Saturday, January 30, 2010

D is for Damask

I'm getting my "D" entry for Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge in at the tail end of the posting period. The past two weeks at work have been crazy! Even though it seems I was just in Tudor England with my review of S. J. Parris's Heresy, I'm coming back to it with Philippa Carr's The Miracle at St. Bruno's -- not because of the time period it covers, really, but because it's the first book in one of my favorite historical fiction series.

The Daughters of England books, nineteen in all, trace the history of one fictional English family down through the female line, from the year 1522 to the World War II years. They are both historical gothic novels and family sagas; each book centers on a woman whose family gets caught up in the tumultuous historical events of her time. Most take place in England specifically, though some of the later books cross the Channel to France.

These books saw me through high school and college and after. The cover at left is taken from my 1978 Popular Library paperback, which I got used from a local paperback exchange. Apparently I wrote my name in books back then. After I took it off my bookshelf last week to summarize it and write this post, I opened the cover and saw my signature on the first page in a childish hand, dated 3-12-84.

Damask Farland, born in 1523, is the long-awaited child of a prosperous London lawyer whose lands adjoin those of St. Bruno's Abbey. Damask is raised in a loving household, cherished by her parents and her saucy but devoted nurse, Keziah. A year before her birth, the abbey next door had experienced a miracle: a newborn boy had been found in its Christmas crib on Christmas Day. Taken in and raised by the monks, the child named Bruno grows up fully cognizant of his special status. And as news about the miracle at St. Bruno's travels far and wide, the formerly declining abbey attracts numerous pilgrims, gifts, and bequests which make it one of the wealthiest in the south of England.

This is a time of political and religious turmoil, however, and the changing fortunes of Damask and her family closely intertwine with Henry VIII's break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries. She and her cousin Kate become rivals for Bruno, who has turned into a haughty but charismatic young man. When the mystery at the heart of the abbey's miracle eventually comes to light, it has an immediate effect not just on Bruno himself but on everyone surrounding him.

The Miracle at St. Bruno's is an involving tale recommended to anyone who likes reading about the impact of major historical events on average citizens, and those who appreciate a nice balance of domestic atmosphere and accurately rendered historical intrigue. The Philippa Carr books never seemed to have as many readers as those of the author's Jean Plaidy or Victoria Holt novels; the cover of this one shows this clearly! Unlike the others, they haven't been reprinted since their original publication. They don't contain the sweeping gothic romance of the Holt books or the close-up glimpses of royalty as most of the Plaidy novels do. I think this is my favorite of all of her series, though, because of their emphasis on common people's experiences, particularly women's lives, and how they and their country are transformed over a period of five centuries. The Jean Plaidy Page has detailed summaries of each of the books (the uninitiated should be on guard for spoilers, though) as well as a family tree. The last book she wrote under the Carr name, Daughters of England, is actually unrelated to the rest of the series.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

About the reusable cover art gallery...

Hi. Just a brief note to all the new visitors (welcome!) who arrived at Reading the Past courtesy of my reusable cover art gallery, which is hosted at another domain. Due to the extraordinary amount of traffic the site's been receiving today (which is affecting server performance), the web hosting provider there has broken the gallery up into several different pages, which still show only a fraction of the covers I had originally posted. We hope to have the complete site, with its full range of images, back up and available shortly for everyone's viewing pleasure. Apologies for the inconvenience!

Update: All fixed and moved over to a new domain. Thanks for your patience, and thanks to the Very Short List for featuring the site today!

Monday, January 25, 2010

A look at Maryse Condé, Victoire: My Mother's Mother

When I was in undergrad, one of my favorite courses in my major dealt with Francophone literature. It was taught by the department chair, a Frenchwoman born in Algeria. The class opened up a new world of reading for me, to see how different peoples around the globe transformed the same written language to fit the patterns and perspectives of their culture, and how they created a unique literature using the tongue of their land's former colonizers.

Our class read widely, but of course it was impossible to cover everything. Although I'd known about the work of Maryse Condé before now, particularly her novel of the Salem witch trials (I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem), I approached her latest novel as a brand new reader. I discovered mention of Victoire: My Mother's Mother while browsing through Atria's spring catalog a while back and ordered it via Amazon last week, as soon as it went on sale.

As Condé writes in her first sentence, she never knew her maternal grandmother, who died long before she was born. In an attempt to uncover the essence of her life and personality, the author conducted extensive research, visiting relevant sites and interviewing those who remembered her. Victoire is an unusual sort of book for those used to a more standard form of historical novel. It tells the story of the title character from birth through death, and alongside this tale, Condé's own research journey unfolds. These first-person digressions meld nicely into the fictional framework, enhancing the overall experience and revealing its importance to both the teller and the reader.

Victoire Elodie Quidal is born in the 1870s on the island of Marie-Galante, part of the archipelago of Guadeloupe in the West Indies. Her fourteen-year-old mother dies in childbirth; her father, an unknown white man, could have been a soldier who never knew of her existence. Victoire's life is complicated by her poverty, illiteracy, and a skin tone of "Australian whiteness" in an extremely color-conscious land that finds uneducated mulattos a perplexing embarrassment.

To the author, one of the most puzzling parts of Victoire's life was her decision to leave her mother's family and go into service, working as a cook for a family of white Creoles. Blending known family history, discovered facts, and imaginative insight into Victoire's actions and choices,
Condé pieces together the biography of a proud, enigmatic woman torn between many different obligations. She concludes that Victoire found an outlet for her creative spirit through her delicious culinary creations (the menus she prepares are mouth-watering!), just as her granddaughter does through her writing.

I haven't read the French version, though can easily see how translating such a book would be a challenging exercise.
Condé's style is very readable and direct, yet poetic in places, and spiced throughout with words and songs from the Creole patois her heroine spoke. (Victoire's inability to speak French was another source of embarrassment to her daughter, a highly educated black militant who married one of Guadeloupe's Grands Nègres -- a member of the rising black bourgeoisie.) Communicating all the nuances of a multilingual culture into English adds another layer of complexity, but the result felt very natural to my ear. I phrase it this way because you can easily imagine the novel read aloud, a fascinating story told by a fluent storyteller. And although this is a very personal family story, the approach is honest and unsentimental, not hesitating to affix blame and responsibility in Condé's search for the truth.

One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction is its ability to situate me in a distant time and place. Even though late 19th/early 20th-century Guadeloupe isn't as geographically distant as some other places commonly encountered in novels, its history and culture will be unfamiliar to many. The book is deceptively slim, rich in content and emotion for its barely 200 pages.

Well, I sat down to write a short piece about the novel and see many paragraphs have passed, as usual, so I'll stop here! I highly recommend it, though, for any readers interested in Caribbean culture, mother-daughter relationships, or simply something different than the usual offerings in the genre.

Victoire: My Mother's Mother was published by Atria International (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in January at $19.99/$27.00 Canadian. You can get it on Amazon for $13ish, the same price as a trade paperback. The expert translation is by the author's longtime English translator and husband, Richard Philcox.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bits and pieces

Thanks to the chocolate cake I had last night at 8pm, I'm up bright and early this Sunday morning, though am anything but awake. (Sugar doesn't keep me up, but I guess it had more caffeine than I thought.) As I type this, the kittens are attacking a bowl of fake fruit and playing hockey with the apples and raspberries on the kitchen linoleum. It's kind of loud.

The winner of the 2009 Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction is Edward Rutherfurd's New York: The Novel, out from Doubleday in November 2009. The prize is presented annually to "the best book in American historical fiction that is both excellent fiction and excellent history." Details and submission guidelines for the 2010 award are available at the website for the Langum Charitable Trust, as are justifications for the 2009 award. Recent past winners include Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter and Kurt Andersen's Heyday.

Director's Mentions for 2009 went to Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman for In the Lion’s Den: A Novel of the Civil War (iUniverse) and Jamie Ford's On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Ballantine).

This week I signed up for the first Book Blogger Convention, to be held in NYC on Friday, May 28th. It promises to be lots of fun, not to mention educational, and I'm looking forward to meeting many of my fellow book bloggers there. I'll be heading to BEA as well.

Lauren Willig is co-teaching a course on reading the historical romance novel at Yale, as part of their College Seminar Program.

Britain's Daily Mail spotlights three historical novels.

Beth Powning's The Sea Captain's Wife, a woman's seafaring adventure story set in 1860s New Brunswick, is reviewed by the Telegraph-Journal and the National Post. It's published by Knopf Canada.

In reviewing Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves for the Globe & Mail, Kate Taylor gives direction on mixing the contemporary and historical.

Bernard Cornwell's latest Saxon saga, The Burning Land, gets full treatment in the Wall Street Journal, which calls him "
the most prolific and successful historical novelist in the world today."

The Chicago Sun-Times interviews Melanie Benjamin about Alice I Have Been.

Thanks to Google Alerts, I learned that my first historical fiction guide has been written up by the Ann Arbor District Library, which calls it a "primo reference." I'm so pleased to hear that it's being used. I went to library school at the U of M and spent countless hours at this library -- researching job leads, combing the stacks for good books, and haunting their excellent book sale room.

Some recent publishing deals below. I highly recommend a subscription to Publishers Marketplace to anyone wanting a feel for which agents are selling which types of books to which publishers. I'm posting just a fraction of the historical novel deals included there.

Michelle Diener's ILLUMINATIONS, in which an artist arrives at the court of Henry VIII, not realizing she possesses a deadly secret; together with Henry's most lethal courtier, she races to foil the murderous plot against the throne, and BRILLIANCE, in which John and Susanna seek to recover the Mirror of Naples, part of the French crown jewels, to Micki Nuding at Gallery, for publication in 2011, by Marlene Stringer at the Stringer Literary Agency (World). [Gallery is a new Simon & Schuster imprint, debuting with its first list in 2010.]

Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER VIII, the eighth volume in the bestselling family saga, to Nita Taublib at Delacorte Press, in a major deal, for publication in Fall 2013, by Russell Galen at Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency (US). ["major deal" = high six figures]

THE GOLDEN MEAN author Annabel Lyon's THE SWEET GIRL, the story of Aristotle's daughter Pythias' fierce resistance to his attempt at the end of his life to arrange her marriage before he died, to Anne Collins of Random House Canada, for publication in 2013, by Denise Bukowski of The Bukowski Agency. [The Golden Mean, a fictional narrative about Aristotle, won Canada's Writer's Trust award this year. US rights for Mean went to Knopf, pub date to be announced.]

TEARS OF PEARL and upcoming DANGEROUS TO KNOW author Tasha Alexander's next two novels, featuring Lady Emily Hargreaves and her husband Colin, whose adventures take them to glamorous and exotic locales in the service of Queen Victoria's government, to Andrew Martin and Charles Spicer at Minotaur, by Anne Hawkins at John Hawkins & Associates (world).

Somerset Maugham Prize, the Betty Trask Award, the Geoffrey Faber Prize winner Justin Hill's THE CONQUEST series, a breathtaking evocation of feudal England, to Richard Beswick at Abacus, in a very nice deal, in a two-book deal, for publication in 2011 and 2012, by Charlie Viney at The Viney Agency. [The Maugham Prize was won for Passing Under Heaven, set during the last years of the Tang Dynasty. Details at the author's site]

Monday, January 18, 2010

A visual preview of the spring season, part three

We're already into the spring season, but I see from the poll results (left-hand sidebar) that forthcoming book previews are what you'd like to see the most. These 15 historical novels will be published between now and the end of May, and since I'm posting the info so late, you'll only have to wait a few months, at most, before you can get your hands on them.


If any author can bring the historical Western back into fashion, Dan Simmons can. I've yet to read any of his historicals, but I was an avid SF reader way back when. His Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (it's impossible to read the first without the second) are amazing, and Song of Kali is both powerful and chilling. Black Hills, his newest epic, interweaves the stories of Sioux warrior Paha Sapa and General Custer with a thread of the supernatural. And what an awesome cover. Reagan Arthur/Little Brown US, February; Quercus UK, April.



A re-interpretation of the life of the notorious Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, told in her own intimate voice. I have an ARC in hand and plan to get to it as soon as possible; I'll be posting an interview with the author (my good friend Christopher Gortner of Historical Boys) around the publication date. Ballantine, May 25; also Hodder & Stoughton, May 27.



In Scotland in 1692, just after the horrific Massacre at Glencoe, a woman named Corrag is condemned for her involvement and accused of witchcraft and murder. As she lives out her final days in prison, an Irish Jacobite comes to interview her, resulting in the blossoming of a surprising friendship. Fourth Estate, March.


A war-torn romantic epic set in Japan of 1868, following the defeat of the last Shogun. It takes place in the Yoshiwara, the famous pleasure quarter of Tokyo. I haven't yet read her earlier novel The Last Concubine though it's sitting on the bookshelf next to me; can anyone report back on it? Bantam UK, April.



Mary Sharratt always lyrically brings to life the hidden stories and underlying strengths of historical women. Her latest novel delves into the truth about the notorious Pendle witches, centering on a family of cunning women accused of witchcraft in early 17th-century Lancashire. I read an ARC over the holiday break, and it was excellent. I'll be conducting an interview with Mary later this spring. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April.



In a departure from her Lady Julia Grey series of whimsical and adventurous Victorian mysteries, Raybourn follows her new heroine, young Scottish novelist Theodora Lestrange, to faraway Transylvania in 1858 (cue creepy music). An ARC is reportedly on the way. MIRA, March.


The story of Mahelt, strong-willed eldest daughter of William Marshal, caught in a heartbreaking battle when King John sets out to subdue her father-in-law's family. Check out the front and back covers on the author's website; I like the dark, dramatic look as well as the font used (I'm a sucker for historical fonts). Sphere, May.


So many great-sounding historical novels are coming out next month, and my TBR can't keep up with them all. (I really should be reading instead of blogging. And I really should be reading instead of watching The Bachelor as I type this.) After seeing the description of this one, and seeing the starred review in PW, I nonetheless asked my Historical Novels Review co-editor Ellen if she could request a copy for review for me. I'll have to fit it into my schedule somewhere. It's a religious-themed historical mystery set in Prague's Jewish ghetto in 1592. Morrow, Jan. 26.


I visited the Alcott family home, Orchard House, several times while growing up and remember it well, and of course, I was a fan of Little Women. It's not surprising that so many readers want to know more about its creator. The recent biography and documentary have both spurred greater interest in the life of this enigmatic woman, and in her debut novel, Chicago writer McNees imagines a New Hampshire summer that changes the life and outlook of 22-year-old Louisa. Putnam/Amy Einhorn, April.


There are two novels here which I noted back when their publishing deal was arranged; this is one of them. As Publishers Marketplace noted (in a lengthier excerpt) in March 2009: Set in the mid-19th century, My Name is Mary Sutter follows a remarkable young midwife from Albany, New York whose hope of becoming a surgeon far exceeds what her family, physicians, and medical schools of her time are willing to accept, prompting her to travel to Washington, DC to work in the Civil War hospitals. Viking, May.



A debut historical mystery set in late 18th-century Ireland, featuring rebellious English governess Mary Wollstonecraft as protagonist. I hadn't been familiar with Wollstonecraft's time in Ireland before reading this novel's premise and am looking forward to reading more. Nancy Means Wright will be guest blogging in mid-March about her heroine. Perseverance Press, April.



India-born novelist Sundaresan's fourth epic, next in a series following The Feast of Roses, will bring to light the story of two Mughal princesses, Jahanara and Roshanara, fighting for power and respect in 17th-century India's royal court. If you've read John Shors's Beneath a Marble Sky, you'll probably want to read this new take on Jahanara's story as well. Atria, March.



Many of us have been reading about The Stolen Crown's journey from idea to manuscript to publication via Susan's blog. A novel of the Wars of the Roses, it will follow how Katherine Woodville's life transforms after her older sister, Elizabeth, secretly marries Edward IV of England. I don't expect to see any spell-casting (or much of Melusine) in this one. Sourcebooks, March.


Tiger Hills made a splash in the publishing world when it reportedly received the largest advance Penguin India ever paid for a debut novel (seven figures), so expectations are high. It's being described as a cross between an Indian Thorn Birds and Gone With the Wind, a multi-generational epic set on an Indian coffee plantation between 1878 and World War II. Mandanna, born in India, is an equity professional based in New York. Grand Central purchased US rights for publication in 2011, and the UK edition will be out this April 29th from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.


When I posted about this deal in April '08, I mentioned it would be on my TBR as soon as it appeared. I didn't have to wait that long, though. I was pleased to be offered a manuscript copy last fall and enjoyed it immensely. Watermark centers on a mute young woman's journey to discover her literary voice, pulling readers into a corner of the Middle Ages not often seen: 14th-century Narbonne, a city where fear and suspicion mingle with memories of southern France's troubadour past. Avon A, April.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review of Heresy, by S. J. Parris

This review is going up pre-publication, thanks to an ARC received from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. Got it in the mail on Friday, read it over the weekend, wrote the review this morning. This is unusually speedy since I have a pile of additional February books yet to review - watch this space for more!



The year is 1583, and tensions are simmering within Elizabeth's glorious realm. While the queen claims not to want a window into people's souls, her spymaster, Francis Walsingham, furtively roots out Catholic conspirators who might seek to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. Such is the setting for this engaging and aptly-titled historical thriller, and Giordano Bruno proves an inspired choice for protagonist. An excommunicate former monk forced to flee the Inquisition in Italy for his heretical beliefs in heliocentrism – the earth orbiting the sun, rather than the other way around – he is the ultimate outsider, a man who works toward religious tolerance and scientific breakthroughs in a world that gives mere lip service to both.

As the novel gets underway, Bruno is accompanying his good friend, Sir Philip Sidney, and a visiting Polish dignitary on the royal court's visitation to Oxford. He has three separate missions, each more veiled than the other: participate in a debate on Copernican theory with Doctor John Underhill, rector at Oxford's Lincoln College; investigate Catholic conspiracies on Walsingham's behalf; and follow the trail of a forbidden Hermetic text with dangerous repercussions for Christianity. As if the latter two don't involve enough personal risk, Bruno gets unexpectedly swept into a murder investigation when one of the university fellows is found brutally killed. It soon becomes clear that the motive is something other than academic rivalry turned deadly. Signs hint at the dead man's connection to matters much more secretive. When the killer strikes again, Doctor Underhill grows increasingly worried about bad publicity and possible loss of funding; these concern him much more than his beautiful, troubled daughter. Bruno agrees to look into the murders officially on his behalf. As he proceeds, he comes to understand the many different meanings and levels of heresy.

Parris (pseudonym for British journalist Stephanie Merritt) does a splendid job illustrating the strong undercurrents of religious strife in late 16th-century England, a land still reeling from the multiple changes in official religion over the previous half-century. Bruno speaks modern English like a native – no twisy-twasery here – and approaches his investigations with determination, Italian self-confidence, and old-fashioned common sense. His sharp, occasionally cheeky narration brightens the otherwise somber atmosphere (not every historical novel begins in a privy!). As the scenes switch between the College's ornate stone buildings and the dimly lit tap-rooms of Oxford proper, Parris gives a detailed and panoramic look at a 16th-century university city and an unusual form of town-gown relations. Her complex, tightly constructed plotline provides ample suspense and multiple surprises, and the wrenching finale suits the uneasy tenor of the times.

With its convincingly dark Tudor setting and themes of political conspiracies and religious repression, there are obvious comparisons to be made to C.J. Sansom's Shardlake novels, set during Henry VIII's reign. Fans of the latter should appreciate Parris's debut. Bruno's perspective allows for an intriguing look at religion and science in the Elizabethan era, though unlike Shardlake, his manner is hardly curmudgeonly. Part of the way the solution unravels is a bit too simplistic, though that’s a very minor issue. For those who know their history (or wish to google it), familiarity with Bruno's eventual fate adds additional meaning and pathos to the tone of this thoroughly entertaining novel.



S.J. Parris's Heresy will be published on February 23, 2010 by Doubleday at $25.95 (hardcover, 355pp). It will also appear from HarperCollins UK on 4th March at £12.99.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Late notice: Alison McLeay, 1949-1998

Back in 2006, as part of a meme that was going through the HF blogosphere, I posted short reviews of five of my favorite historical novels. Only I cheated and listed six just so I could include two novels by Alison McLeay: Passage Home (UK title The Wayward Tide) and Sea Change (Sweet Exile). She wrote five historical novels in all; the last one, The Summer House, was published in 1997. I always wondered why she hadn't written any others. Every so often I'd check WorldCat and search through Amazon and Google, but I never found anything more about her or her books.

Then this weekend I was going through my blog statistics and saw that someone had come across my blog while searching for McLeay's obituary. Not a good sign. After doing some investigating via Google and then in my library's LexisNexis database, I was able to confirm that she had, in fact, died... back in March 1998, the same month that the paperback of her final novel was scheduled to be published. Per her obituary in The Scotsman, she was only 48 and left behind her husband and a 12-year-old son.

To quote a brief excerpt:
It was not until the publication of her first novel, The Wayward Tide, in 1990, that McLeay became a formidable player in the literary market for historical romance ... The book became an instant best-seller, and was labelled "the most stunning fiction debut in years" by Publishers Weekly in America, where the first print run reached an astonishing 100,000 copies. The Wayward Tide was published in ten different languages. The sea, travel and the lure of distant lands played a central role in her tales of love and life.
Despite the journalist's words, her novels aren't romances by the usual definition, so if you expect a standard romance plotline -- like one PaperbackSwap reviewer did -- you may be quite surprised by all of the twists and turns it takes.

It's sad that her life was cut so tragically short. By the time I first discovered and devoured all five of her novels, she had already passed away. Has anyone else read her work? If not, and if you enjoy reading detailed romantic epics that sweep you away to another place and time, consider giving them a try. All are out of print but available used on Amazon and PaperbackSwap.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

An updated blog

Inspired by all of the book bloggers who are updating their sites for Bloggiesta, I decided I'd finally get with the program and update my blog to layout format. I'm still working on it, but the process was a lot easier than I thought.

As a result, there are some new features in the left-hand toolbar, including a followers list and a new poll. Please fill it out and let me know what you think! You can choose multiple answers.

It was -2 degrees F when I woke up this morning. It's a good day to stay inside and read. Yesterday I finished Stefanie Pintoff's In the Shadow of Gotham, an excellent debut mystery set in New York City and environs in 1905, as criminology was rising in importance as an academic discipline. My current read is S.J. Parris's Heresy, which I got from a LibraryThing Early Reviewers giveaway. Most of the ARCs I've accumulated over the past few months are for February books, so you can expect to see reviews of Heresy as well as several others posted here soon.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

In which I make up for not being an English major

This wasn't an official New Year's resolution, but I recently made the decision to incorporate more classical literature into my reading repertoire. I've felt for a while that I ought to make up for not having read so many classic novels in school, like so many others have done. I've been so occupied with review assignments over the past decade, also, that I haven't had time to read too much else.

I didn't particularly enjoy most of the novels I read during high school. All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, grossed me out and put me off war novels for years. I remember liking Scarlet Letter and To Kill a Mockingbird, but the fact that they were short probably had something to do with it. (Short stories held my interest the most.) I was an excellent student but didn't have a good appreciation for literature then. The read-three-chapters-and-answer-these-questions format didn't suit me. Also, I didn't take a single English lit course in college since my schedule didn't allow much time for electives. I left with a degree in French, but it meant that my education in my native language's classic novels was sorely neglected.

For some odd reason -- maybe because its quiet, rural setting appealed to me during the hectic holiday season -- I recently got the urge to read a Thomas Hardy novel. On our route back home, I picked up The Return of the Native at Half Price Books, began reading it on New Year's Day, and finished it tonight. It won't be my last. I found the story beautifully written and well-characterized; serious and tragic, yet romantic and gently humorous in places; and wordy and descriptive without being dense. It was also a brilliant portrait of social mores in rural Victorian England. (The characters have servants, but they're nearly invisible.) Thanks to PaperbackSwap, I have copies of Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D'Urbervilles on their way to me, as well as some other classics I haven't yet read but always meant to (The Moonstone, The House of Mirth). I'm avoiding detailed plot summaries, although I can guess the ending of some of them.

Right from the beginning (I'm getting back to the usual subject for this blog), it struck me as amusing how the novel's style broke so many of the rules to which historical novelists today are told to adhere. Namely:

- We begin not with an attention-grabbing moment, but with a four-page description of the bucolic wildness of Egdon Heath.

- Hardy sometimes tells rather than shows.

- He interrupts the storyline with lengthy historical digressions that explain concepts relating to the land and its inhabitants. Some might call them infodumps. I call them informative.

- It more than dwells on descriptive minutiae; it positively revels in them. If you ever wanted to know what it's like to cut furze for a living, or learn what furze is for that matter, this is a great place to start.

- There's some fairly obvious foreshadowing.

- There are many instances of passive voice, as well as some footnotes. I especially enjoyed the one where he apologized for changing the ending to suit public tastes.

Times change, and literature changes with them; we all know this, and that's not my point. However, despite all of the aforementioned issues (many of which are hallmarks of the Victorian novel, after all), the writing never bogs down. And despite the wordy, leisurely style, I never found it repetitive, and all of the asides, interruptions, and classical references served to enhance the plotline and characterizations. It worked for me, and I'd gladly read another like it.

Friday, January 01, 2010

A look at Jane Borodale's The Book of Fires

I turned the final page of this excellent debut novel just after midnight last night. How appropriate to start off the New Year with historical fiction about fireworks!

Set in 1752-53, The Book of Fires recounts the coming of age of Agnes Trussel, a seventeen-year-old peasant girl from a village at the foot of the Sussex Downs. Following an attack by a would-be suitor that leaves her pregnant, she makes up her mind to flee. Marriage to him would be stifling and unpleasant, and she can't risk bringing shame upon her family when food is already short and they risk eviction if they land they live on is enclosed. After stumbling upon the dead body of an elderly neighbor, Agnes snatches the jar of gold coins at her feet and slips away on the morning carrier to London.

More innocent than not, despite her condition, Agnes doesn't realize how fortunate she is to lose the address given to her by an elegantly dressed woman on her journey. Instead, she is unexpectedly hired by John Blacklock, a brooding widower who's a master of pyrotechny. As his assistant, Agnes learns the process of building many types of artificial fireworks. She also comes to understand the scientific principles behind them and, more importantly, the value her new profession holds for its customers and creators.

With her innate curiosity and enthusiasm, Blacklock finds in Agnes a kindred spirit. When they discuss the possibility of developing fireworks in brilliant color, their joint excitement is palpable. However, her pregnancy can't be hidden forever. As the months pass, the tension heightens, and the household's maidservants eye her with increasing suspicion. Agnes lives in fear of the day she's found out; she also worries about her fate if her initial thievery is discovered.

Borodale evokes a distant world where petty crimes received harsh punishments and the fortunes of women depended on what they were granted by chance or by men. The descriptive language, full of rich 18th-century vocabulary, involves all of the senses. It's possible to smell the pungent scent of gunpowder, feel the slimy sensation of rubbing salt into cold ham, and hear the tolling of the bell as it announces each hanging at Tyburn. Agnes is a strong character, yet her country-bred naivete makes her appealingly vulnerable. Her growing relationship with Blacklock, rewarding yet perplexing to them both, is portrayed with realism and sensitivity. And as with any dazzling fireworks display, the book ends in a truly spectacular finale. It's a novel about the love of learning, the transformative power of fire, and the discovery of unexpected wonders.

Jane Borodale's The Book of Fires was published in May 2009 by HarperPress UK at £12.99; it will appear from Pamela Dorman/Viking US on January 21st at $26.95 ($33.50 Canadian).