Susan Holloway Scott Giveaway!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Exciting news from Passages to the Past - this week is a mega Susan Holloway Scott giveaway! As I've mentioned in previous posts, I've never read Scott and have always had trouble getting into books about Restoration England. I hope to remedy this by starting Scott's books - last night I downloaded the first chapter of "Royal Harlot" on my iPod touch Kindle App (evil, addictive thing) and enjoyed it.

Good luck to all! 

Putting the "I" in Historical Fiction

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I have a very simple set of criteria for deciding whether or not to read a work of historical fiction - interesting era in history? Check. Engaging lead character? Check. Is that character telling the story in the first person? Wait!

I've recently found myself setting aside historical fiction told in the first person, worn out by awkwardly wedged-in historical research and unnaturally long descriptions of place, emotion and appearance.

Case in point: "The Creation of Eve" by Lynn Cullen. She has the ideal lead character: Sofonisba Anguissola, a female painter who actually lived and worked in Renaissance Europe and came into contact with some of the biggest names of the era. Cullen chooses to tell the story through Sofonisba's private journal, mixing her notes on painting and court etiquette with letters and a narrative following her life. The journal conceit results in awkward time jumps, as Sofonisba is supposed to be writing her impressions after the events have taken place.

Moreover, Cullen ends up feeding important historical background on Michaelangelo, the role of women in Italian society and Spanish court politics directly through Sofonisba - and each time she does so, I was yanked out of the story.

First person narration can force the author into some crazy contortions trying to fit all that historical research into the narrative. There's nothing worse than reading a chapter of historical background, supposedly filtered through a 16th century painter or a 12th century serving girl with a late 20th/early 21st century consciousness slipping in and out behind the scenes

Yet another pet peeve of mine are specific descriptions of people, rooms, clothing, etc. from a first person point of view. It simply doesn't work for a character to stop mid-narrative and say "He was a tall, handsome man with thick, curling hair, green eyes and......" You get the point. People don't see each other that way and they certainly don't write in their journals that way.

I can think of only a few instances in which first-person narration worked - Tracy Chevalier's "Girl with a Pearl Earring," Margaret George's Cleopatra and Henry VIII and Sandra Gulland's Josephine series. In each instance, I think the author had an unusually strong sense of her lead character and knew how to channel their thoughts. Done poorly - first-person historical narration feels like a forced march through someone else's mind!

Feel free to correct me with examples or share titles that found you similarly frustrated!

Review: The Rebellion of Jane Clarke

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"The compelling story of a young woman caught between tradition and independence, family and conscience, loyalty and love, on the eve of the Revolutionary War. Combining actual historical figures and events, like John Adams and the Boston Massacre, with enthralling fictional creations, author Gunning brings to vivid and unforgettable life the world of Colonial America on the brink of momentous upheaval and change."

I've completed my 2-week reading spree of Sally Gunning's Satucket novels and  - even though Rebellion is my least favorite of the three - I'm a bit sad to see it come to an end. Stepping back, I would strongly recommend these books to everyone - even readers who think they won't be interested in the Colonial American backdrop. Guning writes books with muscle - deep-rooted emotion, strong research and a passionate respect for the people of the past.

Sometimes you can tell when an author has a particular sense they're naturally good at describing - Gunning's is a sense of smell:

"She took a deep breath and received her second surprise - this was no Satucket air, but a thing full of too-old food, too-new chamber dung, and too many kitchen fires set too close together."

The "she" of that description - the third of Gunning's strong female leads - is Jane Clarke, step-granddaughter to Widow Berry of Widow's War and a minor background character in Bound. Yet another satisfying element of Gunning's work is to see beloved characters re-appear briefly or to have seen future lead characters in the background - it tightens the weave in her tapestry of Cape Cod life.

Jane is a quiet character and the story is a bit slower  by necessity as it tracks the formation of her character and beliefs. I liked Jane - I appreciated living through her testing those beliefs - but at times she was a bit hard for me to grasp. I felt like it was a difficult to get a strong sense of who she was and - consequently - for me to feel connected to her.

As it happens, Jane is paired with the most famous historical moment of the three Satucket novels - the Boston Massacre. Gunning's depiction of the events leading up to the Massacre and the consequences of it are brilliant. The Sons of Liberty are real men - they're certainly not freedom fighters with a grand vision of starting a new country. They're real people with complaints and frustrations who are sorting out a rebellion day by day. I especially loved the character of John Adams - he represents a rare instance in which I've seen a seemless blending of a real historical figure with fictional characters.

I think there are two impressions from this novel that will stay with me - first, the meditation on the unreliability of memory that's woven throughout the story. In several instances, small and large - from a horse's chopped-off ears to a British officer's order to fire, we see Jane sort through her memories and assumptions, witnessing an event and then discovering the emotional currents underneath.

Gunning also has a lovely ability to depict the emotions hidden within letters.Throughout the book, Jane writes to a variety of family members and suitors - I can't think of another novel that so subtly tugs at the intended meanings, misread meanings and hoped-for meanings in words.

I'm grateful that a writer with such passion and attention to detail is working on this cliche-ridden era in American history. I only hope that next time she writes a slightly longer book - 288 pages is too short when you have to wait two years in between books!

USA Today Spotlights HF

Thursday, August 26, 2010

USA Today had a (rather short) roundup of historical fiction based on women today.  Robin Oliveira's "My Name is Mary Sutter" is already on my wish list but I'm intrigued by the Civil War-era "Red Rain" and its' Hudson River Valley setting.

Booking Through Thursday

Today's question from the blog Should Be Reading is: If you’re not enjoying a book, will you stop mid-way? Or do you push through to the end? What makes you decide to stop?

Roughly around the age of 23 (concurrent with finishing my BA), I lost my mind and concentration and began starting books only to be distracted by something flashier (ooh, an interesting time period or wait, I have to read this author!)
The severity of this condition was intensified by the availability of eBay, Amazon, the large library system of suburban Maryland, a Borders one block away from my office and several used bookstores with good stock turnover. In short, I am always finding new books. For me, finding a good book means buying it. Then I can go home, sort my books, look at the books, decide the order in which to read them and generally dream about the all time I should have to read each and every one. 

I have a very full book closet. 

For example, this past Sunday I finished the second in a trilogy of novels about colonial New England. I immediately ordered the third book from eBay but had to find something to read in the meantime. I picked up a Sharyn McCrumb ballad novel thinking it would read quickly and not take me too much out of the "colonial" mindset. That lasted until a Borders coupon arrived in my email and I developed a strong desire to try out Anya Seton's "Winthrop Woman." I've never read Seton and her novel on early Colonial New England seemed like the perfect answer. Consider McCrumb set aside. 

I read almost 150 pages in Winthrop Woman before the third Colonial novel arrived and now Seton is set aside for Sally Gunning. This happens all the time with me. It's not that the books are bad or permanently abandoned. I like to think I'm getting a head start on a book I will eventually finish. Bad books are few and far between - I usually have a pretty good idea of what I'll like - and I will still set them aside with the idea of one day returning. 

There's a beauty in this idea - many book "orphans" have turned into favorite children. I think it's a matter of a mood shifting to match a book rather than any inherent awfulness.

WWW Wednesdays

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Today's meme is W.W.W. Wednesdays from the blog Should Be Reading

What are you currently reading? "The Winthrop Woman" by Anya Seton
What did you recently finish reading? "Bound" by Sally Gunning
What do you think you'll read next? "The Rebellion of Jane Clarke"
                                                              by Sally Gunning (if it arrives in time from eBay)

Susan Holloway Scott & Restoration England

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Do you ever find that you completely "get" one era in history, love it and make it your own while other eras remain totally incomprehensible?

Once Elizabeth I dies, I check out of English history until the time of the American Revolution. Restoration England plays like some gaudy-colored movie from the Fifties in my head - Nell Gwynn, the re-opening of the theatres, the loveable but inscrutable Charles II.

But something about Susan Holloway Scott's books have always given me pause. I see them everywhere and this interview makes me think she would handle the time period intelligently and sensitively.

Anyone out there who has enjoyed her books and has a suggestion for a place to start?

55 Reading Questions


1. Favorite childhood book?
A big book of fairy tales - I think it was 365 Fairy Tales. It had a bright red cover with every imaginable fairy tale character. LOVED IT! 

2. What are you reading right now?
The Rosewood Casket by Sharyn McCrumb.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
I have 9 books on request - Better by Atul Gawande and The Teahouse Fire are waiting there for me.

4. Bad book habit?
Starting a book and not finishing it.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
Bound by Sally Gunning.

6. Do you have an e-reader?
I have a Kindle App on my iPod Touch.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
One at a time - this is mostly due to my long commute. I can't haul too many books around at once.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
We'll see I've just started.

9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far?)
Anne Lamott's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?
Fourth Part of the World & Wolf Hall.

Genghis' Ghost

Monday, August 23, 2010


The Atlantic has a great short piece about Mongolia this month, including a look at how Genghis Khan still influences the people and the landscape centuries after his death:

When he pointed, I saw it—a glimmer of silver down the hill. Genghis Khan sits astride a stallion, grimacing as he clutches a gold-tinted stainless-steel whip. The statue’s pedestal is a columned, white-granite rotunda, and everything inside the rotunda is calibrated to impress and make money.

Family members have read Conn Iggulden's Genghis Khan series and say it's worth a look. This piece is making me want to put Genghis in the TBR pile!

Pig Tallow or Sperm Whale Oil Candles?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I haven't read any of David Mitchell's books but I appreciated this interview in which he addresses the frustrations of gathering research for a historical novel. Of course, I would never wander off for half a day to research some small historical detail!

Sally Gunning's Bound

Something about Sally Gunning's work turns me back into the reader I was at age twelve: tucked away in a corner, consuming chapters at far too fast a pace when I should be measuring them out, enjoying the craftsmanship of the research and characterization.

Gunning's first historical novel "The Widow's War" was a birthday gift. I started it on a Saturday afternoon and turned the last page on Sunday night. Hearing that "Bound" was more or less a sequel to "Widow's War" (I hope to follow with a separate review), I immediately checked it out of the library and tore through the 304 pages in less than 24 hours!

Don't be deceived by the speed with which you can read Gunning's books. Her command of historical detail and speech is impressive. Her ability to realistically incorporate larger historical ideas and events into her character's lives without becoming heavy-handed or descending into the dreaded John Jakes syndrome ("Why yes, Mr. Washington, I will join your army!) makes for a substantial read.

But her best assest is her confidence in detail: one chapter might find a character spinning wool or debating a town feud between families. I appreicate when an author understands that her readers come to historical fiction partly to feel like a member of a long-gone world. Gunning's book allow me the time to slip into the mind of an indentured servent measuring out her days in the amount of wool left to be spun or to see a village feud between the Winslows and the Clarkes through the eyes of a whaler's stubborn widow.

That said, Alice Cole - the main character of Bound - is not as engaging as Widow Berry, the lead in Widow's War. The abuse Alice suffers at the hands of one her owners at the beginning of the book is a bit graphic and almost made me stop reading - my advice is to push on, the graphic detail is necessary and sets up the conflict for the rest of the book.

Gunning's third book "The Rebellion of Jane Clarke" is on its way to me from eBay and it can't arrive soon enough!



Welcome to my first post on Historical Fiction Notebook. In this spot, I hope to gather reviews of my obsessive (historical fiction) reading; fun links and profiles of my favorite historical fiction authors. Enjoy!