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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.

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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.

broadwayJack Viertel has spent his life working in musical theater,  writing, developing, producing, wrangling–and always, simply loving the music. He has written an extremely knowledgeable book about that world, wry and humorous and filled with amusing incident. One of the Amazon commentators mentioned that it took him a long time to read this book because he had to sing every song–yes indeedy! When my vocals didn’t inspire, I asked YouTube to sing them for me–such a treat! And thanks to Mr. Viertel, I have even listened to shows I had avoided, such as Book of Mormon and Hamilton, and was entertained despite myself.

He has organized the book into what he considers the building blocks of every successful show, beginning with  1) The Overture, and progressing on to :

2) The Opening Number–“Curtain Up, Light the Lights!”
3) The “I want” song, in which we are introduced to the main character(s)
And so on.

Each chapter is illustrated with some wonderful song which people my age have loved since childhood–like the opening number Comedy Tonight! which starts Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with such joy, such verve! Apparently, the  show originally began with a lovely song which while charming had nothing to do with the rude, coarse and IRRESISTIBLE  slapstick farce which followed. Mr. Robbins pleaded for a baggy pants number, and Sondheim obliged:

forum9“Pantaloons and tunics! Courtesans and eunuchs! Funerals and chases! Baritones and basses! Panderers! Philanderers!  …..

….No royal curse, no Trojan horse,
And a happy ending, of course!
Goodness and badness,
Panic is madness–
This time it all turns out all right!
Tragedy tomorrow,
Comedy tonight!

and we’re off, already laughing, already loving it. That’s what the opening number HAS to do, say Mr. Viertel–it has to win the hearts of the audience. And then there is the all-important Number Before the Intermission–it MUST grab the audience so that they will want to return to their seats after having downed that delightful cocktail they have been so longing for. AND, the second act must hold their attention, with the actors all on high alert for the following terrifying signs of audience boredom:

Program rustling
Coughing
Yawning
Sneezing (rare)
Snoring (not so rare as you might hope)

Viertel’s fine stories are the fruit of much experience: his company owns and operates 5 Broadway theaters and he has been involved with many many productions, and has worked in all stages of producing a show.  As a young man, he wrote scripts, not always successfully:

“This is awful,” he said, though he may have used a stronger word. “If you want to understand how to write the first encounter between two future mates, there’s a book that will tell you everything you need to know.”
This was intriguing. These scenes are damned hard to write. What was this secret book, the key that would unlock one of the mysteries of screenwriting?
“It’s called The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe,” he said. We were, unsurprisingly, deflated. A dryly written ornithological monograph was hardly what we had hoped for. But it was only eighty pages long, so we read it. It told us everything we needed to know.

And it actually does, in a way: he explains about the ungainly, awkward mating dance of the grebes, sometimes aggressive, sometimes not–and suddenly, they’re building a nest together. A charming metaphor!

The wonder and joy of a good show, the amazing vitality and imagination on display, the sheer fun–all has to be carefully built, arranged, organized. And paid for, of course. Mr. Viertel has done a grand job of explaining some part of the process, and has been very entertaining while doing so.

And now, Curtain up, light the lights! We have nothing to hit but the heights!

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Pears_

Iain Pears

Iain Pears has ever been a favorite writer of mine—eloquent, witty, learned—and so entertaining! Arcadia is his latest, a large and complicated book, with a story that twists and twines through 3 separate worlds, eventually arriving at a delightful convergence of them all.

It starts in a horrible future, dystopic beyond our wildest nightmares. Angela, a brilliant psychomathematician (“She works by harnessing emotions to power her calculations”) is walking through the gray halls of some gigantic corporation, and she suddenly sees someone she does NOT want to meet–rushing away, she initiates a cascade of events which happen both before and after this moment. How so, you will ask. Because Angela has found a way to manipulate time. She had been seeking a way to access the multiple parallel worlds suggested by the theory that every choice made creates a parallel world in which the choice was NOT made, or a different choice was made–Terry Pratchett created exactly such worlds in his Long Earth books. The people she works for, and the mighty corporations running them slaver over the potential wealth they envision awaiting on them on these worlds. But Angela finds that her travels take her to different times, not different worlds. She explains: “Say that reality is a piece of string on a flat surface. Birth at one end, death at the other. Big Bang to Big Crunch, if you prefer. ‘Now’ is at any point between the two. The piece of string can, in theory, move anywhere on the surface, but can only be in one place at one time.”

And somehow, she has created a time machine.

Angela’s Time Machine

Pergola“I used an iron pergola as the basis for it—a piece of nineteenth-century garden furniture that you were meant to grow roses over. It was quite pretty in a rusty, decrepit sort of way. This became the framework for a matrix of carefully placed and shaped materials—from aluminium to zinc—arranged so the various elements in the body would be recognized and transposed in the correct order. Ideally I would have used refined aluminium, but I had to use aluminium foil in its place. Instead of sheets of pure graphite, I used lead pencils and old newspapers. Other requirements were satisfied by using patent medicines containing iron, potassium, sodium and all the rest as need. Not quite as efficient but a damn sight cheaper.”

****

An outrageous and wonderful idea! Her time machine is hidden in the basement of an Oxford don, whom she met in another time, during the war. Now he is an astute old man, who meets a group of friends at a local pub where they discuss their writing. He is working on a book about a fantasy world, which Angela seizes upon to use as part of her experiment in trying to access other worlds. So now we have 3 worlds: the ghastly future, the charming Oxford of the 60’s, and Anterwold, Professor Lytton’s creation. List and learn! Iain Pears weaves his web, and it is a fabulous tale. Ending in the neatest most satisfying way–really, I burst into laughter!