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The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien #historicalfiction

shadowqueenThere’s much talk at present in Europe about strong women who occupy positions of power. I suppose it’s inevitable since we have a female Prime Minister in the UK plus, in the shape of Queen Elizabeth,  the country’s longest reigning monarch; a female Chancellor in Germany and at one time it looked possible that France could have its first  female President. Discussions in the media about these modern-day women at the helm of government proved a fitting companion for reading The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien.

This is a novel which takes us back seven hundred years to a woman who, while she never became Queen in her own right, was a pivotal figure in the mid 1300s. Joan of Kent (also known as the Fair Maid of Kent in celebration of her beauty) was cousin to one King, Edward III, and mother to another, Richard II. For a large part of her son’s reign she was the mastermind behind the throne since Richard was too young to govern in his own right.

She was quite a girl was our Joan. As a princess in the Plantagenet dynasty, the question of who she would marry was a matter of political expediency not love. She was meant to get hitched to either a European prince or an English lord from one of the foremost families in the land. But at the age of 12 Joan fell in love with and secretly wedded a humble knight who had barely a penny to his name. She kept it secret for three years during which time she went through a bigamous ceremony with the future Earl of Salisbury. When her bigamy was discovered it naturally caused a furore and became an international cause celébrè with various sides taking their appeals for help to the Pope. Joan got her own way but her reputation was tarnished.

You’d have thought one brush with ignominy would have been enough. But not a bit of it – years later, as a wealthy widow wooed by Edward, Prince of Wales (who later history labelled The Black Prince), she once again married in secret and once again incurred the wrath of the King.

Anne O’Brien’s novel brings to life a woman who from an early age was resolute in following a course of her own choosing:

I would never again act against my better judgement in future. I would never allow myself to be persuaded to renounce what I knew to be in my best interests. … I had learned from my mother that a woman had to keep her wits and her desires sharp if she were to follow the path of her own choosing.

A brave – though dangerous – stance to take in the highly charged atmosphere of the fourteenth century court, especially for a woman. But Joan is no shrinking violet – she is a girl intent on making a mark on the world:

What would enhance the pattern of my life further? One word slid into my mind. A seductive word. A dangerous word, perhaps, for a woman. Power.

The Shadow Queen is essentially a blend of romance and adventure that reveals how Joan kept one step ahead of the political intrigues with a combination of good judgement of character and some luck.  She spent all her life at court. She knows what games those who surround the throne play – and how to beat them at their own games.

It makes for a good yarn with plenty of drama as Joan’s future ebbs and flows. After the discovery of her first marriage she is banished from the court and kept under close confinement by her family but years later she is in France ruling the roost with her 3rd husband as Princess of Aquitaine, (an English-owned territory). Written in the first person, Anne O’Brien’s novel gives us  immediate access to Joan’s reactions to all the set backs and successes of her life.

This is a period of history about which I know very little so I enjoyed the insight The Shadow Queen provides. This is a period when knights and noblemen seemed to spend most of their time either preparing for war or engaged in battle. It was one way to keep them from squabbling and jostling for power and since every prisoner they captured could be ransomed, success on the battlefield was lucrative. The fate of their women folks was to be sit quietly at home caring for the children, sewing and praying.

Joan is strongly characterised but for me the most interesting character was the Prince of Wales. I’ve always had this impression of him as a ferociously brave military leader who won renown for his astonishing victories over the French at the Battles of Crécy and Poitiers, In The Shadow Queen, where he is generally referred to as Ned, he comes across as also a spendthrift and arrogant man who is so intent on enforcing his will on the people of Aquitaine that he forces them to seek support from their former ruler, the King of France. It’s Joan who sees the danger of her husband’s attitude but her sound counsel falls on deaf ears for once.

I thought the book could have been shorter without losing its impact but generally its blend of the personal and the political made it an enjoyable reading experience, especially for the glimpse it provided into a largely uknown episode in British history.

 

Footnotes

The BookThe Shadow Queen  was published in May 2017 by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins in e-book and hardback. I received a copy from the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

The author:  Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history. She now lives in the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, on the borders between England and Wales.

Why I read this book: Quite simply it was a chance to learn about a period of British history about which I knew next to nothing. The names of the Fair Maid of Kent and the Black Prince were familiar but I couldn’t have told you anything about the individuals themselves. I’m glad to have put some flesh on the bones now.

 

Dominion by C.J.Sansom [review]

Dominion in which he imagines a world where, having failed to defeat the Nazi regime, Great Britain becomes one of Germany’s subject territories.  The idea wasn’t entirely new – Len Deighton based his 1978 novel SS-GB (shortly to become a BBC drama series) on a similar premise so Sansom needed to come up with an additional sparkle.

He did so with a further gamble – using some historical figures as members of the new puppet regime and thus effectively positioning people like Lord Beaverbrook, Marie Stopes and Oswald Mosely as collaborators. Although he was never at risk of defamation claims needless to say his approach proved controversial when the novel was published in 2012 and readers saw how Stopes had been portrayed as a contributor to the Ministry of Health’s programme for eugenic sterilisation and the newspaper tycoon Beaverbrook as a meglomaniac  Prime Minister.

Sansom sets his adventure in 1952 when Britain has been subjected to Nazi rule  for 12 years. Some aspects of life have changed – Lyon’s Corner Houses have been rebranded for example to remove vestiges of their Jewish origins,  an enormous picture of Hitler hangs in the lobby of the National Portrait Gallery and critics of the regime such as W.H. Auden and E.M. Forster, have been silenced. Though Britain is not an occupied country, the Gestapo and the SS are evident, working closely with Special Branch and the new Auxiliary Police to rout out members of the growing Resistance movement led by Winston Churchill. Sansom doesn’t tiptoe around the fact that there is a considerable level of anti-Semitism in the country though the moderates are distressed when British Jews are rounded up in preparation it is believed for deportation to German camps.

It’s a very credible scenario due largely to Sansom’s credentials as a trained historian – he meticulously documents his extensive research at the back of the novel with his bibliography  detailing all the books which have influenced the final novel.  The result is as believable as the world of the Tudor monarchy he created for his Shardlake series of historical crime fiction.

But Dominion isn’t purely an alternative history novel;  it’s a thriller based on that old chestnut of a man with a secret who is on the run from various factions who either want him silenced or want the secret for themselves. The man on the run in Dominion is an unlikely hero figure – an unassuming geologist by the name of Frank Muncaster who is incarcerated in a mental asylum near Birmingham after learning a secret that the Germans and Americans dearly want because it will give them the edge in the race for a nuclear weapon. The Resistance deploys their extensive network of resources to spring him from the asylum, and get him to the east coast for a rendezvous with an American submarine. One of Frank’s university friends, David Fitzgerald, a civil servant acting as a spy for the Resistance, is despatched in a race against time. Will he save Frank before the Gestapo’s ace man-hunter Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hothform reaches him?

Much of this novel is a pretty typical thriller of co-incidences, chases, narrow escapes and unlikely plot devices. I lost track of the number of times characters declared it was unsafe to share information except on a need to know basis yet seemed very lax with details about their own identities when it suited the plot.  I could tolerate most of these as par for the course with this genre but I was more concerned by the clunky characters and uninspiring dialogue. David Fitzgerald and Gunter Hothform are two of the few fully-formed characters (the women are less fully realised than the men) but they are surrounded by characters who seem to exist primarily for the purposes of exposition or to enable Shardlake to show a point of view. Fair enough to want to illustrate how the British population was divided in their attitudes but much of the resulting narrative reads like a summary of a pamphlet. Discussions about the Jewish situation are natural given the setting and topic of the novel but Sansom also introduces a key theme of nationalism and the merits of giving independence to members of the British Empire like India. Sansom’s own view becomes evident when at one point he has a character declare:

Whenever a party tells you national identity matters more than anything else in politics, that nationalism can sort out all the other problems, then watch out, because you’re on a road that can end with fascism.

That Sansom is using Dominion to make a political point becomes ever more evident and is reinforced by his historical note at the end of the novel. In it he expresses deep concern about the growth of nationalist parties like UKIP and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). The SNP is, in his view, a threat to all of Britain with their tendency to shift political ground in favour of whatever policies will bring independence regardless of the consequences. He was writing of course on the eve of the 2016 Scottish Referendum but makes no secret of his own views on how the Scottish population should vote.

If this book can persuade even one person of the dangers of nationalist politics in Scotland as in the rest of Europe, and vote ‘no’ in the referendum … it will have made the whole labour worthwhile.

One wonders what he makes of President Trump. Somehow I can’t seem them becoming best chums……

Footnotes

The Book: Dominion by C. J Sansom was published by Mantle in 2012. My edition is a paperback from 2013. 

The Author:  Christopher John Sansom hails from Scotland. He read history at Birmingham university and, after a PhD thesis on the British Labour party’s policy towards South Africa between the wars, left academia for a career in the law. His first novel – Dissolution which introduced the hunchback detective Shardlake – was published in 2003.

Why I read this book:  I’ve read and enjoyed four of the Shardlake novels and knew this was an author who could be relied upon to bring the past to life.  I was curious whether he could be as effective when portraying the twentieth century as he has been with the sixteenth. 

My reviews of Sovereign, Dissolution, Dark Fire and Lamentation  can be viewed by clicking the links. 

 

Treachery by S. J Parris

Have I been sleeping for the past five years? I can’t think of any other reason why I’ve been so totally oblivious to thTreacherye series of historical thrillers by S. J Parris that feature a 16th century heretic philosopher and spy called Giordano Bruno. Apparently Bruno did exist – (if you’re ever in Rome go and look out his statue in the Campo de Fiori). He abandoned his life as a monk, swapping cloisters in Italy for the fringes of the English court where he became friends with the poet Sir Philip Sidney and part of the ring of spies employed by the Queen’s closest advisor Francis Walsingham. This pair seem unlikely heroes but since they made their appearance in 2010 they’ve featured in five novels and a novella all of which have earned critical praise and avid readers.

Treachery is book number four. It transports us to Plymouth in 1585 where St Francis Drake is about to embark on a voyage to the New World. There is a lot riding on this voyage, not least the chances of a fortune for the travellers and their backers, and of course the Queen who needs to bolster her coffers in case the Spanish launch an invasion attack. But the voyage may be doomed before it ever sets sail. A sailor is found dead in his cabin and Drake needs to keep the suggestion of foul play from reaching the ears of his crew. He also suspects the killer isn’t yet done. “If I am right, there will be more deaths. Ending with my own, if he is not stopped,” says Drake.

Fortunately Sidney and Bruno happen to be in the city at the time, having been despatched to wait for a Portuguese royal exile and escort him safely to London. Who better to sort through the cast of suspects and manoeuvre their way among prostitutes, scholars, booksellers, apothecaries and priests to uncover the truth?

There is plenty to delight in this novel. As the amateur detectives bustle through inns, whorehouses, wharfs in search of a murderer they climb trees, leap out of windows and scale ladders to escape death. It’s a fast and furious narrative that kept me turning the pages. Amid the drama there are some fascinating period details   (though unlike many an author of historical fiction Parris doesn’t bash you on the forehead with all her research material.  Instead we get gems such as the poisonous effect of nutmeg (go easy on you next cake making session or you might get some unexpected results) and moments of humour. She knows that many readers will be familiar with the historical background so there’s little need to waste time on explanations; she can get straight on with the action.

Comparison with the C.J Sansom series featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake is inevitable. Both turn on impossible feats of strength and endurance; both feature leading men whose personal beliefs put their own lives in peril but Parris is a better writer  than Shardlake so has the edge for me. A gripping and fun read, Treachery is the perfect book to take on a long flight or to the poolside.

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

A foul putrid stench poured into the yard — so thick and strong we all cried out as one, turning our faces away. It was the festering, heavy stink of disease, of rotting, infected bodies, of men forced to piss and shit and sweat together in an airless cell. There was no escape from it…

thedevilinthemarshalseaantoniahodgsonIf you got into debt in eighteenth century London, your fate was a spell in the squalid, disease ridden Marshalsea prison. Survival was possible if you could get a friend or relative to pay for your lodging and food. With money you could enjoy a few comforts: half-way decent rooms; meals from the prison’s chop house, drinks in the bar and ready access to the brothel’s services. Without money you would end up in the prison’s most fetid, teeming section, the “Common Side” likely to die from starvation or goal fever.

This is the fate awaiting Tom Hawkins, the protagonist of Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea. Tom is the rakish son of a preacher, a young man with incorrigible liking for gambling, drinking and womanising. His charmed life comes to an end when he’s attacked in a dark alley and all his money is stolen leaving him unable to pay his debts.

His first few hours in the prison are enough to terrify him.  This is a savage place ruled over by a ruthless governor and his equally brutal henchmen who enjoy nothing so much as chaining prisoners to corpses. But the recent, unexplained death of another debtor Captain Roberts, whose ghostly figure has been seen to disappear through walls, has made the inhabitants more agitated than usual. The finger of suspicion falls on Tom’s room mate, Samuel Fleet, know throughout the prison as The Devil. Tom’s choice becomes clear: he has a few days in which to find the murderer or become the prison’s next victim.

Hodgson’s race-against-time narrative is bursting with pace and atmosphere.  It’s set firmly in the period of 1727 but the characters’ dialogue never feels strained by over reliance on 18th century terminology and speech patterns to make us believe in their world.  The notes at the back of my edition make it evident this is a meticulously-researched story, which for me, amplified the horror of the prison world it portrayed. This is a place where people are callously manipulated when they are already in the depths of despair, and where any vestiges of dignity and goodness struggle to survive in the face of a system which is essentially inhuman.  Amid all the trials and misfortunes he experiences himself, it is this inhumanity that Tom finds intolerable:

As we walked toward the prison block a sudden scream rent the air. …

‘God Have Mercy”

In all my life I had never heard such a desperate sound. The man cried out again, joined by another voice and another —  a hundred or more shouting their grief up into the night sky. I caught a few distinct voices

‘Spare me , Lord! Save us. Oh God Save Us’

But the rest was just a heart-shredding din, that seemed to shake the very walls of the prison — the lamentation of souls trapped in a hell on earth.

In short, The Devil in the Marshalsea is a gripping story that propels you forward relentlessly towards an ending that, while wasn’t a complete surprise to me, was nevertheless highly satisfying. It also neatly sets Hodgson up for a sequel (one that’s just been published in fact.)

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: review

Year of wondersA chance discovery of a real-life tale of personal sacrifice and survival made such a  lasting impression on the Wall Street Journal’s Middle East correspondent Geraldine Brooks, that it lingered in her memory for almost ten years.

While she was taking a walking holiday in the UK’s Peak District she noticed a sign for the village of Eyam bearing the beguiling descriptor  ‘the plague village’. An exhibition in a nearby parish church explained how the term derived from an episode in 1665 when bubonic plague descended on this community and in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease the villagers shut themselves off from the world. Brookes began to see parallels between the villagers’  story of self sacrifice and instances she had encountered during her time in some of the world’s hot spots  of people who under the pressure of extreme circumstances found unexpected reservoirs of bravery.  The result was her international best selling novel Year of Wonders that she wrote ten years after her visit to Eyam.

Published in 2001, this is a novel which depicts the events of that fateful year of 1665. It began with the death of a tailor. Then spread quickly to his customers and soon the villagers began to dread the signs of high fever and supperating pustules that presaged the imminent death of their neighbours; their sons and their daughters; their wives and husbands. The local landed gentry fled in fear of their lives but the rest remained, persuaded by their forceful rector Michael Mompellion that a voluntary quarantine could prevent the spread of the “plague-seeds” beyond their boundaries.

The story of this decision and its aftermath is told through the eyes of Anna Frith, a young maidservant who assists the rector in his determination to contain the disease.  She’s a spirited, resourceful  character who forms a close bond with the minister’s wife in her endeavour  to use herbs and plants to bring some comfort to the villagers who do succumb to the disease. Not that there is much solace in this village even for those who escape the pestilence. Many of them suffer in ways other than death,  losing their reason, their faith and in some cases, their humanity. But as they weaken, Anna’s resourcefulness and courage gives her the strength not just to survive but to thrive and grow.

To re-create the past, Brooks drew on records that explained contemporary beliefs about the plague,  the lives of lead miners and shepherds such as those who lived in this part of Derbyshire, clothing and patterns of speech. But in the absence of any substantial body of written material from the villagers themselves, much of what she recounts as their actual experience came from her imagination.

For Brooks, that process of imagining life in a community so far removed by time and location from her own world, involved drawing on personal experiences and finding resonances in contemporary life. Talking to students on the Plagues, Witches and War MOOC course which features Year of Wonders as a set text, Brooks argued that emotions and sensations don’t change through the centuries even if the particular circumstances differ. The intense pain of a difficult and life threatening childbirth she herself experienced would be the same endured by a woman in the same circumstances in the seventeenth century:

What we [historical fiction authors] do, we empathize, we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This is what the nature of being a human being is, at its best, is empathy. I can presume to know her consciousness, her pain, her frustration….these things are what make us human, and they don’t change.

It may be that empathetic approach  was one reason why many of the human reactions portrayed in Year of Wonders seemed plausible even if the events described were almost beyond belief. I wouldn’t rank it as a wonderful novel (some of the dialogue is rather strained and the ending pushes the boundaries of credulity) but it was still very readable and a big step above the other set texts on the course.

Possibly my worst read of 2013

PhysickBookI’m not going to beat about the bush on this. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is one of the worst books I have read all year.  Not the absolute worst, but certainly only  a whisker away from the bottom of the pile.

But before I explain why I’ve taken such a dislike to this book, here is a brief synopsis of its plot.

The novel is set in Massachusetts in the summer of 1991. It features the young, aspiring Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin who intends to spend the summer researching for her doctoral dissertation. Her plans are thrown awry when her mother asks her to handle the sale of  a long-abandoned house in Salem that once belonged to Connie’s grandmother. In the house Connie discovers a seventeenth-century Bible and hidden inside, a key and a small fragment of parchment bearing the words Deliverance Dane. Connie duly embarks on a quest to discover the identity of Deliverance Dane and the location of a rare book of physick.   In doing so she discovers a personal connection to the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.

1876 illustration of Salem witchcraft trials. Published under Creative Commons licence

1876 illustration of Salem witchcraft trials. Published under Creative Commons licence

Fact and fiction are woven together in this book through a dual time-frame narrative — in between the story of Connie’s quest, we experience scenes in the household of Deliverance Dane and in the jail where she awaited trial.  Deliverance Dane did actually exist — she was one of many women condemned as a witch though, unlike nineteen other women,  she escaped the hangman’s noose.

In the hands of a more experienced novelist, this could have been an interesting take on an infamous period in history. But this is Katherine Howe’s debut novel and sadly her inexperience is evident.

First of all the character of her protagonist isn’t that convincing. Here we have a girl who, right at the start of the book, wows a group of leading academics with her encyclopaedic knowledge and insightful interpretation of historical themes and issues. She has spent months amassing data from the past and yet  we find only a few pages later that she is astonished to discover that up until the seventeenth century (one of the periods she has studied) the word receipt actually meant recipe.  Maybe she should have watched some cookery programs on TV instead of reading academic  tomes?

But there was an even earlier moment at which I rolled my eyes in disbelief. If you’d pitched up on the doorstep of a seventeenth century house (having first had to virtually hack your way through creepers and other vegetation to get the door) and discover it has no power or phone and is inches deep in dust; would you want to stay the night? No, neither would I. I hazard a guess that most girls in their early twenties also wouldn’t trade it for the comforts of their flat in Cambridge. But not our Connie. She not only stays the night, she makes it her for the summer.

If characterisation isn’t this book’s strong point, then neither is the writing style. The flashback scenes to the 1680s and 90s are, on the whole, evocative of the period but the modern day sections are riven with cliches, inconsequential detail about the character’s clothing and dry dialogue. And there are also some dreadfully clunky sections where the author tries to impart some factual information but can’t quite manage to do it seamlessly.

I’m conscious that all this sounds rather harsh criticism of someone’s first foray into the fictional world but actually I think the fault lies with the publisher and editor for failing to identify where improvements could have been made or maybe even suggesting that the book would have been so much better without the modern day hocus pocus quest.

The ideal travelling companion?

sundaysalonSuitcase is packed. Passport and currency checked and rechecked. Now all that remains is to decide what book will accompany me on my work trip to Michigan later today.

It’s even more difficult a decision to make than the one around how many pairs of shoes.

The last thing I want is to be on an eight hour flight with a book that I’m not enjoying. Which is why I invariably end up buying another book in the airport ‘just in case’. And why my iPad has been loaded with e books – again ‘just in case’ of a calamity. Because that’s what it would be to me if I run out of reading options before landing.

So the choice of book requires some careful thought.

If I was being good, then I would of course take one of the reading texts from the Plagues, Witches and War historical fiction course:

FeverFever by Mary Beth Keane. This is a novel based on the true life story of Typhoid Mary. Mary Mallone was an immigrant to the United States who was discovered to be a carrier of the disease, passing it on though never suffering herself. Branded by the press as a murderer, she was arrested and held in confinement. The plot sounds good but I’ve seen some comments that the narrative style isn’t wonderful.

Ghost bride

Ghost Brides by Yangsze Choo. Set in colonial Malaya, this novel looks at an ancient custom of ghost brides which is a practice said to placate a restless spirit. It features a genteel but bankrupt family who are tempted by the offer of a ghost marriage for their daughter who otherwise would have few prospects. The setting of turn of the century Malaysia is considered to be one of the highlights of the book.

My hesitation is that I’ve read a lot of historical fiction recently so a change of genre could be welcome. My two shortlisted options are:

The Man Who Forgot his Wife by John O’Farrell. This is the selection for the December book club. It’s about a man who steps off a London Underground train one day (there is a suggestion he was involved in a terrorist attack or a fire) and has no idea who he is. The rest of the novel involves him trying to piece together his life.

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. This is on my Classics Club list. I’ve enjoyed two of the other books in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and this one has come highly recommended. But I’ve also had one experience with another highly recommended Zola novel – Nana – which I couldn’t finish. So it might be a gamble.

Any suggestions on how to resolve this dilemma? What would you recommend if you’ve read any of these books?

The Year so Far

sundaysalonWhoosh….. that’s the sound of October flying past. Where did the month go? Come to think of it, where did the last 10 months go? It feels like only an hour ago that I was bundling up against cold winds and lashing rain and here we are all over again. And it doesn’t seem like five minutes since I was deciding what my reading goals would be for 2013.

Speaking of goals, I was updating my review list on this site earlier in the week and realised I’ve already read more books this year than in the whole of 2012.  Forty three to be exact plus one that I really could not finish (Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life).  Now for some of you, that figure is a drop in the ocean but for me it’s a big deal. And there are still two months left.

I’m also slowly – ever so slowly – catching up with some reviews. I think I’m about seven behind right now. It seems I can read faster than I can write. I did manage to post my review of Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods this week and have almost finished my review of Petals of Blood by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, both writers I chose as part of my world literature challenge. 

October reading

This was a mixture of some of the ManBooker prize longlisted novels and historical fiction

  • Harvest by Jim Crace (highly recommended)
  • TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (good in part)
  • Life after Life by Kate Atkinson (could not finish)
  • Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (readable but not particularly wonderful)
  • The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (dire novel. Finished it only because its a set text on the Plagues, Witches and War historical fiction course)

On the horizon

Currently reading two other historical novels – I’ve been following the  advice about reading books in parallel from various bloggers in response to a Sunday Salon post. Thank you everyone for really practical tips.

  • Clotel OR The President’s Daughter, A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States by William Wells Brown. Published in 1853 this is a novel based on the claim that US president Thomas Jefferson fathered a daughter by a slave.
  • Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. This is the book club choice for November. It’s set  during the period of the Risorgimento, the popular nineteenth century movement to unite the various states of Italy into a single country, and deals with death of a civilization, of an era

After that it’s more historical fiction with the remaining novels on the course and I hope to squeeze in at least another book from my classics challenge list.

A busy time ahead!

Sunday Salon: Reading in parallel

sundaysalonI’ve built up a fair ability to multi-task certain things over the years. Ironing while watching TV (or more recently the Plagues, Witches and War video lecture on historical fiction) ? No problem.  Gardening while catching up on the latest podcast or listening to an audio book? Easy.  Cleaning up my email archive while listening in to an audio conference for work? Simple ( just remember to put your phone on mute so the sound of key tapping doesn’t give you away).

I’ve mastered all of these activities but one thing I have never managed to get the hang of is reading more than one book at a time.

I know some avid readers find no difficulties in having two or even three books on the go simultaneously. But not me.

I’m so poor at keeping track of characters’ names that I will often get to the end of the book and can’t remember what their name was. When reading I sometimes have to look back to remind myself who the person is that’s just been mentioned ( Russian novels where the individual’s given name, family name and patronymic can be used interchangeably, get me particularly confused.) So if I get perplexed by one set of characters, having a completely different set to keep track of, throws me into a spin.

Then there’s the difficulty of remembering where I am in the narrative. If I leave off reading a book for any length of time there is a danger I’ll forget what has happened already so then I have to back-track to fill in the blanks again.

I’ve tried a couple of strategies such as making sure I am reading vastly different genres. Two crime novels at the same time would be far too confusing. I’ve also tried reading a chapter from each in rotation. But that was frustrating because just as I was getting back into the style and the story, it was time to stop.

So I’ve more or less abandoned this as something that just will not work for me.

Problem is that to take full advantage of the Plagues, Witches and War course it would help to have read each of the five set texts before the date when each author will hold a discussion group on their work. So far I’ve read just one and am about 100 pages into another.  It’s just not feasible to squeeze any more reading time into my day.  My options are therefore to skim read each book so at least I have a rough idea of what it’s about (doesn’t seem very fair on the author) or to skip one book and come back to it at the end of the course (which means missing out on good discussions with other students) or to nail my problem with simultaneous reading once and for all .

I’m hoping that somewhere in the blogosphere are some smart people who have honed this skill and can share their strategies with me.

Sunday Salon: my future is the past

sundaysalonI very rarely plan my reading far in advance. Maybe because I spend so much time at work having to think ahead and plan,that when it comes to reading, I prefer to take the serendipitous approach. The only times I know what will come next are when I’m reading for the next book club meeting or if a book I’ve had on order at the library for some time, suddenly becomes available. Beyond that it’s really a case of looking at the bookcase and the overspill pile on the floor next to it and picking whatever suits my mood.

But that’s going to change for the next couple of months. Because not only do I know what I’ll be reading next, I know the one after that and the one after that. In fact I know the next six books that will have my attention between now and December. And it’s all in the historical genre fiction.

Eleanor_Hibbert

Eleanor Hibbert aka the author Jean Plaidy

Now this is a genre that was one of my first loves as a young reader. In my early teens I couldn’t get enough of Jean Plaidy’s Tudor and Stuart sagas. Even though she was a prolific author she couldn’t produce enough to keep up with my voracious appetite so I turned to other authors like Philippa Carr and Victoria Holt completely unaware that these were pen names for Jean Plaidy herself (or that her real name was Eleanor Hibbert). Through them I learned that history was not just a boring litany of facts but an enthralling human story.

Over the years as my tastes changed I read less and less historical fiction. But now, through the phenomena of Massive Open Online Courses (known as MOOCs) I am rekindling that interest. This week saw me start a free online course on the origins, characteristics and development of historical fiction over the centuries. Plagues, Witches and War is delivered via Coursera but the course content all comes from the University of Virginia.

As part of the course we get to ‘meet’ five living, breathing historical fiction writers to talk about their books. So here’s what I’ll be reading:

Jane Alison, The Love-Artist 

Katherine Howe: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Geraldine Brooks: Year of Wonders

Mary Beth Keane: Fever

Yangsze Choo: The Ghost Bride

Actually that’s just the tip of the iceberg though because the course also dips into chapters from a multitude of other books from Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and William Faulkner’s William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. I counted about 40 different novelists that are mentioned within the course materials plus some of the academic articles to which we have been directed refer to some other authors and texts which sound interesting. All of which has greatly added to my book wishlist and will no doubt greatly increase the size of my TBR mountain.

And the sixth book on my reading horizons? The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is the choice for November’s book club meeting and is by coincidence a work of historical fiction since it chronicles the changes in Sicilian life in the nineteenth century. Published in 1958 it became the top-selling novel in Italian history and is considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature.

All of this should keep me pretty busy for a while. But not too busy to hear if you have recommendations for other landmark works of historical fiction I should look at?

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