Lost Pond Press Publisher Phil Brown was right; you don’t need to read Michael Virtanen’s first award-winning book, “Within A Forest Dark,” to enjoy and understand his latest one, a prequel called “The River’s Tale.” It stands well on its own.
In fact, I liked “The River’s Tale” better. Maybe it’s because Virtanen threw me into a tense situation right away, with Alison Reade escaping her stalker ex-boyfriend and New York City home to visit her aunt in the Adirondacks. Or maybe it was because I knew the people who — it looks to me — probably inspired two of his characters: the aunt, Lottie of Newcomb, and the whitewater rafting guide, Wallace Lafluer of Lake Placid. In any case, it didn’t matter that the main character of “Within A Forest Dark,” insurance agent Jack Kirkland, was introduced later in Virtanen’s new book — way back in Chapter 23. I was already engrossed into the lives of Alison and Wallace and the mysterious death on the Hudson River.
Taking me back to Newcomb, where I fell in love with the visitor center while working for the Adirondack Park Agency, was comforting. Virtanen picks the perfect place for Alison to escape her psycho ex, Will. Newcomb is remote, even by Adirondack standards, and introduces us to the Hudson River, which plays a key role in this story. Lottie’s camp is located there, and the death of a rafting patron occurs on the Hudson. It’s a familiar setting for me, but most likely a foreign one for those escaping from the big city.
Lottie is the typical Adirondack woodswoman. Sound familiar? She lives in the woods with her dog. She works on projects for the APA. It sounds like Anne LaBastille to me. I knew Anne a little, meeting her at author fairs, so this was a character I instantly liked. Lottie is ornery, feisty, independent and caring. I wanted to see her beat up the bad guys.
Wallace is an Adirondack guide living east of Lake Placid at a B&B. This sounds like Wayne Failing, of Middle Earth Expeditions, an Adirondack guide who lives east of Lake Placid at a B&B and someone who Virtanen has interviewed in the past about his experiences as a whitewater rafting guide on the Hudson River. About 20 years ago I took a whitewater rafting trip down the Hudson River with Wayne and a handful of fellow Adirondack Mountain Club employees. Everyone in the raft had a job. Wayne’s was to get us from Point A (Indian Lake) to Point B (North River) safely, which he did. Others had to paddle. I was given a bucket and told to bail out the water from bottom of the rubber raft so we wouldn’t sink. Wayne is a colorful, carefree character, as is Wallace. I like them both.
Although characters may have been inspired by real people, they are not real. Still, I couldn’t get Anne and Wayne — and the familiar villages of Lake Placid and Newcomb — out of my head when reading “The River’s Tale,” and that made it extra special. It gave me faces to go along with the names.
Using Alison and Wallace’s romantic tale to introduce Jack Kirkland was appropriate in this prequel, as it’s the insurance agent who’s the go-to guy in “Within A Forest Dark.” Alison’s not there in Virtanen’s first book, and Wallace only makes a brief appearance. But the chemistry between Alison and Wallace was enough for me to want more of their adventures together. “The River’s Tale” didn’t make me care about Kirkland at all. He seemed annoying as the nosy insurance man and a little creepy as the third wheel between Alison and Wallace.
Yet, at the end of “Within A Forest Dark,” I wanted to read more tales about Kirkland. I was just starting to warm up to him when the book ended. What I really liked was the mystery and the nosy man poking around trying to find answers to tough questions. I want Kirkland to get his hands dirty solving crime.
“The River’s Tale” was a great read, but I’m left wondering, “What’s next?” Will we see more of Alison and Wallace in the future? Will Kirkland find more mysteries to solve? And how many psycho girlfriends will he go through to do it?
As a reader, I’m confused at this point, and I hope Virtanen straightens me out. It will be interesting to see whether he chooses Alison and Wallace to engage in subplot material while Kirkland drives the plot; whether they’ll all work together; or whether Kirkland will fly solo or get a sidekick and we’ve heard the end of Alison and Wallace.
In any case, it would be a shame to drop the series now. Virtanen should keep those Jack Kirkland books coming. He has the basic ingredients of a well-tuned mystery series in his cupboard. I can’t wait to see what comes out of the kitchen next.
About the author
Michael Virtanen’s newest novel, “The River’s Tale,” and his first one, “Within a Forest Dark,” are infused with the author’s knowledge and love of the Adirondacks. As he notes in “The River’s Tale,” “This is a work of fiction. The extraordinary places are there. The characters, while inspired by extraordinary people in those places, are not.”
Virtanen grew up in New Hartford, outside Utica, and often vacations in the Adirondacks. In 1998, he traveled the entire length of the Hudson, from its headwaters in the High Peaks Wilderness to New York City. On that trip, he met a rafting guide who inspired one of the main characters in “The River’s Tale.”
Published by Lost Pond Press, “The River’s Tale” was launched with a book signing at Schenectady County Community College in early May. English teachers at the college have used Virtanen’s first novel in their reading and writing classes.
Virtanen usually reports on state politics and courts in Albany, but he also has written numerous articles about the Adirondacks that have appeared in newspapers throughout the country as well as in Adirondack Life and Adirondack Explorer. On one memorable assignment, he got frostbite while skiing through the High Peaks Wilderness, but he has lost none of his zest for outdoor adventure.
“The River’s Tale” ($14.95) and “Within a Forest Dark” ($11.95) can be purchased in regional bookstores and on the Lost Pond Press website: www.lostpondpress.com. Both are softcover books, with cover photos by Carl Heilman II. “Within a Forest Dark” won the Adirondack Center for Writing’s award for best fiction of 2007.