young son Nat under threat from a stalker, the appropriately-named mailroom worker Joe Coffin, the book also has strong elements of the “domestic suspense" genre, highlighted in the LA Times.

The novel is quite short, so it can almost be read at a sitting – and it might be a mistake to pick it up if you have to do something urgent in the next couple of hours. The newsroom atmosphere is convincingly created, and, refreshingly, Darcy actually has to work on more than one story at a time – unlike many fictional journalists who can spend weeks at a time on one investigation without their bosses batting an eyelid! All the same, most of her effort becomes focused on one particular scandal, after a whistle-blower approaches her with a story which carries deadly undertones. As she becomes increasingly obsessed by this investigation, it's all too easy to ignore Joe's obsession with her, and to convince herself it doesn't matter all that much. Maybe he was outside her door by coincidence – and maybe leaving a bagel and coffee at her desk for breakfast was just a friendly gesture. Maybe.
The book builds up the tension well, with little details adding together to make Joe an increasingly scary figure. In the UK, the novel is published under a different title, focusing more on the threat he poses – Watch You Die. However, the US title is more true to the book's main theme, because this is a novel with dark underpinnings, focusing on bereavement and grieving. Darcy is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her beloved husband, Hugo, and to allow herself to love again. Her own emotions also give her an insight into the suffering of her parents, who were both Holocaust survivors. Meanwhile, as she gains a greater understanding of her mother's feelings in the past, she has to face up to the risk of losing her in the present, as she is a victim of advancing Alzheimer's Disease. These are grim themes and there is a danger that the piling up of misery could get a bit much, yet somehow the novel never feels depressing. This is mainly because of the witty prose style – and also because there are lighter sections woven in, such as Darcy's vivid memories of her life in Martha's Vineyard, and her tentative second-time-around romance with her son's gorgeous teacher.

It's not just this novel which goes by more than one name. The author, who is a creative writing tutor, has herself published under three different names. Her first books were issued under her maiden name, Katia Spiegelman, next she wrote her first thrillers using a pseudonym, Kate Pepper (the surname was borrowed from a pet cat) and then she started writing her married name, Katia Lief. She has written a lighthearted essay asking “What's In a Name?”, where she admits that at times she has ended up confusing herself. Many of her heroines also have similar names, adding to the muddle. It all means that, if you get hooked on this author's style and want to catch up with her various books, you'll have to do quite a bit of searching to find them all.  

Reviewed by Anonymous