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Some fiction I’ve been reading lately include Hilary Mantel’s 1992 historical novel A Place of Greater Safety

Set mostly in Paris during the French Revolution. A review had recommended it, so I read it on my Kindle, purchased in order to cut down on the weight of luggage I toted to Stockton camp in the summer. (Aside: A Stockton article will be along soon.) As I knew that two of Safety’s primary characters (Robespierre and Danton) would be guillotined during the Terror, there was little suspense, but rather a sense of doom that made the novel difficult to finish. I did grow to like Danton, however, and his friend Camille Desmoulins (a historical character of whom I’d never heard), so their fates were saddening. Still, I would not recommend this work of Mantel’s but rather the two (soon to be three) Thomas Cromwell novels of recent vintage, which I’ve praised in this blog before.

   Although I don’t make a habit of reading mystery novels as I can rarely find an author whose prose style matches what I need from a writer, I’ve been enjoying Anne Zouroudi’s series, set in modern Greece, that began with The Messenger from Athens (2007). Detective stories have been described as fantasies of justice, and the Zouroudi books fit that description to a T, as the “detective,” Hermes Diaktoros, is a reincarnation of ancient Greek gods, primarily Hermes in this case (minus the trickster aspect), who is interested in justice, has supernatural powers and knowledge, and “works” for what he calls “Higher Authorities,” who seem to be the Erinyes (or Furies, as the Romans called them). There is no character development of Hermes, but he’s easy enough to spend time with, although extremely opaque as a man. For anyone concerned about reading the series out of order, be not concerned; there’s the occasional reference to something that happened in an earlier book, but each is a stand-alone story. The evocation of Greece is excellent. I wouldn’t recommend reading the series all in one go, as its formulaic nature begins to pall in a concentrated dose. Still, I’m glad I discovered it, on a recommendation from the Cornflower book blog, and will be looking for future books. I have now read, out of publication order, four of the ones I’m aware of, with The Doctor of Thessaly (2009) and The Lady of Sorrows (2010) to come.

   Still in the mystery genre, I’ve been watching the 1987 TV series made out of three Dorothy L. Sayers novels: Strong Poison (1930), Have His Carcase (1932) and Gaudy Night (1936). As I’ve said before, I cherish Sayers’ style, and she tends not to write formula stories (there’s no murder in Gaudy Night, for example, though justice is done in the end). The TV series starred Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane and Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter Wimsey. I had mixed reactions. I disliked the novel Have His Carcase as a mere potboiler (with the ludicrous premise that the murder victim’s hemophilia sprang from his membership in the Russian royal family, when it’s commonly known that Tsarina Alexandra brought the hemophilia gene into the family, and she left no descendants), but I was happy enough to watch the TV version. The other two novels, of which I am strongly partisan, did not have justice done to them; the script of Gaudy Night, in particular, had major changes and omissions. And while watching all three, I was conscious that I didn’t like the character of Harriet Vane (said to represent the author, Sayers). The actress Harriet Walter, however, I am a fan of; I especially admired her portrayal of Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1995).

   Other books, which may not be great literature but are still classics, I’ve been reading as accessories to the movies that have been made from them, such as Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April (1922), made into a wonderful movie in 1992 that was shot in the same location, Castello Brown in Portofino, Italy, where von Arnim had written the book. I strongly recommend watching the movie (on DVD) first and then reading the book, as it adds value to the whole “April” experience. Earlier in this blog, I mentioned von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898), which I liked very much (no movie, though). I followed it up with the sequel The Solitary Summer (1899) and am waiting for The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen (1904), said to be the funniest of her books (although all I’ve encountered have been funny).

   Also in the “book as accessory to film” category was Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-55), which I read on Kindle the day after watching the 2004 BBC series on DVD, and I have to say that I much preferred the film version, although it made major departures from the original. All of my exposure to Elizabeth Gaskell has heretofore been on film (such as Cranford and Wives and Daughters), with the productions uniformly excellent. So I’m not anxious to dive into more “original Gaskell,” but I suppose I should give it another try. (She’s very preachy, for one thing. She was the daughter of one clergyman and the wife of another, and it shows, at least in North and South. But she was very good at writing convincing, real, interesting, young female characters, as Dickens was not.) Addendum: The DVD extras for N&S; were first-rate. Finally, although I’ve never read Dickens’ last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and have no burning ambition to do so, the 1998 BBC serial made a good job of this in-many-ways-problematical work (it was not a success with the public when published, and is still not considered one of Dickens’ best). The story’s “enjoyability” markedly improves once it moves away from London, and the actors are commendable.

   To return to the “formula” category, but this time that of thrillers: a while ago, I read the fourth in Kate Griffin’s urban fantasy series: The Minority Council (2012), starring sorcerer Matthew Swift. In past entries I’ve written about how I admired Swift’s dedication to his “job,” that of protecting London, but I wished the author would slow down her breathless pace. I even expressed a wish for Matthew to do something as normal as get laid, because he could sure use the “release.” Well, in Council, he does get laid, but there’s no description of his emotions during or after it, and when his all-too-temporary girlfriend dies, what does he feel about it? We’re not told. I no longer find it possible to identify with this guy in the least. He’s not human; he’s a monster, because of the electric “beings” who took him over in the first book. Although he’s the viewpoint character, we’re not allowed enough access to his cognitive processes or emotions, and he has spent far too much time in the series refusing to grow up or take responsibility. He’s a working-class perpetual teenager who obstinately refuses to join the middle class, as he must because of his job as “Midnight Mayor,” until close to the very end of Council. It’s too little, too late, for me. I’m done. If I’d known that “thriller” was the most important descriptor of the series, I’d never have started it.