Serious 2020 News About Several Fiction Series

For fiction readers who are into popular series, this has been an interesting year.

One major development was Lee Child announcing that he would gradually step away from writing his mega-selling Jack Reacher thrillers because of his age (a not-that-old 65). Child and his younger brother Andrew are co-authoring a few more Reacher books — including next month’s The Sentinel — before Andrew takes over completely. That’s the plan after Child, starting with 1997’s Killing Floor, churned out roughly one novel per year starring the wandering/charismatic/justice-seeking loner Jack.

I’ve read most of the Reacher books, and found them riveting. But will I continue to read them after Lee Child bows out? Unsure. I’m not a big fan of a series being passed on to a different author. Heck, I loved Stieg Larsson’s page-turning Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) but decided not to read the new installments by David Lagercrantz. The late Stieg certainly had no say in picking that successor.

Then we have J.K. Rowling. Once absolutely beloved as the author of the stellar Harry Potter series, Rowling has recently gotten into hot water with intolerant views about transgender people. Which brings us to her newer series — written under the Robert Galbraith pen name — starring the fascinating private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. I was a huge fan of the first four books, released between 2013 and 2018, and the fifth one came out this month. But Troubled Blood includes the character of a male serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing — making it almost seem like Rowling is rubbing her transphobia in readers’ faces. So I might not read the new book, even as I contemplate the irony of Rowling writing her crime series under a man’s name…

During the first part of the pandemic this year, I continued Diana Gabaldon’s mesmerizing Outlander series by reading the second-through-eighth books, which average 1,000-plus pages apiece. The eighth novel (Written in My Own Heart’s Blood) came out in 2014, and the eagerly awaited ninth one (Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone) is expected late this December. As the time-travel-laced story continues, I can’t wait to see what happens with 20th-century doctor Claire, her 18th-century Scottish warrior husband Jamie, their daughter Brianna, their son-in-law Roger, and other memorable characters in a series that began in 1991.

Back in May, a prequel to Suzanne Collins’ massively popular The Hunger Games trilogy was released. While I haven’t yet read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (dystopian fiction is not at the top of my list during this dystopian year), I did feel the 2008-10 trilogy was depressingly terrific.

Coming in November is Fortune and Glory, Janet Evanovich’s 27th novel starring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.

In early February 2021, we’ll see Walter Mosley’s Blood Grove, the 15th book starring private investigator Easy Rawlins. (If 2020 had 14 months — it does seem like a lonngg year — Blood Grove would be out in time to be a legitimate part of this post. 🙂 )

Any thoughts on fiction series and their 2020 aspects?

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 The latest piece — about a wretched election ruling — is here.

The ’60s Live On. The 1860s, That Is

Tolstoy and Dost

As Trump attempts to stir up a civil war in the U.S. to try to get reelected, thoughts turn to…the 1860s. But unlike America’s ghastly president, I’m going to keep things positive by mentioning novels I admire from that long-ago decade.

This theme occurred to me as I continue to read Wilkie Collins’ No Name, published in 1862. It’s a tribute to Collins’ writing ability that one of his lesser-known novels — about two daughters disinherited by law after it’s discovered that their wealthy late parents weren’t married at the time of those sisters’ births — is so good. The author is of course most famous for the scintillating mystery The Woman in White (1860) and the early detective classic The Moonstone (1868) — plus he also penned Armadale (1866), which features one of 19th-century literature’s most intriguing female villains. Quite a decade for Collins.

Collins’ friend Charles Dickens saw one of his most memorable novels — Great Expectations — published in 1861.

Another iconic English writer, George Eliot, started the decade with two of her four best books: The Mill on the Floss (1860), about the complex relationship between a sister and brother; and Silas Marner (1861), about an embittered miser who turns his life around after becoming a surprise parent.

Two masterpieces of 1860s literature, and of literature from any time, came out of Russia: Crime and Punishment (1866) and War and Peace (1869). Written, of course, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy (pictured right and left above). You may have heard of them. 🙂

Another excellent Russian novel from that time period was Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862), which will fill your quota of nihilism.

Also published in 1862 was Les Miserables, the widely popular classic by French author Victor Hugo.

His countryman Emile Zola came out with the early-career potboiler Therese Raquin in 1868. Not one of Zola’s best novels, but his first good one and his first to attract a lot of interest.

In the science-fiction realm, French novelist Jules Verne wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth (without a GPS) for an 1864 release.

American author Nathaniel Hawthorne penned his last completed novel in Europe — the Italy-set The Marble Faun (1860). Unusual considering that so much of his previous work featured a New England milieu, but Hawthorne had remained in Europe for several more years after serving as U.S. consul in Liverpool during the 1853-1857 presidential term of his college friend Franklin Pierce.

Another American author, Louisa May Alcott, saw her beloved novel Little Women released in 1868.

Oh, and back in England, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland stepped through the looking-glass in 1865.

Your favorite 1860s novels?

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 The latest piece — about a greedy bunch of property owners (including at one least one mega-millionaire) trying to kill rent control in my town — is here.

The Times of Their Lifetimes Were Similar

HeidiMany well-known authors were almost exact contemporaries of other well-known authors. In some cases, that was just a meaningless coincidence. In other cases, they had some things in common.

I thought about this yesterday after FINALLY reading Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, which I greatly enjoyed. Then I tried to think of a blog topic that beloved 1881 book evoked, but I had seemingly written them all before. Novels starring children — check. Orphans in literature — check. (Mostly) upbeat fiction — check. Etc. So, out of desperation, I eventually came up with the similar-time-alive thing.

Spyri lived from 1827 to 1901, making her a somewhat-older contemporary of Mark Twain (1835-1910). Not much in common between a sort-of-famous writer (Spyri) and a VERY famous writer (the brilliant Twain). Heck, Heidi is a heartwarming novel — complete with its plucky protagonist and friendly goats (see above image) — while the often-funny/often-scathing Twain didn’t really “do” heartwarming. 🙂 But both authors created memorable young characters (of course Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer in Twain’s case), and Spyri’s home country of Switzerland was among the many places the U.S.-based Twain visited.

Having almost the same 19th-century birth and death years were George Eliot (1819-1880) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881). Both are among the very greatest novelists of all time, with their books’ many attributes including immense psychological insight. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda are among my five favorite novels.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851) and Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) were near-contemporaries, too, but they didn’t have much in common I can think of other than both being extraordinary writers. One English, one French; one best-known for speculative fiction, the other best-known for naturalist fiction…

Also few similarities between French author Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) and American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). The former is best known for his rousing adventure novels (that were also literary in their way), while the latter often focused on moral issues and the like in a more subtle fashion. (If they had somehow collaborated, I suppose “The House of the Seven Musketeers” might have resulted. 🙂 )

On the other hand, there were these exact contemporaries with a lot in common in their writing: Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and James Joyce (also 1882-1941). Both are known for their modernist, nonlinear fiction — and they undoubtedly had some influence on each other’s work.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) died within days of each other, but Cervantes was obviously quite a bit older. Both are among literature’s most-iconic writers in different genres.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) and Toni Morrison (1931-2019) both wrote multi-layered novels featuring memorable relationships and strong social-justice elements — relating to race, ethnicity, gender, class, etc. Also, both didn’t see their first novels published until they were around 40, with Marquez working as a journalist and Morrison as a book editor before that.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and John Steinbeck (1902-1968) were both 27 when their first novels appeared, and each mostly spotlighted male characters in their fiction — though Hemingway had a more macho/misogynist attitude. Together, they were married seven times (Hemingway four, Steinbeck three). Also, both did war reporting during their lives.

Science-fiction connections? Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) and Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) were approximate contemporaries. Frank Herbert (Dune) and Isaac Asimov were also born in 1920, but didn’t live nearly as long as Bradbury — Herbert until 1985 and Asimov until 1992.

Then there’s this trio born within a year of each other: Colette (1873-1954), Willa Cather (1873-1947), and L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942). The first two are known for adult fiction, the third mostly for young-adult fiction — though Montgomery also wrote excellent “grown-up” novels such as The Blue Castle. Montgomery and Colette could be very funny in their books; Cather much less so. Cather and Montgomery both wrote powerful World War I novels (One of Ours and Rilla of Ingleside) — illustrating that the time period when authors are alive can lead to similarly themed content. Cather was gay (something only obliquely referenced in her fiction) while Colette was bisexual (more directly referenced in some of her novels).

Any other authors you’d like to mention who were roughly contemporaries?

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 The latest piece — about a controversial school principal incident and a supermarket that may or may not come to town — is here.

Must-Read Literature That Hurts

The Hate U GiveHave you ever read a novel you really like, but at the same time found it painful to read? Such is the case with The Hate U Give.

Brief interlude: I appeared once again on the “Tea, Toast & Trivia” show hosted by Rebecca Budd (aka “Clanmother”), the great and engaging Canadian podcaster/blogger. We discussed libraries! Link near the end of this post.

Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give offers a riveting story, superb writing, crackling dialogue, a strong feeling of authenticity, and more. But the 2017 novel — which Ms. Thomas (pictured above) wrote while still in her 20s — is very upsetting because it hinges around a white police officer shooting an unarmed African-American teen in the back, killing him. Eerily similar to this month’s tragedy of an actual white Wisconsin cop criminally putting seven bullets into the back of Black dad Jacob Blake, who is now paralyzed from the waist down. Not an isolated incident, of course, as it’s heartbreakingly, infuriatingly common for racist white American cops to do that sort of thing.

We hear about those incidents often in the news and on social media, so also getting immersed in such a situation in fiction is not easy to take. But it’s necessary — partly because fictional victims of police violence are usually humanized even as real-life media coverage often reduces real-life victims to cardboard caricatures. One of The Hate U Give‘s many strong points is that the story is told from the perspective of its three-dimensional Black characters. Plus the writing and story are steeped in African-American culture (as well as being steeped in the digital age — a lot of texting and social media going on!).

The uncalled-for police murder of Khalil is the novel’s pivotal moment, but the book really focuses on Starr, the teen girl who was with Khalil when he’s shot multiple times. We see her anguished reaction, the community response, the nasty smearing of Khalil’s character, and what Starr does and doesn’t do amid zero interest from the police and other authorities in seeking any kind of punishment for the guilty cop. They want the truth covered up.

Other novels can be painful but important to read for other reasons.

For instance, any novel with American slavery as an element is going to leave any decent person seething and shaken. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Alex Haley’s Roots, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident are just five must-read examples.

Or novels with Holocaust themes such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (a graphic novel).

It’s also hard to experience the difficult lives and miserable working conditions of exploited fictional employees — such as the miners in Emile Zola’s Germinal and the characters in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (the latter book did lead to some reforms in the meatpacking industry). Two deservedly classic books, and Germinal is Zola’s masterpiece.

Then there are novels in which certain characters suffer from devastating diseases. We read those books because they can be compelling, informative, and inspiring, but they can also be damn depressing. Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper

Expand misery to almost an entire society, and you have dystopian or apocalyptic novels that are gripping but exceedingly downbeat. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Neil Shute’s On the Beach, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, and so on.

And then there are painful love affairs in fiction. One example is the aforementioned Erich Maria Remarque’s mesmerizing A Time to Love and a Time to Die — about a romance between a woman and an on-leave soldier that you just know will end badly.

Heck, Remarque is among the authors who had or have a history of writing melancholy novels, so the reader usually knows something sad’s coming. But if the writers are good enough — and Remarque is fabulous — the books are well worth the time.

Some novels you like or love while finding painful to read?

Here’s the podcast link.

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 The latest piece — which comedically gives fake origins to local street names — is here.

We Give a Damn About Fictional Couples Not Glam

Gail HoneymanSome memorable couples in literature aren’t gorgeous, charismatic, socially adept, etc. That can be a good thing, because those couples seem more realistic, often evoke warm feelings, and perhaps have a better chance of staying together because there’s more than surface attraction.

Of course, glamorous romantic duos — the opposite of what I described above — don’t always jointly lead charmed lives. Cases in point include pairings such as Scarlett and Rhett in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Tertius and Rosamond in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, etc. Maybe we’re not as upset when things go south for those “beautiful people.”

A novel I read last week contains a great example of a relationship between two people who aren’t exactly movie-star-like. The title character in Gail Honeyman’s absorbing/sad/funny Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was psychologically abused as a child by her horror of a mother, and has facial scars from a fire. She’s a smart woman who’s getting by as a nearly 30-year-old adult, but is lonely, depressed, and (mostly) awkward in social settings — which makes it a bit of a surprise when goodhearted coworker Raymond takes an interest in her. He’s more socially adept, but has also had some tough times in life and is a slob, a smoker, and not in great physical shape. Plus the two hold less-than-“prestigious” jobs: finance clerk (she), IT person (he). Anyway, it’s really nice to see the potential for something to work out between two people who’ve had significant struggles.

Honeyman’s novel reminded me a bit of Fredrik Backman’s compellingly quirky A Man Called Ove. One difference is that the odd Ove marries a much more outgoing, “together” person than himself — meaning this was a loving couple in which one member was kind of glam while the other wasn’t. But tragedy later strikes Sonja, which puts a big dent in her favored-by-fate life — and devastates Ove to the point where he becomes a morose recluse for quite a while.

One of the most famous fictional couples not blessed with great looks is Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s iconic novel. But of course the two have other things going for them: Jane is an intelligent, independent-minded “survivor” while Rochester is wealthy and quite charismatic in his rough-hewn way. They fall in love with each other’s minds/personalities. Unfortunately, makers of various Jane Eyre movies couldn’t help themselves — they partly ruined the story by casting actresses and actors much better-looking than Jane and Rochester are in the novel.

Another far-from-chic pair are Raskolnikov and Sofya in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is an impoverished, angst-ridden man — and a murderer to boot — while the admirable Sofya is forced into prostitution (before meeting Raskolnikov) to support herself and her family. She’s religious, he’s in need of redemption, and…

Getting back to more recent literature, the appealing teen couple from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars are both dealing with major physical issues that make for a challenging life — and relationship. Hazel has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs, while Augustus had a tumor that caused him to lose his right leg.

I realize I’ve just scratched the surface here. Your favorite fictional couples that fit this blog post’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 The latest piece — about my school district’s switch to all-remote learning this fall, and local pushback against the Trump administration’s sabotage of the U.S. Postal Service — is here.

A Look at Some African Literature

AmericanahI was reminded once again of Africa’s rich literary tradition when I recently read…Americanah.

Though much of the novel is set in the United States, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 book tells a story that starts and ends in Nigeria. And the author splits her time between Nigeria (where she was born in 1977) and the U.S.

Americanah stars Ifemelu — who comes to the U.S. to study, becomes a widely read blogger on race after working in a variety of more-menial jobs, and gets into diverse romantic relationships even as she remains drawn to Nigeria and her former lover there (Obinze). So we get a fascinating look at Nigerian society (its culture, class divisions, etc.) through the eyes of someone from that nation as well as a fascinating look at American society (its culture, racism, etc.) from that same character — who’s initially a total outsider in the U.S. and rarely feels truly comfortable even after more than a decade in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Among Adichie’s other novels are Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), a compelling chronicle of how various characters are affected by Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war.

Obinze’s daughter in Americanah is named Buchi — possibly a nod to renowned Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta (1944-2017), who moved to the United Kingdom in her late teens. Emecheta’s excellent second novel is the semi-autobiographical Second Class Citizen, about a young woman who relocates to the UK and deals with a difficult marriage, exhausting parenthood, racism, and sexism as she tries to become a writer.

Adichie’s inspirations included Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) and his classic 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, which chronicles pre-colonial life and the arrival of Europeans in Nigeria.

Another renowned Nigerian writer is 1934-born Wole Soyinka, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. Soyinka has written many more plays and poems than novels, but his The Interpreters (1964) is a memorable book starring five middle-class characters who live and work in early-1960s Lagos.

Yes, all four writers mentioned so far are/were from Nigeria.

There are of course also native African novelists who are white — among them the 1991 Nobel-winning Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) and Cry, the Beloved Country author Alan Paton (1903-1988). Both were South Africa residents with anti-apartheid views. I have not yet tried the work of 1940-born J.M. Coetzee of that same country; I’ve read every other author mentioned in this post.

Also, 2007 Nobel winner Doris Lessing (1919-2013) spent much of her early life in what’s now Zimbabwe before moving to England.

Non-African authors who wrote novels with African settings include — among others — 2008 Nobel winner J.M.G. Le Clezio, whose Desert is partly set in Morocco; Paul Bowles, whose The Sheltering Sky also has a North African milieu; Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness unfolds in what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and H. Rider Haggard, whose fantastical She takes place in “a lost African kingdom.”

Of course, a number of Africa-set novels by non-Africans suffer from some stereotyping and patronizing attitudes on the part of their writers.

Any authors and novels you’d like to mention that fit the theme of this post?

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 The latest piece — which discusses topics such as the damage done by Tropical Storm Isaias — is here.

Wishing Trump’s Assault on the Postal Service Were Fictional


Post offices are on the minds of many people these days as Trump and other Republicans try to decimate the United States Postal Service.

Why the decimation attempt, which includes opposing any desperately needed pandemic aid for the USPS and recently appointing a postmaster general who’s an unqualified Trump lackey/Trump donor who owns stock in private competitors of the USPS? The reason is that the USPS would of course be crucial in delivering ballots for this fall’s election, and mail voting favors Democrats for reasons such as increased turnout.

Also, Trump and his fellow racist/misogynist/anti-union Republicans hate the fact that the USPS provides good unionized jobs to employees who include many people of color and women.

Anyway, I thought I’d pay tribute to post offices by mentioning authors, fictional characters, books, and more with a connection to those all-important stamp sites/letter locales.

For instance, William Faulkner (1897-1962) was a poor-performing postmaster at the University of Mississippi from 1922 to 1924, and poet/novelist Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was a letter carrier and later a mail clerk in mid-century Los Angeles before turning more definitively to writing. His first novel: Post Office.

Across “the pond,” English novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) spent decades working for his country’s postal service, even as he wrote his many books.

Rita Mae Brown’s mysteries include the character Mary Minor “Harry” Harristeen, who runs a small-town post office while doing amateur detective work with some animal friends.

A real-life American mail carrier (for a while) with a literary connection was Henry Crowder, a jazz musician most remembered for the relationship he and heiress/poet/editor/political activist Nancy Cunard had for several years in Europe. Crowder assisted Cunard on various publishing projects, and helped inspire her famous 800-plus-page Negro: An Anthology that included the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and many others. Cunard dedicated the 1934 book to Crowder. (Henry later married May Frances “Frankie” Turner, Eleanor Roosevelt’s seamstress at the White House.)

I’ll cheat here a bit and also mention Mr. Beasley, the hapless mail carrier who often gets knocked over by the rushing-to-work Dagwood in the Chic Young-created, 90-year-old “Blondie” comic strip — which of course has been gathered in various book collections. (See the image atop this blog post — sort of a metaphor for what Trump is trying to do to the USPS.)

Oh heck, crusty Mr. Wilson of Hank Ketcham’s “Dennis the Menace” comic was also a mail carrier — albeit retired.

And I loved Reba the mail carrier in the Pee-wee’s Playhouse children’s TV show that was really kind of for adults, too. Reba was played by S. Epatha Merkerson, an excellent actress raised by a single mother who worked for the…USPS!

Any literature/post-office connections you’d like to mention? Or you could just comment on the awful, incompetent, never-reads-a-book Trump and the fellow Republicans who allow him to get away with countless cruel words and actions.

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 The latest piece — which discusses, among other things, a 150-year-old bus company suspending operations because of the pandemic — is here.

Grandparents in Literature Can Be Grand…or Not

RacingWhen I read novels, themes for blog posts occur to me. So, after finishing Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain last week, the logical theme would have been to write about memorable dogs in literature. But I already did that two weeks ago, which led to several commenters recommending I read…The Art of Racing in the Rain.

(Those recommenders are credited at the bottom of the comments section.)

Anyway, I tried to think of another theme inspired by Stein’s poignant, inventive, narrated-by-amazing-dog-Enzo novel and came up with…grandparents in literature. The 2008 book’s grandparents Maxwell and Trish are significant secondary characters, and they’re horrible people — especially Maxwell. They’re nasty from the start to son-in-law Denny — the novel’s race-car-driving human star (shown above with Enzo) — and then things escalate as the older couple wrongly/sickeningly seek custody of grandchild Zoe: the daughter of Denny and his cancer-stricken wife Eve, whose parents are Trish and Maxwell. The blatant lying and depravity of the rich, entitled Maxwell reminded me of Trump.

Of course, many other grandparents — whether in fiction or real life — are good people who frequently dote on their grandchildren. (And are happy to again have kinship with kids minus the day-to-day responsibility.) Some examples of admirable grandparents include Penelope Keeling of Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, Lechuza Blanca (aka “White Owl”) of Isabel Allende’s Zorro, and Claire and Jamie of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Brief summaries of those four characters:

Despite some major disappointments in life, the independent/young-at-heart/makes-the-best-of-things Penelope treats her not-all-nice extended family well.

The Native-American Lechuza is a spiritual mentor to her part-Spanish grandson Diego de la Vega. “White Owl” helps Diego discover that his guardian animal is a fox (“zorro” in Spanish), and he becomes a masked, sword-wielding vigilante under that name.

Claire is a 20th-century doctor who meets 18th-century Scottish warrior Jamie when she goes back in time, and the two have quite an eclectic grandchildren situation several decades later. Their biological grandkids (Jem and Mandy) are the children of a couple (Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna and her husband Roger) who toggle between the 1900s and 1700s. Plus Claire and Jamie are the adopted grandparents/step-grandparents of several other kids (the children of Fergus and Marsali) who always live in the 18th century.

More mixed on the good/not-so-good spectrum are the Greek-immigrant grandparents in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. Eleutherios and Desdemona aren’t bad people, but happen to be…brother and sister. (Yes, they married despite being siblings.) This eventually has major genetic consequences for their grandchild Callie, the novel’s main protagonist.

There’s also Sully of the Richard Russo novel Nobody’s Fool. He’s a flawed, not-always-responsible, somewhat-decent guy who develops a cordial relationship with his grandson Will despite the fact that Sully was not an always-there father to Will’s dad Peter.

And how about having a grandmother as strong-minded and eccentric as Frieda Haxby Palmer in Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor? Never a dull moment, for better or for worse.

Rebecca and Isaac are also rather quirky grandparents in Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, which partly fictionalizes the lives of some major and minor Biblical characters. The novel stars Dinah, who’s the granddaughter of Rebecca and Isaac (and daughter of Jacob and Leah).

Some grandparents are middle-aged or not much older, while others are quite advanced in years — meaning the death of grandparents is definitely a thing in many novels. For instance, the two Joad grandparents pass away relatively early in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but they’re around long enough for us to see how their feisty personalities have been passed on to some extent to the next generations.

Grandparents in literature you’ve found memorable?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which discusses topics such as my town’s proposed hybrid school model this fall — is here.

Back to Library Borrowing Again! (And a Nancy Drew Interlude)

Library curbside pickup 7-25-20

After my pandemic-time Outlander reading marathon (eight purchased books of nearly 10,000 pages), thoughts again turned to my local library this past week.

Fortunately, curbside pickup is now available, so I dove into a process that you might also be experiencing in your own town. I visited the library website this past Wednesday, searched for books I wanted, and set up a Friday appointment to pick them up at a table under an open-sided tent in front of the still-closed building in Montclair, New Jersey. (See the above photo I took.)

The process wasn’t totally seamless; the novels I chose Wednesday were no longer listed for me when I checked my online library account Thursday, so I had to contact a staffer to re-reserve them. The time lag resulted in me losing one book that had apparently been reserved by someone else in the meantime, but the rest of the novels were there Friday in a big paper bag when I drove up and parked in one of three dedicated curbside spaces.

Based on recommendations from readers of this blog, I borrowed Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I’ll discuss all of them during the next few weeks; I suppose I should read them first. 🙂 (I’ll mention who specifically recommended each novel at those points.) The book I missed out on in the reserving snafu was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but I’ll get to it eventually.

Prior to my future reading of the four novels I did snag, I finally tried a Nancy Drew mystery thanks to mentions of the series by my wife Laurel Cummins and frequent commenters Clanmother (Rebecca Budd) and Liz Gauffreau. It was The Secret of the Old Clock (1930), the first of MANY installments of the Nancy Drew series and a book my wife owns in a 1987 edition. I thought the novel was very good — in it, Nancy is quite brave and smart and inventive, albeit almost weirdly saint-like. And the interaction between her and her widowed attorney dad had a bit of a Scout Finch/Atticus Finch feel from To Kill a Mockingbird. (Did Harper Lee read Nancy Drew as a kid?)

Speaking of kids, I quickly realized The Secret of the Old Clock was more a children’s novel than the young-adult novel I had expected, so it was quite a change-of-pace after reading Diana Gabaldon’s mature, complex Outlander books — which I had received as a late-March birthday present from my wife. As I mentioned on my Facebook page last Thursday: “I loved this story about the 20th-century doctor Claire who ends up in the 18th century and falls in love with charismatic Scottish warrior Jamie. Plus many other characters — as well as frequent plot twists, plenty of humor, and lots of social commentary (including accurate depictions of how difficult, sexist, racist, and homophobic life could be in the 1700s). Two more not-yet-published novels to go in the planned 10-book series…”

Anyway, back to libraries and curbside pickup. Are you using your local library again? Or did you never stop — borrowing eBooks and such? As I’ve said before, I look at screens so much (my laptop and phone) that I’ve stuck with old-fashioned print novels to give my eyes a break. Plus it’s a longtime habit thing, I love the idea as well as the feel of physical books, and I really enjoy library visits. I’m greatly looking forward to when my local library lets people inside again.

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which includes what my town might do about schools this fall during the pandemic — is here.

‘Ruff’! Rating Dogs in Literature

Rollo and IanI’ve never lived with a dog, though I’ve gratefully shared my household with seven wonderful cats over the years. 🙂 I developed an appreciation of canines by meeting those who’ve lived with people I know and via…literature.

Yes, literature features many dogs — who are often great characters in of themselves and who also help reveal things about their fictional human companions. Are they nice to dogs? Then they’re almost always good people. Mean to dogs? Almost always villains.

I’m going to name my 15 favorite dogs in literature. My list contains 14 numbers, but, as you’ll see, one novel features two equally great dogs. And before beginning, I’ll offer this pair of disclaimers: 1. I’ve obviously read only some of the countless novels that include dogs — which is why Lassie, for instance, isn’t on my list. 2. I might’ve forgotten about some excellent canines in novels I HAVE read.

14. Hector the hunting dog is a constant companion to woodsman Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels, which include The Last of the Mohicans.

13. The title character in William H. Armstrong’s Sounder is a dog who’s part of a poor African-American sharecropper family. Sounder lives a difficult life — including being shot and badly wounded by a racist white sheriff’s deputy — but he is much loved.

12. Fang of the Harry Potter books is a cowardly but appealing animal — one of the less-exotic “pets” in Hagrid’s menagerie. And Fluffy the dog in J.K. Rowling’s series deserves an honorable mention for having three heads. 🙂 (He’s the 16th dog on this list.)

11. Barabbas is a big, clumsy canine who overeats and has a tendency to knock things over in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.

10. Benedico is also a memorable dog in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, but it’s not until after he’s long dead that he has an unforgettable final moment at novel’s end.

9. Dorothy’s tiny Toto appears in the L. Frank Baum books that start with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A pooch who became iconic with a big assist from The Wizard of Oz film. “And Toto, too?”

8. There’s almost no fictional canine more loyal than “Dog Monday,” who sits at a Canadian train station for many, MANY months waiting for his person Jem to (hopefully) return from the World War I front in Rilla of Ingleside — one of L.M. Montgomery’s many Anne of Green Gables sequels.

7. The young Luath and the old Bodger are the determined dogs who, along with equally determined cat Tao, arduously travel approximately 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness to try to return home in Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey.

6. Tee Tucker is an intellectual corgi who, along with two cats and a human, solves crimes in Rita Mae Brown’s mysteries. Hard to top a detective dog!

5. Bella the dog is the lovable constant companion of the lonely, highly precocious boy Useppe in Elsa Morante’s novel History.

4. Rollo is the big, part-wolf, scary-with-a-heart-of-gold canine from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. He and the Scot-with-a-Native-American-connection “Young Ian” are fiercely loyal to each other and face a good deal of danger in the 1760s and ’70s. (Pictured atop this blog post are Rollo and Ian in the Outlander TV series.)

3. The charismatic, also-part-wolf title character of Jack London’s White Fang is born in the frozen North American wild but eventually ends up in California where he embraces domestic life after some initial puzzlement and reluctance.

2. Buck in Jack London’s earlier The Call of the Wild has an opposite destiny — from pampered California domestication to a tough sled-pulling life in the Yukon after he’s stolen. The very smart/adaptable canine retains some connection with humans for a while, but…

1. Chum of Albert Payson Terhune’s heartwarming novel His Dog is an elite collie show dog who, through a twist of fate, becomes a working canine who transforms the life of depressed, impoverished farmer Link Ferris. (A Terhune novel less known than Lad: a Dog, but I found it much more compelling.)

Your favorite dogs 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — about my state’s primary elections — is here.