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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, April 07, 2007

bookstore blues

Yesterday while out on our shopping errands Kimmie and I went to Park Royal. While she prowled Fabricland for snippets of fabric for her Barbie-doll outfits, I stopped in at Staples to buy highlighters (two packages of four Sharpies--don't want to run out of highlighters!), then down to Chapters-Indigo to check out the books. In terms of floor area it's a fairly large bookstore, but it doesn't seem to have much in it. But, as I sometimes do, I decided to search for a novel I might want to read.

I had been slightly inspired at our earlier stop at Wal-Mart at Cap Mall, where I browsed the (very small) book rack while Kimmie negotiated the checkout. As usual, I picked up a few paperbacks and checked out their opening sentences and opening paragraphs. For me, all off-putting, except a novel in a vermilion jacket called Gone by Jonathan Kellerman. Apparently it's a murder-mystery/thriller of some kind, but I found its opening much better than the typical bestselling (or any-selling) novel. I don't recall the opening sentence, but Kellerman sketches a portrait of a 68-year-old rancher somewhere in the southwest, out in his truck to buy some animal feed and pick up some chips and beer at a store. The author gave me a strong, plausible sense of this crusty old guy with his various medical problems, opinions, and sick animals--a portrait I basically believed in. Soon, of course, a naked girl comes running out screaming in front of his truck, he slams on the brakes, and the thriller lurches into motion. I didn't read on from there (didn't have time).

But I thought, Hm, I might read a book like that, given a chance. So at Park Royal I thought I'd scour the long, low fiction shelves to see what I could find.

Nothing. As usual, whole sections were no-go zones, occupied by writers I know I don't want to read (Maeve Binchy, Danielle Steel). To me this makes the fiction section look the way a woodlot does to a forester in central B.C.: whole swaths turned dead orange by the mountain pine beetle. But even the still-possible interstices were filled with stuff I couldn't get interested in: chick lit, formulaic thrillers, series novels ("a Chet Brockton novel", etc.). No, no, no.

I did pause at one book: a Penguin paperback with a black cover, City of Shadows by Ariane Franklin. Set in Berlin, 1922, it is about a cabaret owner who, finding out about a woman in an insane asylum claiming to be one of the Romanovs, gets the idea of trying to put her back on the throne (I think that's the idea). Not a murder mystery, not a thriller, not a ponderous effort at comedy around mating themes--something different. I perused the opening, flipped ahead, and decided against. I still detected an effort to write for show--to portray characters in broad, flippant strokes rather than get into the reality of someone's world, someone's life. Novels seem to be borrowing their attitude and approach from the sitcom--a dead form, as far as I can tell.

I did not buy. I left the store depressed and disappointed.

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