Tag Archives: historical fiction

One: The loneliest number?

The number 1 (one) makes me think of lots of books or characters in books. Bridget Jones (singletons of the world unite!), Possession (number one in my books), mystery books (whodunnit is usually one person, although, sometimes the twist is that it is not one), and, of course, math books. Don’t worry, no math books here. I’m going to talk about two books that have the number ONE in the title.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde. I’ve mentioned Thursday Next (the character) and Jasper Fford (the author) around here before, but not gone into much detail. Mostly, I’ve yelled for you to go find the books and start reading, what are you waiting for? The Thursday Next series is set in an alternative universe in which time travel exists, the Crimean War never stopped (vs our universe where it stopped and may now be beginning again), and one can have a pet dodo bird. In Thursday Next’s world, the book world can be visited by people from the real world. The trick is, sometimes people visit the book world and leave traces of themselves behind, thus contaminating the reading experience for others. Oh the great and philosophical possibilities of book clubs that discuss the Thursday Next series. Where to begin? Metaphysics? Hermeneutics? It is all fair game! In One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, Thursday Next (real) is missing, and needs to be found by Thursday Next (book world). If this sounds complicated, it isn’t. Really. You just have to suspend your disbelief a tiny little bit. Honestly. You should try because Fforde has done a ffabulous job with this Thursday book. It even has a map. Look for NaNoWriMo on the map. It is there!

One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters. See, I told you the number one makes me think of murder mysteries. In this case there are too many bodies. Who is the extra corpse, and how did that corpse become dead? All these things and more are investigated by the monk, Brother Cadfael. This is the second book in the Cadfael set. These books are old, as in published in the seventies, and they are set in the middle ages during a civil war in Britain over the succession to the throne, King Stephen vs. Empress Mathilda. Who? I hear you saying. There was a king called Stephen? Never heard of him or this Matilda woman. That’s why reading historical fiction is a good idea. You learn things. And sometimes there are too many bodies.

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Counterfactuals and Surreal History

Some bits and pieces for a Saturday night.

1. The top-ten counterfactual novels as picked by a guy who wrote one about King Edward VIII. I’ve read a few on his list and agree with him that these are good. I’d love to read Dominion by C.J. Sansom but have not been able to find a copy in North America. Must Look Harder.

2. In Real History that is pretty surreal, have you been following the whole Richard III thing? If not I’ve got a couple of videos for you to watch. First, the academics summarize what they found and present evidence to show that they found the body of Richard III. Then watch the whole story as told in this BBC 4 special, The King in the Car Park. Really cool and totally worth your time, even if you are procrastinating, like me.

3. For the connections between the War of the Roses and Game of Thrones (you didn’t know there was a connection?) see this blog post also on Richard III, but now on his burial, which has become quite controversial. Pretty sure wherever the reinterment occurs it will be a hot ticket next summer.

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Second Day: The effects of war (pro doves)

I got two books from 1Mom for Christmas that she categorized as books on the aftereffects of war. One is The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock, set in Ontario and Japan. The other is The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. From my perusal of summaries and my memory of the movie of The Reader, both are about the effects of war on teens or children who grow up in the shadow of conflict. This is interesting for many reasons and has been a side interest of mine, but not one I’ve followed up on in my reading of books on the wars. I’ve more focussed on grown-ups in the wars, people who were in the conflict or who refused to join the army or things like that. I think that interest comes from my ADad and AGrandfather who served in very different ways in the second and first war respectively. ADad was in the air force. His father, my AGrandfather was a conscientious objector who served as a stretcher-bearer on the front. I’ve only recently started to see bits and pieces about this kind of service in the first war, and it was nuts. My grandfather never ever talked about it. Ever.

Fiction is an interesting way into the way the world looks for people on the inside of an historical event. Well researched, well imagined historical fiction provides a window into another time and place. I’m looking forward to my books on the aftereffects of war.

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Outlandish, Thursday Next, and Garage Sale Sales

I finished Outlander and can only recommend that you run away if you ever see the book anywhere around you. Waste. Of. Time. I got to the end, threw the book down and (mentally) yelled YOU MUST BE JOKING! No plot, no character development, little discussion or thought on the issues of time travel, little thought at all, and some superficial theology pitched in at the end. Blech. Must find something to read to take the taste out of my brain. Go see the reviews on goodreads for more, I can’t really add to the 1/2-star reviews there. They say it all, and I don’t want to think about it any more. Take all the gushing 5-star reviews with a large handful of salt.

In happier news, I’ve got a Thursday Next book on my iPad from the library, One of Our Thursdays is Missing. Yay for Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next! (What!?!?! You’ve never heard of Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next?? Get to the library now.) I’m irritated by the fact that the EPUB copy of OOOTIM has the map of Fiction Island sideways, then when you turn the iPad to see the map not sideways, the image rotates. Another eBook irritant. Fortunately the fantastic Mr. Fforde has the map on his website. I like maps in books a lot. I’ve talked about that before around here.

I’m still thinking about the lack of book sales at the garage sale on Saturday. Some of the non-fiction went quite quickly, including a book about how everything works. The mother of a small boy picked that up, along with a baseball glove for said small boy. Some of the mysteries went, but they didn’t go as quickly as I’d hoped. Everyone commented on the number of Ian Rankin books, but there were just as many of other authors. The sale I enjoyed making the most was to a 30ish guy who bought my 2 Gordon Korman books because he read them when he was younger. It was totally a nostalgia buy, and something I wasn’t really expecting. I did see other people pick up books, then put them down as though they shouldn’t buy books though they wanted to. Why not? What’s wrong with buying books, especially when they are $1.00 or less? Oh well, some books found new homes.

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Garage Sale Tales & Other Monday Musings

I didn’t sell as many books as I hoped at the garage sale. But I’m down 3+ boxes, which is better than being down none at all. It wasn’t as hard to sell the books and other things as I thought it would be — though I must admit to pricing some glasses high when I didn’t want them to go. The item I really wanted to get rid of didn’t sell. It is a decorative plate that some of my friends have described as evil because it is so very ugly and tasteless. But this is a blog about reading books, not about kitschy things I’ve been given and can’t get rid of.

Because of the sale and the Great Apartment Hunt I’ve not been doing as much reading as usual. I finished 1Q84 last night, and, to my horror, found it was the first book I’d actually finished in September. Have you read 1Q84? You should. It is thick and intimidating, but really interesting. There are lots of references to other books in it, 1984 of course, but others as well. One of the main characters is a writer and he reads a lot.

I’ve not quite finished Outlander which I mentioned in my last Current Reading post. I cannot recommend the book at all. It has no apparent plot and the characters rush around being punished, being tortured, or having sex. That is all that happens. There are no interesting musings about time travel. The book is pointless, unless you want to read about people being punished, tortured and etc. The interesting bits about the time and how to live and survive are all avoided. The time traveller is not shocked by all the injuries that result from the punishment and torture because she was a nurse in a field hospital in WW2. The plot appeared to be about Claire (the time traveller) getting back to her own time, but then that changed, and now I’m not sure where it is all going. So not recommended at all. How did this become a NYTimes bestseller and have a series that followed? Most odd.

How is your reading going for the month of change that is September?

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Time Travel

I had an interesting discussion about time travel this week with my new friend the classics scholar. We talked about interesting time travel books we’ve read, and whether time travel is desirable let alone possible. I am still reading Outlander and this began our discussion of the thing.

The classics scholar thought, based upon her knowledge of Roman society and technology, that a Roman dropped into the 21st century would be able to get by. Not too much has changed in terms of urban infrastructure. The Romans invented concrete. Possibly the Roman would be surprised by how much we use concrete. Of course metal-working technology has improved and the combination of metal and concrete leads to skyscrapers that were not achieved in Roman times, but a Roman engineer would figure it out pretty quickly. Electricity might baffle. But even tablets were something Romans used, we just have ways of linking tablets that they didn’t have.

I suggested that it might be much more difficult for a person from the twenty-first century to be dropped in ancient Rome. I think I’ve said in a previous post in this blog that many books that involve time travel fail to give a sense of the past as alien, as a foreign country. Crichton’s Timeline does it best in books I’ve read so far. The classics scholar mentioned a story about a collector who sent a time traveller to collect extinct animals — and what they thought were small cuddly animals turned out to be dangerous beasts. That sounds like an interesting book, but she couldn’t remember the title/author details. Anyone got a clue on that?

What are your theories on time travel? I’m not sure that going back is either possible or desirable, though I think it would be interesting. Going forward faster? Maybe. But then could you get back? That is the key question of A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright, and you should all go and read that if you haven’t yet.

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Currently Reading…

I’ve got two novels on the go as well as my theological reading and a book about prayer. Lets start with the novels.

1. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. This is really good. You should probably read it despite its intimidating size and odd title. Notice that it is One Q 84. I kept trying the letter I in searching for it instead of the number 1. The world has shifted and so one of the characters decides to rename the year 1Q84 instead of 1984. Enough said.

2. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I’ve never read Gabaldon before, and wanted to start with the first book. I’ve a thing about time travel, so the premise was interesting to me. I’m not impressed, though, with errors of historical fact that appear in the first few pages of the book. The book’s present is Scotland, 1945, around the vernal equinox. The heroine is an army nurse who is just back from the war, and the rationing has just been lifted. Erm, the war in Europe didn’t end until May of 1945. People wouldn’t have been released from armed forces service when the book is set. Rationing in the UK didn’t completely end until the early 50s. Now it may be that Gabaldon is writing about an alternate history in a slighty different world, but lets make that obvious instead of shifting easily verified facts about a major event in the main character’s life.

3. The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright. Methodology and history and theology all together. I’m enjoying this very much. Wright is a good writer, who makes his points clearly. This is a virtue not often found in academic writing on the New Testament, or, for that matter, in any theological discipline.

4. Opening to God by David Benner. The subtitle includes the word Prayer and the phrase lectio divina and that subtitle is what actually caught my eye. The book is the print version of a Lenten series given in Victoria, BC a few years ago. This is also a good book. One cannot speed-read it, and that is appropriate, given that lectio divina is by definition meditative reading.

What are you reading?

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Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. And Cranmer too.

I noted when listing books-read-so-far-in-2012 that Henry VIII is a recurring character in many of them. Henry shows up in the background of one non-fiction book, The Last Divine Service about the dissolution of the monastery at Durham. In Durham the monastery wasn’t destroyed, it was converted into a cathedral chapter that still exists today. Geoffrey Moorhouse managed to catch some of the way things remained the same though everything changed during the English Reformation in that book. There was an ambivalence to the thing, a not wanting to go too far.

That same ambivalence is caught very well in Wolf Hall, the Booker-Prize-winning novel by Hilary Mantel. The point-of-view character in WH is Thomas Cromwell. The book follows his career from his loyal service to Cardinal Wolsey to becoming one of the king’s trusted advisors. Mantel makes Cromwell, who history does not regard fondly, a very sympathetic character. The book left me wanting more history. Shortly after finishing WH I found published letters of Cromwell in the used books at the theological bookshop where I work. I didn’t buy these as I’ve got really large to-be-read piles already, but the letters are out there. I’m thinking Mantel read them. Anyhow, I think Mantel catches the ambivalent nature of the English Reformation, the king wants to be a good Catholic, but now he’s the Head of the Church in England, and what does that mean exactly. Then there’s the whole Cranmer’s SECRET WIFE business. The Archbishop of Canterbury had a SECRET GERMAN WIFE. No wonder he wanted a Reformation in England.

I’ve also read two of the Matthew Shardlake mysteries by C.J. Sansom, Sovereign, and Dark Fire. I’ve been reading the Shardlake books out of order. I started with the first one, Dissolution, then jumped to Revelation, then backed up through S, and DF. May I suggest reading them in order? (Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation.) The characters do develop, and there is a historical timeline to be concerned about. They can be read out of order, but some of the suspense might diminish in sub-plots if you do that. Just saying. The Shardlake mysteries are set in England during the reign of Henry VIII. Our Hero is a lawyer who longs for the quiet life, but seems to get dragged into solving mysteries connected to affairs of state. Cromwell features as Shardlake’s employer in the first two, but then he falls and his fall is great. Cranmer shows up in the second book, and in the third is the person Shardlake investigates for. The King is a key character in the third book as well, as might be guessed by the title, Sovereign. While Sansom captures elements of the back-and-forth nature of the English Reformation, and also describes aspects of the time really clearly, I think his main character is too modern in outlook. This can be a problem in writing historical fiction. The past is a foreign country, so how does one adequately get into the characters’ heads? I’ve found historical mystery writers especially prone to writing first-person characters who have a 21st-century outlook and make 21-C remarks about what is going on back in the day. Sansom’s Shardlake character leans in that direction in these books. Maybe this makes them more readable as fiction, but I find some of the revisionist historical fiction becomes unreadable when the revisions are really obvious. (I can’t read Anne Perry’s 19th Century characters any more, because they are too revisionist.)

If you want an interesting way into the English Reformation, give any of these books a try — start with the fiction though, it makes looking at the history more interesting somehow.

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H is for eigHtH in the alpHabet

Here we are at

Where H is for History.

H is for History, as in non-fiction, not historical fiction. There was a week on historical fiction back in November as you may remember. If you don’t remember, the five links in the previous sentence point you there. Right. History, not the fictional kind. I like to read history. When I was an undergraduate, lo these many years ago, I studied aerospace engineering. As a break from all the physics and calculus I read history. All my elective courses were in history. Sometimes I mixed things up and read about the history of mathematics or science. Twice a year there were book sales at the Graduate Student’s Union in the gym. I primarily bought history books at the sales. I still have some of those books.

I didn’t get hooked on history during my engineering studies. I’ve been hooked on history for as long as I can remember. OK, since grade 2 for sure. How do I know? During the year I was in grade 2, that is when I was 7, I lived with my family in the UK, in Greater London. I remember quite distinctly being upset that my parents went to the British Museum on a week day when I was in school. I also remember being intrigued by all the really old places we visited that all had interesting stories behind them. I think it was the interesting stories that caught my attention at the time. After we came home to Canada, I continued to be interested in old things with stories. And in archeology. Digging old stuff out of the ground was fascinating.

I figured out that history, while an acceptable hobby, was not considered by people I knew to be an acceptable career choice. So I kept reading history as a hobby. Now it is part of what I do for a living as well! How exciting. I write about women who are dead (making them historical figures ;-)) and what those women wrote about the Bible. This is a particular area of the broader burgeoning field of reception history.

What history books do I like? Last year I read Enthusiasm by Ronald A. Knox. I was disappointed. I found Knox a misogynistic and unsympathetic writer. I’d hoped for more in this history of charismatic movements in the church. I also read Tillich’s A History of Christian Thought which was dense, and de Vries Perspectives in the History of Religions, which ended up being more about method. I like reading about historical method, but find it preferable if a method is actually used so that conclusions can be reached. At present I’ve got a book called The Last Divine Office by Geoffrey Moorhouse on deck. It is about the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. I’ve also got Volume 3 of Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples (I’ve finished 1 and 2), and a biography of Catherine de Medici. And a book of essays by Gertrude Himmelfarb. We cannot forget the Himmelfarb.

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Letter G, Letter G, Letter G, Letter G – there will be an answer…

The letter

brings you today’s post. G is for Genre.

I’ve discussed genre before a couple of times and noted that part of what makes a book great is the subversion of genre, or blending genres (example: Joss Whedon’s Firefly series). That being said, booksellers and publishers classify books by genre because then people have some idea what they are getting. People decide they like or dislike various genres, thus saving themselves the bother of perusing those shelves at the local library or bookshop. I, for example, don’t bother looking at the Romance or Horror sections of any bookshop. My friend the Restless Teacher avoids the Science Fiction section along with the Fantasy section (should they be separate items). I like the genre sections of bookshops and libraries because sometimes, I just want a straightforward crime story, and if I look in the mystery section, I’ll find one. Problem solved. Well what to read next solved, the mystery itself may take a little longer.

I also read science fiction, but this is less of a fall-back category for me as I find that this genre has a significant range in it and I don’t like all aspects of its range. Some SciFi books feel like poorly disguised romance novels with a little space travel thrown in to fit the genre. You may recall that I’m a rocket scientist — I find some SciFi books are just not interesting because of the lack of science/technology or the poor science/technology in them. SciFi books are idea books. Crummy concept = crummy book. Thus I am more cautious about the SciFi genre, though I’ve been getting back into it in the last year or two.

Mysteries are my fall-back, a comfortable genre that I can usually count on for brain candy. I like finding new authors and reading through their backlist. Over the last couple of years I’ve worked through Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott books, Stephen Booth’s Cooper & Fry set, and David Hewson’s Nic Costa series. I don’t always read everything an author has written — sometimes I stop after one or two. I’m not a fan of Martha Grimes, for example, I couldn’t get past the first few of her books that I read.

I also like speculative fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. Historical fiction is seldom separated out from the general fiction or literature section in libraries and bookshops. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it with its own spot on the shelves. I’m not sure why that is. Of course you can have mysteries with an historical setting (Ellis Peters pops to mind), and thrillers set in the past, and romances with history as a backdrop, so maybe a setting in the past isn’t enough for a separate section. Fantasy and speculative fiction often get blended in with SciFi as SFF. I’ve ranted in other places about why this should not be so. I can see speculative fiction and science fiction getting along better than SciFi and Fantasy. I’m not sure at all why fantasy get’s put in that category. If someone has an explanation, I’d be happy to hear it.

All that to say, genre sometimes determines what I’m going to read next. I look for books that are similar to others that I’ve liked. At the same time I recognize that genre blending or genre twisting can make a book great — so classifications as issued by publishers or booksellers or librarians don’t always reflect the potential a book has.

What genres do you like? Why?

[The title of this entry probably means you’ve all got Mother Mary running through your head. Sorry about the earworm, I’m just passing it on.]

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