Weir, Alison. The Princes in the Tower. NY: Ballantine, 1992.
I’d heard good things about this book and, being long interested in the historical mystery surrounding the deaths of the young Edward V and his brother, Richard, Duke of York, I thought I’d give it a try. What a crock. Weir makes much of the “first hand” report of Thomas More — who was only five years old at the time and all of whose sources were third-hand. She seems to subscribe to the “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” school of historical causation, citing the fact that there was so many rumors floating about at the time linking Richard III to the deaths of the boys. She seems to be entirely unaware of the Tudor virtuosity at propaganda. No credentials are given in the blurb on the author to suggest what her background might be in doing historical research, but they can’t be much. (3/17/02)
Tarr, Judith & Harry Turtledove. Household Gods. NY: Tor, 1999.
There are two sorts of time-travel stories: Those in which characters go back in time because they deliberately choose to (think Time and Again and every story you’ve ever read featuring the “Time Patrol”) and those in which the protagonist is yanked out of the here-and-now and pitched headlong back into an earlier era (think Lest Darkness Fall and Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen). This is one of the latter, in which divorced lawyer Nicole Gunther-Perrin, having just been refused a partnership, wishes she could escape from the injustice of her life in modern Los Angeles — and wakes to find herself in the provincial Roman town of Carnuntum in 2nd century Panonia. She’s in the body of Umma, a widowed tavern keeper, who (like Nicole herself) has two small children. It isn’t long, of course, before the reality of the real ancient world makes itself felt: Germs in the water, lead in the cookware, lice on everyone, unavoidable death (and rape), extremely limited opportunities for women, and especially the ever-present urban stench. I had a bit of trouble believing anyone with a law degree could be so profoundly ignorant of so much outside 20th-century California, but maybe I’m naive. And the writing style in the early scenes is a bit much, but it gets a good deal better later on. I’m sure Harry Turtledove, who was a professor of Byzantine history before he ever took up writing novels, has had his share of people who wish they could have lived in an earlier era, when things were “simpler.” This is his answer: There’s no place like home! (3/13/02)
Varley, John. The Ophiuchi Hotline. NY: Dial, 1977.
This is another of those books that I read shortly after it first appeared and have re-read every decade or so since. Though Varley had already made a reputation with a number of exceptional short stories, this was his first novel, and in many ways it laid the groundwork for most of his subsequent lengthier work: A future in which “The Invaders,” an extrasolar species so very alien, humanity has little chance of ever understanding it, has stopped off on Earth to liberate the various cetacean races . . . which it regards as superior to humans and fungi. Ninety-nine percent of the human race died of starvation, leaving only the colonists in the Moon and the outer planets to carry the torch. A couple of centuries have now passed and Luna is carrying on business as usual. Lilo, a genetic engineer-entrepreneur, is in deep trouble for experimenting with human clones and has been sentenced to permanent death, but Boss Tweed, the out-of-office head of the Free Earthers (who dream of reclaiming the home planet), has other plans for her. Before long, there are several cloned versions of Lilo banging around the solar system, interacting with several other multiply-cloned persons, all of them illegal. Meanwhile, the beam-cast of advanced technical information from a star in the constellation Ophiuchus has been interrupted by what seems to be a demand for payment for services rendered. Varley has been called the successor to Heinlein, and he certainly has a knack for creative characterization and for casually spinning off startling and intriguing ideas. (3/09/02)
Benford, Gregory. Cosm. NY: Avon, 1998.
Much of what Benford has written over the years has been pretty ordinary — Jupiter Project, In Alien Flesh, and so on. (That’s just my own opinion, of course.) But every so often, he produces an exceptional piece of work, and this is one of them. Timescape is another. And in both cases, it’s because he’s focused on the theme of scientist-at-work. Of course, Benford is a working scientist, so he knows what it’s all about, but he also does a terrific job of putting you in there with the characters. In this story, the protagonist is nuclear and particle physicist Alicia Butterworth, female, black, intellectually aggressive, and socially a bit inept. During an interesting and innovative experiment with the collider at Brookhaven, there’s a small explosion which wrecks her detector and produces an unexplainable object like a shiny, very heavy bowling ball. Alicia and her post-doc, Zak Nguyen, basically highjack the thing back to UC-Irvine for investigation — which isn’t entirely believable, inasmuch as she’s gotten this far in a professional career. The notion that Alicia and her buddies would all scamper out to the desert in the last chapter seems a bit thin, too. But anyway: The science is fascinating and (to a non-physicist like me) seems believable. Not only she but Max Jalon, the theorist from Caltech whom she ropes into helping her, are nicely drawn and quite three-dimensional, and so is Zak. When he works at it, Benford is very good at both analyzing the humans and humanizing the analysis. (3/05/02)
Silverberg, Robert. Up the Line. NY: Del Rey, 1969.
This is another book I haven’t read in at least twenty years — but I remembered enjoying it. It’s 2059 and Jud Elliott, graduate in Byzantine history and dissatisfied law clerk, joins the Time Service. The Service has two divisions: the Time Couriers, who escort groups of paying tourists into the past, thereby generating the financial support for the research the Service carries out, and the Time Patrol, which enforces the integrity of the time stream by retroactively preventing “timecrime.” (All of this under-structure is predictable to any experienced fan of time travel stories.) Jud does pretty well on the Byzantine run, showing his tourists all the vivid highlights of Constantinople’s history, until he begins researching his own ancestry and falls for the luscious Pulcheria Ducas, his great-great-multi-great-grandmother in the late 12th century. Then he panics and duplicates himself, and the paradoxes begin to pile up. Silverberg, a very knowledgeable student of history, fills the narrative with considerable by-the-way Byzantine history and takes the opportunity to poke fun at the mores of the mid-21st century . . . which are clearly modeled on those of the 1960s. The characters of Black Sam and sly old Metaxas are pretty well done, too. This certainly isn’t Silver-Bob’s best, but it’s a lot of fun. (3/04/02)
Wilson, Robert Anton. Everything Is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover-Ups. NY: HarperPerennial, 1998.
I’ve been reading and thoroughly enjoying R.A.W. for many years, and this absorbing volume demonstrates his ability to just keep sailing along, turning over rocks and exposing the suspicious underside of history and public affairs. Whether it’s the Kennedy assassination(s), UFOs, the Priory of Sion, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Freemasons, Ezra Pound, the Rockefellers, the murder of Pope John Paul I, false memory syndrome, Clifford Irving, the mothman, Fortean phenomena, or some other of the many topics he covers and heavily cross-references, this book will keep you occupied with flipping back and forth, and also checking out some of the web sites whose addresses he includes. The only bit that grates is his slightly cutesy coverage of the Church of the Sub-Genius, with separate listings for the Bob Dobbs, the Sacred Chao, etc. — especially since Wilson has been in on that extended joke since its invention. In any case, if you’re even a tiny bit paranoid, you should read this book! (3/03/02)
Isaacs, Susan. Long Time No See. NY: HarperCollins, 2001.
It’s been twenty years since the last appearance (in Compromising Positions) of Judith Singer, upper middle-class Long Island housewife and amateur detective. A lot has happened to her in two decades. She’s now a widow, her husband having died suddenly of a stroke two years before. She’s completed her dissertation and is now a professor of history at a small but well regarded college. Some things haven’t changed, especially her love for homicide cop Nelson Sharpe, which she has kept carefully at bay all these years. Now, intrigued by the disappearance and murder of Courtney Logan, ex-investment banker and perfect mom, she finds herself semi-employed by Courtney’s father-in-law, retired hoodlum Fancy Phil Lowenstein. Courtney’s husband, the determinedly legit Gregory Logan, is the cops’ favorite suspect, and Fancy Phil needs help finding evidence to clear him. It’s right up Judith’s alley — until the case brings her into abrupt contact with Nelson and the old flame rekindles. Isaacs is always a hoot and a half, with a droll wit, a keen ear for dialogue, and a real talent for characterization. Every member of the large supporting cast is deftly drawn and entirely believable. So is the convoluted plot itself, as Judith works her way logically through the possibilities, borrowing her friends’ talents and contacts to overcome obstacles and paying heed to that occasional flash of insight that keeps the investigation going. This is a terrific book. (2/28/02)
Steele, Allen. Chronospace. NY: Ace Books, 2001.
This is the first thing I’ve read by Steele and I was attracted to it by the time-travel theme. He does a pretty good job, but the style is somehow reminiscent of ANALOG of the 1950s and ‘60s — which is fair enough, I guess, since the protagonist, NASA bureaucrat/physicist David Z. Murphy, is a lifelong fan of the magazine and now writes science articles for it. He doesn’t know it, but his counterpart on another worldline is about to devote his life to the development of a working time machine, all because a research expedition from three centuries in the future has gone back to visit the zeppelin Hindenburg just before its fiery demise at Lakehurst. Only it doesn’t explode until a half-hour after everyone has disembarked. And in their bewildered flight back to their own time, the timeship crew manages to crash-land in 1998 Tennessee. Yes, it’s all about as confusing as it sounds, but Steele manages to keep everything straight — usually. He could have done with improved copyediting, though, especially in regard to his chapter headings, which consist of dates — and several of which are totally impossible. (2/24/02)
Cooking Light Five-Star Recipes: The Best of 10 Years. Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House, 1996.
Since being diagnosed with diabetes a while back, and being a dedicated foodie and decent cook, I’ve been collecting recipes appropriate to my new situation. Happily, there’s quite a bit out there, and I had hopes for this nicely illustrated collection since it’s published by one of the most popular food magazines around. Instead, I’m appalled at what they consider “light” cooking! “Roasted Vegetable Pitas” at 5 grams of fat and 54 grams of carbohydrates each! “Broccoli-Rice Casserole” at 7 fat and 48 carbs per serving! “Mocha Fudge Pie” at 7 fat and 52 carbs per slice! They also seem to consider “one serving” of pasta as being about three times the usual recommended amount — 1-1/2 cups instead of ½ cup. I don’t think they understand what’s really needed by those trying to cut back on fat, starch, and sugar, or else their name is meaningless. (2/23/02)
Davidson, Cathy N. 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan. NY: Dutton, 1993.
There are few technologically advanced cultures in the world that seem as “foreign” to Americans as Japan, which may be why a significant number of Yanks have been fascinated by Japan over the years. In 1980, Davidson and her husband went there, as so many North Americans have, as university English teachers on a one-year contract, though she had a life-long interest in everything Japanese. She learns the language far better than most of us could, though she obviously never feels she’s learned enough. She adapts to Japanese ways of doing things, of thinking, of looking at the world, and this process also affects how she sees her own country. She’s willing to be a gaijin trying to fit in — not that she has any choice — but she’s also willing to be critical of such things as Japanese racism and xenophobia. She forms close friendships which will last for two decades. Then a tragedy in her husband’s family forces their return to Canada, which seems, for awhile, like a foreign country. Her account of their later visit to Paris is hilarious — especially the way her mind seems to equate “foreign” with Japanese, pushing French phrases out of her mind and leading her to spout colloquial Japanese to French hotel clerks. And, even though on their subsequent visits to Japan, they consider permanent residence, they finally realize they could never become that adapted — but they make up for it by building their new home in the North Carolina hills along distinctively Japanese lines. I like Davidson’s calm, thoughtful approach to what constitutes “foreignness.” (2/19/02)
Bear, Greg. Darwin’s Radio. NY: Del Rey, 1999.
Mitch Rafelson, an anthropologist in disgrace for putting science before political correctness, makes an astonishing discovery in an icy cave high in the Austrian Alps: a mummified Neanderthal family. Christopher Dicken, a field investigator working in the Republic of Georgia for the CDC, has stumbled on the mass grave of the victims of a governmental biological coverup. Kaye Lang, a biologist specializing in retroviruses, is discovering that ancient diseases coded into our DNA are being reactivated, but by what? And Mark Augustine, a top medical administrator in the U.S. government, is faced with what may be the most virulent plague of all time. This is science fiction with a capital “SCIENCE,” full of the jargon of evolutionary biology and biochemistry. Such a subject could be confusing, but Bear, as usual, handles it very well. All the characters — even the minor ones — are nicely developed and the extremely complex and erudite plot is very well thought out. You’ll have to work to follow what’s going on, but he even includes a brief biological “primer” and a glossary. This one may be even better than Blood Music. (2/14/02)
Eversz, Robert M. Killing Paparazzi. NY: St. Martin, 2001.
Mary Alice Baker, whom we met in Shooting Elvis as she was transformed into Nina Zero, is on parole now after five years in a California prison. She’s certainly not the same person she was, even after her borderline personality began to slide downhill under the pressure of events in the earlier book, but she really is trying to get her life together — at least at first. To get a grubstake, she has agreed to a “green card marriage” to an English photographer, but after meeting him in Las Vegas, she discovers she really cares about Gabe, a leading LA paparazzi. Nina, a talented photographer, gets into the business, too — but then Gabe, whom she already has reasons not to trust, turns up dead. Nina takes it personally and the semi-psychopathic side of her, the result of a childhood with her abusive father, begins to take over her life. This is, in many ways, more of a straight whodunit than the first book, since we already know something about the lead character, but it’s very, very well done. The plotting is excellent and the characterization, as before, is terrific. And Nina has definitely become a scary person. But I think it would be a mistake for Eversz to try to continue this into a series. I hope he knows when to quit. (2/09/02)
Wilson, Robert Charles. The Chronoliths. NY: Tor, 2001.
What would you do if, very suddenly, an enormous blue glass obelisk appeared in the middle of your city, destroying much of it and killing thousands? And the inscription at its base indicated that it was a monument raised by a victorious warlord a couple of decades in the future? That’s the armature around which Wilson has constructed this story of Scott Warden, skilled mid-level computer tech, and his ex-wife and daughter. There’s also his sort-of buddy, Hitch Paley, and Sue Chopra, his sometime employer and perhaps the only person who can get a handle on what the monuments mean. Because they continue to appear over the years, apparently mirroring the conquests of Kuin, all across Asia and the Middle East and then Latin America. Who is Kuin — or, rather, who will he be? Should the world prepare to try to fight him? Or just regard his ascendancy as inevitable and accommodate him? But there might not be much of a society left by the time of Kuin’s arrival. The thing is, this is actually the story of the people involved, what they go through over the course of the pre-Kuin years, how they adapt to economic collapse and the spread of military & governmental secrecy and power born of desperation. It’s a very powerful story and it’s the first work by Wilson I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last. (2/06/02)
Blacker, Terence. Kill Your Darlings. NY: St. Martin, 2000.
Gregory Keays is a writer whose future is, as they say, behind him. One novel, a short period spent on the “young writers to watch” list, and the only thing he has produced since is a dozen unfinished novels and a series of not-yet-published volumes about other writers. He writes a column for a writer’s magazine and teaches a writing class at a local institute, while his wife has become one of London’s leading interior decorators, earning far more money than he ever will. His relationship with his teenage son is in the toilet. Gregory’s envy of those who were once, potentially, his peers has been eating his guts out for years. Most of those working writers, in his opinion, are mere authors; only he is a real “writer.” This is especially true of his opinion of Martin Amis — whom he always refers to as “Martin.” (One must wonder about the true relationship between Amis and Blacker, if any. . . .) Then Peter Gibson shows up in his class and Gregory recognizes true talent. He casts himself as Peter’s guide to the literary world — and discovers the young writer has just completed an amazingly mature, groundbreaking novel. A novel that should have been his. Will be his. This book started out witty and ruefully funny; you shake your head while smiling at Gregory’s corrosive ego and self-delusion. After awhile, though, he’s not so funny. And by the denouement — which I, for one, did not see coming — he has become downright scary. This study of the decay of an admittedly intelligent man’s self-image is a remarkable piece of work. (2/04/02)
Butler, Jack. Jack’s Skillet: Plain Talk and Some Recipes from a Guy in the Kitchen. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1997.
The author is a poet and novelist, but he’s also a dedicated improvisational cook. He swears by his black iron skillet, taking the position that anything that can be cooked in a skillet, should be — spaghetti, biscuits, chicken pot pie, blackberry cobbler — anything. The essays in this collection are sort of bite-size, most of them revolving around a particular culinary topic. And most of those relate to his Southern upbringing in Mississippi, East Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas — though he’s now in Santa Fe and mutton gets into the act late in the book. Butler’s style tends somewhat to the cutesy, but what he has to say about families and meal times and growing up the son of a Baptist preacher is generally worth listening to. And his commentary on the how and why of cooking are always interesting. (1/28/02)
Backer, Sara. American Fuji. NY: Putnam, 2001.
Gaby Stanton used to be a full professor of English at Shizuoka University, midway between Tokyo and Kyoto, before they fired her for unexplained reasons. Now, in order to stay in Japan (with its full national health system, which she really needs), she sells “fantasy funerals” to wealthy Japanese with unconventional tastes. Alex Thorn is a psychologist from Seattle whose exchange-student son died in Shizuoka under inadequately explained circumstances, and Alex has come in search of answers. That’s the set-up, and you know from the beginning these two semi-loners are going to interact, but the author, who was herself an English professor in Shizuoka, makes it all very believable and convincing. And the resolution — who was behind Gaby’s firing and why, what really happened to young Thorn and why, and where Gaby and Alex will go from here — is satisfying without being trite. More important than the plot, however, is Backer’s frequently hilarious dissection (nicely wry rather than ha-ha funny) of modern Japan and its views on and treatment of gajin — foreigners. Americans and Europeans often fit in rather easily in each other’s countries, becoming accepted and losing merely expatriate status. But not in Japan. We also tend to think of Japan as an extremely polite society, but Backer shows just how rude and arrogant the Japanese can be, to strangers and each other, and also how subtle and occasionally cerebral. But especially how different. The mantra throughout is “This is Japan. Expect the unexpected.” Add in the yakuza, Pocari Sweat, transplant operations, wealthy Zen priests, academic politics, cities without a single street name or house number (just follow the pizza delivery truck), the refusal to believe in single working women who aren’t looking for husbands, and remember that “very difficult” means “impossible,” and you’ll find it equally impossible to put this one down. Backer has written essays, poetry, and short stories, but this is her first novel. I’ll be interested to see if she can pull off another long work of this high quality. (1/25/02)
Fagan, Brian M. (ed) The Seventy Great Mysteries of the Ancient World: Unlocking the Secrets of Past Civilizations. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
I’m a sucker for books about “historical mysteries,” whether it’s the Princes in the Tower or pre-Columbian exploration in the New World. Here, Fagan tries to cover all the bases in the pre-medieval world and he’s only partially successful. Some topics, like the origin of Stonehenge and the methods used in constructing it, are obvious choices; others, like the identification of the burial in Tomb 55 in the Valley of the Kings, are not (except to Egyptologists). Some seem pretty far afield from “ancient.” The “truth” behind King Arthur is solidly medieval, for instance. The biggest problem, though, is the attempt to cram so much into only 300 pages; most of the chapters run four pages or less (and much of that is maps and illustrations), and some cover only a single page. While much of this volume was already pretty familiar (to me), some topics were new ground and quite fascinating, including the probable date for first settlement of Australia (much earlier than I would have thought) and the latest thought about the bog-bodies of Scandinavia and northern Germany. Because the chapters were written by a gaggle of specialists, the style and depth of content are somewhat uneven; some are clear and concise and summarize the latest discoveries and interpretations rather nicely, but some simply shrug their shoulders or waffle. This is especially true of politically sensitive issues, like the question of the “blackness” of the ancient Egyptians or the eventual fate of the remains of Kennewick Man. (In both cases the authors seem disappointingly afraid to take a stand on the side of science). All in all, it’s an interesting afternoon’s browse, but you should borrow this one from the library. (1/22/02)
Mears, Kenneth J. The Tower of London: 900 Years of English History. Oxford, UK: Phaidon, 1988.
If London is (or was until late in the 20th century) the center of the English-speaking world, then the Tower is arguably the historical center of London. The White Tower was begun by William the Conqueror and the place has served as fortress, royal residence, prison for dozens of the famous, arsenal, treasury, royal mint, military garrison, armory, state archives, and repository of the crown jewels. As Deputy Governor, living with his wife in an apartment with carpeting and paneled walls laid over the ancient stone, Mears was uniquely qualified to write this volume and he does a creditable job. The organization is chronological by royal dynasty and the text, while hardly literary, is quite adequate. But it’s the photographs that make the book, identifying and showing you nooks and crannies you might have seen but didn’t recognize for what they were. Other, more private locations, you won’t have seen at all, including the residences of many of the Yeoman Warders. A fascinating volume. (1/20/02)
Russell, John. London. NY: Abrams, 1994.
The much-honored Russell spent nearly thirty years as chief art critic for the London Sunday Times, and then came to New York and did the same thing for the New York Times for another sixteen years. Even after leaving London, though, he still considers himself an insider of that city, and in this book he shares his fifty-year perspective with the reader. It’s not a guidebook nor a travel book, but a highly idiosyncratic memoir of London, organized around diverse themes, including Samuel Johnson, Buckingham Palace, the rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire, the role of the Thames, and what he calls the “spirit of place” — one of the best chapters in this marvelous book. Throughout, he illustrates his thoughts and often witty commentary with reproductions of art and photographs of people and buildings which, brought together in one place like this, are just about worth the price of the book by themselves. One of the best books about London I’ve seen in years. (1/18/02)
Cameron, Robert & Alistair Cooke. Above London. San Francisco: Cameron & Co, 1980.
There’s something fascinating about aerial views of cities we are familiar with, the new perspectives on familiar buildings and monuments and street intersections. Here, you can see not only the precincts of Parliament and Westminster Abbey but even the huge mass of soccer fields at Hackney Green. Observed from the air, the architectural unity of places like Mayfair and Kensington Palace are evident. My only complaint about this book, actually, is that it isn’t more up to date! (1/15/02)
Blunt, Giles. Forty Words for Sorrow. NY: Putnam, 2001.
This book hooked me on the first page, with its description of just what winter is like in Algonquin Bay, Ontario, in what even Canadians call “the North.” John Cardinal is a police detective with a Past and a string of murders of adolescents to solve. His partner is Lise Delorme, six years in Special Investigations (i.e., political cases and what we in the U.S. would call Internal Affairs), whose assignment is to investigate Cardinal, as well as to help solve the murders. So far, so good. Blunt gets you into Cardinal’s mind, into the personality of this frozen little town, into the relationship between the local cops and the RCMP . . . and then he blows it completely. One-third of the way into the story, he tells you who the killer is. A serious error on the part of the author. What began as a potentially first-rate murder mystery degenerates into a mediocre thriller. At the two-thirds mark, I gave it up. A great disappointment! (1/14/02)
Banbury, Jen. Like a Hole in the Head. Boston, Little, Brown, 1998.
Several reviews of Eversz’s book, Shooting Elvis, compared it unfavorably to Banbury’s subsequent effort at noir hipness. I can’t say I agree. Jill, a mid-twenties immigrant to LA from Connecticut, works part-time in a used book store, mostly so she can read a lot. And forget — though you don’t get a clue as to what she’s trying to forget until far into the book. She buys a signed first edition of Jack London’s The Cruise of the Snark cheap from a kleptomaniac dwarf, thinking to make a killing on the resale, which — and immediately everyone insists the book was stolen and wants it back. Who the rightful owner is, is the problem, but it soon ceases to matter, as Jill gets sucked into the struggle between several sets of violence-prone contenders. Along the way, Banbury has the chance to do a number on movie industry people (especially directors and B-movie actors), rare book dealers, and Angelinos generally. But, despite the author’s sometimes tart way with a phrase, the narration wanders all over the lot. I became impatient with the book and had I accidentally left it in my doctor’s waiting room when I was three-quarters of the way through it, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to go back for it. In fact, the story and the characters don’t really get interesting until the last fifty-odd pages . . . and even then, I had trouble accepting Jill’s rather blasé reaction to her treatment at the hands of Seth and his friend. (1/12/02)
Eversz, Robert M. Shooting Elvis. NY: Grove Press, 1996.
Mary Alice Baker is just an ordinary girl from a small Southern California town who’s trying hard to be normal. She works in a baby photo studio at the mall and sees the world through her own much darker photography. She has an abusive father and a biker boyfriend. Then she quite unintentionally explodes a bomb at LAX, decides it’s time to completely change her life, and becomes Nina Zero. Then things get complicated. As you get farther into this book, the story and Nina’s personality both get darker, too, just like her photography. She hooks up with a kitsch artist and a paranoid documentary film-maker, goes to work for a grossly overweight detective, and learns how to handle a revolver. Mary Alice was basically a nice girl in fuzzy sweaters, but Nina is definitely dangerous. It’s a fast read, only a little over 200 pages, but the protagonist becomes a very real person, deftly drawn and developed, and you’ll care about what happens to her. Also, properly cast, this book would make a terrific movie! (1/10/02)
Powers, Tim. The Stress of Her Regard. NY: Ace Books, 1989.
This one is a re-read and I remember now why I enjoyed the book so much the first time — and why I was also somewhat frustrated by it. It’s a fat thing (480 pages) but it sometimes seems much longer. Not because it’s dull — it’s never dull — but because the prose and the plot are so dense. Powers obviously has a thing for the circle of poets that included Byron, Shelley, and Keats. They’re all here, along with Mary Godwin Shelley and many of the historical hangers-on, but Powers’s interpretation of their lives and actions is, as always, far different from what you what expect. It’s the nephelim, the vampires, that made Shelley the bizarre figure that he was, and that made Keats such a bleak person, and that made Byron so waspish. But it’s also why they were such fervent poets. Then there’s Michael Crawford, ex-ship’s surgeon, pioneering gynecologist, and new husband. Crawford doesn’t know it when the book opens, but he’s about to lose a finger as well as another wife and he’s about to spend the next six years almost constantly on the run. Whether he’s hauling François Villon about in a little red wagon, or trying to answer the Sphinx’s riddle on an Alpen mountaintop, or battling the 800-year-old head of the Habsburgs in Venice, he’s about to enter a dispairing, exhausting, and very traumatic period of his life. Fascinating for the reader, too, because Powers puts you right into the period and the company of Byron et al. The frustrating part? The first two-thirds of the story are irritatingly episodic, almost as if they had been written originally as a serial and then stitched together (they weren’t), and the characters tend to refer back explicitly to earlier events as if you might have forgotten them (you won’t). But make sure you’re holed up somewhere that you can lose yourself in the last 150 pages undisturbed, because you won’t want to quit without finishing them. (1/04/02)