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As usual I was searching desperately for something to listen to on my commute–and, I considered Robin Hobb. A couple years ago I read and read her books, in a wild passion to find out what happened next. There are a LOT of them–maybe 15 or so.
YES, they are set in a fantasy world, and let me admit right up front–there are DRAGONS.
Sigh.
At this point the more sensible person says, WHOOPS, just remembered an appointment elsewhere, so long!
But for the less sensible, what an adventure lies before you! Ms. Hobb has built a good sound world, with towns and seaports and believable people.
Well, aside from their magical talents, that is.
And such a series of plots, intertwining and dividing, and filled with chills and thrills! Including an actual return from death. Whew!
I wrote about one of the scenes 2 years ago (here) and still remember how affected I was. Restraining my sobs on the subway! But before that grievous parting, such heroic trials, such joyful companionship!
I KNEW it was probably not wise to start with Book 1 of this fascinating series again, and toyed with other choices. But then pressed START–and there was the fierce grandfather pushing his 6-year old bastard grandson into the reluctant hands of the guard at the grim keep–let his father take care of him, I’ll none of him. Poor little child. His mother crying behind them, but the grandfather refuses to listen.
The father is a PRINCE of course….

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Dickens

I finished Dombey and Son while off gallivanting in New Hampshire—and while I admit that it is sentimental and completely alien to our time and manners–yet, I was always pleased to pick it up (particularly as it was in electronic format, on my light-as-a-feather tablet)–and relished the ridiculous coincidences and wonderful language. The speeches are too long, the story goes on for ever–Florence’s amazing goodness and her father’s amazing badness are quite quite unbelievable. But it didn’t bother me. Dickens keeps my attention, keeps me reading. And there is something delightfully luxurious about a story that is in no hurry at all. And, it often made me smile–Dickens can’t resist the ever present fools about us, and is particularly fond of silly ladies:

“I assure you, Mr Dombey, Nature intended me for an Arcadian. I am thrown away in society. Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for, has been to retreat to a Swiss farm, and live entirely surrounded by cows—and china.’ This curious association of objects, suggesting a remembrance of the celebrated bull who got by mistake into a crockery shop, was received with perfect gravity by Mr Dombey, who intimated his opinion that Nature was, no doubt, a very respectable institution.”

LOTS more where that came from.
The story is devilish complicated, and there is a very wicked man who –oh, he does such things, all the while smiling so broadly with his gleaming white teeth. But he receives his just reward!

It is something of a dark story, but the little girl manages to melt her father’s hard heart in the end–and really, Dickens is your man for happy endings! With a certain amount of heartbreak and death first, of course

I always find it hard to read a book when every character is a jerk, as is the case in this book. PARTICULARLY the main character. And yet! The prose is so clever, the author so witty, that I read it cover to cover quick as a wink. The book starts by pointing out that  “This is not an autobiographical novel: it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer.” The Honorable Charlie Mortdecai is as disreputable a toad as you can imagine, and as for his thug of a manservant Jock Strapp, yikes. Fabulous paintings are stolen, violence ensues, men are killed. Somehow, none of it is very believable, but what can I say, it is very entertaining. I put some quotes here, and can only say, go ahead and try it. Despicable but never boring–a sort of Bertie Wooster from the dark side.

Kyril Bonfiglioli

These books are filled with entertaining incident–another fantasy series that is begging to be made into a Netflix series. Michael Sullivan can certainly tell a story–I found myself drawn to continue, to find out what happens next. Not much of a stylist–never a moment when you think WHOA, must remember that phrase, that description–but a solid workman, who keeps plodding on. One of our two Invincible-Low-Born-Thief-Heroes is short (Royce), the other is tall (Hadrian). Thus we tell them apart. In the TV series I expect one will be blonde and the other not, which will also make it easier.

I remember reading a comment about Sharon Kay Penman which pointed out that her books are somewhat ponderous–like riding an ox cart–but, you got there in the end. Similarly, these Riyria books are slow and methodical, but you get there in the end. And yes, it’s a fun ride, however slow and bumpy. I should add that I listened to them, excellently well read by Tim Reynolds.

  • We start with Theft of Swords: a king is killed, our 2 heroes are blamed and imprisoned, but rescued and continue on to fresh adventures. In other news, A simple country maid in a simple country village does a great deed.
  • Then comes Rise of Empire. The wicked religious order plots to supplant the weaker kings etc.  Simple country maid now Empress.
  • Heir of Novron finishes off the many stories, and it ends very well. As I said, Mr. Sullivan can tell a story.

Banville writes so well–so elegantly! This plot was a grand idea, also–taking up where Henry James left off in Portrait of a Lady: Isabel Archer having discovered how mistaken she was about her husband, and how terribly naive she has been. As this is literature, not pop romance, it does not end with a happily-ever-after embrace, though her earnest American suitor continues to linger in the background. The delicate and exquisite language is a treat to read, and it is pleasing to find that Isabel does finally get some kind of revenge on Gilbert and Madame Merle. A rather ingenious one, at that.
The descriptions of life in late 19th century Europe–the tiresome complexities of travel, clothing, of medical care–are fascinating and carefully burnished. Excellent book–Banville is a treasure.

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.
I just 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.