Friday, February 02, 2007
Books! Fiction, fiction, and more fiction!
Every afternoon, the delivery man drops off his pallet of book-boxes to our loading dock here at Stevereads. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of advance galley copies are in those boxes, all sent by publishers and agents living in the forlorn hope of a mention here on the literary tastemaker of the Interweb.
Browsing at your local Barnes&Noble might give you the impression you've seen the whole spectrum of books on offer, but you'd be wrong. Oh, you'd be wrong. There are things that exist in galley form that seem like elaborate pratical jokes rather than forthcoming books.
Fortunately, the central miracle of publishing still holds true: somehow, against soul-crushing odds, people write good books and then push, push, push to get them into the light of day.
That process of pushing is odious - classes, glad-handing, conference-going, junket-going, back-patting, drink-swilling, more glad-handing ... all done to such an extent that in almost all cases, the person who throws himself into it becomes LOST, becomes basically a living commercial for himself, 24 hours a day.
However, as disgusting as all that sounds, increasingly it seems to be the basic minimum you need to do to get your works before the public eye. To those of us here at Stevereads, this seems a faustian bargain at best - but entering into it has brought some good and interesting reading to our loading dock in the last few days.
Gawd only knows how much of themselves the authors in question had to sacrifice - and lie about - to get their books before us. But nevertheless, some of the books themselves are pretty good. Some of them are better than pretty good.
We'll put three of them before your notice today. We have gamesome, active readers here at Stevereads - people like ourselves, always eager for that next great reading experience. We offer the following three titles for your consideration, in ascending order of their likelihood to provide that experience:
Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett - The woman in question is Meg Giggs, a young ward of Thomas More, and the novel also features another such young ward, John Clement, and the romantic connection between them. That oonnection is complicated by the feelings she developes for the painter Hans Holbein, and it's complicated by the turmoil of the English Reformation, and it's complicated by the wopper of a secret John Clement is carrying around.
The secret stretches the bounds of credulity, and the portrait of More is boringly pious (wouldn't it be refreshing to see a TRUE portrait of More, the ultimate junkyard-dog lawyer? Saints melted pretty quick in the heat of Henry's England), but the novel works on you anyway. As we've mentioned in this space before, Tudor fiction is especially tricky to write - almost everybody who tries it ends up swamping their book with their research. Certainly Bennett is guilty of this too - keep an eye out for paragraphs longer than ten sentences - but she compensates with a nice sense of how people interact. And it doesn't hurt that Erasmus (surely the patron saint of the Internet, and certainly our guiding spirit here at Stevereads) is all over this thing like poison ivy ... scarcely a page goes by without a mention, which will just have to do until a full-dress Erasmus NOVEL comes along ...
Ascent by Jed Mecurio - This is a better book than Bennett's, and at half the length, a wry, sharp book with a killer premise: what if, under a shroud of Soviet secrecy, Russia got a man to the moon before the United States?
Mercurio takes that premise and fleshes out his enigmatic central character, Yefgenii Yeremin, against its backdrop. Yeremin becomes a crack MiG pilot (the aerial combat sequences are absolutely thrilling, easily the most virtuoso writing in the book) and eventually gets selected for a space program so secret his participation will never be known (we defy you, however, to look at pictures of the Apollo missions the same way again once you've read this book).
Although Mercurio never says it outright, the best part of Yeremin is that he's got the 'right stuff' ... his hunger for the open skies is identical to that of Yaeger, Aldrin, Armstrong and the rest. There's a great little moment in the novel where Yeremin's been grounded by heavy rains for four days. When the sky finally clears, Yeremin's soul itself exults:
"Yefgenii's mask moulded to his face. His harness felt snug. The aircraft fitted him and he fitted it. The picture outside the cockpit represented a universe in its most comfortable and understandable aspect: a patchwork of land below, a sky above, and in between a sport of death and survival for men to play.
The rains had given him a glimpse of life without flying, of his life as it would be without his becoming any more than he already was. In an ordinary life, opportunities never come, or they come and aren't taken, or they're taken and squandered. Whatever the reason, the obituary is blank."
Since we all know the Soviets didn't get to the moon first, you can all guess the ironic twist of the book's end ... but one of the best parts of rock-solid plots is that you can see their twists coming and still enjoy the hell out of them, and this is one of those times. 'Ascent' is one lean, wonderful novel, and you shouldn't miss it next year, when it comes out in paperback.
Mistress of the Arts of Death by Ariana Franklin - Of the three, this one wins hands-down in terms of writing (and damn near in terms of plot ... it's just that Mercurio's is SO perfect, so elegant and irrestible). The plot is no faint shakes either: it's Middle Ages England under the reign of Henry II, and in Cambridge little children are being murdered - and maybe crucified. The populace naturally suspects the Jews, who are confined to the town's castle indefinitely for their own protection. Henry II, dismayed by the fiscal absence of his Jewish subjects, contacts his kinsman the King of Sicily and has dispatched to England three remarkable individuals: a methodical female doctor, her Arab eunuch bodyguard, and their unflappable Jewish mission-leader.
The writing here is pitch-perfect, such a fast, unrelenting joy to read that we're sincerely hoping Ariana Franklin is at least seventy years old. That Franklin's book and Bennett's book are both historical fiction at all is as good a demonsration of the width of the spectrum as one could want.
No question about it, the show here belongs to the lady doctor of the title, Adelia, who's indelibly portrayed as a person entirely frustrated with the age in which she lives. But one of the sweetest little pleasures of Franklin's book is its handling of Henry II, a hugely complex character who's devilishly difficult to pin down.
Henry II was a fiercely strong and fiercely individual monarch, so it's to Franklin's credit that she refuses to portray him as a one-dimensional villain. Here he is in conference with a Jewish elder about this crisis that's afflicted them both:
"'Yes, yes. The real point is that one seventh of my annual revenues comes from taxing you Jews. And the Church wants me to get rid of you.' The king was on his feet, and once again harsh Angevin syllables blasted the gallery. 'Do I not maintain peace in this kingdom such as it has never known? God's balls, how do they think I do it?'
Nervous clerks dropped their quills to nod. Yes, my lord. You do, my lord.
'You do, my lord,' Aaron said.
'Not by prayer and fasting, I tell you that.' Henry had calmed himself again. 'I need money to equip my army, pay my judges, put down rebellion abroad, and keep my wife in her hellish expensive habits. Peace is money, Aaron, and money is peace.' He grabbed the old man by the front of his cloak and dragged him close. 'Who is killing those children?'
'Not us, my lord. My lord, we don't know.'
For one intimate moment, appalling blue eyes with their stubby, almost invisible eyelashes peered into Aaron's soul.
'We don't, do we?' the king said. The old man was released, steadied, his cloak patted back into shape, though the king's face was still close, his voice a tender whisper. 'But I think we'd better find out, eh? Quickly.'
As the sergeant accompanied Aaron of Lincoln toward the staircase, Henry II called, 'I'd miss you Jews, Aaron.'
The old man turned round. The king was smiling, or, at least, his spaced, strong little teeth were bared in something like a smile. 'But not near as much as you Jews would miss me,' he said."
Henry II was a lightning bolt in buckskins, a leader-thing of a kind largely unthinkable in the present world. None of the many biographies and novels written about him since his death has managed to capture more than a few facets of his character. James Goldman comes closest of all in his durable stage-play "The Lion in Winter," and even he has an audience to please, so he periodically pauses to make Henry cuddly before resuming the blood and mayhem.
Maybe someday a writer will come along who'll capture all of what Henry II was (bedecked in fiction, or otherwise), but in the meantime, the few snippets in "Mistress of the Art of Death" will have to suffice.