Sunday, September 15, 2013

Four Authors that Deserve More Love

I need to start this post with a caveat.  I am not in publishing and while I love to read I am only moderately aware of book trends etc... The point being that I may appear to be griping about these authors not getting enough attention when more knowledgeable or in touch folks might contradict me easily. They are definitely not unknowns but I feel like I never hear wnough about them and they are amazing.  So really all I'm trying to say is:  I LOVE these authors and think that any reader will be rewarded by picking them up.  

Dorothy Dunnett

Front CoverI discovered Dorothy Dunnett by judging a book by its cover.  I was browsing in a book store and came across a re-release  of the first book in her Lymond series with a new cover that struck my fancy (a good reason to hope that amazon and ebooks don't take over the world).  Little did I know how lucky that judgement was.

Dorothy Dunnett writes historical fictios that will thrill you, make you cry, set your heart racing and possibly give you nights of feverishly reading until two o'clock in the morning. I was obsessed while reading the six books of The Lymond Chronicles but I think it's important to note that it took a little bit to get obsessed.  Book one, The Game of Kings, is frequently incomprehensible because Dunnett is trying hard to hide the nature of her main character and there is a LOT of Scottish dialect.  It is also a lot of set up for the rest of the series - Dunnett seems to want to make sure to give Francis Crawford a proper and thorough introduction. Francis definitely deserves this meticulous, slow spooling attention but seriously I had no idea what was going on in this book until probably the last chapter.  I mention this because I've heard that other people have also had this experience.  But despite the fact that I'm a lazy reader and if I'm constantly confused will put a book aside, I kept with it and continued on to book two almost immediately.  There was something about it.

What are those somethings?  First of course must be Lymond who is a hero to end all heros.  Imagine a 16th century James Bond but the more modern Bond, with loads of emotional complexity buried deep beneath his unflappable facade. All the characters around Lymond are unsure whether they love him or hate him but they are so strongly drawn by his charisma that they end up stuck to him, unable to be without him and that is a little of what the reader goes through as well.  He is a masterpiece.  The level of historical detail effortlessly interwoven in all her books creates what is for me  the most authentic setting I have ever encountered in a historical novel.  The scope is enormous - across the books we travel to Scotland, England, France, Malta, the Ottoman Empire, Malta, and there may be more I'm forgetting.  It's all intricate political intrigue and adventure and crazy, crazy situations that should be silly but are not, even a little.  Wry humor spills out of almost every page.  Dunnett doesn't coddle and there is loads of complex plot and quoting in foreign languages that the reader must work out for themselves.  And while this may not sound fun, the books suck you in so deeply that all the speculation and deciphering is addictive.  She frequently includes passages in non-English languages and pretty much never translates.  So I remember reading one of her books on a plane traveling somewhere with a college class and getting to a crucial spot in one of the books where there is a key passage in french.  I was so desperate to know what it meant that I was passing the book around trying to get someone to translate with no luck.  But then of course I arrived at the end of the chapter, and with the timing of a master, all was revealed.  It made me think that all the previous untranslated passages were there so that when you got to this one key passage, you are practically in a panic to know what it means and she keeps you drawn along for several more pages before relieving the tension with a whoosh.  She has such attention to detail I do believe this was all planned.

Finally I have to start a new paragraph to talk about the romance that slowly burns through the novels.  It is the pinnacle of romance and Dunnett is a master of spinning it out and bringing her two lovers together.  Lymond is a special character and imagining the woman to match him could have been no easy challenge but Dunnett pulls it off.  With language and subtle description she manages to create a sensuality that I have never seen matched. The moment when Lymond realizes he is in love is one of the most perfect scenes ever - I read it over and over - and while out of context it may lose its beauty and thrill here it is:

 All that he was not. He looked at her. The long, brown hair; the pure skin of youth; the closed brown eyes, their lashes artfully stained; the obstinate chin; the definite nose, its nostrils curled. The lips, lightly tinted, and the corners deepened, even sleeping, with the remembrance of sardonic joy... The soft, severe lips.

And deep within him, missing its accustomed tread, his heart paused, and gave one single stroke, as if on an anvil.
Dorothy Dunnett is by no means unknown  - she was been designated a member of the OBE by Queen Elizabeth after all - but I think she may not be as recognized as she should be by American readers.  So, my fellow Americans, if you are a fan of historical fiction or just good writing, please read her!  She's written a couple of other series as well and I've also read The House of Niccolo  which is good but the Lymond Chronicles is her masterpiece in my mind.  The fact that I can remember as much as I do about the books, even with my poor memory is a testament to the place they hold in my reading heart.  

Kate Ross 

I can't remember what led me to Kate Ross a couple years ago but I'm guessing I read the description as a  "Regency Era mystery" and picked it up quick.  It was a lovely and in the end very sad discovery.  Kate Ross wrote 4 mysteries featuring the urbane and mysterious Julian Kestrel, winning the 1997 Agatha Award, before she died of cancer at the age of 41.  So my recommendation comes with the caveat that this is an unfinished series that is left with much unfulfilled potential due to the author's tragic death.  If you can't bear this kind of heartbreak you might want to steer clear.

The four books that exist are wonderful.  Julian is a wonderful main character.  He is a respected and well-liked member of the Ton but there is an air of mystery about him -  no one is quite sure where he came from.  This mystery surrounding him and his life is a larger scale background mystery running underneath the main stories of all four books. This gives the series a cohesive feel.  

I also listed her just after Dorothy Dunnett because although I have not read this anywhere I am convinced she is a Dorothy Dunnett fan.  The books are lighter than Dunnett's books for sure but they have some complexity to them and the mysteries take their time to unravel.  Julian is much like a less hyperactive Lymond - very talented and clever, as well as being pretty emotionally complex, hidden under a imperturbable mask of sophisticated unconcern.  She also introduces a friendship between Julian and a girl in the first book that I am convinced would have mirrored Lymond's but of course I'll never know for sure whether I was right. 

This is one of the best mystery series I have picked up in many years and I had never heard of Kate Ross so I thought it important point others her way.  The first in the series is Cut to the Quick followed by A Broken Vessel, Whom the Gods Love and Devil in the Music (which won the Agatha).

Georgette Heyer

Nancy Pearl , "librarian to the stars" (ha!), introduced me to Georgette Heyer on a podcast that used to be produced by a Seattle based NPR station.  I generally like Nancy Pearl's recommendations and witty Regency era romances seemed right up my alley.  She was writing about the same time as Agatha Christie and even wrote some mysteries but it's her regency romances that are the true delight.  And the great thing is that there are A LOT of them, between 30 and 40, so there is plenty to dig into.
When I started reading her books I wasn't really a romance reader.  I liked books that included romance but I didn't really read books where romance was the point.  After I had blown through all of Heyer's books though, I was hooked and wanted to read more romance.  Looking for romance novels that I found readable was a whole other odyssey but even now that I have found some authors I like, none of them can compare to Heyer. 

I think the difference is that Heyer was not writing erotica - the raciest thing that happens in her books is a vaguely eluded to kiss.  So the romance must be generated through great characters, chemistry and an engaging story.  And almost all of her books have all of it as well as an immense amount of wit and good humor. As I've discovered, I can't stand a romance that takes itself too seriously, and Heyer never lets that happen.  They're a light and fluffy romp and I mean that in that absolute best of ways.  The other thing I find remarkable is that despite the fact that she wrote scads of romances they are all quite different - each couple and the adventures that bring them together are unique.  I read many of them in a row and in no way got bored or felt like I was reading the same formulaic nonsense over and over.  One thing the books do share are lovely strong and smart female leads and men that actually deserve them. 

In short she is to whom I hold all other romance writers accountable.   Well except for Jane Austen who, cannot in my mind be surpassed, but Heyer is a close second. I think Heyer was probably pretty popular amongst an older audience but with the re-issue of her books I think its time a new audience embraced her. My favorite Heyers:  Devils Cub, The Convenient Marriage, Frederica, Arabella, The Talisman Ring, The Corinthian, The Nonesuch, and The Quiet Gentleman.  And Holy Moley, I have just discovered that there is an audio version of The Convenient Marriage read by Richard Armitage - my head will now explode.

Lois McMaster Bujold

I list Lois McMaster Bujold just after Heyer because she has mentioned in interviews that she is a fan of Heyer's books and used her as inspiration in some of her own creations, particularly A Civil Campaign.  But Bujold's fiction is a far cry from Regency era romance.  She is a phenomenal Science Fiction and Fantasy writer and probably the most decorated SFF writer you've possibly never heard of.  She has won numerous, and I mean numerous, Hugo and Nebula awards and been nominated many times beyond that.  I think I discovered her when I was going through winner lists for those awards and was surprised that I had never heard of her.  Intrigued I picked up the first book in her fantasy Chalion series "The Curse of Chalion" (because I'm more an F then an SF girl) and was blown away.  This led to quickly devouring the other two books in this series and then moving on to her best known SF series about Miles Vorkosigan - space opera at its finest (of which A Civil Campaign is apart).

What sets Bujold apart?  Hers books have fantastic plots and are smart and funny but their real strength at least as far as I am concerned are the characters.  Her characters are extraordinary but very real and even when you find them annoying it is with affection.  She never makes her characters do things that don't make sense either generally or based on what we know of them just to service the plot.  They are foremost and they serve as solid pillars to some terrific storytelling.

The other thing at which she is fantastic, is writing smart books with many interesting conundrums and social questions to ponder but they don't hit you over the head with it.  They are complex books with thought-provoking themes that feel like grand and fun adventures.  She is just superb and I don't know why she doesn't create as much hoopla and talk as Scott Lynch and John Scalzi and Patrick Rothfuss.  Don't get me wrong - they are all great writers as well but Bujold is something special and I hope everyone in the whole world will read her!  Paladin of Souls is my favorite of her books.

So there you have it.  I don't think I've done a very adequate job selling how truly awesome these writers are but I do hope someone will stumble upon this post and be led to the awesome fiction awaiting them!


  1. I am also convinced that Kate Ross was a Dunnett fan and was incredibly sad that she died before she could write the no doubt awesome finale to that series. This might sound creepy and stalkerish, but I'm surprised how similar our reading history is. From Savage Spirit (a favorite growing up) to MK Hobson to Georgette Heyer and the other two I already mentioned, it's a little eerie.

    1. Seriously?! That's Awesome! I feel like I am such a random reader that there can be no one out there with similar taste. I can't believe you've read (and enjoyed and remembered) Savage Spirit and Dorothy Dunnett. Very cool! Thanks for stopping by and saying hello and making me feel like less of a freakishly weird reader!

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