American Gods, by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow, 2001, 480 pp.)
Gaiman has earned many fans with his enchanting Sandman series of graphic novels. His new novel, which in many ways returns us to the mythic under (and over- and between-) world of the immortal malcontents who interfere in human existence, has been eagerly anticipated. American Gods is ultimately disappointing, however -- not because Gaiman doesn't give us fascinating characters, but because he merely scratches the surface of his mind-boggling premise. In the novel, a human ex-con named Shadow is released from jail only to learn that his beloved wife has just been killed in a car accident. Dazed with grief, he accepts the offer of employment by a disreputable figure named Wednesday. Anyone familiar with the Norse pantheon and the source of names of the days of the week will be able to guess which god Wednesday is -- and the novel quickly presents us with an ever-expanding cast of thinly-disguised deities, all of whom have hitchhiked to the North American continent with the various immigrant populations. Shadow finds himself in the middle of an imminent war between the old gods of myth and story, and the new ones of high technology. With occasional respites in the too-perfect town of Lakeside, Wisconsin, Shadow, torn between the demands of Wednesday and those of his dead wife, must face his own inner demons before the final showdown at the holy shrine of Rock City, Tennessee. Gaiman offers us only the briefest glimpses of many of his most interesting characters, and Shadow's fate becomes predictable fairly quickly. Also predictably, the Native American deities are the only figures not obsessed with themselves and their increasingly petty concerns. Still, there are intriguing discussions here and there about the mythic origins of roadside attractions, coin tricks, and classic con games. Gaiman, an English writer, has attempted to create an epic image of the soul of America but has only succeeded in creating some quirkily entertaining comic-book panels.
Horse Heaven, by Jane Smiley (Knopf, 2000, 561 pp.)
Smiley has written a sprawling, vivacious novel about the world of thoroughbred racehorses, their trainers, their owners, and their fans. The novel is a delight for anyone who's ever loved horses, although racing fans may find its pace a little slow. Smiley follows the fortunes of five different horses as they change owners, win and lose races, and otherwise fulfill their various destinies. The horses are often more compelling than the novel's human characters, but this is probably intentional on Smiley's part. Why else would she invest so much time in making sure we fall in love with the novel's most unique personality -- a Jack Russell terrier named Eileen? Still, the fantasies, delusions, dreams and plans of the human owners and trainers intersect in complex and fascinating ways for readers who are patient. Smiley's lyrical descriptions of the beauty of horses in motion, and her memorable animal personalities (particularly a saintly gelding named Justa Bob) make the time spent in the world of Horse Heaven well worth it.
The Shakespeare Stealer, by Gary Blackwood (Puffin Books, 1998, 224 pp.)
This young adult novel follows the adventures of an Elizabethan orphan named Widge, who is sold into service to an unscrupulous theater director. Widge knows the new art of shorthand, and he is ordered to attend a performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet at the Globe Theatre, copy down the text of the play, and return it to his master, who will mount an unauthorized production. But Widge is discovered by the players, who take him in as an apprentice.
Blackwood has done his theater-history homework, and his rendition of backstage life is vivid and believable. His historical figures (Richard Burbage, Will Kemp, Shakespeare himself) are one-dimensional and his fictional boy actors speak to one another in overly contemporary tones at times, but the story moves quickly and Blackwood does avoid the sentimentality that mars the similarly-themed King of Shadows by Susan Cooper. The novel's surprises are not so surprising to anyone who's watched Shakespeare in Love, but the realistic details of sword-fighting, stage effects and line memorization make this a great read for anyone interested in theater.
Music and Silence, by Rose Tremain (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999, 480 pp.)
Tremain is the award-winning author of the beautiful novel of 1660's London, Restoration -- which was also made into a pretty good movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Meg Ryan. Music and Silence is equally beautiful, but less focused than Restoration -- it's told in the voices of at least four characters. The setting is Denmark, 1629-30, in the court of the brilliant but emotionally unstable King Christian IV. The novel's protagonist, John Clare, is a lutenist hired to play in the King's orchestra, which performs far below the King's throne room, in a dark, freezing basement that allows the heavenly sound of the music to emerge through a series of pipes. King Christian is fond of devising such strange special effects, but his efforts are all pitiful substitutes for the lost love of his beautiful, selfish wife, Kirsten. She, in her turn, has begun a sadomasochistic affair with a German count -- her diary entries are the most entertaining parts of the novel. The fourth main character is Kirsten's lady-in-waiting, Emilia Tilsen, with whom Clare falls in love. The lives of all four intertwine over the course of a year, as the King looks to Clare and his music for healing, Kirsten navigates her dangerous games, and Emilia tries to save her young brother, who is trapped in a household straight out of the Brothers Grimm, complete with an evil stepmother. It's difficult to develop strong feelings about any of the characters (except perhaps Kirsten), but Tremain's magical prose style and detailed descriptions of Renaissance food, music, art and clothing will satisfy historical fiction buffs and romance fans alike.
Headlong, by Michael Frayn (Metropolitan Books, 1999, 342 pp.)
Frayn, best known as a playwright (Noises Off and this year's Tony-winning Copenhagen), has constructed a cerebral farce about a philosophy professor who believes he's found a lost painting by a Flemish Master (to tell you who would spoil some of the surprise). Martin Clay is a believable mix of likable and unlikable qualities, and the story is so carefully constructed that we have little trouble accepting a reasonable man's willingness to jeopardize his career, his savings, and his marriage to obtain this painting. Ethical and aesthetic questions are addressed in a thoughtful but mostly light-hearted way, and there are a number of sharp satirical portraits of the cynical moneyed classes in today's England. Best of all is Frayn's obvious mastery of art history: Clay's interpretation of the painting he covets is convincing and offers a quick introduction to the culture of Renaissance Europe and the religious wars of the time. I know it sounds dry and academic, but domestic details like an irrepressible pack of labradors, go-cart racetracks, and Clay's adorable baby daughter ground the tale firmly in the here and now.
King Hereafter, by Dorothy Dunnett (Vintage Books, 1982, 721 pp.)
Dunnett, best known for her Lymond series chronicling the turbulent history of 16th-century Scotland, here tells the story of the real Macbeth -- an 11th-century Viking warlord named Thorfinn who bears little resemblance to the ambitious Jacobean hothead of Shakespeare's play. This novel is for serious historical fiction fans only -- it contains incredibly detailed descriptions of early medieval politics and warfare, and Dunnett's characters are complex but sometimes frustratingly opaque. Thorfinn's red-haired wife, Groa, is particularly interesting, and not at all like Shakespeare's evil Lady Macbeth; their love story is moving and a little more believable than some of Dunnett's turbulent romances. Fans of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series might want to pick this up, but don't expect Outlander-style sex and swashbuckling -- Dunnett is a serious historian and her novels aim for presenting a politically and socially realistic portrait of a little-known portion of British history.
Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, by Stephanie Barron (Bantam Books, 1996, 318 pp.)
Like Jane Austen? Like mysteries? Then you'll like this clever and fast-paced story, presented by Barron as a "lost" manuscript by the author of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. 27-year-old Jane narrates (in a "rediscovered" diary and letters to her sister Cassandra) her adventures during a Christmas-season visit to a titled friend whose husband dies under suspicious circumstances. Jane uses her skills in observing human nature to identify the perpetrators and defend the innocent -- but not before her dearest friend is nearly hanged for murder. Barron does a creditable job of imitating Austen's style (although of course no Austen novel would contain the references to pregnant ladies' maids and female prison inmates that we see here!) and has concocted an admirable mystery plot in the English tradition. Purists may object to just about everything in the book, but those who can't get enough of the Austenian world will appreciate this chance to revisit their favorite landscapes and characters. There are three other novels so far in the same vein: Jane and the Man of the Cloth, Jane and the Wandering Eye, and Jane and the Genius of the Place.
The Late Mr. Shakespeare, by Robert Nye (Arcade, 1998, 399 pp.)
Robert Reynolds, alias Pickleherring, narrates this memoir of his life as a boy actor in Shakespeare's troupe, hoping to dispel the many rumors and lies about his older friend and mentor's life. Robert Nye has based this fictional biography on a variety of legitimate sources, but relies most on a healthy dose of sheer tall-tale-telling and bawdy reconstructions of Elizabethan London. His reconstruction of Shakespeare's childhood and the infamous "lost years" in particular abound with rich detail about life in suburban Stratford. Pickleherring also offers provocative theories about the sources for Shakespeare's greatest characters and speeches, and gossipy commentary on other luminaries of the Elizabethan stage, like Kit Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and the mysterious Dark Lady of the sonnets. Take this sometimes silly but immensely entertaining story for what it's worth -- and be prepared for some pretty raunchy scenes -- and you'll have a great time. You'll have an even better time if you know a little about Shakespeare and his world before you read the novel. Nye also subtly interweaves quotations from the plays into his narrative, so real Shakespeare devotees will enjoy this book most of all -- if, of course, they aren't offended by a portrait of their idol that sometimes exposes his all-too-human nature.
Jem (and Sam), by Ferdinand Mount (Carroll & Graf, 1999, 432 pp.)
This moving and often hilarious work of historical fiction walks a narrow line between fiction and reality. The narrator, Jeremiah Mount, is the author's great-great-ancestor, and he was a living personage who shows up a few times as a minor figure in Samuel Pepys' Diaries. Pepys, of course, is the "(and Sam)" of the title. The historical events and personages of the novel are all meticulously researched, but there are enough invented characters to spice up the narrative nicely. Jem is initially an unlikable figure -- dishonest, scheming and vindictive -- but his long life includes enough moments of nobility that the reader is sorry to leave him at the end of the book. Jem's obsession with the pompous and opportunistic Mr. Pepys seems contrived at times, but he distracts himself from Pepys often enough to give us satisfying glimpses into the violent, seductive and fascinating world of Restoration England.