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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

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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.

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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.

Life is full of coincidences, seen and unseen–the person on the bus reading one of your favorite books, the grocery store encounter that reveals a work colleague as a neighbor–and then there are all the unseen webs that bind us, the great grandfathers who knew each other, ancient family connections that unite us all. We LIKE patterns, and seek them out, often bestowing a spurious meaning on meaningless coincidence–as in astrology, for instance. But even without the mystical aspect, coincidence is interesting. We take note, we smile.

It so happens that two very different books concern themselves with mining, and mining disasters. And of course, I happened to be reading them in 2010, exactly when the Chilean triumph in rescuing  trapped miners from a mining disaster was in everyone’s heart.

Nothing amazing, just a coincidence. But it amused me.

The two books are the Children’s Book, by Antonia Byatt and The Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett. They write very differently–she the conscious stylist, he the plain story teller. Both books are fictional accounts of the same time: the 1890’s and 1900s, before and during the first World War. Both refer to the horrible mining catastrophe known as firedamp, a flammable gas found in coal mines.

The Children’s Book

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In The Children’s Book, Byatt uses the idea to power some extraordinary fairy tales, written by the lovely Olive Wellwood, fictional member of the real Bloomsbury group. Precious art nouveau images abound in this rather messy and over long book; which however contains many shining gems—she excels in presenting very evocative, very painterly impressions in prose. The London Review of Books gave it a long  negative review–with a lovely word for Byatt’s pet device, ekphrasis:  “The central mode of description is the ekphrasis; almost every page supports some static description of an already extant representation”. Which the reviewer despised, but which I find the soul of the novel–her strength, and it always has been so. I LIKE her vivid descriptions of paintings, costumes, pots.  But it is not enough to hold this messy bundle of plots and ideas together. As the reviewer points out, the children’s fairy tales by Olive are better–certainly more cohesive–than the actual novel itself.

Fall of Giants

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Ken Follett excels in storytelling–his thrillers are world famous. He is by no means a
writing stylist, but his prose is solid workmanlike stuff. He grew up in Wales, and the stories of the Welsh mines and their terrible death toll must have been part of his early life. In Fall of Giants, he tells the story of one such disaster, an explosion in a mining shaft and the subsequent coal dust fire, which killed a dozen men and wounded many more. No fairytale prince seeking his shadow in underground kingdoms here, but coal dust and grit and terrified miners, and the fervent faith which brought them through. The book follows some 5 families through the unbearably bleak years up to and during the first world war. It is well plotted, and written in clear–if inelegant–prose. He puts a face on history, and makes it immediate to us, the grandchildren and great grandchildren of that generation.

Both books are engaging in their different ways:  the brilliant jewels and fairy tales and the colliers in their grim houses clinging to the hills over the mines.

I will own that I got completely sucked into these, quite mesmerized, clicking that evil little Kindle store button–“YES! I want the next one!” Just magic! Well, magic PLUS $10. Anyway, eventually I was able to wean myself from this delightful but expensive instant gratification, and started ordering the 1 cent jobbies (with $4 shipping, but still, cheap).Here is a quick roundup of the books, which–I am glad to hear–are in line to be made into a BBC show. Looking forward to it!

A Share in Death

The first Duncan Kinkaid and Gemma Jones mystery. I ATE IT UP. Cathie had lent me one of the later ones, and I just HADDA start from the beginning. This is the one where Duncan goes for a holiday in a fancy B&B, and naturally someone is murdered. Things happen.

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Kinkaid and Jones #2. Duncan’s neighbor dies under suspicious (to Duncan at least) circumstances. Her cat, Sid,  is adopted by Duncan. Gemma and Duncan are drawn to each other.

Leave the Grave Green

Kinkaid and Jones #3. A young musical prodigy died years ago, and the story starts when his sister’s husband is found drowned in a lock. Duncan and Gemma are on the case. MORE drawn together, though Duncan is distracted by the lovely widow.

Mourn not Your Dead

Kinkaid and Jones #4. Nasty policeman found murdered, he had a history of raping his staff. K& G engage in hanky panky.

Dreaming of the Bones

Kinkaid and Jones #5. Duncan’s ex-wife asks for his help and is then MURDERED herself. Meanwhile her son’s father is not her current husband but–KINKAID! K& G engage in hanky panky.

Kissed a Sad Goodbye

Kinkaid and Jones #6. The body is found in the Docklands, lots of historical detail, corpse was in the tea importing business. K& G engage in hanky panky.

A Finer End

Kinkaid and Jones #6. This has a questionable fantasy element, in that someone is channeling a medieval monk, and mysteries ensue. Glastonbury! Also, murder.K& G engage in hanky panky.

And Justice There is None

Kinkaid and Jones #7. Portobello Market is the backdrop, with quotes about its history starting each chapter. Lovely young antiques dealer is murdered. Drug dealers are involved. K& G engage in hanky panky.

Now You May Weep

Kinkaid and Jones #8. Gemma is now Detective Inspector, NOT working with Kinkaid, a promotion! She goes off to Scotland to visit Hazel’s old BF (Hazel=friend of Gemma who cares for Gemma’s son Toby). But, the old whisky distillery business having problems. And then, murder. Gemma is pregnant.

southwarkIn a Dark House

Kinkaid and Jones #9. Set in Southwark, with much historical background. Fires are happening! There is a bad arsonist at work. And a crazy lady. And a lost child. K& G ever closer.

Water Like a Stone

Kinkaid and Jones #10. Our police duo are off to Cheshire, to visit Duncan’s parents for Christmas–together with the 2 boys, his and hers. But Kit, Duncan’s son, gets involved with bad teenager. Someone is murdered. Christmas is ruined!

Where Mewhitepastedoubleclipmories Lie

Kinkaid and Jones #11. A lovely Art Deco brooch is being auctioned, and it sets off a series of events, bringing terrible memories of the war. Old murders are solved in addition to the new murders.

Necessary As Blood

Kinkaid and Jones #12. The disappearance of a lovely artist and the subsequent murder of her husband leaves their adorable little daughter alone and at risk. After solving mystery (horrible child slavery gang) Gemma and Kinkaid will adopt her, and also get married finally. This pleases Gemma’s mom who is in the hospital with fatal disease.

Sound of Broken Glass

Kinkaid and Jones #13. Kinkaid now Mr. Mom, caring for adopted daughter while Gemma solves horrible murder: 2 guys found strangled, naked, trussed up. Story concerns Crystal Palace neighborhood, with festering childhood secrets. Melody, Gemma’s # 2 starts to get cozy with Duncan’s #2, but then falls for suspect in murder: handsome guitarist. Who didn’t do it however.

To Dwell in Darkness

I am patiently waiting for this one to arrive. I could of course just go to Amazon and buy the e-book. But no! I am resolute!

Another excellent book by Guy Gavriel Kay, set as his others are in the world he has created; a world which echoes–but is not–ours. Two moons illuminate the skies of that world, and the conflicting religions are similar to–but are not–Christianity and Islam. The city names are like but are not ours–Sarantium, not Byzantium; Dubrava, not Zagreb; Seressa, not Venice. The history mirrors our early renaissance, whose wars and politics I have so recently experienced with Niccolo and Lymond, Dorothy Dunnett’s heroes–and which also course inspired the world of George Martin, in which I have been drowning myself for months now.
I think the reason I so love all these books is that their fabulous invention is based on solid history, peopled with believable men and women.
Dunnett sets her story in the actual world, weaving her fictional characters into actual events; Martin uses historical figures and events to base his stories on, and Kay takes historical figures and events and renames them, changes them slightly, adds a little magic–but the history is recognizably our own.
The story takes place years after the events described in Kay’s excellent Sailing to Sarantium, in a world where the west and east battle but also trade with one another, making treaties, breaking them. The Grand Khalif Gurcu– who captured Sarantium and renamed it Asharius, whose mighty Osmanli army conquered the east and parts of the west–has requested a western painter to come east to paint his portrait, and this request sets in motion a voyage during which 4 people will meet, changing each other’s lives. Danica is a warrior woman from Senjan, Leonora is a well born lady working as a spy for Seressa, Pero is the painter hired by the Khalif, and Marin is a wealthy merchant’s younger son. It is his ship that is carrying Leonara and Pero on their journeys, and which is boarded by Senjani raiders–one of whom is Danica. A brutal death during the raid forces Danica to leave her Senjan companions and travel on with the others–and so begins a fascinating tale. Their adventures are many, they part and come together again, meeting heroes and villains; escaping death by stealth, by wisdom–and by luck. One of the heroes is Skandir, the leader of a guerrilla band fighting the Osmanli conquerors–a small group which however managed to inflict considerable damage on their much more powerful enemies. For a while, Danica joins forces with them, while the others go on with their destinies, Leonara in Dubrova, Pero and Marin on their way to Asharius.
It was pleasing to find that despite all the death and destruction–such an elegiac tone pervading the book, such lyrical laments of grief and loss–there is a happy ending! For the four characters, anyway–and one other that we meet, a lost child who is found.
The story is based on actual history: Sultan Mehmed did in fact invite a Venetian painter to Constantinople to paint his portrait: Gentile Bellini, older brother of Giovanni Bellini. Skanderbeg, an Albanian chieftain, battled the Ottoman invaders all his life, and fought in many terrible battles. Venice had a vast network of spies, and a doge who was elected by his fellow merchants. But these are bare bones. It takes a master to so ably and elegantly clothe them, as Kay has done in this excellent book.

Quote (the clever duke is dealing with the powerful men on his council, one of whom has offended him):

“You behave like the son of a donkey and brothel-keeper, Signore Arnesti. You embarrass us. Remind me why you are permitted in this room?”

Shocking. But it pleased him to say it. The words established a fraught, frightened silence. The councillors were like a sculpted frieze around the table now, the duke thought.

Arnesti spoke again, reclaiming his voice. “You have insulted me mortally, my lord duke! I demand a retraction!”
“Retracted,” said the duke promptly. (Some things were too easy).
Arnesti opened his mouth and closed it. He was a fool. “

Thank you, Rebecca, for this absolutely charming set of stories! I just finished the last one and as all of them did, it left me smiling. True, every story was predicable, the plots already used in one or other of the full length books, but that detracted nothing from the delight. Little delectable cream puffs, each one delicious. The adorable heroine with her curls and dimple–the impeccably dressed hero with his elegant cravat–the chance encounter at the Inn–the thwarted trip to Gretna Green–oh my! I love this stuff.