Time and Chance by Sharon Kay Penman

Sharon Kay Penman writes epic historical novels that I love to sink into. (I have read 7 of her 15 to date, and she’s still writing, thank goodness!) It’s funny, but for me, what lasts about these books is not detail, but feeling. Individual characters, emotions, and relationships resonate, but I find I can retain almost nothing about the monarchies, battles, and power struggles – the real *history* – she has so meticulously researched. I’m resigned; this seems to be a feature of how my brain works (or doesn’t), as I certainly don’t think it’s a feature of Penman’s work. Also, the English monarchs tend to reuse the same names over and over. It makes it very hard for me to keep them straight.

Years ago, I read the first novel in the Angevin “trilogy” (now at five books, ha), When Christ and His Saints Slept (also here). Here I am finally with book two in that series. “It began with a shipwreck on a bitter-cold November eve in God’s Year 1120,” which kills the one legitimate son of King Henry I. He names his daughter Maude, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as heir, but the people balk at the rule of a woman, and her cousin Stephen seizes power. The Empress Maude makes an armed bid for the throne which fails, but in her remarriage to the Count of Anjou she produces a son who will call himself Henry Fitz Empress and rise to great heights. At nineteen he marries Eleanor of Aquitaine, an older woman, a great beauty, former wife to the King of France; at twenty-one she is a queen again when he becomes King of England. …All this is prelude; Time and Chance covers several decades of Henry’s rule over England, his passionate and eventually rocky marriage with Eleanor, and his changing relationship with Thomas Becket. More than 500 pages flew by for me, as I was entirely spellbound by the characters, their relationships and machinations.

Henry is controlling, confident, charming, single-minded, arrogant, and brave. For a king, he can be quite informal, appreciating simple clothes and food and bawdy humor; but his temper flares easily (much talk of the Angevin temper) and he does not tolerate disrespect. Eleanor is quite his equal, passionate and ambitious, not to be crossed; she is wise and clever, and he doesn’t take her advice as often as he should. They’re well-matched and truly love each other, in Penman’s telling, but he’ll betray her late in the book. Betrayal is central to this story, because the third main character is Thomas Becket, who has risen from a low birth to serve as Henry’s chancellor and one of the few (alongside Eleanor and the Empress Maude) whom the king fully trusts. When Henry promotes him to Archbishop of Canterbury, though, Becket’s loyalties shift. The two men will spend the next eight years as enemies, with Becket pushing for Church powers while Henry pushes for his own. Henry, Eleanor, and Becket form the triangle that is the heart of this book. But for me, a loveable fourth figures heavily as well: Ranulf, Maude’s brother and Henry’s uncle, had a Welsh mother and has made a home and a life for himself in Wales, with a Welsh wife and children who consider the English to be an ‘other’ (if not an enemy). Ranulf’s loyalties are obviously split, but they are deep; he feels himself bound to Henry but also to the Welsh King Owain, and when the two come into conflict he is sorely pained. As impressive as Henry and Eleanor can be, Ranulf is the one who feels most human, most the friend whose eyes I see this story through.

The book is written in a third person perspective that moves around, close to one character and then another; the reader gets views inside of Eleanor’s heart and mind, glimmers into Henry’s, but I think we do get closest to Ranulf, and even his wife. (Rhiannon is blind, which is quite a remarkable condition in this time.) Thomas Becket remains an enigma, as I think he is to history, and we know Penman takes her historical accuracy very seriously. It’s one of the things I love and respect about her, even if I can’t seem to retain the historical details of her novels once I put them down.

My first Penman, which I fell in love with, was The Reckoning, which centers the Welsh. I don’t know if she writes especially lovingly of Welsh characters or if I respond especially to them, but Ranulf won my heart, again. Interestingly, he’s the character in this novel that Penman entirely invented: she writes that Henry I had so many illegitimate children (at least 20) that one more couldn’t hurt.

When these characters get in ships or on horses and go charging over land and water and meet with dignitaries and offer gifts and make agreements, and break them, and when the lists of names get long, I tend to glaze over a little. But when they are engaged in close, interpersonal relationships – when Ranulf and Henry joke, or Ranulf and Rhiannon discuss decisions, or Eleanor and Henry fight or make love, or Ranulf and his brother Rainald catch up, or the Welsh prince Hywel makes poetry and flirts and jests, or Eleanor and Maude and Maud (yes, another one) confer on the role of women… these moments compel me. The larger power plays are interesting, and they are the plot points that coerce the interpersonal relationships. But it’s the private and interpersonal that drive my devotion to the story. There is a certain romance to the way that Penman lets these characters generally be their best selves, a sentimentality in some (not all) marriages and in parent-child relations. I cynically suspect that this perspective is a rather optimistic reading of history, but it certainly makes for enjoyable fiction.

I still admire this author so much, and I find her work so enjoyable. She makes decades of political intrigue feel like an intimate drama among people I could be friends with. Five hundred pages of historical fiction about the Plantagenet dynasty sounds like it would be a slog, but here it’s an indulgence. I’m still committed to reading all her work, over the years!


Rating: 8 shared trenchers.

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly (audio)

I am considering a few possibilities about this book. 1) Michael Connelly has fallen down a little bit recently. 2) I saw a version of this story on the TV show Bosch, and the book coming second hurt its reception somewhat. 3) I think it might be #1 actually.

There are two storylines to this novel that run side-by-side. One is the pharmacy shooting in which a father-and-son pair of pharmacists are murdered in an apparent professional hit. Bosch and his colleagues at the San Fernando PD quickly link this to a possible ring of pill runners, and Bosch will end up going undercover as an opioid addict and getting into all kinds of mess. In the other thread, a decades-old case resurfaces when it looks like a convicted killer Bosch busted as just a baby detective will be released from Death Row. Bosch knows in his heart that the investigation was righteous and the guy is guilty, but worse still, it’s alleged that he planted evidence in the original case, so now his reputation is on the line.

The actual plotlines, both of them, are compelling. But many things about this book rubbed me wrong.

First, the reading of the audiobook by Titus Welliver – who plays Bosch on the TV show – sounded like a good idea. I think he’s an excellent Bosch onscreen. But it turns out that to read the audiobook, he has to play not only Bosch but all the other characters as well, and this may be beyond his range. Early on, a less-experienced detective has to go talk to the widow/mother of the murdered pharmacists, she expresses concern over the emotional challenge of this job – and Welliver delivers this in a monotone. Oh, no, I thought.

Did Connelly always over-explain like this? I am no kind of expert on the criminal justice system, except to the extent that I am an avid reader of murder mystery/crime procedurals and watcher of the same genre of television shows… It doesn’t seem like I should feel this impatient with the explanations of acronyms and procedures and why Harry might think or do a certain thing. Likewise, I’ve begun to pick up on a dialog tic that gets under my skin: police detective partners, say, explaining their actions or thought processes to each other out loud in a way that I just don’t believe they’d do in real life, for the benefit of the reader. This is a pet peeve of mine, and I can’t recall Connelly doing it before. Also, Harry Bosch is a pretty laconic guy. I think of him as being not big on explaining, let alone over-explaining. I don’t buy that Haller and Bosch’s banter would involve so much explanation. They move in the same circles, they speak most of the same lingo, and they’re pretty close. I think they’d operate with a lot more shorthand than we’ve got here. The ease with which a certain opioid addict is convinced, by a stranger, to take a cold-turkey cure felt unrealistic. There were just a lot of details that felt inauthentic.

But the worst thing came right at the end – and I said this just the other day. The ending of a book leaves the lingering impression! At the end of the book, Bosch is handed a solve on an old case. A woman long missing and considered dead – most likely murdered by her husband – turns up under a new identity and tells Bosch she had to flee her abusive marriage. “You have to stop looking for me,” she says. Bosch is angry with her for wasting the department’s resources in the search; his boss wants to have her charged with fraud. They are also offended that she left her baby behind with the abuser, who later gave said baby up for adoption. She doesn’t show remorse. The anger that Bosch and boss feel toward this woman pissed me off, you guys. We live in a culture that privileges male abusers over their victims. A woman like this likely couldn’t get out any other way – don’t make me laugh by saying she should have called the cops. She got out in the way she could. And if she caused department resources to be misspent? If she fucked up her kid’s life? That makes her a less-than-perfect victim, and gosh knows we only like our victims perfect. What’s funny, though, is that Bosch is the man of “everybody counts or nobody counts.” This was just the scenario for him to demonstrate that a victim of intimate partner violence, even though she made some choices we’d like to judge her for, deserved to take her own freedom where she could find it. It would make a lot more sense to get mad at the system that offered her no other out – and Bosch has plenty of experience getting mad at the system. He’s progressive enough to care about the rights of sex workers, but apparently not to extend his compassion to a survivor of domestic violence. This ending felt hypocritical, not to say misogynistic, and left a terrible taste in my mouth.

I’m sorry to feel so disenchanted here with one of my long-time favorite authors. And I can’t quite explain this: has Connelly changed so much? Have I? With beers or bicycles it’s hard to say, because you can’t go back in time. But in this case I have the classics, the early works – The Black Echo, The Black Ice, The Poet – to go back to. Hmm…

The plot, the mystery itself, is still solid. I can feel the old Harry Bosch underneath it all. But this edition did not work for me at all. Maybe I’ll hunt down one of those classics and double-check things. And I think I’ll still tune in to the recently-released season six of the show Bosch – assuming I can put this book behind me. Hope it’s a fluke.


Rating: call it 6 sealed envelopes just for old time’s sake.

National Theatre Live at Home presents A Streetcar Named Desire (2014), and other stuff I’ve taken in this week

This week’s release from NT Live is A Streetcar Named Desire, available here til this Thursday, when we’ll get This House. In classic Tennessee Williams style, this play (certainly one of his best-known) is bleak as hell, and frankly it was a little hard to watch, and a little overwrought, possibly even draggy (at three hours long); but I think all of that is as written, and certainly very well produced. Perhaps not to be taken on in the darkest of moods.

This Young Vic production stars Gillian Anderson (yes, of the X-Files) as Blanche, with a hunky Ben Foster as Stanley Kowalski; in my opinion he delivered that mix of sexy, smoldering, and threatening that Brando so beautifully performed in the 1951 film (and presumably in the 1947 Broadway original). I think it’s always an accomplishment when an actor (author, whomever) can convince me that someone is simultaneously detestable and desirable. Vanessa Kirby as Stella rounds out a perfect cast.

The other notable detail is in the set: the entire thing rotates slowly, from the time Blanche takes her first giant slug of whiskey. I dug the way NT Live filmed it, to offer us an experience something like what the live audience would have had: sometimes the actors are obscured; they and we are kept a bit off-balance. It emphasizes the fact that Blanche’s world is tilting and insecure, and she’s not always sure where she stands.

That Blanche is a decidedly unlikeable character. More than I remember. It’s been years since I saw the film, but I feel like Brando’s Stanley was less sympathetic than Foster’s. Blanche grates; but the fact that she grates on Stanley is a big part of the story, isn’t it, so it only makes us more involved if we feel that way, too. It’s agonizing. I took a break partway through, because I was frustrated with Blanche and, to be honest, the play felt a bit long. (Live audiences got an intermission, so it’s fair.) It’s a hell of a professionally produced, totally convincing spectacle, and I admire Tennessee Williams so much, but he doesn’t exactly go easy on his audience. I do recommend this production.


Rating: 7 foxes.

In other news, I’ve become addicted to a show called Shameless, which is silly and quite compelling. (I’m watching the American version, but I’ll hit the British one, too.) This week there was no Patterson Hood concert but there was a Mike Cooley one – I missed his first and was so sorry when I heard he’d done “Daddy’s Cup,” a song I feel strongly about. Oh, man, it was an excellent set on Friday night. Cooley at his best is all beauty and soul and songwriting talent, and sass. These versions of “English Oceans” and “Love Like This” were better than the recorded ones, in my opinion, and I loved his finishing with “Space City.” There is an intimacy to these home concerts – music delivered from the artist’s home to my own, where I seem to sit just a few feet away from him. It makes me feel close to people I’ve felt close to for years, in different ways.

Cooley crooning

This past week, Jason Isbell’s new album Reunions dropped (you can buy it here), and he is one of the bright stars in the sky I see. It’s another good one, with no duds and several real gems. On my first few listens, the tracks that especially speak to me are “Dreamsicle,” “Only Children,” and “Be Afraid.” But they’re all special. A friend asked me the other day what Isbell album she should start with, and boy, that was a hard question. There are now seven studio albums plus his work with the Truckers, and there’s not a one that I’d want my friend to pass up. I ended up recommending “Here We Rest,” because it has several of the songs on it that are most important to me. But it hurt me to choose just one. So, another Isbell album is more to love… I’m still building in my mind the Isbell-related project I need to work on.

That’s it for this past week, folks. Thank goodness for the arts.

Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan

Forces of nature and preternatural human empathy come together in an extraordinary novel about relationships, love and place.

Set against the true events of Memorial Day weekend 2015 in central Texas, Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here explores empathy, history, local lore, fantastical happenings and simple humanity. Amid catastrophic flooding, Nancy Wayson Dinan’s protagonist offers a compelling balance between the weird and the ordinary. Eighteen-year-old Boyd has always been unusually perceptive. Her best friend Isaac is the only one who never asked anything of her, in the unspoken way that people do. “Hurt children trailed Boyd… the forked stick of a dowser… tuned not to water, but to pain.”

It’s the fourth year of the drought, the beginning of summer, and Isaac is camped on the edge of the lake below Boyd’s house, panning for gold: “You can pay a semester of tuition at UT with a tiny sack of that gold dust.” After the first night’s rain, landscapes are rearranged, people scattered, and the rain still falls. Boyd can feel Isaac lost somewhere, “the copper fear in his mouth… the shivering of his chilled limbs.” Bridges out and all roads blocked, she sets out cross-country, on foot. “She had no doubt she could find Isaac; she was drawn to him like a magnetic pole, reading his distress like a Geiger counter.”

So begins a chain of events and searches: Isaac in mortal danger; Boyd following instinct alone into uncharted territories; her neighbor Carla, a retired hippie recluse from Austin, following her own instincts after Boyd. Boyd’s mother, Lucy Maud, accompanied by a motley crew of aging family members and Boyd’s father. Isaac’s father, also missing, gone treasure-hunting just as the rains began.

Dinan’s narrative shifts among these quests: Carla slipping through the mud in her yoga slides. Lucy Maud, alternately drawn to her estranged husband and annoyed by his ineptness. Isaac in one predicament after another. And Boyd, whose unlikely understanding has expanded until she must navigate both time and space, lost children and Texas history, wandering through the same sodden world where she looks for Isaac.

Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here is fabulous and engrossing, both faithful to the real-world details of central Texas and wildly imaginative, peopled with treasure hunters, prehistoric beasts, distracted professors and one improbable young woman facing a momentous decision. Dinan’s storytelling flows as forcefully as a flash flood in this spellbinding first novel in which a handsome young man, refreshingly, awaits rescue by a powerful woman.


This review originally ran in the April 27, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 glyptodonts.

movie: The Booksellers (2019)

Thanks, Pops, for making sure I got the chance to see this documentary. The Booksellers is about, yes, booksellers – really, book dealers, those handling antiquarian and rare books and ephemera, rather than the clerk at your local. It therefore covers a handful of collectors as well as the rarefied worlds of New York and London book fairs and dealer circles.

Obviously as a librarian and book lover (and blogger, hello) I appreciate the appreciation for books, the excitement and fascination, the enthusiasm for this or that object; I love the visuals of books and of libraries. I roll my eyes again at predictions of the death of the book; but the film mostly rolls its eyes as well, pointing out why this will never happen. (Quintessential New Yorker Fran Lebowitz is a welcome breath of fresh air and sarcasm throughout: “The people that I see reading actual books on the subway are mostly in their 20s. This is one of the few encouraging things you will ever see in a subway.” Etc.) I guess I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering, but it was neat to get a closer view of what it looks like to really live and breathe books in a different way than I have ever known personally, even though you could say I live in books to a large degree – librarian, book reviewer, MFA student, English teacher. I confess that, while I’m committed to reading print books rather than e-books, the book-as-object is important to me only as a vehicle for the words it contains; I don’t often really geek out on the object itself. I get the appeal, though, and I dig what these folks are into, and I’m so glad they’re out there, documenting the history of print.

On the other hand, it’s a world of great privilege and funding (and the odd bit of nepotism, as frankly stated by one profiled bookseller), and it’s overwhelmingly white and male. Early on, there’s a quick flipping through of pictures of booksellers, as voiceover discusses the stereotype (old guy in tweed with pipe), to demonstrate that they’re actually not all old guys with pipes! – but they were all white. It looks to me like the documentary made an effort to showcase diversity, and good on them; I counted a whopping three people of color in the whole film, with women relatively well represented and with plenty of discussion of the women in the boys’ club situation. (All but one woman were white.) Race was not discussed until the 1:15 mark, by which point I was getting pretty frustrated with that silence. Only oblique reference was made to the fact that this stuff takes a lot of money. I guess I was left feeling a little disenchanted: cool old books and history are awesome, but very few people get invited to this party, and it’s a damn shame not to state that early and talk about it at the forefront.

We are all on our own personal journeys of woke-ness and of noticing what the world around us looks like. These days I’ve been noticing a lot of all-white or almost-all-white spaces.

Very cool documentary, lots of great visuals, and plenty of romance to appreciate about rare and antiquarian books, the quirky folks who deal with them for a living, and the histories we have yet to uncover. I am so glad there are professionals doing this work and continuing to uncover those histories. I love books, and I think I’d be tickled to get to hang out with one of these people in real life. It’s important that we recognize where money and resources keep this field pretty undemocratic, though. The hard work continues in all spheres, and radical book collections are no exception.

Still recommended.


Rating: 7 fabulous plates of fossil fish.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Barber Shop Chronicles (2018), and weekly internet round-up

This week’s release by National Theatre Live at Home was the London Roundhouse 2018 production of Barber Shop Chronicles, viewable here until this Thursday when they’ll give us A Streetcar Named Desire, which I am definitely looking forward to.

I went into this play (by Inua Ellams) knowing nothing, and it was delightful. It took some time to grow on me, though. Initially it felt like a series of distinct vignettes from this barbershop and then this one and then this one, which was a little hard to get into. But over time I saw the connections form, and it got increasingly satisfying. Also, there are a number of accents and dialects and pidgin forms of English – I definitely recommend subtitles. This probably made it a little more difficult at first, too, but it ended up added to the richness of the final product. There is definitely musicality and character in the sounds of speech. I counsel patience – it will be rewarded.

In six barber shops in six cities – Lagos, London, Accra, Haware, Johannesburg, and Kampala – men grouse and argue and joke and talk shit, and get a little hair cut. Five African cities, then, and the London shop is rooted in African culture as well; this is an all-Black, all-male cast, with several actors playing multiple roles. It’s very much about the African diaspora in some ways. (There is one Jamaican character, who is careful to distinguish himself from “you crazy Africans.”) The play runs the course of just one day, beginning at 6 a.m. when the Lagos barber is awakened by a man begging for a special early morning job, and finishing at 9 p.m. in London when a barber agrees to stay late for a customer with a similar request. Conversations range widely but coalesce around themes of family, especially relationships between fathers and sons; government and nations, with some hint that Mandela and Mugabe were symbolic fathers (for better or for worse) to their countries; and with a hint of football (no, the global kind – soccer) running through, as Chelsea plays Barcelona on the day in question. The football thread isn’t overdone, but it’s a nice note of continuity. I won’t say too much about it, but again, look for connections to tie it all together and make meaning (sum greater than its parts).

Between scenes, there is popular music and some dance as the men rearrange barber chairs to indicate a new set. It’s a vibrant, lively play throughout, full of life, whether cruelty or love, gravity or jest. There’s advice to be had on women, sex, parenting, race and racism, the job market, politics, academics, and philosophy. “In dark times, the barbershop is a lighthouse.” It’s truly lovely. By the end, I was beaming, and sorry to see these guys go.

Another fine offering from NT Live; can’t wait for the next one.


Rating: 8 posters.

In other things that have pleased me online this week… I have come across several of these, but here’s the latest: famous works of art recreated in quarantine. Some are astonishing in their faithfulness to the original, some in their creativity; some are delightfully absurd, some are lovely works of art in their own right. (And then there’s the ridiculous comment on Saturn by Rubens that set everybody off, if you’re into hilariously dumb comments). I enjoyed paging through them and will click on such compilations every time.

Likewise the rate my Skype room Twitter account. I was over the moon about this, spent way too much time (be warned) and laughed out loud. I should have been taking notes for if/when I have to do more online teaching in the future (eek). If you have to Skype/Zoom/etc., pay attention.

I attended another Patterson Hood concert (from his attic to my living room) on Wednesday, and I do love this man. The way he slaps his acoustic guitar to add percussion. The way he whoops and hollers – it must be hard to keep that live-show energy playing to the internet in your attic. The way he counsels us on current events and speaks to my heart. It’s like an embrace from an old friend, and those are in short supply these days. He dedicated an emotional performance of “What It Means” to Ahmaud Arbery and made me cry. Next week we’re promised a family-mythology-themed show, and I’ll be there.

Patterson Hood

Weather’s getting warmer and I’ve been outside a lot in the last week; hoping for more of that, for sure. And I am reading like crazy. Stay tuned!

The Tree and the Vine by Dola de Jong (trans. by Kristen Gehrman)

This sensitive novel illuminates women who love women in pre-World War II Holland.

Originally published in 1954, Dola de Jong’s The Tree and the Vine was a groundbreaking portrayal of lesbian lives in Holland just before the outbreak of World War II. This updated translation from the Dutch by Kristen Gehrman retains what is fresh, understated and moving in the original.

Bea, a shy office worker and the narrator of this story, keeps to herself and considers social activity a chore, until she meets Erica. Within weeks, they become roommates, and Bea is increasingly fascinated by her heedless new friend: Erica, a journalist, keeps strange hours and doesn’t seem to sleep. Her moods vacillate. Over many months, the pair becomes close, and Bea is simultaneously obsessed and resistant to her own feelings, telling herself that independence is paramount. “I could no longer live without her, and with her there was nothing but the strange existence that had been predetermined.”

As the threat of a German invasion grows, Erica gets involved with several female lovers, often in abusive relationships, while Bea plays the loyal friend always there to bail her out of trouble. On the brink of war, realizing that Erica is half Jewish and engaged in risky behaviors, Bea takes a half-step toward recognizing what they share. “She never spoke those few words again…. We’ve accepted it, each in our own way.”

The tone of The Tree and the Vine is often backward-looking and elegiac, told at a distance of years. But the immediate events of the women’s lives feel frantic: Erica rushes about, Bea panics. What is most important almost always goes unsaid.

The prose can occasionally feel a bit stilted, or involve a bit more telling than showing; but in fact what is shown, often, is not actions or expressions but Bea’s own deep feeling and anguish. The result is a love story on the brink of war in which the love never quite steps out in the open and the war remains off-stage. A sense of looming, momentous events pervades this slim novel.

In a thoughtful translator’s note, Gehrman notes linguistic peculiarities of de Jong’s original: anglicisms and words and expressions from the French, for example, which Gehrman has worked to maintain, and her delicate handling of Dutch idiom. She argues that The Tree and the Vine is not just a lesbian novel but “reflective of a broader female experience.” By turns emotional and restrained, this powerful story indeed offers valuable perspective on the human experience.


This review originally ran in the April 23, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 sandwiches.
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