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.

cd73c55b91189e5734b0c5f5bbc5b0c5All Shall be Well

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.

This is excellent historical fiction—which means, not only is the book entertaining, but the history is accurate and well made, and it gives us a path towards  understanding people living in other times and places. In this case, the United States shortly after the Civil War, as the population seethes restlessly westward, creating the new towns and cities which will become the new country.

We start in England, a prosperous family with dangerous undercurrents. Henry Gaunt is one of those tyrannical Victorian fathers—the damage they do has been the subject of many a fine novel–urgently trying to impel his family into the upper class. He has 3 sons, the twins, Charles and Simon, and their brother, Aldington. Henry loves Simon the best, and when Simon disappears on his trek through the American west, the other sons are sent to find him—and on their travels across America, they encounter tangible, interesting people, whose life stories intertwine with theirs, who together move the plot towards a quite astonishing end.

The brothers make their way to Benton,

“a town chock full of drifters, riverboat men, trappers, muleskinners, bull-whackers, old waddies, and sap-green cowboys, all coming to Benton to get drunk, play house with the whores, blow off steam, there’s a bushel of culprits. A boom town draws rogues like a jam jar draws wasps.”

What is a bull-whacker, you will ask:  basically, a truck driver before there were trucks, a freight mover whose truck was a cart drawn by oxen. Waddies are cowboys.

cherokeeFor a guide, the brothers hire Jerry Potts, who is half Blackfoot, half Scots, and ever unsure about where he stands, which heritage is more worthy. They are also accompanied by Custis Straw, a civil war veteran, a good and decent man haunted by war memories, by his time in the army hospital in Washington DC, after the Battle of the Wilderness. He had a vision, that all the wounded boys should pick up their beds and walk, as Jesus told the suffering man in the bible:

“I could not find God there in the dimness, but I did see the shades of boys quitting their beds, shouldering their stinking pallets, shuffling off homeward. I saw them winding up the blue passes of the Adirondacks, fording the black loam of the ploughed fields of Ohio. I saw them drifting along rich river bottoms, every whit as golden as the turning leaves that showered down upon their heads, or blowing grimy-faced as the dirty smoke that came blustering down the broad avenues of New York and Boston. They were tramping under the buckshot stars that riddled the deep blue sky over Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. An Atlantic storm slapped them sideways, filled their boot prints with cold rain in Massachusetts. Home, they said to themselves as they scrambled over snake fences in Iowa or waded through the ditches of Illinois, grass trailing along their waists. Home. “

He is a good man.

Through many perils, the company makes its way through the plains, and in fact they do eventually find Simon. And many other discoveries are made along the way. The ending, as I said, was startling—this is a deft and talented writer.

I will own I chose this book mostly because it was LONG (30 hours!) and not odiously stupid or ill written. Which is to say, not brilliant, not the book you press on your family and friends insisting they will LOVE it—but, good enough. It is a story of a boy growing up, dealing with his abusive father, becoming a man, in a fantasy world which—as always—is more or less medieval, with armor and cross bows and castles and all. Mal Peet’s excellent quote comes to mind: “The world–“Realm” is the proper term–of High Fantasy is sort of medieval. Well, pre-industrial, anyway. Something like Devon, I imagine. Vaguely socialist, in an idyllic, farmerish sort of a way”. Dawn of Wonder sticks to the script, with however the interesting addition of monstrous creatures, mysteriously engendered by eerie storms. And our lad, Aedan, literally hears the thunder speak his name. It is God speaking, whom they caArcheryll ‘the Ancient’—bringing to mind the Ancient of Days, that withered husk in Pullman’s Dark Materials books, who is set free by Lyra and Will. In Dawn of Wonder, the Ancient is no withered husk, but a huge power that can shake the earth. In a GOOD way, I hasten to add.

Renshaw can tell a story, and he keeps his readers engaged: the first task a writer must accomplish. There is a quest binding the stories together: the vicious slavers of Lekrau capture Kalry, Aedan’s dear companion, and he swears to avenge her—which means that he must go to Hero school to acquire all the skills needed for such an endeavour. Finding and entering such a school, and succeeding in overcoming his weaknesses, finding friends—this takes us through Book 1. Book 2 will take us to Lekrau, I expect. And I look forward to listening to it.

The SECOND task a writer must accomplish—for me, at least—is establishing depth and resonance to his writing. This quality, placing the book into a category which I think of as adult, requires education and experience—years of both. Renshaw writes in a workmanlike way, and tells his story clearly, describes his characters, gives them understandable motives. But his prose has the voice of a teenager—a clever and sensitive teenager, but, a teenager.
Here is Renshaw describing Aedan’s entrance into the city:

“Nobles glided past in varnished carriages drawn by horses that were groomed to dazzling perfection, while filthy ragged children shouted and ran abreast, holding out their hands until the driver’s whip chased them off. A farmer in a dirty woolen tunic trundled along, pushing a cart of turnips and cabbages and singing a light ditty. Then he flung the handles down and thrust his arms in the air to call down pestilence after being splashed by the chaise of a wealthy silk merchant.”

I searched at random for a city description in Checkmate, the Dorothy Dunnett book I just finished. Here is one, a holy procession in Paris:

“Because of the weight of the shrine, they traveled slowly. The priests sang and the censer-smells lingered. There on the left was the rue des Marmousets, and the cleared space of the house of the pâtissier, who had made pies from the flesh of those barbered to death by his neighbor. Next door, imagine, to Notre-Dame, rising four-square, sprigged and buttoned above her, with its band of crowned and gaily conversing stone monarchs.”

It’s not fair, I know, to compare anyone with Dorothy Dunnett. But there it is; the details—the echoes of Sweeney Todd, the gaily conversing stone monarchs!—are so much more arresting than the varnished carriages, the dirty woolen tunic, and so forth.
However, as I said, a good story, and sometimes that will do very well.

The Lymond Chronicles

Dorothy Dunnett’s books are complicated, dense—hard to read. Intensely rewarding to those who are prepared to make the effort, but I will never blame the reader who tires of the inexplicable events thronging upon one another, bursting with detail and larded with long quotations (often in not only foreign languages, but ANTIQUE foreign languages). Readers just embarking on the series may feel justifiably irked—at times, the book seems to be written in code–and Ms. Dunnett revels in keeping her readers mystified. She is as adept as any detective novel writer in hiding clues, or providing misleading ones.

But that said, the books are quite irresistible to the thinking reader, and as for Lymond himself—HEAVENS, what a dreamboat.bronzino-portrait_of_a_young_man Dorothy dotes on him, and is constantly gloating over his gleaming golden hair, his brilliant blue eyes, his amazing beauty of face and figure. But that is not all! Lymond is an inspired commander of men, a genius at math and music, speaks many languages fluently, has a marvelous gift of invention and a fluent wit. Well. What female can resist these charms? Not I, certainly.

Lymond’s story is firmly set in the whirl and bustle of 16th century Europe: Scotland battling England, England battling France, and the rest of Europe engaged in constant struggles, with each other, with the pope, against the pope–at times joining together to combat Sultan Suleiman. Other times actually joining with him against their neighbors. The demands of trade and the shifting politics of the world were fierce, as they are now, and clever men who could manipulate money and power rose to the top then as they do now. While Lymond is—regrettably—fictional, his world is not, and he has to do with many historical figures, in a very believable solid way.

The six books in the Chronicles span a period of about 15 years; culpably, I didn’t keep track of the years, but Lymond is perhaps 20 in the first book, when he returns to Scotland from exile, and in his mid-30’s at the end of the series. His transformation from a brilliant brittle boy into a brilliant mature and loving man is a main thread in the books, braided into the many other stories. His character is constantly being misprized, maligned, and his characteristic response is keep aloof, allowing the most horrible rumours to build. Indeed, on my last reading I kept thinking, OH COME ON, LYMOND—tell your brother/mother/friend what’s going on. SPIT it out for god’s sake. As he himself says to his brother: “Talk to me, Richard. It isn’t difficult. Move the teeth and agitate the tongue.” Too often something that could have been succinctly explained is left to fester and ghastly outcomes ensue. Which would be the PLOT, do you see, so one shouldn’t complain.

Lymond is haunted by the most extraordinarily wicked villains whose machinations he only manages to thwart after long and painful struggles—death averted at the last minute, torments endured, battles almost lost. The story winds around his attempts to pursue his ambitions despite the constant roadblocks thrown up by a collection of very bad men and women. All 6 books are dense with incident, every page laden with entertainment—and in it all there is the joyful language, the delight in beauty—such descriptions, such scenes! The vocabulary is lush, the world created so real, so engaging.

And how the heart sinks, coming finally to those words, The End.

I have written a summary of the action, here. Of course, it does not detail each event, but even just a broad outline is quite lengthy. I have included the pre-story bits which explain what on earth is going on—be warned that this is a total SPOILER!  A collection of quotes is here.

This is a fine, well researched book of historical fiction, set in the grim times when the Roman Empire began its slow decline, many hundreds of years ago.

Good historical fiction–in addition to being entertaining!–gives us a glimpse of distant alien worlds, with alien ways; spectacularly brutal or spectacularly brilliant, people living like beasts or living in palaces, slaves and princes and ordinary folk. But, all people, just like us–which is so difficult for us to accept. How could people living so many centuries ago be like us, with our modern sensibilities, our fabulous devices and culture? But of course, they were. Their world was different, but they were humans just like us.

20120215-Fayum mummy portrait ffCharis is a young woman of wealth and good family, living in Ephesus—a city of immense history, going back thousands of years, but now a part of the Roman Empire. She has a passion for curing ills, and despite the constraints of her position is able to study the great medical texts of the age. The vicious and all powerful governor of the city suddenly appears at the house, her father is wrongly accused of treason, and in the ensuing horrible scene, Charis is unlucky enough to catch the governor’s attention. He demands her hand in marriage, and so horrified is she at the prospect that she decides to run away. Her brother helps her despite his very great misgivings—he deeply disapproves of such inappropriate behavior in his beloved sister, but he loathes and despises the Hippocratesgovernor. So, Charis dresses in man’s clothing and makes her way to Alexandria, where she manages to study medicine, her dream come true. Eventually, in the time honored way of such stories, she will meet a man and discard her disguise. But along the way we will see glimpses of ancient Alexandria: Charis rushing to school through the busy streets in the early morning–buying a roll of cumin bread to eat on the way–spending hours in the library; meeting her fellow students in taverns. Once a doctor, she travels to the edges of the empires, encounters a Goth tribe, has adventures–and finally comes to safe harbour.

So fascinating, to read an account of what it might have been like to live then. As the great empire falls to ruin, destroyed from within and without, the people continue to live as best they can. As always, as we do now.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.