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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Gothic Tale

Imagine, if you will, writing a love letter to some thing—other than a person and/or your pet(s)—that you most cherish in your life. What would it be? Your car? A favorite sweater? Your laptop, e-reader, or smart phone? Your pillow? Your favorite sport? In my case, it would be tennis and, of course, my books. Not any one in particular, mind you, but all of them—those that I have read, am reading, am about to read. The blurb on the back book jacket flap of Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel states that it just that. "...a love letter to reading, a book for the feral reader in all of us, a return to  [a] ...rich vein of storytelling". And, in part, it is.

Setterfield renounced what she termed her "stifling career" as a professor of Twentieth Century French literature at a British university to devote her time to reading, her life's greatest passion. Boy, how I can relate to that! She states in the interview for the Reader's Guide for the audio version of her debut novel that she would be happiest with a kitchen/library where she could just read and eat, eat and read. Again, her fondest dream. And, again, I can easily relate. Alas, she admitted, as I do, that life has other commitments and responsibilities that we must attend to—commitments and responsibilities that are only bearable if we could just have two or three quiet hours a day to be absorbed by our beloved novels. If I know that I have to do something particular onerous, then I dangle a reward in front of me: after finishing the task(s), I can spend the rest of the afternoon or evening sequestered in my big, overstuffed leather recliner with a book, my Basset, and a dram of single malt.

The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel is now published in paperback, but I have a hardcopy first edition published in September 2006 (© 2006 Diane Setterfield) by Atria Books, New York, NY, which I started to read in January 2007—the book was a 2006 Christmas present—and an unabridged audio version1  on fourteen CDs, including a .pdf Reader's Guide—a  rather intensive interview with the author—which I received as a birthday present a year later and am now listening to for the second time at night before drifting off to sleep. Well, I try to drift off to sleep. Once again, a decently compelling story on CDs is keeping me awake until the wee hours. 

This is a gothic tale; a story within a story with characters whose lives are so enmeshed with each other in convoluted plot twists and turns that the reader, at times, requires a site map to keep focused and on the right page (pun intended). If it were not for Setterfield's eloquent writing style, with nudging hints and clues, I would have surely been lost. The two main characters are Margaret Lea, a bookseller's daughter—as enamored of books as the author and I are—and Vida Winter, a famous, reclusive author who, old and ailing, calls upon Margaret to write her biography. The book starts out benignly slow, with almost didactic writing, which is probably why I did not continue reading the hard back. I often welcome erudition in the books I read, but, here, the style, at first, albeit eloquent, turned me off. So I tuned the novel out. I am almost sorry that I did not give Setterfield the benefit of the 100-page doubt, because I am finding listening to her words quite a compelling "read". While the printed word is my most favorite medium, I am enjoying the audio version. The two main characters are portrayed by two outstanding English actresses, Bianca Amato (Margaret Lea) and Jill Tanner (Vida Winter), whose rich and melodious voices are well-suited to the parts they play, conducive to a most enjoyable listening experience. 

Here we have a multiplicity of characters who surround Margaret and Vida as their lives interactively intertwine in complex parallels, enriching in variety this novel that is replete with ghosts, mysteries, and enigmas that keep the reader poised and puzzled until the very last chapter, when, as in all good gothic novels, all is revealed. I will not go into any further details of the braiding of character stories here. You can easily read a faithful synopsis on the book's Wikipedia site.

But I will tell you that the braiding does plait the thematic plots of searching for one's true identity and meaning, and what life’s truths really are. In the beginning, there is a quote from Vida Winter's book, Tales of Charge and Desperation—of which the thirteenth tale is yet to be completed, hence the novel's title. The quote, in part, states that "All children mythologize their birth...You want to know somebody? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won't be the truth; it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story."

And thus begins the telling of The Thirteenth Tale—a good gothic story, which, I have to say, is, for whatever reasons, haunting me unlike some of the books that I've read so far this year. It is not the greatest book I've read and, certainly, is not the most well-written. It is, at best, slightly shy of being called "literature", although Setterfield does seem to be making a valiant effort to attain that status2. At times, the reading by the narrators is a bit heavy and overly dramatic, as if they and the author are taking her subject matter a bit too seriously. After all, this is a novel which, first and foremost, should entertain, then educate its readers, even if does deal with headier themes than most of the lighter gothic fare on the bookshelves today. However, that being said, there is something—je ne sais quoi—about this book...I cannot wait to crawl into bed to continue listening to Amato and Tanner as they play their parts. For the past few days, I have been eagerly anticipating closing my eyes and switching on the CD player to once again be transported to the English countryside and the home of the Angelfield family, to be instantly immersed in their lives, to discover the next surprising plot twist Setterfield has in store...

This is a book worth listening to, more so than I think it is to be read. However, when I am finished with the audio version, I am going to settle into my recliner and once again start to read the hardcopy. There are probably more telling truths in the story that I will garner by reading it that I am probably missing by eventually falling asleep to it, as mesmerizing as it is.

Who knows? I may grow to truly love it.
1 ©2006 AUDIOBOOKS, a division of Simon and Schuster, New York, NY.
2  When it was first released, The Thirteenth Tale did make it to the top of the bestseller charts, including The New York Times Sunday Book Review. But, alas, only for a week. Not quite the hallmark of “literature”, but close enough.  

2  When it was first released, The Thirteenth Tale did make it to the top of the bestseller charts, including The New York Times Sunday Book Review. But, alas, only for a week. Not quite the hallmark of “literature”, but close enough.

1:54 pm edt          Comments

Monday, March 26, 2012

Murder, He Wrote

I am, by nature, not a fan of "true crime" stories. Rarely will you find me reading a blood-and-guts detective story or a chop-em-up-kill-em-dead murder mystery. To be honest, they scare the living daylights out of me. Although, I will, on occasion read a novel by John Grisham or revel in a novel by Lisa Scottoline. But their books are fiction and don't really fit the pattern of "true crime". Not like Fallen Son by Mike Walsh. Then again, Walsh's tale is true. All too scared-to-turn-off-the-lights true.

Okay, allow me to back track.

Before I retired, I was a technical writer for the American branch of a large European software company. Three of us, including Mike, shared a small, cramped, stuffy, windowless office. Much of the work was just as stifling as the office—tediously boring, repetitive, and rift with almost unbearable stress. One of the brighter sides—a saving grace, to say the least—was chatting with Mike about our common outside interests, including movies, literature, cats (yes, cats!), and creative writing. One day, he "casually" asked if I knew about the Cohan murders, mentioning that he had, in fact, a while ago (1993-94), written a book about them. Well, needless to say, I was impressed. If you know the author of it personally, a book is worth owning and reading. I immediately got online to purchase a copy of the book1, which, of course, once received, I had Mike promptly sign2. To think I was working with, as the jacket front flap attests, "a prize-winning reporter"!

Mike down-played the "prize-winning" bit, but his straight-forward, pull-no-punches writing style deserves an award. It had me white-knuckled, gripping the book from the very first page to the very last. While this is a true, non-fiction account of the Cohen murders that occurred in northern Delaware in the 1980s—young Charles Cohen savagely killed his psychologist father, whacked his mother, then disappeared into the lower echelons of American drug societies—it reads very much like the better mystery novels of Grisham or Scottoline; or any other decent mystery writer of our time. You name the mystery and "true crime" authors—Mike Walsh can easily hold a candle to them.

But, as I said, the content of his work is really scary stuff. It is not, I repeat, not for everyone. If you’re looking for a casual, light, entertaining read, this isn’t it. It’s a hard-core “true crime” tale, in the best tradition of the genre. It is stuff of which good, gripping Hollywood movies are and should be made. 

One aspect of Mike's writing—both creatively and technically—is that he thoroughly researches his content, and is accurate and precise with his facts without non-factual embellishments. He based much of the story upon Charles Cohen's writings, his court testimony, and his statements to the police. Walsh conducted extensive interviews not only with those who knew Cohen, but with the perpetrator himself. As I was reading the book, I talked a bit with Mike about his writing process, and the heckles reared up on the nape of my neck when he told me about his meetings and on-going "friendship" with Cohen, now serving a life sentence in a Federal penitentiary. It is evident that Mike wanted to obtain and relay each exacting detail, exactly as it happened. And this technique strongly comes through—along with his compassion for his protagonist—in his blunt, descriptive, writing that flows easily—a real page turner. This fast-paced, "true crime" story could easily be—and should have been—a best seller listed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

But, as I said, the whole concept and the story of a son—albeit one suffering from mental illness—so brutally murdering his parents—for whatever reasons—is very frightening. And even more frightening is that he continued his crime spree across America, wallowing in the "cesspools of...dealing drugs, scavenging the human jungles...lying, stealing...exploiting..." Yes, this is quite a graphically scary book, but one that I think needed to be written, needed to be read, and still needs to be read today, especially in this era of unthwarted violence currently depicted in the fictional genres of books and movies for young adults. Mike Walsh's book vividly brought the horrifics of Cohen's crime—pardon the pun—back to life. Its stark, eye-opening realities gives one pause—a timeless insight into the distaff side and commentary on the all-too-true circumstances of many of our troubled youth.

While Mike may be an excellent technical writer, his talents are better suited to "creative" writing, whether it be the ilk of Fallen Son or fanciful fiction. Here's hoping he devotes the better part of his innately creative talents to writing another book, and may we see it published in the near future!

My copy of Fallen Son is an ONYX publication of the Penguin Group, New York, NY. © Mike Walsh 1994.
The inscription reads in part "...Thanks for checking this out. Hope it scare[s] the hell out of you." Well, it did!
12:03 pm edt          Comments

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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currently published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Miss Elmira's Secret Treasure: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
Colonial Theatre: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Roarin' 20s 
Phoenix Hose, Hook & Ladder: A Novel of Phoenixville during World War I
Columbia Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast


Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood



Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She is currently working on her sixth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,