Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Biblio-Bits: Katharine Beutner's Alcestis, Mikkel Birkegaard's The Library of Shadows, & Georgette Heyer's The Wind of Blame

Here are some biblio-bits on my recent reading.
Katharine Beutner's Alcestis.  I have a weakness for retold myths and bought this novel earlier this year without knowing anything about the writer.  In fact, I haven't read any reviews, but hope someone has discovered it.  I ordered this from Amazon based on a computer-generated recommendation.  Despite the recent uproar about the Kindle/Nook/Sony Reader's invasion of privacy (the wireless devices report page-views to their stores via antennae, but don't our computer cookies do the same thing?), Amazon's recommendations of REAL books are often excellent (though it is always a case of caveat emptor.)

In this beautifully-written novel, Beutner retells the myth of Alcestis, a heroine best known through Euripides's Alcestis and also mentioned in the Iliad and Hesiod's Catalogue of Women.  The myth is straightforward.  Alcestis's weak husband, Admetus, forgets to sacrifice to Artemis at their wedding and incurs the gods' wrath and death sentence.  Apollo advises him to placate Artemis and the Fates, who agree to let him live so long as someone dies in his stead.  Alcestis agrees to do this.

In Beutner's absorbing novel, Alcestis, a sympathetic narrator with a muted yet spirited voice, tells the story of her motherless childhood, describing her close relationships with two very different sisters, one a teenager desperate to get married and the other a pious, maternal girl who looks after Alcestis.  Their abusive father, King Pelias, is more interested in hunting than in fatherhood or diplomatic relations with suitors. When he is around, he often beats them, but   Hippothoe, Alcestis's favorite sister, is good at hustling them out of the way.  She dies early in the novel when Alcestis is nine.  Alcestis never recovers from the shock.  She is on her own.

"Hippothoe was on the other side of life, the world's quiet underbelly.  I imagined her standing by the dark river, her chin lifted and her chest still, waiting for the boat to come and looking across the water at the vast, gray line of the dead crowding the opposite shore.  All those people, all vanished from some life, leaving gaps behind them, holes like the extra space in our bed.  Hippothoe would have to stand among them."

Time passes.  She must secretly visit her sister's grave, because her father will beat her if he finds out she goes there. She defies him during her father's wedding and openly goes to the cemetery:  odd timing, but it makes her older sister laugh.  One day, while Alcestis is weaving on the porch, Admetus arrives with Apollo.  Pelias opposes the marriage; Admetus manages to win Alcestis with Apollo's help, by hitching a boar and a lion to his chariot, as Pelias demanded.  Alcestis thinks this is rather funny, and we certainly appreciate her sense of humor.  

Beutner has an unobtrusive yet lyrical style and the novel races along.  It reminds me very faintly of Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean, a vigorous historical novel about Alexander the Great and Aristotle published earlier this year, reviewed here, during my stint at Wordpress.  

Mikkel Birkegaard's The Library of Shadows.  This novel is blurbed as "an engrossing literary thriller of intrigue, conspiracy and extraordinary power of reading."  It is translated by Tina Nunnally, known for her translation of Kristen Lavransdatter.  

I thought it was a mystery:  in the first chapter, Luca Campelli, a bookstore owner, dies mysteriously in his antiquarian bookshop.  But it turns into a horror novel, a kind of paranormal detective novel.  It seems that Luca belonged to an ancient sect of readers who have special powers.  Some can influence the thoughts of others by dramatic reading, others by mind-reading.  

"It's about Bezos!"  my husband said.  Ha ha!

The powers of reading influence a politician to preserve a reading program in the schools.  Okay, that's a good thing.  But there's a lot of bad out there, too.  After Luca's son, Jon, a successful lawyer, inherits the bookstore, he investigates his father's murder. He learns that he has unactivated reading powers and that a "receiver"/mindreader is trying to kill people through reading.  And there are fire bombs at the bookstore and other shocking scenes.  

This is interesting but disconcerting.  It should be classified as science fiction or horror just so one understands what one is getting.  

Georgette Heyer's The Wind of Blame.   Georgette Heyer, known for her regency romances, wrote several mysteries.  The Wind of Blame, published in 1939, is as charming and humorous as her romances.  

Wally Carter, the shiftless husband of a rather loud, rich former actress, philanders, cheats, and wastes her money.  But who would murder him? Wally's ward, Mary, a thoroughly nice girl, can't imagine; his wife, Ermyntrude, has hysterics; and his histrionic stepdaughter, Vicky, takes advantage of the murder to show off her acting abilities.  Did the Russian prince do it?  

Heyer keeps this very light and concentrates on the puzzle:  this is a "cozy," with no disturbing subtexts.  

A good novel to read when one is sick!

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