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Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 3/3/08

Jeannie Yandel

Fiction can teach an awful lot about history. Nancy Pearl reviews two books that take new angles on Old West figures and Shakespeare.

Emma Bull's newest novel, Territory (Tor, 2007), belongs to a fantasy sub–genre that I find hard to resist, that of "alternate history." It typically starts with places and people that we think we know all about, and then gives them a subtle (or not so subtle) twist, creating a sort of parallel world which is different, in large and small ways, from the world we inhabit. The territory referred to in the title is Tombstone, Arizona. The "familiar" historical events around which the novel is built are those leading up to the famous shoot–out at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881. Part of the fun here is having what you thought you knew about all those events undercut. And a typical result is to find yourself, as I did when I finished Territory, half–way convinced that Bull's version has as much truth in it as the old legends do. Maybe more, in fact. Mildred Benjamin is a widow who earns her living setting type for the local newspaper. She also, unbeknownst to her neighbors, writes genre westerns, or as they might have been called then, dime novels, all filled with the requisite themes of strangers come to town, heroism, moral frailty, and much derring–do involving guns and bars. When she meets Jesse Fox, a stranger from the East who's recently arrived in Tombstone, the two realize that – for good or ill – they share an ability to see beyond the appearances of things. Their discoveries about the dark forces afoot involving Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and others – leads us to reexamine all we thought we knew about the time, the place, and the people. Bull's descriptions are captivating – about Doc Holliday she writes " amount of wanting would make Doc an upstanding member of the community. He was a fine dentist – he just wasn't a fine person. And he was so good at being bad that it seemed like a genuine gift. One ought not to waste one's gifts." I was especially intrigued by the way Bull made use of the belief so prevalent among nineteenth century men and women – that one can go west and reinvent themselves – one of the themes of the novel. As Millie's boss tells her, "You're whoever you say you are, Millie. That's the point of coming west." I'm eagerly waiting for Bull to write the concluding volume in this two book series.

Readers searching for a fast–paced, yet intelligent and atmospheric mystery need look no farther than Interred With Their Bones (Dutton, 2007), Jennifer Lee Carrell's on of Shakespeare's Hamlet at the refurbished Globe Theater, her one–time close friend and professor, the eccentric and brilliant Harvard Shakespeare scholar Rosalind Howard, gives Kate a present, telling her that she must follow wherever the gift leads. Roz then goes on to inform Kate that she's made a mind–boggling discovery that will undoubtedly turn Shakespeare scholarship on its head. That night, before Kate has a chance to learn more, there's a fire at the theater, Roz's body is found in Kate's office, dead, and a valuable copy of Shakespeare's plays is discovered to be missing. Rosalind's death and her mysterious gift (it turns out be a Victorian mourning brooch that's entwined with all the flowers that are mentioned by Ophelia), set Kate off on an adventure that will take her back and forth across the Atlantic, from Stratford–upon–Avon to Washington, Utah, Spain, and deep into the heart of evil. In addition to being a greatly entertaining read, Interred With Their Bones is educational – it's a painless, nicely written, and entertaining way to learn more about Shakespeare, that man of mystery, and his writings.

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