Reading Updates

Friday, September 20, 2013

Due to a variety of circumstances, I may not be posting regularly for the next few weeks. I've received a number of very exciting review copies - Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, Robin Oliveira's I Always Loved You and Conn Iggulden's Wars of the Roses: Stormbird. I'm reading now them but the reviews can't be published quite yet.

Next week is also shaping up to be very busy. First, I'll be in New Jersey tomorrow for a friend's wedding. Then next Monday, I start a new job after almost five years at my previous job. I'll still be in Washington, DC and will still be working as a TV producer covering international affairs but I'm moving to a larger news organization. It's an exciting change and I'll need time to settle in.

In the meantime, enjoy this behind the scenes video that shows how Historical Fiction Notebook's intern sorts through the book pile. I don't have the slightest idea how he learned to fling books with his teeth!

Review: A Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The past is a foreign country. This is your guidebook. A time machine has just transported you back into the fourteenth century. What do you see? How do you dress? How do you earn a living and how much are you paid? What sort of food will you be offered by a peasant or a monk or a lord? And more important, where will you stay? The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England is not your typical look at a historical period. This radical new approach shows us that the past is not just something to be studied; it is also something to be lived. Through the use of daily chronicles, letters, household accounts, and poems of the day, Mortimer transports you back in time, providing answers to questions typically ignored by traditional historians. You will learn how to greet people on the street, what to use as toilet paper, why a physician might want to taste your blood, and how to know whether you are coming down with leprosy. The result is the most astonishing social history book you’re ever likely to read: revolutionary in its concept, informative and entertaining in its detail, and startling for its portrayal of humanity in an age of violence, exuberance, and fear (from Amazon). 

What an unexpected gem! While waiting for Jane Austen's England to become available at my library, I searched around for similar books and found this lively and thoughtful history that is sure to become one of my favorite reads of 2013. I was immediately drawn in by Mortimer's assertion that "as soon as you start think of the past happening (as opposed to it having happened), a new way of conceiving history becomes possible." 

For Mortimer, watching the past happen results in a kind of guide-book to England in the fourteenth century. The effect was almost like opening up a Baedeker's guidebook to plan every aspect of a trip - from the essentials of food and drink to modes of travel and lodging.The book's best chapters are the sections on the Medieval character and amusements. I've rarely read such a sensitive approach to the very different morals and beliefs of that time. Mortimer performs the magicians' trick of explaining the absurd (Medieval physicians advise the sick to bathe in the corpses of slaughtered puppies) while connecting with the constants of the human spirit (one English king rewarded a man for falling off his horse. Why? Because the pratfall made him collapse into hysterical laughter). 

But this doesn't mean that he shies away from some of the extremes of Medieval life - his description of the hanging, disemboweling and quartering of traitors brought the brutality of life fully alive for me in ways that even movies haven't. At the same time, I was deeply moved and surprised by the descriptions of amusements - of ladies holding book-reading parties out in gardens and children playing a beloved - but banned - game of football. 

It's been some time since I've read fiction set in Medieval times but Time Traveler's Guide allowed me to appreciate that age in entirely new ways. I know that I'll seek out more fiction and non-fiction set in that age and I'll enjoy it all the more because of Mortimer's thrilling research and gorgeous writing. He also has a new book out The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England. I can't wait to get my hands on it!

Winner of QUEEN'S GAMBIT by Elizabeth Freemantle

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Congratulations to Judith M.!  You are the winner of one copy of QUEEN'S GAMBIT by Elizabeth Freemantle. I've sent you an email and will pass your mailing address along to the publisher. 

Stay tuned for more giveaways here at Historical Fiction Notebook. 

Review: The Assassination of the Archduke

Thursday, September 5, 2013

In the summer of 1914, three great empires dominated Europe: Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. Four years later all had vanished in the chaos of World War I. One event precipitated the conflict, and at its hear was a tragic love story. When Austrian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand married for love against the wishes of the emperor, he and his wife Sophie were humiliated and shunned, yet they remained devoted to each other and to their children. The two bullets fired in Sarajevo not only ended their love story, but also led to war and a century of conflict.Set against a backdrop of glittering privilege, The Assassination of the Archduke combines royal history, touching romance, and political murder in a moving portrait of the end of an era. One hundred years after the event, it offers the startling truth behind the Sarajevo assassinations, including Serbian complicity and examines rumors of conspiracy and official negligence. Events in Sarajevo also doomed the couple’s children to lives of loss, exile, and the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, their plight echoing the horrors unleashed by their parents’ deaths. Challenging a century of myth, The Assassination of the Archduke resonates as a very human story of love destroyed by murder, revolution, and war. (from Amazon)
I was so excited to see this book pop up on Amazon and NetGalley. I'm familiar with Greg King through his excellent writing and exemplary research on the Romanovs and I was happy to see him move into a new area of early 20th century history that is rarely explored. In almost every novel and history, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his beloved wife Sophie appear for a few fleeting moments - a couple in Sarajevo eternally getting in a car for a fatal ride. Assassination restores their humanity and brings a devastating new perspective to the start of the Great War.

King makes an excellent point early in the book, noting that while many history buffs and historical fiction fans are enthralled by the relationship between the Archduke's contemporaries' Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, it is actually Franz Ferdinand and Sophie who are the great love story of that time. They loved each other deeply and respectfully and built a loving relationship and family life before their tragic meeting with history. I knew that Sophie was the morganatic wife of the heir to the Austrian Empire but I had no idea of the abuse she suffered at the hands of the Austrian royal family or how hard she fought for the man she loved. It was refreshing to read about a 20th century royal family other than the English and the Russians - and the Austrians' dysfunction and scheming keep this lively narrative moving along.

Unfortunately, King and Woolmans worked on this book at a great disadvantage. Sophie and Franz Ferdinand's eldest son destroyed almost all of their diaries and letters to each other. Without this key information, Assassination lacks an in-depth level of detail that can be found in other books about late 19th century/early 20th century royalty. For example, it's not even known when and where Sophie and Franz Ferdinand first met. But as the book progresses closer and closer to that fateful day in Sarajevo, this becomes less and less of a problem as the book advances in time and draws closer to the assassination.

I sped through this book in one day and would strongly urge readers to check it out. King is a brilliant writer whose research shows in every line even while he is reconstructing stories with an eye as keen as any novelist. 
Disclaimer: I received an advance e-galley of this book from the publisher for review. 

Giveaway: QUEEN'S GAMBIT by Elizabeth Freemantle

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Today I'm pleased to offer a giveaway of QUEEN'S GAMBIT, a novel by debut author Elizabeth Freemantle about Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII. You can read my review here and my interview with Freemantle here. Best of luck and thanks to the publisher for this opportunity. 

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Q&A with Elizabeth Freemantle, author of QUEEN'S GAMBIT

Monday, September 2, 2013

Today I'm pleased to welcome Elizabeth Freemantle, author of the new historical novel Queen's Gambit, about Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII. You can read my review here. Stop by tomorrow for a chance to win a copy of Queen's Gambit from the publisher.

Elizabeth, welcome to Historical Fiction Notebook!

Can you tell us a little bit about Queen's Gambit?
QUEEN'S GAMBIT tells the story of Henry VIII's sixth wife Katherine Parr, through her eyes and also those of her loyal maid Dot and her physician Huicke. We follow Katherine's treacherous path through the Tudor court at a time when religious factions were dangerously polarised and the shadows of her predecessors in the king's bed hung ominously over her.

What led you to write a novel about Katherine Parr?
I was first drawn to Katherine Parr because she seemed to have been largely overlooked by fiction writers and I felt there must have been more to the woman who survived marriage to a notorious tyrant than the dull nurse-maid character that history has given us. I discovered more than I expected – Katherine was not only the first Queen to publish an original work in the English language but she survived a plot on her life, out-foxing and bringing down her enemies; she was a shrewd political operator, promoting religious reform at great personal risk; she persuaded Henry to reinstate his daughters to the succession; she ruled as regent whilst he was fighting a war in France; she was vivacious, popular and highly intelligent and she was married four times. But she was flawed too, making a disastrous decision in the name of love with devastating consequences (you'll have to read the book to find out what). It is that essential contradiction in her character that I felt made her a heroine that modern women could relate to. I simply couldn't resist fictionalising her story.

While you were researching the novel, did you find out anything unexpected about Katherine Parr? Something that changed your view of her? Or about Henry VIII and his court?
I discovered many surprising things about Katherine, but one that really touched me deeply was that she was held by Catholic rebels during the Pilgrimage of Grace. Her husband, then Lord Latymer, had left her with his children at Snape Castle in Yorkshire to go to beg pardon from the king for his part in the uprising. The rebels thought he would betray them and held his family hostage. We do not know the details of what happened, and can only imagine how terrifying it must have been, but I have used the episode fictionally to demonstrate Katherine's resilience and courage and also as a way to show how deep bonds of friendship can be forged through adversity. Three women, Katherine, her maid Dot and her stepdaughter Margaret Neville are inextricably linked to one another by the shared experience but also by the secrets that come from it.

What are some of your favorite authors/novels? Particularly in the field of historical fiction?
I have huge admiration for Hilary Mantel's historical fiction – her prose styling is astonishingly good and she has a way of putting you right inside her character's minds, warts and all. Rose Tremain is another favourite; I was so happy she wrote a sequel to RESTORATION and MERIVEL doesn't disappoint. She has such a wonderfully sharp sense of humour and her work is always threaded through with layers of irony. I have never been disappointed with a Sarah Waters novel – she has a way of writing that is both highly literary and yet gripping too. My favourite of hers is FINGERSMITH, a clever and surprising book.

Queen's Gambit is written in present tense which seems to be cropping up more and more often in historical novels (especially since the publication of Wolf Hall). Did you consciously decide to write the story in present tense? Do you think present tense make historical fiction more accessible for readers?
It never occurred to me not to write QUEENS GAMBIT in the present tense. I had experimented with tense in my first novel and found my voice writing in the present tense then, and continued working with it on two further novels (none of them were historical and, alas, none of them were published). I think the voice crystallised and began to make sense when I started writing about the past and funnily enough, because I avoided reading other historical fiction whilst writing, I only truly became aware that there was a vogue for doing this when I'd finished writing. Then of course I saw it everywhere. With the present tense though the reader knows what's coming the characters themselves do not, which gives an appealing immediacy and helps bring the past to life. I prefer not to give my characters hindsight as it creates more tension. Every novel finds its own right voice, my next SISTERS OF TREASON is also in the present tense but some of it is also in the first person, which I have never used before. At the moment I'm working out how I will tell the third… I don't know if it makes it more accessible to readers, as the present tense has its critics but for me it works.

What's your next project? Do you think you will write other novels set in the past?
Absolutely – QUEEN'S GAMBIT is the first of three Tudor novels that move from the dying days of Henry's reign to the end of Elizabeth's. SISTERS OF TREASON tells the heartrending story of Lady Jane Grey's two sisters, two young girls dangerously close to the throne at a time of great instability. It is court painter Levina Teerlinc who helps them survive Mary Tudor's reign, but once Elizabeth is on the throne things become increasingly treacherous for the Grey girls. The third novel will focus on 'the decadent' Penelope Devereaux, 'fair lady with a black soul' as she was labelled by some. She was the sister of the Earl of Essex and involved in his disastrous coup, though, unlike him, avoided execution. Penelope is a little known and remarkable woman who was no stranger to controversy and with a story well worth telling.

Thanks so much for stopping by and best of luck with Queen's Gambit!

It has been a pleasure, thank you so very much for having me. 


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Widowed for the second time at age thirty-one Katherine Parr falls deeply for the dashing courtier Thomas Seymour and hopes at last to marry for love. However, obliged to return to court, she attracts the attentions of the ailing, egotistical, and dangerously powerful Henry VIII, who dispatches his love rival, Seymour, to the Continent. No one is in a position to refuse a royal proposal so, haunted by the fates of his previous wives—two executions, two annulments, one death in childbirth—Katherine must wed Henry and become his sixth queen. Katherine has to employ all her instincts to navigate the treachery of the court, drawing a tight circle of women around her, including her stepdaughter, Meg, traumatized by events from their past that are shrouded in secrecy, and their loyal servant Dot, who knows and sees more than she understands. With the Catholic faction on the rise once more, reformers being burned for heresy, and those close to the king vying for position, Katherine’s survival seems unlikely. Yet as she treads the razor’s edge of court intrigue, she never quite gives up on love. (from Amazon). 

Poor Katherine Parr - she is quite possibly the most intelligent of all of Henry VIII's queens. She also holds the notable distinction of having outwitted an attempt at her downfall to become the only one of Henry's wives to stay married to him and outlive him. But for any number of reasons she has not inspired the number of novels devoted to her predecessors - even bland Jane Seymour seems to get more attention.

I was quite pleased to see this new novel focusing on her life. It falls clearly in the post-Wolf Hall tradition of historical novels by focusing on a slice of Parr's life instead of going for the massive, old-fashioned birth to death approach. Freemantle very carefully builds a psychological portrait of Katherine that explains her motivations and builds an emotional through-line for her story. I was initially resistant to the potential tampering with historical fact but Freemantle never strays past what's been recorded. Her suppositions make sense and deepen the story. Katherine is very well-written, approachable but flawed, intelligent and full of longing. I enjoyed seeing Katherine's story from the perspective of her servant Dot even when I felt that some of her plot lines were too drawn-out and shifted focus away from Katherine's story.

I did have a great deal of trouble with some of Freemantle's choices for telling the story. The novel is written in third person present-tense omniscient that insures that the reader is almost always separated from what is taking place in the story. Third-person present tense is tricky - authors usually use it when they want to inject suspense into a story and create a sense of feeling that all of these events are just taking place.

But in Gambit, it makes for a monotonous tone that prevents any rise and fall in action. There are no quiet moments of contemplation, no moments of great action and very little sense of a fully developed world around the characters. I felt as much time was given to the arrest of Katherine Parr as was given to her discussion about books with her servant Dot. Oddly enough, this choice also prevents the reader from getting too close into the mind of Katherine Parr - while there are some interior monologues during which characters examine their feelings, the choice to use present tense results in a story that reads very much like a screenplay full of dialogue and stage directions.

Freemantle also swings for the fences with rich, metaphorical language to evoke the time. Sometimes it works, as in this description of Katherine Parr: "She leans over the book to see better in the candlelight and the bones of her spine protrude - a row of stepping stones in a pool of cream." At other times - most often when Freemantle struggles to describe Parr's forbidden love for Thomas Seymour - there are lines like this: "She is entirely lost in his periwinkle world, where the memories of all their moments together reside." Unfortunately, for every unique metaphor and image, there were other times when the language completely pulled me out of the story.

I very much enjoyed reading the story of this rarely explored queen and found that the book read quite quickly. In an interview I'm publishing tomorrow I had an opportunity to ask Freemantle about her writing decisions and her plans for more novels set in Tudor England. I'll look forward to her next efforts as she grows and matures as a writer.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher.