Friday, April 30, 2010

Reviews of obscure books: Diana Norman, King of the Last Days

I chose this novel for the letter K in the A-Z challenge, figuring there was little point to owning an obscure book if I never got around to reading it. King of the Last Days was a serendipitous pick; I soon discovered its surprising connection to my interview with Tony Hays, covered in my last post, and also to Norman's first novel, Fitzempress' Law (reviewed in ’06).

Readers familiar with Norman’s work, including the Adelia Aguilar series written as Ariana Franklin, know of her affinity for 12th-century settings and her admiration for Henry II's judicial reforms. This novel is no exception. King of the Last Days opens at the end of Henry’s life. In 1189, Glastonbury Abbey is in a sorry state, victim of a fire that destroyed its monastic buildings five years earlier. Pilgrims are passing it by, and the prior has no money to rebuild. When four obedientiaries secretly uncover the remains of a tall man and a blonde woman in the abbey graveyard – bodies rumored to be those of Arthur and Guinevere – they see better days ahead. And they find a centuries-old sword lying alongside.

(History records the discovery taking place in 1190. An explanation is provided for this deliberate shifting; in Norman's take, it has to do with the unreliability of a certain Welsh chronicler...)

A monk at a nearby Benedictine house, Ancel of Athelney, is recruited to present Excalibur to King Henry, who’s off in France fighting his rebellious son Richard and the French king. The Glastonbury monks desperately need good publicity and want to use the sword as a bargaining chip. Ancel, however, has a more altruistic outlook on his mission; he owes his very livelihood to the king. Thanks to the newly instituted jury system, Ancel’s mother was able to prove he was born a freedman, and thus able to enter the monastic life.

As Ancel crosses the Channel and wends his way south to Le Mans, Excalibur concealed inside a wooden cross, he meets two others on the same path. Joan, the tart-tongued prioress of St. Mary’s du Pré in Hertfordshire, wants Henry to annul a pesky lower-class Celt’s legitimate claim to her abbey’s property. And Roger Sans-Avoir, a knight tormented by his experiences on Crusade, seeks to rejoin Henry’s entourage because he has no other options. In serving as protector for Joan and Ancel, Roger hopes to absolve himself of an unspeakable sin.

At this point the themes and characters started to seem oddly familiar. A peasant turned monk, a solitary knight, a woman of religion… hmm. Then it hit me: this book isn’t so much a retreading of the same ground as Fitzempress’ Law as an indirect sequel. After the 20th-century interlopers returned to their time, their medieval counterparts live on.

The three protagonists trudge through the northern French countryside, moving from Caen to Fontevrault to Chinon, encountering many colorful characters and a variety of dangers – crafty brigands, deadly illness, and other distractions from the task at hand. Although they unite in a common cause, they don’t always have each other’s best interests at heart. The sword changes hands many times, as does Prioress Joan’s cranky mare. By the end, after their respective journeys have transformed their attitudes, their goal hasn’t changed, but their motives have.

It’s a pleasure to read Norman’s from-the-ground-up presentation of medieval France: the unfamiliar flora and fauna, the heat rising from the landscape as the trio heads south, the rhythms and rituals of its people’s daily existence. The plot branches off in multiple directions, with perhaps too many viewpoints to keep track of, but even minor characters spark into life during their brief time on the page.

Norman depicts medieval people’s perspective on life in delightful fashion, showing how they balance their love for God and fear of mortal sin with a plainspoken irreverence toward the world’s realities. Consider Prioress Joan’s mumblings to herself when she first encounters Ancel on the road:

“Glastonbury. What was a monk from Glastonbury doing with a sword hidden in a cross? They’d always been odd at Glastonbury, too old, too mystic, too much holy thorn and well. Too much Arthur.”
But despite the many insertions of sly humor, the novel has an underlying solemnity. Though a fiercely intelligent man who accomplished many reforms, Henry never learned to share his power, and that has been his undoing:

"The trouble with Henry II of England is that he eclipsed people. He had eclipsed Philip's father, Louis, and taken Eleanor of Aquitaine away from him, and then eclipsed her and the sons she gave him. He had eclipsed Becket. He refused to delegate power to those of lesser vision, and they never forgave him for it."
At the end of his life, only his illegitimate son Geoffrey stands by him. His personal failings have become England’s as well, and Norman impresses upon readers the tragedy of it all. Nonetheless, Henry Fitzempress has reigned long and competently; his passing will mark the end of an era, just as the death of Arthur spelled the end of Camelot. It’s a brilliant character study of a man and the world he created, as seen through the eyes of those who experienced it.

A splendid evocation of medieval life, with wit and calamity in equal measure.

King of the Last Days was published by Hodder & Stoughton in hardcover in 1981. Non-obligatory FTC disclosure: the publisher did not provide me with a free copy of this book to review. Don’t I wish! This one’s so obscure that it's currently unavailable except via interlibrary loan. Rather, I should thank the Nottingham Libraries for selling their copy (for 30p) some years ago. Perhaps one day we'll be lucky enough to have a publisher bring Norman's backlist into print again. Judging by the number of people who find this blog by googling for her books, there's a real demand for them.

Monday, April 26, 2010

An interview with Tony Hays

Today I'm talking with novelist Tony Hays about writing his Arthurian mystery series, walking the landscapes of post-Roman Britain, one self-important monk's incomplete version of history, and that annoyingly persistent new religion known as Christianity.

The Killing Way
introduces Malgwyn ap Cuneglas, a hardened soldier who lost his sword arm fighting alongside Arthur in battle against the Saxons in the mid-5th century AD. In this first novel in the series, Malgwyn is pulled away from his favorite pastimes of drinking and wenching when Arthur needs him to investigate the brutal murder of a beautiful young woman — the sister of Malgwyn's late wife. The Divine Sacrifice, book two, takes Malgwyn to the fabled Ynys-witrin, otherwise known as Glastonbury, where he looks into the suspicious death of an elderly monk. He quickly learns that the abbey there is no peaceful refuge. A renowned priest, the future St. Patrick, has just arrived from Hibernia to investigate rumors of Pelagian heresy; the abbot seems to be hiding something; and the dangerously attractive new abbess is stirring up trouble with her unorthodox Gaulish beliefs about women's roles in the communion rite.

I've long been a reader of Arthurian fiction and like seeing how authors adapt its characters and themes to create something new and original. Many of the familiar faces from classic Arthuriana are here — Arthur, Guinevere, Kay, Bedevere, Merlin, and others — but Tony puts his own spin on their personalities and places them all in a gritty post-Roman setting fraught with political infighting and external threats. With his sharp intellect, dry wit, and skepticism about pretty much everything, Malgwyn makes for entertaining company, but since he doesn't accept compliments well, he might take offense at my saying so! I hope you'll enjoy this interview.

How long have you been interested in the Arthurian canon?

I grew up on Sword in the Stone like most kids in the 60s. But it wasn’t the literary canon that really captured my interest but the question of the historical Arthur. I remember reading a Time Magazine article in the late 60s, early 70s about an archaeological dig at South Cadbury, designed to determine if it could have been Camelot. From that point forward, I was, at least partially, tuned into that debate. I also read, about this same time, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, so really, I think, it was the history that led me into the fiction rather than the other way around.

Why, when it came time to write your own version, did you decide to recast the legend in the form of a historical mystery?

I love mysteries, writing them, reading them. So, that part was natural. And I was also aware that no one, to that point, had set a series of mysteries in the historical Arthurian world and I thought that was a natural too. Crime fiction also cuts across all social classes and allows the writer to fully explore a world, not just one aspect or segment of it.

Your image of Guinevere, as a young woman whose scandalous romantic liaison with Arthur got her exiled from her community of nuns, definitely goes against the grain. Even more so - Arthur refuses to marry her. How did your idea of her character develop?

This could get complicated. Okay, first, Guinevere is one of the earliest people associated with Arthur in the historical material, so the general consensus among scholars is that she is based on a real person (like Bedevere and Kay but, alas, not Lancelot). Second, one old standby of the Guinevere legend is that she ultimately retires to a monastery after Arthur’s death and her betrayal of him. In 1190, the monks at Glastonbury Abbey reportedly exhumed Arthur’s and Guinevere’s bodies from a grave in the old cemetery. A leaden cross allegedly provided their identities, and one account says that the cross referred to Guinevere as Arthur’s second wife. While opinion is split on it, an archaeological dig in the 60s proved that the monks did find something. The question immediately came to my mind, if Guinevere were truly an agent of Arthur’s betrayal, would she be buried with him?

And then, there’s the other side, what I’ve done is no different in its own way than the rather odd portrayal of Guinevere as an arrow-shooting northern princess in the recent King Arthur movie. Everybody shapes the characters the way they want them. I need a strong, headstrong Guinevere. I think you will find in The Beloved Dead (April 2011) that Guinevere comes into her own.

Malgwyn is not only an invented character, but he's initially very angry at Arthur for saving his life. He's also extremely (and amusingly) skeptical about Christianity. Why was it important to your story that he be an outsider in these respects?

When I started this project, I had choices to make. Do I go with a High Middle Ages Arthur, a la Malory, Twain, White, and Steinbeck? Or do I go with the more realistic setting of ca. 450 to 475 AD? I opted for realism. My intention was to paint a human Arthur, a real Arthur. By creating a character that is not only NOT enamored of Arthur, but who actually holds him in a kind of contempt, I felt that I was able to give a more realistic view of the man, that is the man behind the legend.

Fifth century Britain was also a place of chaos and transition. The Romans had converted to Christianity, but some scholars see a resurgence of Druidism and the pagan religions after the Romans abandoned the isles. By making Malgwyn a skeptic, really of everything, I could take a more objective look at the conflict between this “new” religion and the old gods. And beyond that, doctrine and theology within the Church were fluid at that time. Clergy had not been declared celibate by papal decree yet (though Augustine was promoting it). There were no parish priests. Monasteries were still embryonic entities in Britain. Remember too that the societal and governmental infrastructure of Britain had fragmented, collapsed in the wake of the Roman withdrawal, and the conflict between the Church and the old gods was a microcosm of that broader reality.

But my characters are dynamic; don’t be surprised, over the course of the series, to see Malgwyn declaring his faith in … Well, I don’t want to give away too much.

These may be the first historical mysteries I've read that take place almost completely outdoors! What things did you discover while walking the landscape around Cadbury Castle and Glastonbury that you wouldn't have known otherwise?

The distances involved. How Glastonbury Tor smells on a misty morning. The difficulties encountered with simple things like hauling water etc. And the inspiration part of it. Sometimes, when I would get stuck on a plotting problem, I would go to Cadbury Castle and sit on the ramparts and plot and plan, right there where my novels are set. Or Glastonbury Abbey or Pomparles Bridge. You get the idea.

Malgwyn doesn't think much of Gildas, the British historian/monk whose work has come down to us as a major source on post-Roman Britain. As someone who's done a lot of research into the period, do you share Malgwyn's opinion of Gildas's egotism and general untrustworthiness?

One of the things that frustrates Arthurian scholars is that Gildas could have told us so much, but didn’t. He chose instead to complain. Granted, he wasn’t really writing a history of the period, rather a religious work, but couldn’t he have given us just a bit more? Among the oldest stories linking Arthur and Gildas is that Arthur killed Gildas’ brother Huaill. Some scholars point to that as the reason that Gildas does not mention Arthur by name. The historical Gildas was absolutely younger than Arthur, hence his appearance in my novels as being at the outset of his career. I needed a character that was not ”evil” in intent but proved an annoying stumbling block at times. Gildas fit the bill. Sometimes things just feel right, and for Malgwyn, it felt right for him to be annoyed by Gildas.

In your author's note at the end of The Killing Way, you mention a letter written by Sidonius, a 5th-century bishop of Clermont, to a man known as the "Rigotamos." Can you provide more information about this letter and what it signifies, as far as identifying who the real King Arthur might have been?

Many scholars believe that the infamous Riothamus letter was from a continental warlord of the Armoricans, but there is a great deal of evidence to dispute that. The letter in question was sent to Riothamus by Sidonius and said this “However, I am a direct witness of the conscientiousness which weighs on you so heavily, and which has always been of such delicacy as to make you blush for the wrongdoing of others.” He goes on to say, “I cannot say whether his complaint is just: but if you bring the opponents face to face and impartially unravel their contentions, I fancy that this poor fellow is likely to make good his plaint ….” A little further Sidonius leaves no doubt but that he believes that Riothamus will give the man “a fair and equitable hearing.”

This same Riothamus (or in the Celtic Rigotamos) is credited by the historian Jordanes as being “King of the Britons” and with coming to Gaul (by the sea) and supporting the Romans against the Visigoths. He was betrayed by one of his men and was last seen retreating toward Avallone in Burgundy. So here we have a Brythonic king, known for his fair and equitable treatment of the people, who wars on the continent, is betrayed by one of his own, and was last seen heading to “Avallone.” It’s hardly much of a leap to see a hint of the Arthurian story in these facts.

At present, I’m putting together a YouTube video making a case for Riothamus as Arthur and Cadbury Castle as his primary seat of power.

Assuming King Arthur was based on a historical figure, do you think it likely that he and St Patrick may have really met in person, as they do in The Divine Sacrifice?

It is possible. They were very likely contemporaries. Some people credit Patrick with having founded the abbey at Glastonbury. We do not know where Patrick is buried, by his own wishes and Glastonbury is one of the possible sites. Almost every element, by the way, of Patrick’s portion of The Divine Sacrifice is grounded in his actual “Confessio.”

What was your journey to publication like for The Killing Way? Did you originally envision it as the first in a series?

The idea first occurred to me while living in Kuwait in 1996. I had been in England on vacation, and I picked up a copy of Geoffrey Ashe’s Quest for Arthur’s Britain. I had been fascinated with the question of Arthur’s historical reality since a teenager and I devoured the book. I sat down and wrote ten pages of the novel, creating Malgwyn at the same time, and then put it aside. After returning to the States and spending a good deal of time doing journalism, I decided to go back to writing historical mysteries in 2003. I immediately went to those ten pages of The Killing Way and pushed forward.

I always wanted it to be the first in a series, but I learned long ago not to bet on anything. I wrote Geoffrey Ashe, explained what I was doing, and asked him if he would let me visit and pick his brain for the book. He agreed, and that has proven to be the beginning of a good and close friendship. I queried twelve agents. One asked to see the manuscript. He offered representation and I accepted, but it took until January 2007 to close a two-book deal with Tor/Forge. Last spring after the release of The Killing Way, Tor/Forge offered an additional two-book contract, so Malgwyn and I will be together through the spring of 2012, and beyond hopefully.


I'd like to thank Tony for his willingness to answer my questions. The Killing Way is newly out in paperback from Forge ($14.99/Can $17.99) while the sequel, The Divine Sacrifice, appeared in hardcover from Forge in April ($24.99/Can $29.99). For more information, see the author's website.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

J is for Janice

Janice Woods Windle's Hill Country is not only a favorite historical novel of mine, but it's the first review copy I ever requested - something I remember well. I had just taken on the job as American editor for the Historical Novels Review and, although I read a lot of historical fiction back then, I didn't know much about publishers or imprints. As soon as I learned that a sequel to True Women was out, I made my way to the Simon & Schuster website and discovered their online review copy request form. I typed in the information for Hill Country along with my mailing address, and within a week, a beautiful new paperback arrived in the mail. I read the book immediately, and it didn't disappoint.

When I had first picked up True Women, Janice Woods Windle's first novel about the passionate, tumultuous lives of her Texas ancestors, I was fascinated by the family tree on the endpapers. Among the photos included on the tree was one of the author's paternal grandmother, Laura Hoge Woods (1870-1966). Since Laura wasn't mentioned in the earlier novel, I had assumed - wrongly - that her life might not have been exciting enough to record.

Hill Country is Laura Woods' life story, one she herself might have written - and, indeed, did write, as this novel is based on the typewritten and handwritten memoirs she left to her granddaughter to complete. Born when the Texas Hill Country was still wild and untamed, Laura grows up in a ranch family living alongside the Blanco River. She and her siblings survive several dangerous encounters with Indians, but some of their neighbors aren't as lucky.

Choosing domestic stability over wild romance, Laura marries an older man with a love for horses - Peter Woods. If you've read True Women, you'll know that her husband's family was full of strong and strong-minded women, and Laura is no exception. Her strength comes through time and again: in order to increase their land holdings, Laura homesteads alone in a cabin for six months with only a drunk trapper for company.

The life of the Woods family closely intertwines with that of the Johnsons, their longtime neighbors. Rebekah, later the mother of US President Lyndon Johnson, becomes a lifelong friend of Laura's, and one interest shared between the two women is the exciting world of Hill Country politics. Though they cannot participate fully in politics themselves, they seek to hold power first through their husbands, and later through their sons. Reading Hill Country, one cannot help but wonder how many decisions of national importance first originated in the minds of Laura Woods or Rebekah Johnson, two women who rarely left the Texas hills where they were born.

Throughout Laura's long, eventful life she never backs down from a challenge, and with every word the author clearly expresses her admiration for her grandmother without being overly sentimental. Still, you might want to keep a few tissues handy as Laura's advancing age forces the story to rely more and more on the author's memories. In all, the story flows effortlessly from start to finish. One can't help but think that Laura Woods herself would be proud.

Leila Meacham's Roses, another meaty family saga set deep in the heart of Texas, has been receiving accolades since its publication earlier this year. If you loved Roses, as I did, I strongly recommend you pick up Janice Woods Windle's heartfelt fictional accounts of her courageous ancestors from the Texas Hill Country. All three books intertwine family reminiscences with documented historical fact, and the result is a triumph of storytelling that I found impossible to put down. Despite her close relationships to her novels' protagonists, Windle doesn't let nostalgia get in the way of character development. Will's War (2002) is the third volume in Windle's saga, and I wish that there were more.

Janice Woods Windle's Hill Country was published in paperback by Scribner in 2000 (currently out of print). Portions of this post, written up for Historical Tapestry's A-Z challenge, appeared previously in the Historical Novels Review.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Winners of Mary Sharratt's novel

I neglected to post this earlier... but the three randomly selected winners of the Daughters of the Witching Hill giveaway are: Maria G, Amanda, and Nadine. I'll be in touch to get your mailing addresses. Congratulations, and I hope you all enjoy the book! Thanks to everyone who entered.

Bestselling historical novels of 2009

This is the 3rd year in a row I'm posting info on the historical novels with the greatest reported sales. (See also the figures reported from 2008 and 2007.) The source for all of these is Publishers Weekly's annual Facts and Figures issue, and the corrected version of the article with the 2009 data appeared on April 5th.

Earlier this year, PW asked publishers to submit sales figures on titles that sold more than 100,000 copies during 2009. Only sales to bookstores, wholesalers, and libraries counted. Book club editions and overseas sales did not. I've pulled out data on the historical novels on the list for easier browsing.

For the first time, we find two historical novels among the top 10 in hardcover sales in 2009:

#3 - Kathryn Stockett, The Help (1,104,617 copies)
#10 - Michael Crichton, Pirate Latitudes (855, 638)

The remainder of the top 10, and indeed most of the top 30, is comprised mostly of thrillers (John Grisham, James Patterson, David Baldacci, and Patricia Cornwell each had at least two entries), Nicholas Sparks, Stephenie Meyer's The Host, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, and the long-awaited continuation of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time fantasy series. The top spot? Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, at 5.5 million copies.

Others outside the top 30, all with sales from 350,000 to 100,000 copies, in descending order:

Diana Gabaldon, An Echo in the Bone
Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna
Jeannette Walls, Half-Broke Horses
Lisa See, Shanghai Girls
John Irving, Last Night in Twisted River
Philippa Gregory, The White Queen
Jeffrey Archer, Paths of Glory
Sandra Brown, Rainwater
Anne Rice, Angel Time
W.E.B. Griffin, The Honor of Spies
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel's Game
Jeff Shaara, No Less than Victory
Katherine Howe, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
Jude Deveraux, Days of Gold
Edward Rutherfurd, New York: The Novel
E.L. Doctorow, Homer & Langley
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (was also on '08 list, plus sold 1.1 million copies in trade pb in '09)
Sandra Dallas, Prayers for Sale
Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen, To Try Men's Souls

How many have you read? For me, just Deliverance Dane and Guernsey, unless Wolf Hall can also be counted (see below). Lots of diversity in this list, with a nice combo of historical thrillers, literary titles, commercial and women's fiction, and some alternate history.

On the list of trade pb bestsellers for '09, in addition to the Shaffer/Barrows (which is #5 on that list, fiction and nonfiction combined), you'll find other book club favorites like Tatiana de Rosnay's Sarah's Key and Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants as well as David Benioff's City of Thieves, Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Toni Morrison's A Mercy, among others, plus, inexplicably, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. This is probably a mistake, since it's only available in hardcover. Reported sales were 180,000 copies in '09, and keep in mind that it was published in November. (It won the Booker in early October.)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

I is for India

John Speed's The Temple Dancer, set along the treacherous road from Goa to Bijapur in the mid-17th century, is a novel I bought three years ago. About time I read it, no? I'd originally planned to cover a different novel for the letter "I" but pulled this one off the shelf when I saw it fit the current entry for the alphabet challenge.

It begins in 1657. The Mughal Empire has not yet begun its rapid decline, though its glory days are past. Carlos Dasana, head of a Portuguese trading family in Goa, is facing financial ruin. The Dutch control European trade in Asia, and most of his countrymen have abandoned India for Brazil. In a desperate ploy to secure a trade monopoly in Muslim-ruled Bijapur, Carlos arranges for a bribe - baksheesh - of significant value to be sent to Wali Khan, Bijapur's grand vizier. If all goes to plan, Wali Khan will be made regent until the widowed Sultana's young son comes of age, some years later.

The bribe in question is a stunning young woman, Maya, a Hindu dancer trained to perform for and sleep with the holy men of the temple at Orissa. Maya, along with Carlos's spoiled niece Lucinda, Lucinda's playboy cousin Geraldo, and Maya's guardian, a eunuch named Slipper, must make their way along the road to Bijapur, accompanied by a party of guards and two "settlement men," skilled negotiators for both Dasana and the grand vizier. Their adventure begins immediately.

I found The Temple Dancer an exciting and fun historical epic, rich in incident, drama, forbidden passion, and intrigue. I can't vouch for the descriptions of travel via howdah atop an elephant, not having experienced it myself, but it certainly felt nail-bitingly realistic. The howdah sways as the beast walks, and I mentally held on to my chair as the elephant carrying Lucinda, Maya, and Slipper ascended the Western Ghats via narrow mountain passes.

The third-person viewpoint varies in distance; Speed carefully selects when to reveal his characters' innermost selves. Lucinda matures from a self-absorbed, Eurocentric heiress to a confident, worldly-wise young woman who, through the people she meets en route, comes to appreciate the diversity in Indian culture. Maya - not her birth name - knows well that she's a slave. In her attempt to control her situation, she invites an illicit affair in which she discovers her own sensuality and, in one heartbreakingly evocative scene, becomes trapped by her pursuit of it. The mystery quotient remains high throughout. Despite being thrown together on the same journey, many characters secretly pursue their own agendas.

Although I didn't get to know all of the characters in depth, it felt appropriate to the shifting cultural milieu in a land where Portuguese colonial traders, Muslim soldiers, glamorous former concubines, and crafty eunuchs vie for power. Speed also presents readers with fabulous set pieces of the palaces, courtyards, and natural landscapes of India. It makes for a vivid armchair journey through a place that no longer exists except through historical records and imaginative fictional accounts such as this.

The Temple Dancer was published by St. Martin's Press in hardcover in 2006. Tiger Claws is second in the proposed trilogy, and I hope there'll eventually be a third.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

This book creeps me out a bit

... as well it should, given the title.

Even better — or worse — its page edges are the deepest black. Like you're about to get your hands dirty by picking it up. Between this and the cover, the packaging is very clever.

The tagline, and one of the first lines in the novel, is "This is going to be a little uncomfortable." I'm forewarned.

My copy arrived yesterday from Book Depository, ordered as part of my quest to travel to new places and times through historical fiction... and colonial Peru, circa 1784, is certainly unique. Plus I loved the author's earlier Carnevale, set in 18th-c Venice, and I understand her heroine, Cecelia Cornaro, makes an appearance here.

I'm not sure it's my type of book, but I'm willing to have my horizons expanded, and history isn't always pretty. There's an interview with the author at Penguin Canada's site. "A breathtaking story of unmitigated villainy, Holy Anorexia, quack medicine, murder, love, and a very unusual form of bibliomania," says the back cover. It's out from Bloomsbury UK this month, and from Penguin Canada in June. I hope to read it, and maybe review it here, in due course.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The anniversary contest results

Thank you so much to everyone who entered the contest and/or left comments on my 4th anniversary giveaway post. I like getting to know who my readers are, especially given that we share the same tastes in reading material! Penman, Wolf Hall, Anya Seton, Jude Morgan's Passion, Fingersmith, Jo Graham's Black Ships... to name just a few that I've enjoyed. It's a great recommendations list. Plus you've given me good ideas on what to move up in the TBR pile.

Without further ado, the winners are:

Mistress of Rome - TWerkheiser
The Rose of Sebastopol - Lynn Irwin Stewart
The Queen's Pawn - Jennifer
The Postmistress - Alex
The Creation of Eve - Asha
Heresy - Rowenna

If I can't find an email address to contact you, please email me at sarah at readingthepast dot com within the next week to claim your prize! Congrats to the winners, and I hope you enjoy the books. For another opportunity to win a book, I managed to sneak another giveaway into my Mary Sharratt interview, so please take a look at Monday's post if you'd like to obtain a copy of Daughters of the Witching Hill.

Monday, April 05, 2010

An interview with Mary Sharratt, author of Daughters of the Witching Hill

I'm so pleased to be presenting this interview with Mary Sharratt. Her fourth novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, takes readers to the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In this land of rolling hills and ancient forests, the Reformation has not yet fully taken hold. Beliefs in Catholicism remain deeply entrenched in its people's hearts, mingling with an even older form of worship.

Daughters of the Witching Hill
gives voice to two strong-minded women, Bess Southerns, called Mother Demdike, and her teenage granddaughter, Alizon Device. Keepers of their family's legacy of healing craft and folk magic at a dangerous time in history, Bess and Alizon react in different ways to the fear and paranoia that sweeps through the countryside, turning neighbors and relatives against one another as accusations of witchcraft begin flying. It is a wonderful novel, made even more heart-wrenching by the knowledge that all of its major characters are based on people who once lived.

I've gotten to know Mary through our involvement with the Historical Novel Society (she wrote a fantastic cover story on "magic gone mainstream" for February's magazine) and have become a big fan of her work. Her novels (Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, The Vanishing Point, and now Daughters) convey a vivid sense of place and time as they explore different aspects of women's power through history. An American writer, Mary makes her home in Lancashire, where the story of the Pendle witches unfolded nearly 400 years ago; the haunting atmosphere of Pendle's rich and traumatic past comes through strongly in Daughters of the Witching Hill. I hope you enjoy this interview, and please read to the end for a chance to win a copy of Mary's novel for yourself.

This is your first novel to incorporate elements of the fantastic into the main narrative. Did you find it was an adjustment for you, as a historical fiction writer, to write about supernatural creatures and happenings as if they were real? At what point did you realize that the novel had to be written this way?

I knew from the beginning that this was a story crying out to be told from Mother Demdike’s point of view, in her own first person voice.

The supernatural elements are drawn directly from the primary source, Thomas Potts’s A Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, the official transcripts of the 1612 Lancashire Witch Trials. When examined by the prosecuting magistrate, Mother Demdike, called Bess in my novel, goes into such rich detail describing Tibb, her familiar spirit. She first met him when walking past a quarry at twilight. Stepping out of the stone pit, he appeared to her in the guise of beautiful young man, his coat half black-half brown. He promised to teach her all she needed to know about magic. Their partnership would endure for decades. For her, Tibb was not something fantastic, but an absolute reality in her life, and it was my task as an author to bring her worldview across as organically as possible.

Bess’s belief in this world of spirits and wonders colors everything she told the magistrate. They were speaking at cross-purposes. Magistrate Roger Nowell was investigating her on charges of satanic witchcraft while she was speaking with pride of her lifelong career as a cunning woman, or traditional healer. To be taken seriously as a cunning woman, she had to convince others that she had a familiar helping her. The familiar spirit was the bedrock of traditional English folk magic—cunning folk couldn’t work their charms without their magical ally.

The original title of my novel was A Light Far-Shining, and that was how I perceived the magical elements of the book—the light of the otherworld illuminating this one.

Before I read Daughters of the Witching Hill, I hadn't associated the witch hunts of the 17th century with repression of people's beliefs in Catholic folk magic. The similarities between Bess's beliefs, skills, and prayers with traditional pagan practices were remarkable to me, as I wouldn't have thought that "cunning craft" had anything to do with a branch of Christianity. How did you uncover this connection?

The conflation of witchcraft and Catholicism in Early Modern England was indeed the most surprising thing I discovered in my research. This was especially pertinent in Lancashire where the Reformation was so slow to take root and where fervent Protestants had such a struggle asserting their new order in the face of staunch resistance as rebel gentry and commonfolk alike clung to the old ways. “No part of England hath so many witches,” Edward Fleetwood stated in his 1645 pamphlet describing Lancashire, “none fuller of Papists.”

Mother Demdike’s spells recorded in the trial transcripts were, in fact, Roman Catholic prayer charms. Her incantation to cure a bewitched person, quoted by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical magic, is a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ as witnessed by the Virgin Mary. This text is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England: 1400-1580.

It appears that Mother Demdike, born in Henry VIII’s reign, at the cusp of the Reformation, was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been fairly common in earlier generations. The Old Church embraced many practices that seemed magical and mystical. People believed in miracles. They used holy water and communion bread for healing. Candles blessed at the Feast of Candlemas warded the faithful from demons and disease. People left offerings at holy wells and invoked the saints in their folk charms. Some rituals such as the blessing of wells and fields may have Pagan origins. Indeed, looking at pre-Reformation folk magic, it seems difficult to untangle the strands of Catholicism from the remnants of Pagan belief which had become so tightly interwoven. Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.

But it would be an oversimplification to state that Mother Demdike was merely a misunderstood practitioner of Catholic folk magic. Her lifelong partnership with Tibb seems to reveal beliefs far older than Christianity.

Bess Southerns and her granddaughter, Alizon Device, are given the opportunity to tell their stories in the first person, while their daughter and mother respectively, Liza Device, is seen only through their eyes. Why did you decide to structure the viewpoints as you did?

I choose to narrate the novel from Bess and Alizon’s point of view because these very different characters provide a wonderful study on how different women deal with power.

Bess had the most infamous reputation. In The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, Thomas Potts claimed that she was the ringleader, the one who initiated all the others into witchcraft. “No man escaped her, or her Furies,” he wrote. Bess was so frightening to her foes because she was a woman who embraced her powers wholeheartedly. She freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities only turned on her near the end of her long, productive career. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.

In contrast her granddaughter Alizon, who appeared to be a teenager at the time of the trial, seemed to view her own powers with a mixture of bewilderment and terror. Her misadventures in struggling to come to terms with this troubling birthright unleashed the tragedy which led to her arrest and the downfall of her entire family. Although the first to be accused of witchcraft, Alizon was the last to be tried at Lancaster. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged were a passionate vindication of her grandmother’s legacy as a healer.

Liza Device is a fascinating character in her own right, marked by an eye deformity and renowned for her temper, but also a strong woman who raised three children on her own after her husband’s untimely death. However, as a potential narrator, she did not hook me the way Bess and Alizon did.

The unusual nicknames attached to some of the older women characters living around Pendle are intriguing - Mother Demdike, her once-close friend Chattox, and their neighbor Mouldheels, for example. Demdike tells us that her nickname came from the dammed stream where she used to wash sheep, and the names don't seem to be derogatory because they're used even by those close to them. Can you tell me any more about this curious practice?

In small, tight knit communities where everyone shared a handful of first and last names, nicknames were essential to tell people apart. Demdike’s real name was Elizabeth. Her daughter and daughter-in-law were also named Elizabeth. Chattox’s real name was Anne and so was that of her daughter, accused witch Anne Redfearn. In writing the book, I used all the historical nicknames in the trial records. And I also had to take liberties in changing names or inventing new nicknames as there were so many Johns, Jameses, Richards, Katherines, Annes, and Alices. Even surnames, like Nutter, were so common that I had to change some family names to keep both myself and the reader from becoming hopelessly confused.

Your characters' dialogue always seems so authentic to the place and time. How did you go about re-creating it?

I used as many historical dialect terms as I could glean from the confessions in the trial records. Both Bess and her grandson James Device refer to twilight as “daylight gate.” Bess calls the shift worn under her garments a “smock.” James complains of a noise that sounds like the “skriking,” or shrieking, of a great number of cats. The clay dolls Chattox and her daughter Anne Redfearn made to curse and bind their landlord’s abusive son were referred to as “clay pictures.” And so on.

It was also a great inspiration to live in the Lancashire, which still has a very rich dialect, drawing on ancient grammar patterns—for example, “he weren’t ready” instead of “he wasn’t ready,” and also the use of thou: “Th’art nobbut a slip of a lass.”

The dialect in the book is watered down and I used conventional modern grammar because I didn’t know if I could sustain a truly authentic rendition of the dialect for 352 pages.

What is it like to live in a place where the beautiful landscape is so haunted by tragic history? How does it affect your view of your surroundings as you proceed with your day-to-day life there?

It meant a great deal to me to inhabit the same landscape as my characters. As a writer I am fascinated with how the true stories of our ancestors haunt the land for generations afterward.

Bess’s life unfolded almost literally in my backyard. To do justice to her story, I had to go out into the land, walk in her footsteps. I board my horse (who makes a cameo appearance in the book as accused witch Alice Nutter’s horse) at a stable near Read Hall, once home to Roger Nowell, the witchfinder and prosecuting magistrate responsible for sending Bess and the other Pendle Witches to their deaths. Every weekend, I walked or rode my chestnut mare down the tracks of Pendle Forest. Quietening myself, I learned to listen, to allow Bess and Alizon’s voices to well up from the land. Their passion, their tale enveloped me.

Learning their story and connecting to the land became completely intertwined for me.

I understand that you lived around Pendle Hill in Lancashire for some time before you began work on this novel. Did you feel that the topic had to settle in for a while before you were able to take it on, or was it more that other tales took precedence?

I moved to the Pendle region in 2002 but didn’t start working on the book until 2007. Before that I was always intrigued by the witches’ legends but I didn’t yet know the facts. I made the false assumption that their story was folklore. But once I took the time to read their actual history and learned that they were real people, I became completely caught up in their tragedy.

Given the subjects of Daughters of the Witching Hill and your previous three novels, is it a goal of yours to explore the family relationships between women in history?

My focus on women’s history is the guiding thread. My new novel in progress is based on the life of Hildegard von Bingen, mystic nun and polymath, whose family washed their hands of her, tithing her to the Church at the age of eight. The abandoned child was bricked into an anchorage with the fanatical fourteen year old ascetic, Jutta von Sponheim, who would be regarded as an anorexic if she lived today. Faced with such isolation and privation, Hildegard had to escape into a rich life of the mind in order to keep her sanity intact. The fact that Hildegard triumphed to break out of the anchorage, found two abbeys, and become one of the greatest voices of her age attests to her resolve and strength of character.

I saw that you dedicated the novel to Bess Southerns and her fellow accused Pendle witches, from which I gather that you developed a personal relationship with your subjects. Did you feel you owed it to them to reveal the truth about their stories? More broadly, what responsibilities do you think a novelist has toward her historical characters?

Unfortunately a lot of the tourism in Pendle seems to revolve around exploiting the ghoulish aspects of the witch trials, forgetting the fact that they were real people who lost their lives on account of persecution and hysteria. Writing this book, I felt that Bess and Alizon became my adopted ancestors and it was my duty as a writer to serve their memory and tell their story as authentically and sympathetically as I could. I wanted to champion their legacy and to take a stand against the astounding ignorance regarding historical witchcraft that persists to this day.

Many books have been written about the Pendle Witches, both fiction and nonfiction, and some of them have been quite lurid. Even the better ones, such as Robert O’Neill’s delightful novel Mist Over Pendle, tend to portray Mother Demdike and her family as sad, pathetic, ignorant misfits.

As a writer, it was my desire to turn the tables and give Bess and Alizon what their world denied them—their own voice. Four hundred years on, their voices deserve to finally be heard.

I think all historical novelists, on some level or other, serve ancestral memory. It is through storytellers like us that those wronged in ages past can finally have their say.

Thank you, Mary, for taking the time to participate in this interview!


Daughters of the Witching Hill is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this month ($24.00, 978-0-547-06967-8). I have three copies to give away to blog readers. To enter, please leave a comment on this post by the end of the day Sunday, April 11th, mentioning why you'd be interested in reading it. Good luck to all entrants! Thanks to HMH for providing me with an ARC for the interview and for supplying copies for the contest.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Book review: A Moment of Silence / Bellfield Hall, by Anna Dean

Anna Dean's A Moment of Silence is a historical mystery with class. It is also, as I soon discerned, a mystery about class — those hierarchical distinctions in society that keep it running smoothly while preventing easy mixing between the different groups.

The novel takes us to Jane Austen country, in both locale and style, though darker undercurrents lurk beneath the tightly drawn social fabric. Miss Dido Kent, an acknowledged spinster of thirty-some years, has been called to the side of her niece, Catherine, following the disappearance of Catherine's fiancé. Women dependent on their families for support must travel where they're most useful, and Dido and Catherine have always been close, so she's eager to do what she can to comfort her.

Richard Montague, heir to the vast country estate of Belsfield Hall, vanished on the night of their engagement party after another man approached him while on the dance floor. Not a word was spoken, yet the message was enough for Richard to leave Catherine a note releasing her from their engagement. He said he wished to spare her the shame that would soon befall his family. What could he have learned during that moment of silence to traumatize him so greatly?

As if that's not enough, an unknown woman has been found shot to death in the Belsfield Hall shrubbery. In the first of what will be many letters to her sister Eliza, Dido takes pains to mention that it was the under-gardener who found the body. It wouldn't do to have a member of the family or a guest blamed for such a thing.

As a woman living in 1805 England, Dido lacks a proper education. She was trained in the social graces, not book learning, but she feels sufficiently worldly-wise to take up her niece's cause. Catherine, of a stubbornly romantic bent, wants to marry Richard Montague anyway, but if his absence relates to the mysterious woman's murder, that poses a problem. With Catherine's prospective in-laws anxious to avoid blemishes on their distinguished name, Dido determines to solve both mysteries for the sake of Catherine's future happiness.

Given the victim's sex, the murder is one only a woman can solve, and I mean no disrespect by that! Women and men in the late Georgian era navigate separate but connected worlds. It was delightful to read a mystery so entrenched in the customs of its time and place that it really could not have taken place anywhere else. In her investigations, Dido must join her knowledge of female mores and goals with what she learns by talking to everyone at Belsfield, from Lord and Lady Montague to their unmarried nieces to Lord Montague's man of business and his son. And, of course, the servants. All of them are hiding something.

In a society as rigid as this, where a woman's station can be assumed by the dress material she's purchased, it should come as no surprise that little details matter. Sometimes they matter very much. Finding out whodunit takes close observance, and it was excellent intellectual entertainment to see how cleverly the author inserted clues throughout the book. Furthermore, Dido is fun company. She amusingly discomfits the Montagues with her pointed remarks yet is nonetheless a product of her time, and her letters to Eliza (and Eliza's one reply back) provide additional insight into how her mind works. Her utter cluelessness on one aspect of the local goings-on just adds to her charm.

I highly recommend this complex, multi-layered mystery, and its appeal isn't limited to Regency fans. Its light and witty subtleties won me over quickly, and the gradual revelations about the murderer and motive kept me reading. A Moment of Silence was a novel I bought last year from the UK, though it's newly available under the US title Bellfield Hall. (That's Bellfield, not Belsfield. Another subtlety, no doubt; perhaps "Bellfield" was judged more appealing to Americans like myself.) Either way, it's a superb read.

A Moment of Silence is available at £7.99 from Allison & Busby (UK) in paperback, or £19.99 in hardcover; also, as Bellfield Hall, from St. Martin's Press at $23.99. The UK has the better title; the US has the better cover. You decide.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Shortlist for the first Walter Scott Prize

Back in February, it was announced that the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch had set up a major new literary prize, worth £25,000, to be given for historical fiction. The prize honors Sir Walter Scott, often credited as being the father of the historical novel, and the definition used for the award reflects Scott's criterion. The subtitle of his novel Waverley, about the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, is "Tis Sixty Years Since." Accordingly, novels eligible for the Walter Scott Prize must be set more than 60 years before the time of publication.

The inaugural shortlist, announced on March 31st, includes seven novels:

Hodd by Adam Thorpe - a reimagining of the medieval legend of Robin Hood. No US publisher as yet.

Lustrum by Robert Harris - set in Cicero's Rome. The US title is Conspirata.

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant - women and power in a convent in Renaissance Ferrara.

Stone's Fall by Iain Pears - historical thriller surrounding an industrialist's death in early 20th-c England.

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer - occupants of a house, 1930s Czechoslovakia.

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds - set around the High Beach Asylum in 1840s England.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - a reinterpretation of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's fixer, and the 2009 Booker Prize winner.

The time periods and settings are fairly wide-ranging, though predominantly British. More details on the shortlist here; the Mawer, Foulds, and Mantel were also Booker nominees. Of them, I've read the Mantel and the Dunant. Both are worthy novels, though Mantel has the edge in my opinion.

The Scotsman has the scoop on how Borders Book Festival director Alistair Moffat persuaded the Duke and Duchess to launch the prize. In a recent press release related in the Guardian, Moffat provided more info about the prize as well as justifications for the current popularity of historical fiction:

"The best way to understand the past is often to read a novelist rather than an historian," he said. "We need to know where we came from, what kind of people our ancestors were ... And that's one reason people are reading historical fiction in greater number than ever before. What people in the past believed - such as the absolute certainty about Heaven and Hell in the Middle Ages - is every bit as important in telling us what they were like as what they left behind in the historical record."

Historical fiction, according to Moffat, is enjoying an unprecedented boom. "Historical fiction may have become more popular because at a time when the future seems terrifying to us, we need to refer back to and understand the past more fully," he said.

I agree with some of this, but other parts go too far even for me, since surely historical novelists rely on primary sources as well as historians for the details they weave into their fiction. Still, very nice to see a major prize for the genre. I'll be curious to see if the Scott prize judges agree with those for the Booker!

More details also at Lucinda Byatt's blog, A World of Words.