I forget how I came upon this excellent author, but once I had downloaded it???read by the lyrical Simon Vance, who could, as they say, read a phone book and move you to tears ???I could not put it down. Extremely engaging, extremely witty and also???extremely troubling. Violence, grotesque and nightmarish violence, is always at your elbow in this book???and in subsequent books of the author that I have encountered. There is also a certain amount of explicit sex. Not for the fainthearted, nor for the squeamish???which would usually include me, but somehow, didn???t, this time.
The story takes place in a fictional world, which however has a solid believable presence, and a tenuous relationship with medieval Italy. But so what, you say???many fantasy books are based on medieval history, many books blend fantasy with believable real world details. What this book has is all that???but also, elegant language and exceptional plotting. This is a skillful work of art, filled with gorgeous images and a certain zest for life, for singing, for drinking with friends. And even, something of a happy ending, a thing of which I am inordinately fond.
I just finished listening to yet another work of historical fiction, Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea, about the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1708 (charmingly read by Rosalyn Landor, whose Scottish and American accents are very convincing). This book, not QUITE such a bodice ripper as those of Diana Gabaldon–well, bodices are ripped but not in such riotous detail and on so many occasions–is filled with fascinating details of absolutely terrible times. How the Jacobites persevere again and again, and fail again and again–whether due to malign fate, foreign plots, or simple ineptitude–does make for a gripping yarn. Part of the plot rests on our heroine’s having lost her parents to the Darien Disaster–the ghastly expedition to Darien, in Panama–a catastrophic failure which not only cost over 2000 lives but which bankrupted most of the Scottish nobles. Well known, I’m sure, in Scotland, but completely unknown to me.
The story is pleasing, the plot interesting–AND it manages to end happy by means of a truly ridiculous plot twist, which I appreciate.
And meanwhile,WHAT IS IT with these Scottish dreamboats, gracious me! This book has THREE of them–2 modern brothers (one more beautiful than the other), and the historical bloke, with all those muscles, those piercing eyes, and that gentle grace.
Then there is of course Gabaldon’s gorgeous Jamie, soon to be gracing the silver screen.
Quote: “I talk to you as I talk to my own soul,” he said, turning me to face him. He reached up and cupped my cheek, fingers light on my temple. “And Sassenach,” he whispered, “Your face is my heart.”
Still, I’ll admit I read two of the books. My husband and my brother read more. They are not ill written, there is often interesting historical detail, and, there is a LOT of sex in them.
But really, the king of these adorable Scotsmen is Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond–the astonishingly beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, learned, musical, agile and muscular hero, who also speaks many languages and has an excellent understanding of mathematics– oh my! The happy hours I spent, entranced, listening to this gorgeous story! I still remember the terrible let down, as I was walking up from the subway to Friendship Heights, and hearing those grim words, “The End”. Sigh.
I LOVED this book, though the ending broke my heart. I couldn't, couldn't believe that Helprin would persevere, would end it as he did. And yet, all the way through this stunning, brilliant book, he never compromised, always told the truth. The language is simply ravishing, direct and yet so illuminating, so unanticipated. Often very funny, even. I loved his description of society dames:
"Evelyn, were she in the slightest bit malevolent, could concentrate upon him the female death ray that only a mother-in-law or potential mother-in-law can deploy, that comes from frustration of a hundred types, that is as old as the monkeys, and for which there is no antidote.
"Park Avenue and its environs". . . "were full of caked and powdered reptilian women and florid panting men who lived to shop and eat, with muscles evolved mainly for approaching a maitre d', lifting a poodle, or carrying glistening packages. At home these people did not breathe. There was no air, no room to move, no space to stretch out an arm without shattering Lalique, no sunshine, no water, no waves, only a coffin-like bella figura of life as still as a wax dummy."
A tour de force, a simply wonderful wonderful book. I can't praise it enough.
And Sean Runnette's gentle voice was perfect for this book. Peaceful and lovely to listen to--a very fine matching of voice and book.
I had already read both of course–but it was a long time ago, 8 years maybe. This time I listened to them, and was very entertained by the accents and, as always, the wonderful story telling . Stephen Briggs, the reader, does a grand job differentiating the characters as he reads them.
The horrible villain of Going Postal, Reacher Gilt, has a sort of husky emphatic tone, which actually reminded me of the way a wealthy contractor friend of ours speaks. The whole ingenious story about the birth of stamps (culminating in the brilliant idea of flavored glues, including the CABBAGE scented glue for the Sto Plains edition, featuring, of course, a picture of their prime money earner, the cabbage) is a tour de force. Pratchett is a master when it comes to giving life to his characters, and the aged Junior Postman Tolliver Groat and his assistant Stanley Howler are brilliant examples of his art. With slightly-deranged-but-heart-of-gold Stanley, we have a splendid example of the crazy nerd, and in this case, his particular craze is PINS: we enter (somewhat gingerly, it’s pointed, ha ha) the world of the Pin Collectors, with magazines devoted to it, grungy stores selling pins in all their marvelous variety, the arcane language, and the seedy back rooms where Special Pins for the True Connoisseur are to be found. Stanley is a fanatic Pin Head–until Moist Von Lipvig creates and reveals to him the much more magical and engrossing world of Stamp Collecting. With Pictures! The story is of course silly–but irresistible, and Moist is an engaging hero, sharp and devious, but kindly. He falls in love with the no-nonsense, crossbow-wielding, chain smoking Adorabella Dearheart. How can you not love it?
Once I finished Going Postal, I had to keep going–addicted, is what it was. So, Audible obliged, and I downloaded Moist’s next adventure, Making Money. Crammed with golems and wizards and magical rings–not to mention, pole dancing, Rubber Goods of a Certain Variety, and economic theory. Great fun ensues when Mr. Fusspot (the little dog who is the Chairman of the board of the bank, thanks to a bequest from his late loving mistress, Topsy Lavish) discovers an item in the Rubber Goods of a Certain Variety category and adopts it as his plaything. It vibrates, do you see, and as he is a very small dog, it carries him with it. Mr. Fusspot is eventually adopted by the Patrician, who misses his little dog Wuffles (visiting his grave every week to lay a dog biscuit on it). This book gives us another take on the Clown’s Guild. It is featured in a couple other stories, which mostly emphasized how grim and UNfunny the clown’s life is. In this case, however, we are introduced to a born Master Clown, who unfortunately discovers his vocation too late, and becomes a bank clerk instead of a clown.
These books, I blush to report, feature Werewolves and Vampires in Victorian London, with a generous serving of steam punk on the side. Our heroine, Alexia Terrabotti, in addition to her abiding interest in proper dress and behavior, has a passion for tea (Assam) and treacle tarts. Shamefully, I have downloaded ALL of these silly books, and am now listening to the 5th one. Comic book stories, silly affected language (on purpose), extravagant Victorian costumes and foods, and a certain amount of bodice ripping. What???s not to like, as they say.
Another fine book by this author, this time based on a particular time in the Tang dynasty of ancient China. Again, a fantasy version of actual history??? in this case, the story of the An-Shi Rebellion. This was terrible and bloody time, when many millions died, either in the rebellion itself, or in the subsequent famines and plagues that are the inevitable sequel to such events. We move with our hero through Yang Gui Fei, the Precious Consort -- fabulous scenes, as he makes his way through gorgeous country to the startling wealth and splendor of the capital. There are women warriors (and the kind of fighting seen in recent movies such as House of Flying Daggers), and silk farms, and brilliant poets, and concubines of surpassing beauty and courage, and through it all, a gripping plot, engaging characters, and fascinating descriptions of elaborate customs ??? based on fact, which is more exotic and alien than anything a story teller could make up. I particularly loved the notion of a famous poet showing up and becoming a companion of our hero???and that everywhere they go, the poet is immediately recognized and revered. Poets were the rock stars of the day, I saw somewhere. The skill of writing poetry was a required part of the entrance exams for the civil service. A charming notion!
There is an elegiac note to the writing, an acknowledgement of time passing and the brevity of human life, often noted by way of the poems. And some of the poems quoted are very beautiful indeed. The poet in the book is based on the famous Tang poet, Li Bai. And, by a strange coincidence ??? or, maybe not so strange, Mr. Kay is obviously a well read and educated man ??? the following poem by Li Bai, quoted in the first chapter of Under Heaven, was also quoted in Patrick O???Brian???s Desolation Island:
The floor before my bed is bright:
Moonlight ??? like hoarfrost ??? in my room.
I lift my head and watch the moon.
I drop my head and think of home.
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