Thursday, September 28, 2006

Her Royal Cleav-- Er, Destiny

I spotted this 1985 historical novel on eBay and knew that it was my duty as a blogger to share it with the Internet public.

Because Henry VIII is on the cover, it has to be about one of his wives, but which one? Katherine Howard, you're thinking? No, no--this blond bombshell is none other than Katherine Parr. She looks a wee bit different from her portrait on the right sidebar of this blog, doesn't she?

One would assume that the hunk Katy is embracing is Thomas Seymour, but a skim through the novel indicates that this isn't necessarily so, since Eady's Katherine has adulterous dalliances not only with Seymour, but with her stepson. Nonetheless, Katherine retains her historical interest in religion, so that on one page she tells her stepson, "'I will confess to you that sometimes the fact we have to be so secret in our new faith frightens me,'" while on another she utters the time-honored, "'Take me, take me.'"

Katherine also has a knack with herbs, a fact that apparently was of some concern to the publisher's legal staff, for the copyright page of this novel contains a "Cautionary Notice" advising the reader, "The herbs, spices, and remedies listed throughout the book are for historical interest only and are not for contemporary use in the form given."

Buying this novel solely for its cover, I haven't read it straight through, but if one can overlook what seems to be a lot of ahistorical bonking (Katherine is also given an out-of-wedlock child--and it's not Seymour's or the stepson's), it doesn't seem to be all that bad.

Just don't do anything silly with those herbs.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

And Now for Something Completely Different

No, I'm not springing another Plaidy on you--I'm going way back in time. Biblical times, namely, with Two Women of Galilee by Mary Rourke, a journalist with a degree from the Yale Divinity School.

Normally, I don't go for biblical fiction, but Sarah reviewed this in the Historical Novels Review, and it looked interesting. So when I went to a spanking-new library over the weekend and saw three spanking-new copies of this book on the shelf, it seemed a good idea to read it. (Not to mention inhaling that spanking-new-book smell.)

Preliminaries out of the way, this novel is about Joanna, mentioned in the Gospel of Luke as one of Jesus' followers and as the wife of Herod's steward Chuza. The daughter of parents who abandoned Judaism to follow the more profitable path of ingratiating themselves with the Romans, Joanna is rich and well-connected, but has been consumptive since girlhood. When she hears of a man from Nazareth who heals the sick, she travels to his mother's house to arrange a private meeting, intending only to get her cure and be done with the matter. Needless to say, that is not how things work out.

The difficulty in writing religious fiction, I suspect, is the constraint an author feels with dealing with holy figures. Jesus makes a number of appearances here but seldom speaks to Joanna, the narrator; the treatment of him is reverent and somewhat distant. (A different approach, I imagine, would make many readers, including this one, uncomfortable.) Mary is treated with similar respect, though in a somewhat more down-to-earth manner; she's the mother of Christ, but also a typical mother who worries about her son. Still, to make this work as historical fiction, an ordinary, flawed human being is needed, and fortunately, Joanna fits the bill quite nicely.

This brings me to my only real complaint about this novel. I found Joanna a fascinating character, particularly in her relationships with her husband, her slaves, and the Roman officials and their wives, and I would have liked to have seen the relationships and people explored in more depth. Chuza, for instance, is given an intriguing history as a son who tried to defend his battered mother against his father, but his character remains underdeveloped. This is one novel, I think, that could have stood to be about 100 pages longer, at least if the author had spent the extra space in fleshing out the people in it.

As it is, though, the novel moves at a fast pace, and there are some compelling, moving scenes that, along with the character of Joanna, made this an enjoyable read. I'm looking forward to seeing what Rourke will produce next.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

I Thought This Was a Pretty Reasonable Choice . . .

What Jane Austen gentleman is for you?

Mr. Ferrars. Sense and Sensibility's Edward Ferrars is soft spoken, but he is firm in his decisions and will always make good on his promises, even if he's changed his mind. His good nature might lead him into the wrong situations sometimes, but he's not as naive as you might think.
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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Yup, It's Another Cover . . .

But it's a fun one, isn't it? Philip Gough is the cover artist, and this appears on a 1988 edition of Indiscretions of the Queen, a Jean Plaidy novel about George IV's wife, Caroline of Brunswick, who died only weeks after George IV was crowned. Caroline was evidently quite the character--headstrong, flamboyant, impulsive, brash, and not overly fastidious in matters of bathing. I think the cover does a good job at suggesting Caroline's idiosyncratic personality while not making Caroline look ridiculous or repulsive.

So does the book, for that matter. When we first meet her, Caroline is rather unappealing, displaying behavior that borders on obnoxiousness, but as the story develops we see her good traits, especially her courage, generosity of spirit, and lack of self-pity, and we start to root for her and to think that she deserved a far better hand than she was dealt. Plaidy does an excellent job with this rather unconventional heroine, making her a refreshing change from the often interchangeable beauties who populate so much historical fiction. I'm looking forward to tracking down The Regent's Daughter, Plaidy's novel about Caroline's daughter, Charlotte, who promises to be another off-kilter royal.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Avast! Let 'em eat cake!

As someone at work mentioned, today is Talk Like a Pirate Day. Unfortunately, my cold seems to have destroyed my pirate-talking brain cells, so all I can do to observe the day is to place Cotton's Talking Parrot (courtesy of the merchandising folks at Pirates of the Caribbean) near my computer and let him watch while I type.

Thanks to hubby (who owns said parrot and who does have socks with little pirate flags on them), I saw this Chronicle of Higher Education article by Camille Paglia about Marie Antoinette, who has been much in the media lately. Paglia briefly discusses two historical novels about the queen, one by Carolly Erickson and the other by Sena Jeter Naslund. It's an interesting article, but I don't agree with Paglia's patronizing dismissal of the Naslund book as one that because of its "lavish settings and heightened emotions" will offer "pleasure and instruction to loyal readers of historical romances." It's hardly a historical romance, for one thing, nor is it full of descriptions of dresses and buildings, as this would imply. And it doesn't exonerate Marie Antoinette of all fault, as Paglia claims; though it's sympathetic to her, her shortcomings are quite apparent.

Parrot is saying it's time to get back to work, or I'm going to have to walk the plank.

Monday, September 18, 2006

I Hab a Bab Cold, and More One-Letter Memes

If you're the man, woman, or adorable little child (I strongly suspect the latter) who gave me another cold, I'm looking for you. And it isn't going to be pretty--that is, if I can stop sneezing long enough to sneak up on you.

My IQ goes down markedly when I have a cold, even before I take any of the cold medication that sends me off into another sphere. While I can still put a coherent thought together, though, can you think of any historical fiction featuring a run-of-the-mill cold or flu? Most illnesses tend to be of the dramatic, widow-and-orphan-making type. I can think of one novel featuring a minor ailment: Reay Tannahill's Fatal Majesty, where Mary, Queen of Scots and one of her ministers, Lethington, share a scene shivering and coughing with what seems to be a Tudor-era variety of the flu while discussing the latest machination of Queen Elizabeth, only to be interrupted by the "revoltingly healthy" James. Quite amusing--and a clever way of giving life to what would otherwise be just a routine update-the-reader scene.

Anyway, feel free to stop by and share your thoughts. Even if you're revoltingly healthy like James.

By the way, here's a few more change-one-letter titles:

The Bunne in Splendor. Whether they follow the white rose or the red rose, Edward IV's female subjects are united in one sentiment--the new king has a nice posterior.

The Queen's Foot. Mary Tudor's court is taken aback when the queen loses all interest in religion and suddenly begins obsessing over fabulously expensive shoes.

The Virgin's Loser. Robert Dudley is in agony. How can he tell the queen that the expensive horse she has given him has yet to win a race?

The Lost Boleyn. Born without a good sense of direction, George Boleyn never can figure out where he is--and his constant refusal to ask for directions may be the last straw for his wife, Jane.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Change One Letter Meme

I couldn't resist this meme, courtesy of Sarah: Change one letter in the title of a historical novel and add a plot. Here are some results from me, with the more obscure real titles in parenthesis:

St. Thomas's Ewe. The rise and fall of Thomas More, seen by his favorite sheep. (St. Thomas's Eve)

Wine to the Kingmaker. With more and more guests coming into the Earl of Warwick's great hall every day, his devoted butler struggles to keep everyone happy. (Wife to the Kingmaker)

The Crimson Pedal and the White. In Victorian England, a bicycle maker rebels against monochrome machines and produces his own colorful creation.

King's Bake. Having scandalized his subjects with his love for water sports and thatching, King Edward II courts further trouble when he turns to cooking. (King's Wake)

Gone With the Wine. The cruel Yankees rob Tara's cellar.

The Virgin's Loner. Elizabeth I can't understand why fun-loving Robert Dudley is suddenly spending so much time by himself.

A Pride of Rings. William Marshal's wife gives him some jewelry for their anniversary, and he really, really likes it. (A Pride of Kings)

Catherine. During a midlife crisis, Katherine Swynford scandalizes the nobility by changing the spelling of her name.

Lady of the Barter. Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, goes to the marketplace and discovers that she has a real talent for haggling.

The Traitor's Wide. Imprisoned in the Tower of London for her husband's misdeeds, Eleanor de Clare finds that the food is a lot better than she expected. (Oh, c'mon, you can guess the original)

Another Plaidy to My Credit, This Time with Toads

I polished off Jean Plaidy’s Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill today. It’s a vast improvement over Diane Haeger’s The Secret Wife of King George IV, and also an improvement over Plaidy’s The Third George, reviewed by me in April. (Blogger's having a snit, or I'd post the link.)

Like the Haeger book, this tells the story of Maria Fitzherbert’s marriage to Prince George—or part of the story, anyway, as the novel ends immediately before George’s marriage to Caroline. Though the viewpoint shifts between various characters, the focus is mainly on George and his misadventures, at least until the last third or so of the book, when it shifts to the dysfunctional royal family as a whole. (So dysfunctional and featherbrained is this bunch, in fact, that I found myself longing for the Plantagenets, who seem like a breath of sanity by comparison.)

Plaidy’s prose is a little less stiff than usual, perhaps because with George III talking to trees, a Madam von Schwellenburg talking to her pet toads (“’Herr Prince vos up to no goot’”), and everyone taking snuff, it’s hard not to have a little authorial fun. My only real complaint, in fact, was with the abrupt ending. I’ll have to wait until the next book in the series, Indiscretions of the Queen, which naturally is not available in my local library, to see whether George ever comes back to Maria and whether Queen Charlotte ever throws her snuffbox at Prince George. So bring it on, Amazon!

Speaking of Plaidy, I see that her early Plantagenet novels are being reissued, with stylish new covers. I especially like the one for The Prince of Darkness. Despite the fact that King John is the main character, the cover depicts a rather worried-looking woman, presumably in flight from Nasty John. There’s also a nice headless man cover of Richard the Lionhearted and a new headless woman cover for Murder Most Royal; this, of course, is about Katherine Howard and Anne Boleyn and thus is most apt.

Trying to decide what to read next. I checked out Helen of Troy but couldn’t get myself in the mood for it; I think I’ll wait for the paperback. I started Hilary Mantel’s A Greater Place of Safety (the French Revolution from the revolutionaries’ side) but don’t know whether I’m going to be up for 750 pages of people who thus far haven’t proven very likable. But there’s plenty on the shelf, so I’m sure something will find me.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

But Will I Need a Doctor's Note for Work?

Which Medieval Plague Do You Have?

Congratulations! You have The Plague! The ABSOLUTE premier disease of the Middle Ages, you probably caught this by the bite of an infected flea or from someone with the pneumonic form. You are suffering from swellings called buboes, in the lymph nodes of the neck, armpits and groin. These are going to become very painful as they fill up with blood and pus. Your headache is going to get much worse, your temperature will become unbearable and you will soon be delirious. Vomiting and diarrhea will accompany all of this. More bad news is that there is a 75% mortality rate. The good news is, if you live, jobs are going to be much more plentiful!
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Monday, September 11, 2006

New Old Books, and More

I was pleased to see this weekend that Tempus Publishing is reissuing some out-of-print novels by Hilda Lewis (Harlot Queen, Wife to Charles II, Wife to the Bastard), Norah Lofts (The Concubine, The King's Pleasure, and Eleanor the Queen), and Rosemary Hawley Jarman (We Speak No Treason). I could do without another copy of We Speak No Treason, frankly--there are few scenes in historical fiction as interminable to me as the one where the Maiden goes to a fair and meets a poet who goes on, and on, and on, for pages about her beauty--but it's nice to see some of these older novels back in print.

Can't let today's date go by without remembering the anniversary. To this day, I never look at a picture of the present New York skyline without thinking that if I just blink my eyes a few times, it'll be back to the way it used to be.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Tales of Two Wives

Taking a break from medieval/Tudor times, I read—or, in the case of one book, started to read—two novels about two famous wives: Juliet Waldron’s Mozart’s Wife and Diane Haeger’s The Secret Wife of King George IV. (Isn’t it nice when the titles save the trouble of an explanation?)

The good news first: I found Mozart’s Wife, published in 2004, to be absorbing and well-written. It follows Konstanze’s life as she grows from a naive young girl to a capable, shrewd woman, her marriage as it disintegrates under the pressures of too many bills, infant mortality, and infidelity.

Konstanze is the narrator here, and her voice is a refreshing one: informal, earthy without becoming coarse, candid, un-self-pitying, and wry. She and Mozart are highly flawed but likable people, who never forfeit our sympathies even as they act appallingly toward each other and toward others. That’s very difficult for an author to pull off, and Waldron does it admirably.

Waldron has a nice eye for detail. As a mistress of Mozart’s departs the cramped household, she is accompanied by her cats: “Her calico Mutzie and tiger Murr followed, tails up, for all the world like a couple of well-behaved dogs out for a walk.”

The book does feel a little disjointed in spots. For instance, Konstanze spends much of Chapter 20 fussing over an impending visit from Leopold, Mozart’s difficult father, but the visit is never depicted; when we next hear of Leopold two chapters later, the matter seems to have been forgotten. Did something get cut? I also felt that too little emphasis was placed on Mozart’s Masonic ties, considering the crucial role they later assumed in Waldron’s explanation of his death and obscure burial.

All in all, though, I enjoyed this book thoroughly. Waldron also has one of the nicer websites I've seen for a historical novelist; check it out here.

I can’t say I derived the same enjoyment from The Secret Wife of King George IV, Diane Haeger’s 2001 novel about Maria Fitzherbert. In fact, I didn’t finish it; the novel is 373 pages long, and I managed to read only to page 105.

What stopped me? For one thing, the action in these pages revolves around Maria, who as depicted by Haeger is simply not very interesting. We learn that she has “ivory shoulders,” “pale gold hair,” and eyes as “deep as melting chocolate,” and that this combination has the effect of making men fall instantly in love with her, but we learn almost nothing about what lies behind Maria’s beautiful exterior. We’re told that she wants to marry for love, having been married twice for advantage, and that her Catholic beliefs keep her from agreeing to become George’s mistress, but other than that, it’s 105 pages of ivory shoulders, gold hair, deep brown eyes, and lots of costume changes. This is fine if one’s flipping through Vogue magazine, but when one’s reading a historical novel, it’s tedious.

To make matters worse, this part of the novel is taken up with Maria and George’s budding romance, and though we’re told that all sorts of sparks are flying between the couple, they never ignite for the reader. The couple meet, George makes an advance, Maria refuses it. Gossip ensues. The couple meet again. George makes another advance. Maria refuses it. More gossip ensues. And so forth. The dialogue between the couple is of the “unhand me, sir” variety: “'I cannot hear this! Please, Your Highness, do not continue!'” The prose sometimes approaches the ludicrous: “He was dangerous, wild, and totally forbidden. He was also masculine and wholly male.”

No girlie men here.

Frustratingly, there are signs that Haeger could have done a lot better. In a couple of scenes where George was talking to his father or to his old nurse or to a female friend, he became a genuinely interesting character, generous yet riddled with insecurities and anger, about whom I wanted to know more. Unfortunately, in a matter of pages, he was back to yammering, “'I want you. . . . I want all of you,'” to Maria. Perhaps things might have improved once he and Maria married (at least, surely, in the dialogue department), but with a pile of other books screaming for my attention, it just didn’t seem worth the effort to find out.

The Secret Wife of George IV did encourage me, at least, to have the library send over Jean Plaidy’s take on the same marriage: The Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill. With that and Margaret George’s Helen of Troy on the way, I should be able to keep myself out of trouble for a while.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Whole Lot of Tweaking Going On

I've been fooling around with my website, trying to give it a more "historical fiction" feel than it had before and to make it easier on the eyes. Please take a look--I'd love to hear what you think!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Beach Reading: Margaret George and Mary, Queen of Scots

There’s nothing like the beach to get some reading done. Find a book that one doesn’t mind getting a little sandy, slather the kids in sunscreen, slather oneself in sunscreen, drag a chair out to the sand, send the kids out into the ocean, glance up every half hour or so to make sure no one’s being carried out to sea, go for a dip when it really gets hot, and just watch the pages fly by.

Occupied thusly this weekend, I managed to finish not only two short books I was reading for review purposes, but Margaret George’s 1992 historical novel, Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles.

This is a very long book—it takes Mary literally from the cradle to the grave. Nonetheless, it reads quickly and holds the reader’s attention; I seldom found myself skimming.

Most of the novel is told by a third-person narrator, although there are some long stretches of journal-writing by Mary in the last fifth or so. Though Mary’s viewpoint is the predominant one, the narrator occasionally travels to Elizabeth I’s court and into the minds of various other characters as well, including Darnley, Bothwell, and sundry ill-fated spies.

Certainly the outstanding quality of this historical novel is George’s ability to draw characters. Mary herself is depicted sympathetically without ever being idealized; at crucial times in her life, there’s almost always someone to tell her that she's making a mistake, and she listens to them far too seldom. More important, George avoids making caricatures of figures such as Darnley and John Knox. The latter is especially well rounded; harsh as he is on the pulpit, we also see glimpses of him as a loving husband and father.

George has a nice eye for small detail, as when Mary on the last evening of her life prays, only to be distracted by her dog thumping his tail. “It was that everyday sound, the summation of all the everyday things she was leaving, that brought tears to her eyes.”

I did have some reservations here and there. One of the few parts of the novel I found myself skimming was that detailing the love affair between Mary and Bothwell, where the dialogue takes on a decidedly hackneyed tone. When Bothwell uttered the line, “'Put your arms around me, and whatever happens, do not let go,'” I found myself anticipating the couple’s impending separation not at all with regret. Earlier, a three-way sex scene between Darnley, Riccio, and a prostitute struck me as gratuitous, since it had no influence on later events and didn’t enlighten us about the characters of those involved, except to show that Riccio could rise to an occasion, so to speak. But these are minor quibbles and didn’t spoil what I thought was an excellent read.

It’s interesting, by the way, to compare this novel to Reay Tannahill’s Fatal Majesty. The novels take entirely different views of such issues as the authenticity of the Casket Letters and of the circumstances behind the marriage of Mary and Bothwell, yet as I was reading each novel, I was convinced by the case each author made, even while being aware of the possibility of a different interpretation.

So if you’ve waited 14 years to read this novel, like I did, go ahead and read it—don’t make it 15 years.

What to read next? All sorts of things await, thanks to the benevolence of eBay, Amazon, PaperbackSwap, and the U.S. mail, not to mention the library sale the other day.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

This 'n' That

A couple of pre-Labor Day thoughts:

Check out Pauline Montagna's The Romance of History, an ezine discussing historical romance and historical fiction. There's an essay by Pauline about Regency romances, an article by Francis A. Miniter about James Clavell's Shogun, and a couple of reviews by yours truly.

I've got myself a Myspace site up now, having browsed over there a few times to see what the fuss was all about. Myspace is quite entertaining, though heavy on the ads, and it's fun seeing who shows up there. (Shakespeare, Richard III, and Henry VIII's wives all have profiles there. So far, only Shakespeare has visited my page, but I've hopes that the rest of the gang will follow.)