John Banville

In looking over my journal, I find I have read many many books by John Banville–fascinating, dense prose, and yes, difficult to read. At some point–years ago–I was in the midst of Banville’s The Sea, and during the same period was attempting to learn Java (computer code) without much success–and it suddenly occurred to me that being able to readily apprehend shade after subtle shade of meaning in a book like Banville’s, keeping the strands of plot distinct, feeling the resonances and reflections of other books, of quotations, poetry–is as complicated an affair as this business of keeping the different syntaxes of computer code in mind. More complicated, probably.
His latest book is called Mrs. Osmond, and follows the story of Isabel Archer after the events described in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Amazon is sending me this book, but while waiting for it, I read another of his, called Wolf on a String (written under his pseudonym, Benjamin Black, which he uses for his fine series of detective novels). This is a historical novel, set in the 1600’s, in the Hapsburg empire–the mad Rudolf is on the throne, Prague is a fabulous and terrifying city, dense with intrigue and politics. Our hero stumbles in, and is caught up in a ghastly murder mystery. But really, it’s a contemplation of the time, of the people. The mathematician Kepler shows up, who was the subject of another of Banville’s books–he wrote several books based on the lives of eminent scientists–Kepler, Copernicus, and Newton–imaginative treatments of their times, their work, their struggles. Banville writes so extremely well, he is so subtle, so intelligent.
This book does not end happy, there is not much in the way of chuckles, and the vision of the world is bleak–but it is vibrant with real history in gorgeous detail, and such understanding of human emotions and actions.


Bleak House

I have just finished Bleak House–an engaging book, my comfortable companion on the daily commute (audiobooks mean no weighty tome to lug about). YES, it is predictable and slow moving, YES, a certain amount of mawkish sentimentality, and then there are the overdone character tics–but it is a delightful treasure of good humored entertainment. Dickens can’t resist opportunities for lampooning the self righteous–oh those ineffably silly do-gooder ladies!–and HOW he relishes making our flesh to creep! Bleak House abounds in disease and death–seven deaths, I can think of, and there are probably more. There is a death by opium, a death by snowstorm, and even one by SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION.

It would be hard to translate this story into modern times, so deeply entrenched as it is in Victorian mores and attitudes–the main plot involves the long delayed but implacable punishment of a woman for her youthful betrayal of the social code. Though it suddenly occurred to me that there actually is a modern equivalent, if we reverse the sexes: the Puritanical ferocity which brought down Lady Dedlock is now being visited on erring men, whose punishment is similarly severe. Though at least they are not banished out, OUT into the storm, just losing their jobs, their positions.
The BBC production of the story is really very good, though I question the casting of Esther, who is not only constantly described as radiantly beautiful, but uncannily like Lady Dedlock. The actress was neither, particularly of course when the makeup artist goes nuts with horrid smallpox sores–all of which had magically cleared up for the last scene, when both Esther’s goodness and the viewers’ patience are rewarded with one of those traditional end-of-series BBC wedding scenes with all the characters (those that haven’t been killed off, that is) dancing gaily about on a sunny sward while adorable children dart about.

ParisHelprin always astonishes me, his effortless grasp of the exact description, his wonderful visions, his wild invention. He is such a brave true spirit! His books shine with honor and love—which does not prevent them from being slyly amusing, and very entertaining. Yes, extravagant language, yes, crazy wild excursions into otherworldly perceptions. But at no point did I feel the prose was too unbridled, too unbuttoned, too unedited–a occasional flaw of his fabulous over-the-top and VERY long book, Freddy and Frederika. At times, this latest book reminded me of the wild ways of Saul Bellow–another man whose essential kindness shone through all his brilliant talk.
Paris in the Present Tense is about a 74 year old man, a musician, who takes on an almost impossible challenge: to earn enough money to save his fatally ill grandson. When his first strategy fails, he decides on a new course, which eventually requires a stupendous and heroic sacrifice. But while the plot is engaging, it is his ruminations and conversations that give the book such charm: “Having an ageing body is like living in a big house. Something is always going wrong, and by the time it’s fixed, something else follows. Very old age is when the things that go wrong cause other things to go wrong, until, like sparks racing up a fuse, they finally reach a pack of dynamite.” HA! Well put! My copy of the book is bristling with markers—I have put some of the other quotes here.

Having enjoyed her fantasy novels, I thought I would venture onto her sci-fi books. Excellent also–she writes well, her characters are well made and believable. These books were such fun to read! Yes, a space opera, with all the space ships and stunners and high beam accelerators and what have you—but also, real people and a fascinating series of plots that kept me engaged for as long as it took to read them all. Bujold created a believable world—well, a bunch of worlds, actually, various planets all connected by trade and diplomacy—and I enjoyed living there and regret leaving it.

 #1 Falling Free

This book is only at the head of the line of books because it takes place in the universe Bujold invented, decades before the characters we love were born. I wouldn’t start with this one, actually, whatever the anxious author says. It is interesting enough—she really cannot write an uninteresting book—but, the real story begins with the next one.

#2 Shards of Honor

Very good and very enjoyable story of 2 people who come from different worlds–literally!– meeting and falling in love. Aral comes from a planet where ancient warrior traditions rule, and Cordelia from a planet of enlightened scientific research and a very controlling political system. Their worlds are at war, but thanks to various devious betrayals they aral&cordeliaare both suddenly marooned on a planet (subsequently named Sergyar) which has a strategically important position, and a fascinating flora and fauna. Mostly poisonous to humans. Their love story continues in subsequent books.
Mentioned also in the course of the story are futuristic machines, death rays, spaceships, etc.

#3 Barrayar

I am finding these stories VERY addictive. Perhaps it is just that this sci-fi stuff is written by a woman, and so there is more character interraction and less blood and brains exploding all over the place.Not that there isn’t blood and brains spattering about, but just not in huge quantities. This is the story in which a heinous assassination attempt fails to kill Aral and Cordelia, but almost kills their child, still in the womb. Miles is eventually born, but crippled. Some amusing business of how horrified Cordelia is at the barbaric Barrayan ways–babies left to grow in unsafe human wombs! Instead of inside the much safer and more dependable uterine replicators, as on her world.

 #4 The Warrior’s Apprentice


By Gemmonia, at DeviantArt

Miles doesn’t make the grade at military academy, due to his size and brittle bones. But on travels to see granny, he accidentally establishes an army–the Dendarii Free Mercenaries! Things happen, and he is so smart and there you are. He made me laugh, with his internal dialogue–getting ready to deal with the ominous rock hard mercenaries–why should they work for him, imagining himself a warrior chief of old–and they amaze him by…asking about their medical insurance and other perks. “He had been prepared for defiance, disbelief, a concerted unarmed rush. . . . He had a sudden maniac vision of Vorthalia the Bold demanding a whole-life policy from his emperor at sword’s point.”

#5 The Vor Game

Miles made it through military academy, finally! And is sent off to total hell hole. Managed by a LUNATIC. And, as it happens, Gregor the emporer is ALSO there, incognito. I think? Memory failing a little here. But Miles saves the day. Almost freezing to death first. But first all sorts of things happen, and it turns out that Miles cannot pursue military career—his dream!—but will do very well in the imperial security forces.

 #6 Cetaganda

Miles and Ivan are off to Cetaganda, a world of amazing sophistication and artifice. Their customs for reproduction are particularly elaborate. No actual sex is involved. A FINE story, a real page turner. LOVE these books!


Haut Rian by Gemmionia, at DeviantArt


#7-Ethan of Athos

ethan-athos01In this one, there is a civilization on a particular planet that consists of only men–they grow their much treasured sons in artificial wombs–and though they have heard of ‘women’ they dread and fear any contact with them. It happens that their tissue cultures are beginning to degrade, so a doctor–a good and decent man–must travel off planet to acquire fresh supplies. In so doing he comes across WOMEN and has other experiences also, adventures, danger, excitement. At some point he is trying to understand this odd fascination men in other worlds seem to have with women–there is a ‘fiction holovid titled Love’s Savage Star, that he had stumbled onto and been too stunned to switch off. Life with women did not just induce strange behavior, it appeared; it induced very strange behavior. How long before the emanations or whatever it was from Commander Quinn would make him start acting like that? Would ripping open her jacket to expose her mammary hypertrophy really cause her to fixate upon him like a newly hatched chick on its mother hen?”
I LOVED that mammary hypertrophy business!

 #8-Brothers in Arms

Miles is trying hard to manage the 2 sides of himself–Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries, and Lord Vorkosigan of Barrayar. And then the assassination attempts begin–in which we meet his CLONE! Bred to destroy him, but Miles not only is not destroyed, he saves the clone–he tells him, they are brothers–and unmasks a ghastly plot. Really well made story.

 #9-Mirror Dance

The clone–Mark, his name is Mark, his brother tells him, which is automatically the name for the second son in the Vorkosigan family–attempts to liberate a bunch of clones on the terrible world where he was made. They are to become the host bodies for the brains of wealthy old people, who choose this way to become immortal. Disgusting, rather. Mark’s mission ends in disaster, but Miles saves the day. And then is KILLED! But thrust into a cryo chamber–which GOES MISSING in the turmoil! WHOA, this is some story. It ends OK, and Mark meets the father he had been bred to kill. But, doesn’t kill him. Cordelia helps him come to a peaceful acceptance of his life. Again, fascinating story!

 #10 Memory

This concerns Miles’ recovery from being dead, and his desperate but unsuccessful schemes to stay in the military–but he has a spectacular accident and is retired from the service. HOWEVER. His help is needed in finding out who has attacked Simon, head of Imperial Security. He is no longer in the military, but is appointed an Imperial Auditor–a job which, as it turns out, exactly suits his talents. Also, Gregory steals someone else’s girlfriend and an IMPERIAL WEDDING is being planned. Miles is to be best man.

#11 Komarr

Komarr is a planet of great importance to the Barrayans, being at the entrance of a significant wormhole. Miles, now Imperial Auditor, has come to deal with a terrible accident to the solar mirror which is one of an array that is gradually transforming the planet into a more livable place. The accident, it appears was NOT an accident, but part of a terrible plot to DESTROY not just the planet but the wormholes that allow travel between planets. The exciting conclusion is something of a nail-biter. Interesting people are introduced, among them Ekaterina, the wife of a minor official–the man is an idiot, but the wife is smart and completely lovable. The official is eventually killed by his own idiotic negligence. Leaving his wife and son free to return to Barrayar–hotly pursued by Miles, who has fallen in love with Ekatarina.

 #12 A Civil Campaign (and Winterfair Gifts)

Ekaterin by Gemmiona at DeveiantArt

Ekaterin by Gemmiona at DeveiantArt

Finally Miles has finally found a lady who will marry him! Though he almost loses her through acting like an idiot. Some very amusing scenes, like the Worst Dinner Party Ever, and the Arrival Home to find Naked Guard Smeared in Butter. HAHAH! He finds out that a mad scientist is one of his rivals: “Good God, Enrique was writing poetry to her? Yes, and why hadn’t he thought of poetry? Besides the obvious reason of his absence of talent in that direction. He wondered if she’d like to read a really clever combat-drop mission plan, instead.” NOT as such, no. But what she does want to read is the abject apology he writes her after the disastrous dinner party. Abject, and irresistible. Because, love.
The entertaining story of Donna Vorrutyer who becomes Dono Vorrutyer is one of the many delightful divertissments in this book.
This book ends with weddings–Gregor’s and Miles’. Lovely, both of them.

#13 Diplomatic Immunity

Miles and Ekatarina are off on their honeymoon, watching vids of their SOON TO BE BORN babies who await them at home in their handy dandy uterine replicators. But a diplomatic emergency intervenes and they must hasten off to a planet where a Barrayaran ship has caused a ghastly incident. There is evil afoot! Danger abounds, murder has been done once and may be done again. Miles is on the case! He almost dies (again!) but in the end he triumps, with the help of his lovely wife, and they get back home for the emergence of their two babies, Aral Alexander and Helen Natalia. And it turns out, even when the birth consists of opening a machine, it is still a deeply moving event.

#14 Cryoburn

Miles is investigating something odd in the frozen bodies awaiting resurrection on the planet Kibou-daini. But he is kidnapped, and exciting plot things happen! Including a bio-engineered Sphinx, made as part of a branding promotion for a particular business. It can speak a few words, ‘Fud’, ‘Aout’–and its new owner has to clean up something of a mess in the house when he doesn’t pay attention as it is stalking around muttering ‘POO, PEE”. Silly, and has nothing to do with the plot, but it made me smile. As I said, sci-fi for women.

#15 Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

Vorkosigan-IvanFinally Ivan has his own story! In which he meets the beauteous lady Tej who will eventually, after much mystery and disaster–become his wife. He is led to her by Byerly Vorrutyer, who also meets his own eventual mate, Rish, Tej’s companion.

And at the end, I encountered such unexpected grief, Aral the good man suddenly dead. Well not really unexpected, he is an old man now, but we have been living with him, his triumphs and failures, through many adventures, many books. His son is the hero of the series now. But I was shocked, taken unawares, when his death was announced, at the end of the book. Tears in my eyes, really.

First there was the Austen project, various modern authors writing novels based on her novels—I loved McCall Smith’s Emma, her father turned into a health food fanatic—and now there is the Shakespeare project, with various modern authors taking on the plays. I don’t think Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is officially part of the project, but it is in fact a modern vision of Hamlet—Hamlet unborn, Hamlet as the intelligent homunculus trying to make sense of his world, upside down and clasped tight within his mother’s body: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell”…I was astonished by the brilliance and intelligence of the prose. His earlier book, Atonement, I recognized as fine and well written, but was not enchanted. Well, perhaps I am not enchanted by Nutshell either, how dark is the world this author lives in. But, so witty and educated a writer is impossible not to love. He made me chortle more than once. The unborn child hears and pictures what is happening out in the world. His mother’s trysts with his uncle, so thrilling to them, are deliriously ludicrous from his particular vantage point. How he loathes his uncle! A fatuous man, who loves to hear himself speak—“Each brave new topic rises groaning to its feet, totters, then falls to thehamlet next.” When the lovers drink together, our narrator shares the wine, the whiskey. Through his mother’s bones and flesh, he listens to podcasts, to radio, to stormy quarrels between the lovers, between his father and mother. Anxiously he fingers his cord—“it serves for worry beads.” He imagines himself placed in a foster home, “raised bookless on computer toys, fat, and smacks to the head.” Oh sad tiny creature, taking arms against a sea of troubles.

So, the whole familiar story is set forth as viewed from this unfamiliar viewpoint. A tour de force! Well worth reading! Though I think I can say for sure that this will NOT be made into a movie!

However, Vinegar Girl just might be, and how happy I would be to watch it! This is Anne Tyler’s charming reconsidering of The Taming of the Shrew. Set, of course, in Baltimore, her city. Kate, in this version, is the daughter of a brilliant professor doing research in a Johns Hopkins lab. After her mother died, Kate became the caretaker of the house, her father, and her younger sister. She works in a preschool, is an awkward and difficult person. Pyotr works with her father, and needs to marry an American to stay in the country. He is VERY FOREIGN, making “bald, obvious compliments, dropping them with a thud at her feet like a cat presenting her with a dead mouse.” But, well, things happen and we work our way to a delightful happy ending. This book will make you smile.oil20shrew20202

I have been reading a series of detective novels set in a charming village in Canada, where the people eat fabulous food, live together in loving company, celebrate the seasons with art and verve, and are constantly opening yet another bottle of excellent wine. Cheers! A votre santé!

And, oh yes, they murder each other on a regular basis.

It’s just like one of those adorable little villages in England, swarming with criminals, blackmailers, rapists, and serial killers: the game’s afoot, and it’s time to call Inspector Morse, or Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, or Lord Peter, or Miss Marple!
Or, if you’re in Three Pines, Quebec, it’s time to call Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec!

As our story begins, it is Christmas in the charming village of Three Pines, and the snow is falling, and the whole place looks like a magical Christmas card. The lights! The decorations! The baskets filled with home-baked sugar cookies, the antique glasses brimming with golden whisky glowing in the firelight!

And the woman electrocuted at the curling match on the frozen lake!

How was she electrocuted, you will ask. Well, the cables from the generator to the giant heating lamp were clipped to a metal chair which she touched. But wasn’t she wearing gloves? Well, yes, but she took them off! But it was below freezing–WHY did she take them off? Because of a hot flash–which was caused by a dose of niacin sneakily added to her herbal tea! AND her boots weren’t rubber soled because she was a vain bitch who liked killing baby seals, AND the murderer had slyly poured some antifreeze on the ground AND–well, anyway there came a moment when I thought, NO WAY. I am working and working on suspending my disbelief but you lost me with the antifreeze business. AND the boots made out of baby seals with metal cleats on the soles.

So I created a scale of believability for mystery plots.

A Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny? That would be a 4.
I read it cover to cover however…

Fantastical Fiction

Some kindly person recommended The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley, and I was delighted to find it filled with frolic and wild images–very inventive, and charmingly silly.
It starts with our heroine–Myfanwy (Miff-un-nee, rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas –finding herself in a park in the pouring rain, standing inside a ring of dead bodies. All the bodies are wearing blue latex gloves. There is a letter in her pocket explaining who she is. Because she hasn’t the foggiest.

“Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.”

And so we begin. It is funny and sparkling, with a certain amount of violence and LOTS of bad language. After an initial feeling that I was in the wrong place in the wrong book, I found that on the contrary, I was engaged and very amused.

The story is set in an alternative London, where the secret government agency called the Checquy protects the UK against frequent and dangerous supernatural manifestations–meanwhile presenting an alternate version of the truth to the populace, who would get very upset if they knew what was really going on. The Checquy is run by officials whose titles and positions within the organization are taken from chess pieces. Hence, Myfanwy, as Rook, finds herself a figure of authority within the hierarchy,  with power over the Pawns. There is a heavy penalty for betraying the Checquy, a long series of punishments

 culminating with the guilty party being ritually trampled to death by the population of the village of Avebury, which seemed unlikely, or at least somewhat difficult to arrange.

Myfanwy manages her new job brilliantly, attends social events, and basically—SAVES THE COUNTRY, again and again. She is quite a woman. And someone is trying to KILL HER. Naturally, she foils this fiendish plot.


In the sequel, Stiletto, she meets up with a contingent from Brussels, the Wetenschappelijk Broederschap van Natuurkundigen (aka the Grafters.) They are brilliant scientists, whose astonishing feats of surgery–on themselves and each other–have made them into supermen and women.

Long ago, there had been war between the Checquy and  the Grafters, which ended in the destruction of the Grafters. Gradually they had recovered, animated by a terrible hatred of the Checquy. Until the war (WWII) they lived in peace and prosperity, the leading family having a splendid home in Paris:

Architects fought in the garden, mathematicians and sculptors folded origami in the gazebo, and rosellas and parakeets flew freely through the rooms, never relieving themselves on the guests’ heads, since they had been altered to subsist entirely on sunshine and second hand smoke.

The war almost destroyed them, but they somehow survived. Hatred for the Checquy continued, but it had been decided to initiate a truce, and even a joining. This was not popular with either group, and the plots and disasters which ensue try Myfanwy’s powers. I think I am not going to startle anyone when I hint that the end is not an unhappy one.

Here is a link to the first couple chapters of Rook, which are from the author’s page, here. I was pleased to see that the books are already in line to be made into a television show! That might well be rather fun.