A Look-see at Sequels

Margaret Atwood photo by Liam Sharp.

How is a sequel to a novel different from the next installment of a series (such as the Harry Potter and Jack Reacher books) or another installment of a trilogy (like The Lord of the Rings)? One difference is that an author often waits at least a few years before producing a sequel, while usually writing unrelated books in between.

This post will mostly ignore series to focus on the sequel, which of course can be just as good or better than the first novel or not quite as good or even a dud.

I’m currently reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed (2021) not long after having read his The Sympathizer (2015), and it’s another superbly crafted, political-minded, part-humorous look at the mind-boggling life of a half-Vietnamese/half-French man — now living in Paris after the Vietnam War. During the years between those equally excellent 2015 and 2021 novels, the author’s published output included unrelated works (that I haven’t read) such as The Refugees short-story collection, a children’s book, and two nonfiction books.

Margaret Atwood did the sequel thing when she wrote The Testaments (2019) as a long-time-in-coming follow to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The later book is not at the level of the earlier speculative-fiction classic about a brutally patriarchal society, but it’s quite good in its own right. During that lengthy Tale-to-Testaments time span, Atwood authored a number of other great novels — including Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake, to name a few.

I’ll say something similar about John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945) and its Sweet Thursday sequel (1954): first one excellent, the second a shade less so — with both socially observant and frequently funny. The highlight of Steinbeck’s post-Cannery/pre-Sweet work was of course East of Eden (1952).

Anne of Green Gables (1908) spawned many sequels through 1939, even as L.M. Montgomery wrote other memorable novels — such as The Blue Castle and the Emily trilogy — during those three decades. None of the Anne sequels match the Green Gables original, but all are well worth reading, with Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside my favorites.

Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970) is one of my very favorite time-travel novels, but its From Time to Time sequel (1995) is mostly a clunker. Finney did die in ’95, so he was probably not in the best of health when writing that follow-up book. Between ’70 and ’95, Finney authored several better works, though Time and Again remains his standout accomplishment.

Also in the time-travel realm, Darryl Brock’s baseball-themed If I Never Get Back (1990) is an ultra-page-turner, while the sequel Two in the Field (2002) is basically just okay.

Rabbit, Run (1960) was followed by a sequel every decade or so — amid plenty of other John Updike writing — but I wasn’t a fan of the original Rabbit and never read the subsequent installments.

I’ll end by noting that Fyodor Dostoevsky reportedly planned a sequel or two to his amazing The Brothers Karamazov (1880), but the author’s early-1881 death intervened. 😦

Any sequels you’d like to mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about the holiday season, shopping local, and more — is here.

This Gap Is Not a Clothing Chain

The economic chasm between the wealthy and the rest of us is sadly quite pronounced in the U.S. and various other countries — and of course reflected in some literature.

Reading such fare can raise our blood pressure but be quite revealing of how the rich get rich (often by inheriting a fortune and/or exploiting workers) and stay rich (often by “buying” political clout and paying less than their fair share of taxes). Meanwhile, the non-affluent see their wages rise slower than inflation (if they rise at all), face many barriers to forming unions, etc.

Sometimes fiction has ruthless wealthy characters and corporations deservedly get their comeuppance — a wish-fulfillment scenario that happens more in books than in real life. In those cases, authors are thankfully the ones “rigging the game.” 🙂 But there is not always a happy ending.

I just finished John Grisham’s The Appeal, and I’ve seldom read a novel that more strongly depicts the obscene economic gap between the haves and have-nots. Grisham’s book might be a bit heavy-handed at times, but readers can’t help but fume as a huge chemical company deliberately dumps tons of toxic waste (to save money on disposal) that pollutes a small Mississippi town’s water supply to the point where dozens of low-income people die of cancer. One resident who lost her husband and young child manages to win a $41-million verdict against the company with the help of an admirable local mom-and-pop law firm that goes broke fighting the case.

The company appeals, of course, and its merciless billionaire owner secretly pays millions to a shady firm that will try to elect a right-wing, corporate-friendly judge who would be the potential deciding vote overturning the verdict. That plucked-from-obscurity candidate is supported by a blitzkrieg, vicious, lie-filled ad campaign painting his incumbent-judge opponent as an ultra-liberal despite her being a moderate. Meanwhile, the loathsome chemical exec enjoys a jet-set lifestyle that even includes spending $18 million on a piece of art.

While economic inequality is rampant in the 21st century, it’s certainly not a new phenomenon. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath really makes us feel the 1930s version via the Joad family — who were sharecroppers on Oklahoma land they used to own before being forced to go to California, where they are again victimized by agribusiness and other wealthy forces.

Also taking place in the 20th century, Arundhati Roy’s India-set The God of Small Things features an affluent family and an impoverished “Untouchable” as major characters. Meanwhile, socialist forces are at work trying to make income distribution a little more fair. The police, almost always more deferential to the rich than the poor, take the “Untouchable” into custody and…

There’s also quite a financial contrast in Richard Wright’s Native Son, in which the low-income Black protagonist is offered a job as a chauffeur for a white millionaire. Disaster ensues.

Going further back, into the 19th century, we have rich mine ownership and underpaid/overworked miners in Emile Zola’s Germinal. A strike happens, and…

Or how about Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist? It stars an abused orphan near/in a city (London) where some are very wealthy, and many of us know the famous “please, sir, I want some more” line uttered by the hungry boy when he wants more food. (Oliver doesn’t get it.) When there’s so much poverty, some turn to crime — and Dickens’ book certainly has its share of colorful lawbreakers.

I’ve cited just a few examples. Any novels you’d like to mention in which the income gap is pretty pronounced?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a very delayed bridge, a local Starbucks union action, and Thanksgiving — is here.

They Put the Fib in Fiction

Seven years ago, I posted a piece about “Liars in Literature.” Now, with “The Lyin’ King” Donald Trump having announced another presidential run last week, I thought it would be timely to write a follow-up featuring some lying characters I’ve “met” since 2015.

Those fictional fibbers may not be admirable, but they sure can be interesting. We wonder why they lie, if they believe their own lies, whether others believe their lies, whether lying will help them or hurt them, etc. But there’s no wondering about whether truth-averse hater Trump’s “Truth Social” social-media platform has the most hilariously Orwellian name ever. 🙂

Among literature’s liars mentioned in my 2015 post were the despotic rulers in George Orwell’s 1984, the men who framed Edmond Dantes in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the murderer in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the aristocratic Godrey Cass in George Eliot’s Silas Marner, young Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and the impoverished Mayella Ewell (who lies under pressure from her brutal/racist father) in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Some fibbers in novels I’ve read since 2015? Lawrence Osborne’s creepily compelling The Glass Kingdom, which I just finished, stars a young American woman who’s a liar and thief — though she’s partly sympathetic due to her social awkwardness, the way she’s victimized by several people even more unethical than she is, and the fact that her secrets are not as secret as she thinks. Sarah Mullins is living in Bangkok (pictured above) — the huge, new-and-old, multicultural capital city of Thailand that Osborne describes so minutely and evocatively that it’s no lie to say it’s a co-star of his 2020 thriller.

Another untruth-teller, in Liane Moriarty’s aptly titled Big Little Lies, is brutal abuser Perry Wright — who has a respectable public reputation as a hedge-fund manager. (Perhaps being a hedge-fund manager should’ve been a giveaway.)

Also possessing vicious traits beneath an upright public facade is Nils Bjurman, the lying state-appointed guardian of Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.).

In addition, there’s the Nazi murderer who forges a false identity as an American wife in Kate Quinn’s thriller The Huntress.

And the unnamed narrator of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers who’s guilty of using subterfuge to try to get his hands on the letters of a famous deceased poet.

Law-enforcement officials in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give? Quite willing to lie to protect a white police officer who murdered a young Black man.

The three Joy Fielding novels I’ve read all prominently include liars — in some cases close family members who might seem loving but are actually kind of psycho. That trio of suspenseful books includes Grand Avenue, Don’t Cry Now, and Lost.

Of course there’s also Jay Gatsby, who lies about many things in The Great Gatsby. Oops, I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel before 2015, but forgot to mention it in my seven-years-ago post. 🙂

Your favorite (or not-so-favorite) liars in literature?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s secretive Council and a parking deck finally opening — is here.

Returning to a Canon Can Be a Blast

Have you ever read many or most of an author’s works, then moved on to other authors, and then years later returned to read one of the few works you missed in the canon of that first author?

(Also, did you ever start a blog post with an overly long question? 🙂 )

I’ve done the return-to-canon thing for various reasons. Often, I binge-read a certain author only to stop when I realized my local library didn’t have the rest of her or his books…until it did. Or I didn’t want to read an author’s so-called “lesser” efforts but later changed my mind. Or, as much as I might have liked an author, I wanted some variety, so I moved on to other authors rather than complete the first author’s canon…until I decided otherwise. Or I returned to an author for a newer work that had yet to be published at the time of my original reading binge.

It can be very interesting doing the return thing — enjoying a favorite writer’s novel or story you never read before, perhaps being disappointed, seeing the similarities and differences in the newly read vs. previously read work, etc. And of course reading an author when one is older can affect our reaction to a book.

Anyway, I just returned to Herman Melville. Years ago I read most of his novels, novellas, and short stories: Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, Pierre, Typee, Omoo, Redburn, White-Jacket, Benito Cereno, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and so on. Then, when I was at the library last month, I saw Mardi on the shelves when it hadn’t been there before. Hmm…

I’m in the middle of that 1849 novel now, and it’s quite a tale of the sea — where most but not all of Melville’s writing was set. We follow the sometimes-bizarre adventures and meet-ups of two sailors who abandon ship far from any shore, and watch the story line move from realistic to allegorical. It’s also interesting to see how the author’s rich prose, memorable characterizations, fascinating philosophical ruminations, and detailed ocean-life descriptions were maturing two years before everything came together with Moby-Dick — the 1851 classic that unfortunately did not sell well or get much critical love until decades after Melville’s 1891 death. So far I’m not finding Mardi to be one of Melville’s best works — it’s over-long, eventually rambles, and there’s a disturbingly sexist depiction of a Samoan woman — but the first part at least is worth the time.

George Eliot? I read four of her five most famous novels — Middlemarch, Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, and Adam Bede — almost consecutively a decade ago before turning my attention again to other authors. Left in the lurch until a couple years later was Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, which turned out to be as good or better than her stellar earlier efforts.

For whatever reason, it took me many a moon to get to Charlotte Bronte’s Villette after reading the author’s other work — including at least five rereads of her exceptional Jane Eyre. I found the semi-autobiographical Villette to be very good but often missing the powerful emotional impact of Bronte’s more famous novel.

I loved reading War and Peace and Anna Karenina as a young man, but didn’t get back to Leo Tolstoy for many years. I finally read a number of Tolstoy’s novellas and short stories not long ago — Hadji Murat, The Kreutzer Sonata, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, “Master and Man,” etc. — and they were all outstanding, too.

Edith Wharton? I read her four best-known novels — Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country — nearly in a row, along with two of her earliest books not at the level of that compelling quartet. Then, much later, I was urged to read her ghost stories — which turned out to be as good as that genre gets.

It was the opposite format scenario with Edgar Allan Poe. I read most of his riveting short stories as a kid and teen — decades before trying his only novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which was not bad at all.

There’s also the case of reading all or most of an author’s work and then, years later, returning when she or he writes something new. I did that with The Handmaid’s Tale sequel The Testaments (excellent) after reading a dozen of Margaret Atwood’s great novels years earlier, and with J.K. Rowling’s addictive Cormoran Strike/Robin Ellacott crime series penned well after the seven Harry Potter books. I slipped Rowling’s absorbing standalone novel The Casual Vacancy in there, too.

Your reading experiences related to this week’s theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about the overwhelming approval of a bond referendum to fund much-needed upgrades to my town’s aging school buildings — is here.

An Appreciation of Erich Maria Remarque

When I learned late last month that there was a new movie version of Erich Maria Remarque’s iconic 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front, it occurred to me to write an appreciation of the author.

I’ve read many of Remarque’s books, and as riveting as the war-themed/antiwar-themed All Quiet is, it’s not even my favorite work by the German-born writer. The novels of his that most bowled me over are Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die — not necessarily in that order.

Like most of Remarque’s works, those three books are set in or near wartime; paint a memorable sociopolitical picture; offer smooth, superb writing; feature three-dimensional protagonists with flaws; and often (though not always) break your heart. Yes, the horror, brutality, and dislocation of war is hell on so many individuals.

Arch of Triumph (1945) is about a surgeon who has escaped Nazi Germany for Paris, where he experiences all kinds of things — including an intense romance. The Night in Lisbon (1962) also has a refugee motif, with Portugal the setting in this case. A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1954) is about a German soldier (who does not have Nazi beliefs) living a lifetime during a short leave.

Yes, several terrific novels written over multiple decades.

Remarque was a firm antifascist, but had empathy for ordinary Germans caught up in the Nazi nightmare — and admiration for the people and countries fighting the monstrous Hitler regime.

Born in 1898, Remarque was a World War I draftee — which obviously gave him firsthand experience that would help inspire All Quiet on the Western Front. The future novelist was wounded during his military stint.

He went on to become a teacher, theater critic, ad copywriter, and more before writing All Quiet. It became an international bestseller — and earned him the ire of Nazis for the novel’s pacifism. Those fascists also hated 1930’s acclaimed All Quiet film, with storm troopers harassing moviegoers.

Remarque was forced to flee Germany for Switzerland in 1933. Several months later, pro-Nazi students publicly burned his books, and police removed his novels from German bookstores and libraries. The author moved to the United States in 1939. Four years later, his younger sister Elfriede was shockingly beheaded by the Nazis. Remarque spent the rest of his life exposing Nazi crimes in his writing and in other ways.

On the personal front, Remarque in 1958 married American actress Paulette Goddard (who had previously been wed to Charlie Chaplin). Earlier in his life, Remarque had a long relationship with famed German-born actress Marlene Dietrich.

Among Remarque’s other novels were 1952’s Spark of Life, set in a concentration camp; and 1956’s The Black Obelisk, set during the 1920s rise of Nazism. Both books are depressingly good, but in my opinion not quite at the level of the four I previously mentioned. There was also the so-so Shadows in Paradise, about German refugees in the U.S., published a year after Remarque’s 1970 death.

Any thoughts on the author and/or any of his works?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a November 8 bond referendum to fund much-needed repairs and upgrades to my town’s aging school buildings — is here.

When Genre Novels and Historical Fiction Meet

From The Alienist miniseries. (Photo by Kata Vermes/TNT.)

Many of us enjoy thrillers, mysteries, detective novels, and other genre fiction as an occasional part of our reading mix. And many of us consider it a bonus when those books are set many years earlier than when they’re written.

Yes, that gives us not only the genre fiction experience but the kind of interesting history lesson that “general” historical fiction can offer. We see major real-life events that occurred before we were born, perhaps get some cameos from actual historical figures, and learn about the “primitive” tools used years ago to investigate crime. Shockingly, computers and smartphones were hard to find before 1900. 🙂

I thought about all this as I’m currently reading Caleb Carr’s excellent The Alienist, published in 1994 and mostly set in 1896. It’s a mystery about the gruesome murders of children from New York City’s underclass, and how the novel’s alienist (psychiatrist) and others covertly investigate those killings by using approaches modern for the time. Future president Theodore Roosevelt has a strong secondary role as NYC’s police commissioner, and there are also characters who are the first woman and Jewish people in the NYC police department. Last but not least, it’s fascinating to take in the novel’s many well-researched period details about Manhattan.

Jack Finney’s riveting novel Time and Again partly unfolds in 1970 — the year the book was published — but mostly takes place in 1882 Manhattan as protagonist Simon Morley goes back in time 88 years to find the meaning of a provocatively phrased, partially burned letter. Adventure and romance ensue as we learn (like we do in The Alienist) a lot about latter-1800s NYC — helped by the terrific vintage photos Finney includes.

Walter Mosley’s first two compelling Easy Rawlins mysteries — 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress and 1991’s A Red Death — are set in late-1940s and early-1950s Los Angeles. We learn a lot about what that city and California were like in the years soon after World War II — and, in the second novel, we also get some education about America’s shameful McCarthy era.

Umberto Eco’s memorable 1980 novel The Name of the Rose is an intellectual murder mystery set way back in 1327 Italy. Readers are schooled about the 14th century and religious matters at the time (the novel is set in a monastery), plus there are plenty of philosophical ruminations.

Daphne du Maurier’s gripping 1969 time-travel novel The House on the Strand is also largely set in the 14th century, and we get the opportunity to see the same English town six centuries apart. It’s engrossing to experience an identical burg both as a barely developed rural area in the 1300s and as a much more populated 20th-century community. The book includes mystery elements.

Jean M. Auel’s six absorbing “Earth’s Children’s” novels — the first of which was The Clan of the Cave Bear — include thriller moments even as the books are more general fiction than genre fiction. They were published from 1980 to 2011, and set more than 25,000 years ago. It’s eye-opening to learn, via Auel’s mix of speculation and deep research, how humans lived back then.

Any genre novels you’d like to discuss that are set years before they were published?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s manager being sued for hostile workplace behavior to women employees — is here.

Characters Who Are More Famous Than the Authors Who Created Them

Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (right) with Mary Poppins actress Julie Andrews and Walt Disney.

A prime goal of most novelists is to create memorable characters. Sometimes, those characters become more famous than the novelists — often with the help of movie adaptations of their books.

I got the idea for today’s post from a reader who comments on this blog as “Anonymous.” That person and I were having a conversation a week or so ago under an old 2016 piece of mine when the subject arose of protagonists who outstripped their creators in renown. I’ll name some of the characters we came up with in that thread, and also mention several others.

In some cases, the characters are way more famous than the authors. In other cases, it’s a closer call.

One example in the first category is Forrest Gump, who skyrocketed to fame in the 1994 movie starring Tom Hanks. Who’s the novelist who first featured Forrest in a 1986 book? The nowhere-near-as-well-known Winston Groom.

A film released 30 years earlier — in 1964 — skyrocketed another book character into wider fame. That character was Mary Poppins, whose creator, P.L. Travers, is not a household name like the magical nanny she thought up.

The kind-of-magical Peter Pan is also much better known than his creator, J.M. Barrie.

Several characters in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became more famous than the author, in large part due to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz film. They of course include The Wizard himself, The Wicked Witch, Dorothy, Toto, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and The Cowardly Lion.

Toto reminds me that Lassie the dog originated in a 1940 novel by someone whose name is barely remembered today — Eric Knight.

Also, James Bond is a bigger celebrity than spy novelist Ian Fleming, as is Dracula compared to author Bram Stoker. And Lorna Doone, with an assist from her becoming the name of a cookie, is more known than novelist R.D. Blackmore. The girl Heidi, too, is higher on the recognition scale than her creator, Johanna Spyri.

Some examples of characters and authors being closer in fame, with the characters perhaps a little more famous:

There’s of course Sherlock Holmes, the detective who’s so iconic he has a somewhat higher profile than much-remembered author Arthur Conan Doyle.

Also, Gigi — the fictional figure from the 1944 novel that spawned the 1958 movie starring Leslie Caron — might be a tad better known than her creator, Colette.

A few other cases where the character might be slightly more famous than the author include Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), Doctor Zhivago (Boris Pasternak), Tom Jones (Henry Fielding), Jo March (from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women), Anne Shirley (from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables), and Scarlett O’Hara (from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind).

Anything you’d like to say about this topic, including more examples?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — a fantasy about my town getting duped by a neighboring town for eons — is here.

More Premium Prose Practitioners

Back in 2015, I wrote a post spotlighting novelists with especially impressive writing skills. Among the wordsmiths I cited were A.S. Byatt, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Hilton, Henry James, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Marcel Proust, Erich Maria Remarque, Mary Shelley, and Edith Wharton.

Seven years later, I’ve of course read various other authors for the first time, so I wanted to mention some additional prose masters in a follow-up post.

I’ll start with Viet Thanh Nguyen (pictured above), whose wonderfully written 2015 debut novel The Sympathizer I’m currently reading. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book’s narrator — a half-Vietnamese, half-French sleeper agent who leaves war-torn Saigon for California in 1975 — has a top-notch facility with the English language that’s exemplified by this paragraph I excerpted:

“America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl!…(W)as there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation in the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?”

Another author I recently tried for the first time is Amor Towles, whose novel A Gentleman in Moscow tells the tale of a person under decades of house arrest in a Russian hotel. The prisoner, Count Alexander Rostov, actually leads a pretty interesting and satisfying life within the confines of that building — and Towles’ exquisite writing helps take us along for the ride.

Yet another eloquent author I’ve read since 2015 is Zadie Smith. The two novels of hers I’ve gotten to — White Teeth and On Beauty — mix eye-catching prose, comedic elements, and social commentary in a great multicultural blend.

I’ve also liked the novels Freedom and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, who can put words together as well or better than most contemporary authors.

Alexander Pushkin is hardly a contemporary author, but I finally read his 1833 novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin last year. The poetry is off-the-charts good.

I was also bowled over by the prose of another 1833 novel — George Sand’s Lelia, which I read in 2018.

Moving from the 19th to 20th century, I finally started reading various works by W. Somerset Maugham. It’s hard to beat the writing style in novels such as Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, The Razor’s Edge, and The Painted Veil.

In today’s popular-fiction realm, I love the writing talent of Liane Moriarty. She offers a real insight into relationships and women — along with humor and surprising plot developments — in novels such as Big Little Lies, The Husband’s Secret, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, Nine Perfect Strangers, and Apples Never Fall.

I have similar feelings about Fannie Flagg — whose novelistic career spans the 1980s to recent years — after reading works like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, and A Redbird Christmas.

Herman Wouk offers exceptionally smooth writing about dramatic topics in 20th-century classics The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance.

And a concluding shout-out to Rosamunde Pilcher, whose novels The Shell Seekers (1987) and Winter Solstice (2000) approach prose perfection.

Some of the authors you feel write REALLY well?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a local pro-choice rally, a water crisis, and more — is here.

Novels With Novel Premises

Donald E. Westlake. (Photo by David Jennings for The New York Times.)

What are the elements of memorable novels? Great writing and compelling characters, of course, as well as interesting plots. Then there are books with VERY interesting and/or offbeat and/or original premises — and that will be my theme today.

I just read Donald E. Westlake’s Brothers Keepers, and its premise is certainly different: a 200-year-old monastery in midtown Manhattan is threatened with demolition by greedy developers, and the monks who live there have to reluctantly go out in the world to try to save their home. The 1975 novel is a bit of a thriller, a bit of a mystery, and periodically comic. Plus there’s a surprise romantic angle.

A 2004 Jodi Picoult novel with a somewhat similar title — My Sister’s Keeper — tells the unusual story of a girl (Anna) whose parents conceived her to be an involuntary medical donor to an older sibling (Kate) with major health problems.

Wilkie Collins’ 1862 novel No Name also focuses on two sisters. In this case, Magdalen and Norah Vanstone learn that their just-deceased parents weren’t married at the time of their birth — resulting in disinheritance and social stigma for the daughters. Hardly a typical novel for its time.

Two decades earlier, Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 satirical novel Dead Souls featured a whopping premise: Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov travels in Russia to try to enrich himself by “purchasing” deceased serfs.

The word “dead” reminds me that among the Stephen King novels with out-of-the-ordinary premises is The Dead Zone (1979), in which former schoolteacher Johnny Smith wakes up from a long coma to discover that he can see into the future.

How about H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She, whose unforgettable Africa-based title character is 2,000 years old. Not many books with a protagonist eligible to collect Social Security for that long a time. 🙂

Novels with ghosts can of course offer weird plot lines for which we suspend disbelief. One example is Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966), in which Dona Flor’s irresponsible but charismatic first spouse returns after his death.

Any novel-premised novels you’d like to mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — again about a bad firefighting deal with a wealthy neighboring town — is here.

Secondary Characters of Color Can Be First in Reader Hearts

On October 2, 1967 — 55 years ago today — Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, becoming the first African American chosen for that prestigious position following a long career as a prominent civil-rights advocate. Still, though Marshall had more smarts, accomplishments, and moral stature than virtually anyone to ever serve on the Supreme Court, he was always an Associate Justice — never Chief Justice — before retiring in 1991.

The anniversary of Marshall’s 1967 elevation made me think of supporting characters of color in novels, so I’m going to do a post about that after having written about various lead characters of color in a number of previous posts over the years.

I just read The Judge’s List, another ultra-compelling legal thriller by John Grisham, and a memorable supporting character — the 2021 novel’s co-star, really, to Florida Board on Judicial Conduct investigator Lacy Stoltz — is an African-American woman named Jeri Crosby. Her professor father was murdered by a serial killer who’s also a sitting judge (!), and she’s spent over two decades trying to out that psychopath — slowly making more progress in her brilliant amateur investigation than any police department in the various states where the crimes were committed. It’s noteworthy that Grisham makes Crosby’s color almost irrelevant; some white authors focus too hard on a “minority” character’s race and/or ethnicity. Ms. Crosby is basically depicted as a fascinating person dealing with lots of trauma, which definitely gets upped when the serial killer starts pursuing HER.

Speaking of thrillers, a key Black supporting character in Lee Child’s riveting Jack Reacher debut novel Killing Floor is Oscar Finlay, the intellectual chief of detectives in a southern town. (By the way, he’s played to perfection by Malcolm Goodwin in the Reacher TV series that began earlier this year. I haven’t watched any episodes in their entirety, but HAVE seen many clips on YouTube, and the show is absolute catnip for fans of Child’s books — with Alan Ritchson totally embodying Reacher himself.)

Sticking with crime fiction for one more example, we have J.K. Rowling’s first Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo’s Calling. The two major supporting characters of color in that excellent book are supermodel Lulu Landry and fashion designer Guy Somé.

In the general-fiction realm, the parents of teen-girl protagonist Starr Carter are quite well-drawn in Angie Thomas’ intense The Hate U Give. Lisa is Starr’s strict but loving mom who works as a nurse, while dad Maverick is an outspoken grocery store owner with a striking past.

Turning to more literary fiction, we have the eccentric, independent Pilate Dead in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon; the feisty and rebellious but insecure biracial teen Irie Jones in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; the saddened-by-life-and-marriage Elizabeth Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain; and Queequeg the charismatic harpooner in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Among the many other supporting characters of color who leave a strong impression are scientist/professor Ovid Byron of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Brenda Peoples the real-estate partner with political aspirations in Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You, and — to circle back to the courtroom and a Grisham novel — the memorable Judge Harry Roosevelt in The Client.

Any thoughts or examples related to this topic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a bad firefighting deal with a wealthy neighboring town — is here.