Sunday, 23 September 2018

Some Great Historical Fiction Reading Horizons

September is a week from over and I haven't written a single blog post all month. I've been writing, generally sticking to six days a week and have finally had a break through about how to structure my novel-- too bad that it has come 40 000 words in to the first draft!  For those writers among you, I'm sure you know the excitement that comes with finally thinking of a way to pull all those errant words together.  And yes, I'm sure you know that those moments usually happen while you're in the shower, driving, or almost asleep and therefore unable to stop and write everything down right away. 

I thought I would tell you all a little about what I have been reading by updating you on some amazing historical fiction reads that I have been loving lately, and to borrow a term from The Readers Podcast, to do some reading 'horizons.'

Currently reading: The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

Anna Mazzola has a new book out this year, and I first came across her on Twitter when someone I follow retweeted her.  I had the funniest feeling that I knew the name from somewhere, but looking at the blurb of her first book, decided that I definitely had not already read it.  But I wanted to, and so I requested it from the library.  It's sort of a Burial Rites type of plot, but set in 1830s England and has all sort of lovely gothic Jack the Ripper, bodysnatching vibes.  I am enjoying it very much so far and I am looking forward to Anna Mazzola's new book, The Story Keeper.  

The Unseeing is told from two points of view, that of Edmund Fleetwood, a lawyer who seems to have more of a moral compass than most of his profession, and Sarah Gale, imprisoned at Newgate for her role in a horrific murder where a young woman was dismembered and her body parts scattered around the city.  The atmosphere in this book is just perfect and I can't wait to see where the plot is going because I think more than one character is keeping a secret!

Just finished: The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton

I love Kate Morton.  I love every single book of hers.  I practically ran down to my local bookshop on the day that this one came out and planned to spend that whole night reading but... homework etc.  Instead, I read it this week while I had the house to myself and read the whole thing in just under three days.  It's different to what I expected, but in a very good way.  Kate Morton's books usually have two timelines which plait together to reveal a secret from the past, where someone in the future is shedding light on something that happened long ago, and that still happens in The Clockmaker's Daughter, except instead of being two timelines, there are about five.  Only a really skilled storyteller could make it work.  I was left with a few lingering questions that I don't feel got answered, but ultimately, I put the book down with that happy, satisfied glow that comes from reading a transporting novel. 

Also, how stunning is the Australian cover?  I was mad that the new Kate Morton covers don't match the originals until I saw this. 

What I am going to read next:

There are a few historical novels on my radar for the future, many of them World War One themed for research into my own novel.  I'm also still very interested in the Wars of the Roses although the mania from last month has subsided and I think I will be able to make it safely to the next Philippa Gregory novel... that being said, one of the options for what I might read next is Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir, the third in her series about Henry the Eighth's six queens.  There's very little in my retinue by way of knowledge about Jane, other than that she was the only wife to give Henry a living son, and that she died not long after.  There are some portrayals that suggest she may be the only wife Henry married for love, but I'm not sure if we can ever know that for sure.  If anyone can get to the heart of it, though, it's Alison Weir. 

Another option is the new novel by Paula McLain, Love and Ruin which returns to familiar territory from The Paris Wife, as it follows the story of another of Hemingway's marriage, this time to journalist Martha Gellhorn.  I don't know much about it other than that I loved The Paris Wife and I am excited to get stuck in.

Finally, I hope to get to Imogen Hermes Gowar's novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock very soon... I have had this on my list of things to read since February and the novel has been sitting on my bedside table since March.  Not sure why I have put it off!  Again set in the 1800s, it is the story of a man who comes across a specimen that is said to be that of a 'mermaid', and I've seen reviews raving about this debut novel all year long in the wake of its being longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction. 

Friday, 31 August 2018

Writing Update: Or, the month I got distracted by Plantagenet politics

The problem with being a history nerd is that there's a lot of historical time periods to get excited about.

My current era of fascination is The Great War.  That's not a sentence I ever thought I would be saying, but here we are, three or four months in to the writing of Book Two and things are beginning to fall into place.  I have done all my usual little 'new book' things, like collaging the front cover of a spiral bound notebook, and purchasing/ borrowing from the library all the relevant books I could find.  I've been on Trove.  Gosh, that's a rabbit hole!

I had forgotten how unsettling it can be to begin writing a book set in a time you know nothing about.  It's a little like beginning to walk across a tightrope with no safety net.  One moment, you're off and travelling and the next, you come to a wobbly halt.  Hang on, you think, Can my characters be doing that?  Did that actually exist?  It's a stop-starty way to write a book, that's for sure.


But...

Earlier in August, I happened across a story saved in my inbox from an online writing course I had done more than a year ago with Jen Campbell, a fabulous author and Youtube book reviewer based in the UK.  Jen's specialty is Fairy Tales, and in this course, she'd challenged us to try transposing a fairy tale into a different time period.  At the time, I'd been struggling through Conn Iggulden's Wars of the Roses novels, and I'd been struck by the image of King Henry the VI's illness being described as one of an unnatural slumber.  The two things came together, and I wrote half of a fairytale.

Yes, that's right.  I wrote half.  And then I abandoned the rest because the course was over and life was busy and all the usual excuses.

But there's nothing like being stuck on one writing project to reinvigorate you for another one, is there?  So I turned my attention to this story, sitting waiting in my email inbox for a couple of years, and I finished it.  But the process of finishing it sent me back down the road of a full on obsession with the Plantagenet era-- I read books on Margaret of Anjou, I watched Starz's adaptations of The White Queen and The White Princess and my Wikipedia search history is now filled with questions like "Was Perkin Warbeck really Richard of York"  and so on. 




Sigh...

It's not that I've forgotten about my book... but I did take a really big detour.

Back to it in September.  It would be good to get a complete draft done by Christmas, but as the Masters degree is in full swing and I haven't decided if I am enrolling in anything for the summer session of classes, we will just have to wait and see... and read... and dream. 

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Echo Publishing, 2018

This book has well and truly taken the world by storm.  It is a best seller most of the world over and has been for weeks on end, and if you want a copy from your local library, be prepared to wait a few months for your turn.  I decided this weekend to check out what all the fuss was about...

It is the story of Lale, a young Slovakian Jew who is taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp in April of 1942 where he is given the opportunity to become the Tatowierer, the tattooist who must write the numbers onto the arms of the new prisoners who arrive day by day.  Because this job falls under the offices of the Political Wing of the SS, Lale is afforded a degree of freedom which allows him to do his bit to try and keep his fellow inmates alive, even when it means risking his own life.  It is while he is redoing the tattoo on her arm that he meets Gita, the love of his life.

The book is based on a true story, and was told to Heather Morris by Lale in the months before his death in 2006.  Initially the subject of a Kickstarter campaign, it was eventually picked up by Echo publishing and Bonnier Zaffre. 

There are many novels and books out there about the Holocaust, and while this one had an added layer of being part-biography, at times I found it hard to connect with the characters on an emotional level.  The story was told almost as a stream of facts; there was little to show us the landscape, or the emotions that the characters were going through, and instead the book moved along in dialogue and big events in the character's lives.  I kept thinking of books such as Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity  and Rose Under Fire, and thinking about how those books broke my heart and made history real.  Perhaps because I have read so much on the subject already it was hard to be shocked by what I read, but in fact I think it was more that the novel has such a distancing style, more suited to a news article or perhaps to the screenplay Morris initially intended to write.  Yes, I am still impressed by Gita and Lale's story and their survival, and yes, what happened to them was dreadful, but as a novel, this simply did not work for me.  It would have been better framed as biography.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Book Review: The Peacock Summer

The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell
Hachette Australia, 2018

If, like me, you feel the September release of the new Kate Morton novel is just a little bit too far away, you'll be happy to hear that there is a new novel by Hannah Richell.  Following on from The Secret of the Tides and The Shadow Year, this third novel from the bestselling author is her strongest yet.  The Peacock Summer is the story of Lillian Oberon, who at 26 finds herself the wife of a rich and powerful man and lady of a beautiful manor house called Cloudsley.  While life at Cloudsley is not as idyllic as it seemed on the surface, there are many things tying Lillian to the house, not least of which is the love she develops for her young stepson, Albie, who is the closest thing Lillian will ever have to a child of her own.  When Charles, Lillian's husband, hires a local up and coming painter for an ambitious project that will see him moving into their house for a summer, Lillian's life is turned on its head and she is forced to confront certain things in her life which she had previously thought settled.

Alongside this historical narrative, we are given the storyline of the present day in which Maggie Oberon returns to her childhood home to take care of her ageing grandmother, Lillian, who is beginning to lose her memory.  Returning to Cloudsley means that Maggie must confront people from her past and try to make amends for the things that she has done.  Along the way, she learns much about the strong woman her grandmother was, and the sacrifices she had to make, giving her much needed perspective on the events in her own life.

This is a beautiful, atmospheric novel which captivated me from beginning to end-- it was near impossible to put down and had me up reading well past my bed time.  The best parts of the novel were the historical portions, and I thought Richell did an excellent job of setting up the situation for her characters without making any of it seem melodramatic.  She also captured the glamour of the age, from the fashion to the dinner parties to the cars.  In comparison, the modern day storyline almost felt unnecessary at times, and it was hard to spend time away from the beautiful 1950s love story that had been set up.  The modern storyline however gave some balance to the dark elements of the historical portion, and without the possibility of happiness in the future, the events of the past may have been difficult to take all at once.  Evoking some of my favourite multi-linear historical novels, The Peacock Summer perfectly satisfied my historical fiction cravings and demonstrated what strong and unrestrained writing could do.  Read it this weekend-- you won't regret it.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Book Review: The Desert Nurse

The Desert Nurse
Pamela Hart
Hachette, Australia 2018

As you may know, I have been on the look out for novels set in Australia during and around the First World War.  So when a copy of Pamela Hart's newest novel arrived in my mailbox, I made time to read it right away.

The Desert Nurse is the story of Evelyn Northey, the daughter of a doctor living in Taree in the early Twentieth Century.  She longs to become a doctor herself, but after her mother passed away, her father insisted on her leaving school to help run the household and take care of her younger brother.  Evelyn dreams of the day that her inheritance from her mother will become available to her so that she can use the money to go to University and become a doctor.  But she's in for the shock of her life on her twenty-first birthday when she discovers that the terms of her mother's will state that she will only get the money when she turns thirty or when she marries-- meaning that she is to be at the mercy of her father or her husband until it may well be too late.

Desperate to follow her dreams, Evelyn trains to be a nurse at the Manning District Hospital, and thanks to the assistance of one of the doctors there, becomes a certified nurse.  When war is declared and nurses are needed, despite her father's protestations, Evelyn enlists.  It is at her medical examination that she meets William Brent, a doctor who is unable to enlist himself because of a childhood bout of polio that has left him with muscle damage in one of his legs.

William and Evelyn meet again, however in Egypt, after Dr Brent decides to just show up at one of the hospitals and offer his services.  With the incoming casualties from Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, the army find they are unable to turn away the talented surgeon, and soon he and Evelyn are working side by side in theatre.

Pamela Hart's books move along at a cracking pace.  Her books always follow a strong, lovable heroine doing something against the restrictions imposed on her by society, and I really enjoy putting myself in the shoes of a person who lived long before me.  At times, the pace almost seemed too quick in this book, particularly in the early parts, but I was soon swept away once the novel and its cast made it to the war.  One thing that is very clear is that Pamela Hart has done a lot of research, particularly about medical procedures and wartime hospitals.  The places and the people in them felt supremely real.

As is normal in Pamela Hart's books, characters from her previous novels The Soldier's Wife and A Letter From Italy made cameo appearances.  If there was mention of the characters from The War Bride, I missed them as it's been a while since I read that book. 

The Desert Nurse is a quick read but a heartwarming one and one I am going to return to again in the future.  I loved getting a woman's perspective on the war and on what it was like to be a woman around that time.  It made a lovely counterpoint to a book I read earlier in the year, The Daughters of Mars by Tom Keneally.  While both essentially dealt with a similar situation, the books were very different in their scopes and styles.

I look forward to more books from Pamela Hart.