Tag Archives: Historical fiction
WOLF WINTER by Cecilia Ekbäck is amazing. The mood is atmospheric, and the setting—far northern Sweden in 1717—is unique in my reading experience. The book is a historical thriller, but there are so many cultural, psychological, and even political layers underlying the story, that in many ways, it felt more like a literary novel.
Maija, her husband Paavo, and their two daughters have come from Finland to their uncle’s old homestead in Lapland. Almost immediately, the oldest daughter, Frederika, discovers a mutilated body high on the nearby mountain when she takes the family’s goats up to pasture. Maija and her daughter are pulled into trying to solve that crime and unearth the many dark secrets of their new community even as they fight to survive the most brutal winter in Sweden’s history. As events unfold, Frederika discovers her own supernatural gifts and must choose whether to use them.
TAN by David Lawlor is a solid adventure / war story. The pace is quick, there is plenty of action, the plot has twists and turns. If you want a quick read set during the Irish War of Independence—and one with a pro-Irish slant—you’ll probably enjoy it. But the book has weaknesses. I thought the characterizations were disappointingly black and white. The book is populated with good characters and bad characters without much of the complexity that most humans display.
I was also disappointed to see that the book had errors that should have been caught before publication. I found many punctuation mistakes and several typos—such as the character of Eoin suddenly being called Eon. And there were distracting misused words: cygnet ring instead of signet ring; heap of slack instead of heap of slag, and others. No published work is ever completely clean, but there were more issues than I would expect from someone with this author’s experience.
The Secret Language of Women by Nina Romano is such an unusual and exotic story. Lian, a half Italian-half Chinese woman, falls in love with Giacomo, an Italian sailor whose ship is patrolling the waters around China during the violent Boxer rebellion of the late 1890s when Chinese nationalists tried to drive all foreigners from their country. In such a difficult situation, the lovers’ lives are endangered simply because of who they are, and their relationship only places them in more jeopardy. I don’t want to say anything more about the plot for fear of giving too much away. But what I loved most about the novel was the way rich aspects of both Sicilian and Chinese culture are interwoven into the story and the way these two very different people realized they are kindred spirits.
I recently finished The Painted Girls and gave it five stars on Goodreads.
Although on the surface about ballet and art, this book certainly shows the underside of Paris. Three sisters, whose father is dead and whose mother cares only about absinthe, live in grinding poverty and dream of finding a way out. Each tries to make it as a ballet rat (young dancer), with varying success. Of the two oldest girls, Antionette is a strong and insolent fighter who falls in with a boy of bad character. The other, Marie, comes to the attention of Edgar Degas and models for him as a way to earn extra money. Each makes questionable choices that she must struggle to overcome. I was moved by the book’s ending.
“You say my father haunts the White House. . . .”
I am giving away electronic copies of my historical short story “Robert Todd Lincoln’s Last Words.” All you need to do is to follow this link to sign up for my mailing list.
When I attended the Historical Novel Society convention in June, I heard a panel that included Diane Haeger, who also writes under the name Anne Girard. Her discussion of her novel Madame Picasso intrigued me, partially because it’s set in a fascinating time period and partially because it—like my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte—tells the story of a bold, clever woman who isn’t widely known today.
The novel recounts five years in the life of Eva Gouel, one of Pablo Picasso’s early lovers. The daughter of Polish immigrants, Eva wanted more from life than an early marriage and a domestic existence. In this way, she reminded me a little bit of my own Betsy Bonaparte. Eva moved to Paris without her parents’ knowledge or permission and eventually got a position as a seamstress at the famous Moulin Rouge. It was in this milieu that she came to know Picasso.
The book effectively portrays Eva’s complex personality. When it came to her job, she was determined and at times daring. When it came to her love life, she was generous and supportive of the man she adored. The psychological portraits of Picasso is also quite interesting; Girard portrays a more vulnerable and giving man than the Picasso of legend—although one that is every bit as arrogant!
The settings add further interest to the book. Seeing backstage at the Moulin Rouge made me feel like an insider for a day, and I loved the chapters that covered Picasso’s painting excursions to various locales in France and Spain.
I don’t want to give too much away about the development of the two main characters’ relationship except to say that it did not disappoint. I thoroughly enjoyed this historical novel and give it five stars.
Yesterday, I figured out a plausible back story for the protagonist of my next novel. Like The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, this one will be based on the life of a real women—but this story is more difficult because she left her New England home to go west and then refused to talk about her childhood because of some unspecified break with her family of origin. Historians have not even been able to identify her birth family with complete accuracy because there are three different recorded birth dates for her and two different maiden names!
Needless to say, this situation has both pros and cons. On the one hand, I get to make up her back story to suit myself, while on the other hand, the field is almost too wide open. It’s difficult to make choices that hang together properly. I’ve been struggling with it for several weeks and finally decided to read a history of the state where she grew up, which unfortunately, is one of the few states I’ve never even set foot in. Reading that book made a huge difference. I learned that the industry I thought dominated the state had all but died out by the time she was born, and something else entirely had begun to take its place. Then, about a week ago, I had an intuitive flash in which I “saw” this woman as a child in a distinctive setting. After that, everything fell into place. I now know how I’ll portray the events that brought about the unlikely occurrence of a single woman from New England leaving behind her well-established family and traveling alone to the frontier.
I’ve been reading a lot of books to research the new novel, but I’ve also been feeling frustrated. I don’t really have a handle on the woman who’s my main character yet, and how can I start writing until I have a strong sense of who she is? I keep measuring my lack of certainty about this character against my understanding of Betsy Bonaparte, and really there’s no comparison.
Yesterday, however, I began to think that perhaps it is my memory that is failing me, not my creativity. I’m comparing how well I know Sarah, the new character, at the beginning of the writing process to how well I knew Betsy at the end of the writing process. I wish I could remember how strongly Betsy felt present to me when I was first reading her biographies, but I can’t. It seems to be a bit like what mothers say about labor; once you fall in love with that baby as a real physical person, you start to forget the pain of labor. I can’t really remember much about the early uncertainties and doubts I had about telling Betsy’s story.
As a result of that insight, I’m trying to ratchet down my expectations for this stage a bit. Once I finish reading and start developing the chapter outline and character biographies, I think things will improve. I’m sure I will get to a point where Sarah feels present to me. Plus, the real knowledge often comes in the actual writing. That’s where the characters usually start to come alive for me. That’s certainly how it worked with Betsy’s son and even with Jerome.
In some ways, I think I’m worried because I fear I won’t be able to pull off the feat of writing a novel again. But that fear is probably normal too.
If you’re a writer, what is this stage of the writing process like for you?
Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle tells the story of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. For several reasons, she is an unlikely choice of bride. Katherine is no unmarried maiden when they wed. Henry is actually her third husband! In addition, Katherine is not young; when she marries the king, she is thirty-one (considered middle-aged in the 1540s). Her age makes her a surprising choice for a man who is desperate to sire more sons to secure the Tudor possession of the throne.
Fremantle does a good job of demonstrating the personal qualities that causes Henry to marry Katherine despite her seeming disadvantages. She can be sensible and tactful, yet she is also intelligent and brave. For example, she is not afraid to beat the king at chess. In a court full of sycophants, that honesty and courage make her stand out in the king’s eyes.
As Fremantle interprets Katherine, however, she is not always prudent. Between the death of her second husband and the offer of marriage from the king, she is swept away by passionate love for Tom Seymour, even though her first impression is that he’s too glib and self-regarding to trust. Much of the tension of the novel derives from Katherine’s fear that Henry will somehow learn of this prior love. After all, other queens before her have been sent to the block for unchastity and infidelity—real or imagined.
Several secondary characters added greatly to my enjoyment of the novel. My favorite of these was Katherine’s servant Dot, who is unschooled yet wise, observant, and fiercely loyal to her mistress. Dot’s longing for the court musician William Savage provides romantic interest during the chapters when Tom Seymour is out of the picture.
Fremantle is adept at plotting and characterization. Her descriptions offer enough period details to ground the reader firmly in the historical place and time without bogging down the prose. I can honestly say that I much preferred this book to the last one I read by Philippa Gregory, whom many regard as the queen of Tudor fiction. I’m looking forward to many more good reads by Elizabeth Fremantle.