Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bits and pieces

The UK Historical Novel Society conference took place in Manchester on October 17th, and since I wasn't able to attend, I've been enjoying the reports from afar.

From Publishers' Marketplace... Three upcoming novels from Philippa Gregory have been announced, all part of her Cousins' War series set during the Wars of the Roses: The Kingmaker's Daughters (about Anne and Isabel Neville), for publication in 2012; The White Princess (about Elizabeth of York), and The Last Rose (subject TBA). All were sold to Trish Todd at Touchstone/Simon & Schuster US, with Suzanne Baboneau at S&S UK co-editing, via agent Anthony Mason.  Coming next, in 2011, is The Lady of the Rivers, about Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, mother of Elizabeth Woodville.

The Romantic Armchair Traveller is a wonderful new blog I found recently, thanks to a comment Danielle left on my site.  Pleasing from both aesthetic and literary standpoints, it takes readers on armchair journeys to lands near and distant.  Danielle focuses on romance novels and other romantic fiction with a strong sense of place, and her thoughtful reviews, full of incisive commentary, are interspersed with photos of the setting in question.

The murmurings in literary circles are growing louder every day, thanks to an Oxford academic's revelation that Jane Austen had some editorial help with her spelling and grammar, and she also revised her own manuscripts.  The BBC seems to have blown things out of proportion with the headline "Jane Austen's Style May Not Be Hers."  I prefer Catherine Delors's take on the issue: Breaking News: Jane Austen Was Human!  Most novelists today use word processing software, so the visual evidence of their editorial changes will be lost to posterity, but Austen's original manuscripts show all of her cross-outs and rewrites.

I spent the weekend reading an ARC of Kate Morton's The Distant Hours and finished it late last night, taking breaks every few chapters to draw out the experience a little longer.  I'll save my writeup to post when it's out around November 9th, but I'll note here that I loved it and envy those who'll be reading it for the first time.  (How's that for a recommendation?)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Book review: The Tapestry Shop, by Joyce Moore

I'd already been interested in Joyce Elson Moore's The Tapestry Shop after reading the blurb, and the gorgeous cover art just about took my breath away.  Thus, my dilemma: Should I read it, or should I find a way to hang it on my wall?  (Since the cover design is printed not only on the jacket but on the book itself, one could conceivably do both.)

The Tapestry Shop is an imaginative fictional reconstruction of the life of Adam de la Halle, an early trouvère, or medieval minstrel, living in and around Arras in northern France in the mid-13th century.  He was best known for his lighthearted play "Robin et Marion," which may have given rise to the later legends of Robin Hood.  Although I hadn't been familiar with Adam or his work beforehand, the storyline drew me right into his world.

As with tapestries themselves, the novel stretches out over a wide canvas but relies on its finer details to create a beautifully woven portrait of medieval life. Its plot moves with a lively yet steady pace that suits it well.  I found myself enjoying every minute of my virtual stroll through many French towns and cities, taking in the sights while following the hero and heroine on their travels.

On his journey home to Arras after a four-month exile in Douai - he had offended the wrong people with his satirical lyrics - Adam takes a detour to the village of Vitry-en-Artois, where he becomes enraptured by a lovely young woman working at her father's tapestry shop.  Catherine Durant, upset over her recent betrothal to a man with a hidden cruel streak, feels attracted to Adam as well, though she knows a future with him is impossible.  He's trapped in a broken marriage, and even though his wife is unfaithful, he refuses to force the issue. Medieval people had harsh punishments for adulterous women.

Neither Adam nor Catherine ever forgets the other, though this isn't a typical romance; the plot follows too unpredictable of a path for that.  Both are likeable and sympathetic, and while some of the dilemmas they face are timeless (in addition to his romantic woes, Adam suffers from writers' block), others reflect the particular milieu. Feudalism keeps peasants and landowners in their places, and women are given only as much freedom as their husbands or male relatives permit. Catherine's piety determines the decisions she makes, sometimes to the detriment of her happiness, but this felt realistic for the time and place.

Using clear language that turns quite lyrical in places, the novel had me hearing the clacking of wheels as they passed over cobblestone streets, tasting the delicious tarts sold by street vendors, and seeing the glory of the sun light up the forest in early morning.  I especially liked my visit to the Cold Fair at Troyes, an exciting gathering of craftsmen, buyers, and entertainers from all over.

There are a few errant threads - some scenes that were a little quirky - but not enough to detract from the overall picture. In its focus on the daily lives of artisans and musicians rather than the glamour of the royal court, The Tapestry Shop is refreshingly different from other novels set in medieval France. The author's close attention to detail made the era come alive, creating a historical setting I'd loved to have seen in person. Since that's not possible, alas, I'll happily recommend this book as an entertaining and enlightening alternative.

The Tapestry Shop was published by Five Star in October at $25.95 (hardbound, 326pp).  For more information on her research sources as well as other diversions, visit Joyce Moore's blog.  (Cover design credit to Deirdre Wait, High Pines Creative, ENC Graphic Services.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Guest post: A Medieval Quiz, by Jeri Westerson

Jeri Westerson, a regular guest at Reading the Past, is stopping by as part of her tour for The Demon's Parchment.  Welcome, Jeri!  She has a short and clever quiz to present today, and it's informative to boot.  How many did you get right?

A Medieval Quiz
By Jeri Westerson

In celebration of the release of my third Crispin Guest Medieval Noir, The Demon's Parchment, I’d like to offer you blog readers a quick medieval quiz to see how aware you are of certain medieval terms that might crop up in your reading. Sharpen your number two pencils. Ready?

1. The “mote” of a mote and bailey castle is
A) the high walls
B) the water barrier around the castle
C) the mound the castle sits on
D) the kind of rock used to build it

2. The term “medieval” means
A) dark and evil
B) “middle ages”
C) modern times
D) ancient times

3) A Chevalier is the same as a knight
A) True
B) False

4). What kind of English did Geoffrey Chaucer speak?
A) Anglo-Saxon
B) Old English
C) Middle English
D) None of the above

5. In a palace or manor house, a buttery is
A) the place the wine is stored
B) the place the dairy products are stored
C) the place the weapons are stored
D) none of the above

6. A hauberk is
A) a leather satchel
B) a kind of pack horse
C) a mail shirt
D) the last man in the battle line

Put your pencils down. How’d you do? Time to go through them and see what you missed.

1. The “mote” of a mote and bailey castle is…the mound the castle is built on. The term “mote” is Anglo-Norman French and means a hillock. The Normans built the first of what one might call castles in Europe, which meant a sort of fortified enclosed structure on top of a mound. The bailey is the courtyard within the walls. You thought it was the moat, didn’t you? That’s the water barrier around a castle.

2. The term “medieval” means…“middle ages.” This idea of “middle ages” was coined by the Victorians, those lovers of all things medieval and who were responsible for preserving a lot of what we know about the medieval world, though they were also fond of …well, making stuff up, too. The “middle” of these ages means they are in the middle between the classical Greek period and modern times.

3. A Chevalier is the same as a knight, true or false? True! Chevalier is French for horseman and that is essentially the earlier meaning of the idea of “knight.”

4. What kind of English did Geoffrey Chaucer speak? Chaucer spoke and wrote in Middle English, that is, the English between Old English which was mostly German or Saxon, and Elizabethan English, which is akin to modern English. Middle English was transitional. The difference was that Middle English was phonetic like German. You know all those extra letters we have in words that are silent? Well, they weren’t silent then. Take the word “knight” for instance. We pronounce it “nite.” But in Middle English, you’d pronounce all the letters in something like K-N-EE-CH-T (the ch being a glottal sound like you have a fishbone caught in the back of your throat.) But English it was and this was very important. Prior to the English of the fourteenth century, the nobility spoke Anglo-Saxon and when William the Conqueror conquered England the nobility changed over to Norman French and anybody who was anybody spoke French. It was said that in the twelfth century Richard the Lionheart didn’t even speak any form of English and barely ever set foot in England. Sort of rude of him, being king of England and all. By the time the fourteenth century rolled around, King Richard II and his court were all speaking English and Geoffrey Chaucer merely reflected that, writing his books and poetry in the mother tongue for the first time.

5. In a palace or manor house, a buttery is…the place you store and serve wine and ale. From “butt” meaning a “cask” as in “butt of malmsey,” the thing the duke of Clarence was drowned in during Shakespeare’s Richard III. It’s also the place where the food is laid out and ready to be served. The buttery, that is.

6. A hauberk is a…mail shirt. I know you’re thinking “chain mail” but the proper term is simply “mail” because mail means rings or chains. In the early Middle Ages this was worn alone over the clothing to afford protection from sword hits, but by the late Middle Ages it was worn under your plate armor for extra protection where the armor didn’t cover you, like at the armpits, neck, and groin.

So there you have it. A few terms that might help you when you read medieval novels. Some of these might even show up in my novels. You can catch an excerpt of my latest, The Demon's Parchment, on my website www.JeriWesterson.com.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

U is for Uruguay

For the letter U in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge, I chose Carolina de Robertis's The Invisible Mountain, a century-spanning literary saga about a mother, daughter, and granddaughter and the difficult paths they tread at different stages of their country's history.

I knew little about Uruguay before before beginning this novel.  Its capital, Montevideo, reportedly got its name from a Portuguese sailor's first words upon reaching the land:  "Monte vide eu," or "I see a mountain."  As the story reveals, the meaning is ironic, because the city is relatively flat, boasting little more than a rounded hill.  Each of its three protagonists spends much of her life yearning for something invisible and unattainable, but eventually finds contentment of sorts through another avenue.

Those who enjoy the rich, descriptive language of Allende or Márquez will find much to delight in here.  De Robertis carefully aligns her prose style with her heroines' personalities and the prevailing spirit of each era.  Pajarita, daughter of a gaucho, is born in the tiny town of Tacuarembó in 1899.  An unwanted child whose birth killed her mother, she vanishes from her father's home as a baby and mysteriously reappears nine months later in the branches of a tall tree, or so legend has it.  The chapters detailing her youth and marriage to Ignazio Firielli, a gondola-maker from Venice, are full of vivid metaphors that evoke the colors and textures of nature:

There, through the window, the soft slash of the moon.  There it falls, making silver light on the ground.  This place is home. And it is good.  But it is not the world.  The thought surprised her.  It felt fresh, an unknown herb against the palate of her mind.

No, the whole novel isn't written in this poetic style, but for me, these sections fell in as a natural part of the tale the author tells.

Pajarita becomes a renowned healer, a woman sought out for her knowledge of herbs - one of the few things, along with her indomitable spirit, she brings with her to her new home in the growing city of Montevideo.  Her daughter, Eva, endures a traumatic childhood after her father insists she take a job to help support the family.  A young woman with the soul of a poet, her journey takes her to the heart of Perón's Buenos Aires and back before she finally finds the love she's long deserved.  Eva's daughter Salomé comes of age in a country full of political turmoil; she falls prey to the communist fervor sweeping through Central and South America in the '60s and pays a terrible price.  The final section loops back toward the beginning, with Salomé writing a letter to her own daughter.

The tone shifts from magical realism to sharp reality over the course of the century as Uruguay endures economic hardship, labor unrest, and urban guerrilla warfare and emerges, not unscathed, as a modern, democratic nation. Threaded throughout is Uruguay's complex relationship with the United States.  All of this well-crafted history intertwines with the themes of the inner strength of women and their relationships with one another and the men in their lives.  At the risk of making it sound trite, which it isn't at all, this really is more of a women's book; most of its male characters (adventurers, hot-tempered machismo types, and worse) don't come off looking real well.  And one of the men even decides... well, that would be saying too much.

The Invisible Mountain is a deep and involving work, and I found myself reading slowly in order to absorb the nuances of the author's creative phrasings. Uruguay might not immediately come to mind as a desired setting for historical fiction, but it turns out that this small country tucked into the underside of eastern South America contains a fascinating world worth discovering.

The Invisible Mountain was first published by Knopf in August 2009.  The paperback was published this past August (Vintage, $15.95, 448pp).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book review: Beautiful Dreamer, by Joan Naper

In her debut Beautiful Dreamer, Joan Naper has written a loving tribute to her hometown of Chicago, a major American city that takes pride in its illustrious history.

The novel opens during the 1899 Christmas season.  Kitty Coakley is a lovely young woman of twenty who lives with her working-class parents and her four older brothers in the parish of St. Patrick, in Chicago’s West Loop. Although Kitty and her family are Irish Catholics, this isn’t the immigrant saga one might expect. One generation removed from Ireland, Kitty considers Chicago her first and only home, and she’s enough of an American to know how to dream big.

While her parents want to see her settled with a nice Irish boy like Brian Kelleher, despite his lack of ambition and his strong-but-silent ways, Kitty yearns to escape the drudgery she sees in her future – her mother and older sister are living it – by establishing herself in her own career. Readers follow Kitty as she matures, seeks out new opportunities after her initial hopes are dashed, and struggles to balance her growing fondness for a Protestant former school friend, Henry Thomas, with her parents’ wishes. Henry’s viewpoint is revealed in alternating chapters, which show his difficult path to becoming a professional architect.

Naper renders turn-of-the-century Chicago in bountiful and exciting detail. From the shabby-but-respectable “Cabbage Patch” around West Adams Street where the Coakleys live to the slums around Hull House, and from the busy streetcars crossing the downtown to upscale receptions at the Palmer Mansion on Lake Shore Drive, the city comes alive with activity and local color. Occasionally extraneous facts interrupt the story, but the atmosphere certainly feels authentic, and readers should feel like they’ve gotten a quality tour of the city’s neighborhoods during all four seasons. Anyone who’s experienced the wind off Lake Michigan in January will nod their heads (and shiver) at the author’s descriptions.

In addition to capturing the physical milieu, the author depicts with care and subtlety the social barriers and cultural divisions affecting Chicagoans in that day and age. If Kitty’s Catholic family doesn’t approve of Henry, his wealthy parents – whose German Lutheran heritage is well presented – don’t think Kitty is good enough for him either. One cleverly written scene, depicting an elegant evening out at the symphony for the couple, illustrates how much their upbringing affects their behavior. And despite her ethnic background, not even Kitty is immune from prejudice. In her training to become a kindergarten teacher, she must take charge of recent immigrants’ young children and recoils from their drippy noses and abject poverty.

Beautiful Dreamer spans just over a year's time, and the action sometimes skips days or months with each new chapter. In the first half in particular, the plot forges ahead in fits and starts, much like one of those newfangled horseless carriages might proceed down Michigan Avenue. (It would have helped to have the date listed below each chapter title.) The writing is crisp and clean, but the plot lacks emotional intensity, a surprising deficit in a family story with romantic elements. Perhaps it was a deliberate choice to make Kitty’s Aunt Mabel the only fully rounded secondary character – a woman who runs her own millinery boutique at Marshall Field’s, she becomes Kitty’s role model – but it makes the novel less compelling than it might have been. Likewise, although the novel states the characters’ affection for one another, those sentiments don’t come through strongly on the page.

On the other hand, this isn’t a rose-colored-glasses romance, and if nothing else, one can appreciate the realism of Kitty’s situation. Whichever man she chooses and whichever path her career takes, there will be bumps along the road to happiness. Such, as they say, is life. In this respect, although the novel doesn’t always elicit deep feelings, its message is a wise one. Combined with an entertaining walk through historic Chicago, Kitty’s coming-of-age journey is ultimately worth following.

Beautiful Dreamer was published by Allium Press of Chicago in September at $14.99, or $17.99 in Canada (trade pb, 301pp).

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunday smatterings

Good morning, everyone - it's a beautiful fall morning here in Illinois. I've been up since 6am, after going to bed at 7pm yesterday with a wretched headache. The same thing happened on Friday night, so I'm hoping today will be better.

Without further ado, the winner of Susan Holloway Scott's The Countess and the King is:  Terry! Congratulations, and I'll be in touch to obtain your mailing address.

For a short time this summer, I stopped accepting review copies for the site, since I was overwhelmed with work... plus, when I was offered the opportunity to review Ken Follett's Fall of Giants, I couldn't pass it up.  A little daunting, though, to take on a 985-page historical epic - especially when you consider the size of the galley when it showed up in the mail.

Galley at left, smaller hardcover at right.  Talk about a doorstopper!
My review appeared in the Globe & Mail on Saturday, so hop on over to the site if you'd like to read it.  (An interview with Follett, posted earlier in the week, is linked from the piece.)  I went into it with high expectations, and I'm happy to report that the book met them.  It's sitting atop the bestseller lists of both the Globe and the New York Times, not surprising given Follett's past successes, and it's a great sign for historical fiction as a whole.  Anyone here who's in the midst of reading it, or planning on reading it soon?

My current read is Joan Naper's Beautiful Dreamer, set in Chicago in 1900, and I hope to have a review posted later in the week.  Also on deck is my pick for the letter U in the alphabet challenge, as well as Kate Morton's The Distant Hours (another enormous galley, but it can't compare to the Follett).

Thursday, October 07, 2010

A Canadian historical fiction showcase

After posting about Mary Novik's Conceit last week, I went on a mini shopping spree at Amazon Canada, discovering a number of other historical novels not readily available in the US.  The per-shipment postage charge is expensive, so it pays to buy in quantity.  That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.  (I didn't buy all of these, but wanted to.)

What's interesting: it's very selective as to which Canadian authors' books are picked up in the States. Some of these novelists will be familiar to US readers, who may not realize that the authors have new books out (or will soon).  As far as I can tell, none are available in the UK or in other English-speaking countries, either.  The historical settings are wide-ranging, from ancient Egypt to Renaissance Venice to 17th-century New France to 19th-century Japan.  Because it's been over a year since I've been to any Canadian bookstores in person, I'm sure I'm missing other relevant titles; to recommend others, just leave a note in the comments.  Enjoy.

The first volume of the Alford Saga, which will chronicle over 200 years of Canadian history beginning with the stories of the country's pioneer settlers in the early 19th century.  The author is one of Canada's major preeminent film and TV directors.  Not quite an epic, though, at 248 pages. McArthur & Co, September 2010.

In 1669, Laure Beausejour and her best friend, Madeleine, are sent from Paris to New France as filles du roi, young women transported overseas to help populate the colony.  In Ville-Marie (Montreal), she faces numerous challenges, from the region's harsh conditions to her marriage to a brutish French soldier.  The plot reminds me somewhat of Clare Clark's Savage Lands, but set in Canada rather than Louisiana.  I'd enjoyed the setting of the latter but didn't warm to any of the characters, and I've read next to nothing set in New France, so am eagerly anticipating this debut novel.  Penguin Canada, January 2011.

Publication of the third volume in Pauline Gedge's King's Man trilogy has been postponed a few times.  This volume begins as Huy, a renowned seer, becomes scribe and counselor to the young pharaoh, Amunhotep III. The first two books are The Twice Born and Seer of Egypt.  Penguin Canada, March 2011.

A literary ghost story about the nature of artistic inspiration and womanhood, set in present-day Washington, DC, and in 19th-century Japan.  Rebecca must discover why O-Ei, daughter of one of Japan's great artists and perhaps his equal in talent, vanished from her own time and from history.  Govier's earlier novels Creation and Three Views of Crystal Water appeared in the US, but no sign yet of this one.  I found an article by Govier at More Magazine that illuminates her travels in pursuit of her character, a historical woman.  HarperCollins Canada, May 2010.

I read about Freda Jackson's For a Modest Fee last week at January Magazine, who wrote that it dealt with gender equality on the Canadian prairies.  Elizabeth Evans, nurse and midwife, travels with her father to Aspen Coulee, Alberta, in 1907.  After he dies of a heart attack, she and other local women are left to transform the fledgling pioneer town into a more civilized place.  TouchWood, September 2010.

In returning to Labrador to investigate a millennia-old mystery, Shannon Carew delves into the region's complex, multi-layered history, from the ancient Inuits through the Vikings and to the tragic history of the Beothuk in more modern times. This is the author's first adult novel.  Cormorant, August 2010.

The publisher describes Roberta Rich's The Midwife of Venice (originally titled The Moneylender's Wife) as a rollicking historical thriller set in 16th-c Venice and Malta.  Hannah Levi, a midwife in the Venetian ghetto, risks her life to render aid to the dying wife and unborn child of a Christian nobleman.  Then she discovers the baby's own life is at risk from greedy relatives, and her real adventure begins.  Sound intriguing?  Read more at the author's website.  Doubleday Canada, February 2011.

Sometimes, completely serendipitously, two or more authors come out with historical novels on very similar subjects.  Joan Thomas's Curiosity tells the story of Mary Anning, a cabinet-maker's daughter turned fossil hunter in 19th-century Lyme Regis, England.  I'm far from the first person to group it together with Tracy Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures, as reviewers from the Vancouver Sun and Toronto Star have done the same. The books interpret the same character very differently, so the reviews say, so why not try both?  McClelland and Stewart, March 2010.

Jack Whyte moves from his trilogy about the mysterious Knights Templar of the medieval Middle East to Scotland in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.  The life of William Wallace ("Ye canna take our freedom!" per a certain Mel Gibson flick) is rendered with a greater eye for authenticity in this first book of the Guardians trilogy.  Books 2 and 3 will cover Robert the Bruce and the Black Douglas, respectively. Viking Canada, September 2010.

I'm a fan of Richard Wright's Clara Callan, a multi-award winning saga of two sisters living in small-town Ontario during the Depression.  Why Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard isn't published in the States is a mystery to me, as it has the elements American historical fiction readers crave: a marquee name, a setting of Elizabethan London, and the promise of secrets to be revealed about a beloved historical character.  I can't resist poking fun at popular reading tastes, but Wright's latest novel did get a very positive review in the Globe & Mail a few weeks ago, which convinced me to buy it.  Kailana of The Written World recently reviewed it as well.  Phyllis Bruce Books (HarperCollins Canada), September 2010.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

T is for Thomas

It's unusual—and daunting—to take on a novel from a small press that arrives complete with glowing commentary from novelists such as Bernard Cornwell and Cecelia Holland. At its conclusion, I was relieved to find myself in complete agreement.

In A Bloodline of Kings, a historical epic about Philip of Macedon, the story begins with one birth (that of Philip himself) and ends with another (his son Alexander, later called the Great). In the intervening pages, Sundell takes us through the life of an extraordinary man, Philippos of the Makedones, whose brilliant military career during the 4th century BC was overshadowed by that of his more famous son.

It is Philippos who earns Macedon a place on the political playing field of the ancient Hellenes and makes it the equal of powerful city-states such as Athens and Thebes. This is not only a military saga, however, for the women are as strong and ambitious as the men. In fact, some of the most emotional moments occur as Kleopatra, former Queen of the Makedones and Philippos' great-grandmother, secretly trains her young charge to be a future leader, not knowing that his older brothers' early deaths will make her wishes come true.

The author's research is well evident; its thoroughness is, in fact, astonishing. As the novel does not always wear its research lightly, newcomers to the period may find it intellectually challenging, but the education they receive as a result will make their efforts worthwhile.

I reviewed Thomas Sundell's A Bloodline of Kings for the Historical Novels Review in 2002, when it first came out, and part of this post was taken from my original writeup.  I spotted the novel on my basement shelves while doing some book shifting this afternoon (happens a lot around here) and decided to feature it for the letter T in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.

Because it's been a while since I first read it, I thumbed through it again to see if I still had the same opinion.  One thing I neither remembered nor remarked on back then: it's written in the present tense.  This didn't feel artificial or faddish then and it didn't after a reread of the first chapter.  It surprises me that I didn't mention it in my original review, but I guess that means that it didn't bother me. Also, it's self-published, and slightly more expensive than other hardcovers of similar length, but there's a lot of action, characters, and story packed into its near-500 pages.  For readers who enjoy well-rounded depictions of the ancient world, this one's worth seeking out.

Thomas Sundell's A Bloodline of Kings was published by Crow Woods in 2002 at $28.50 (484pp, hardbound). It's still in print and available.