Posted by: Sarah | July 23, 2006

Susan Hill, Book Reviews & Simon Serrailler

Recently, Alex alerted me to the blog of novelist Susan Hill which has been on my list of daily lookups ever since, although I’ve only just added it to my blogroll. Susan always has something interesting to say about books and publishing, along with snippets about her life in rural Gloucestershire. Today, she’s blogging about the way book blogs are taking over from newspapers and periodicals as a valuable source of book reviews and recommendations. This is certainly true for me. As one of the compilers of review links of historical fiction and non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society Online Newsletter, I comb the main newspaper book sections each week and can’t help noticing what a closed-in little world it is: the same few books tend to be covered, and there’s sometimes an impression of mutual back-scratching or bitching when novelists or non-fiction experts review each other’s books. This might a good career strategy but it doesn’t help the average reader who’s looking for an objective opinion from someone whose judgment she can respect. Anyway, in her latest post Susan proposes an annual prize for the best book of the year as judged and voted for in book-related blogs. Good idea.

Susan is the author of such novels as I’m The King of the Castle, Air and Angels, The Woman in Black, Mrs de Winter and The Mist in the Mirror. She also runs a small publishing company, Long Barn Books, which publishes, amongst other books, the winner of its own annual first novel competition.

Until a few weeks ago, I’d only read The Woman in Black and Mrs de Winter but I’ve since become addicted to her latest venture, a series of novels featuring DCI Simon Serrailler.

I read the first, The Various Haunts of Men, in two days – unusual for me as I don’t get nearly as much time for reading as I’d like (who does?) but this was so absorbing I made time for it and started the next in the series, The Pure in Heart, almost at once. Odd, because I’m not a fan of crime fiction. But there’s so much more to these novels than the criminal investigation. There’s the setting, which is a small cathedral city, its surrounding countryside and nearby metropolis, all atmospherically described. And there are the characters. Simon Serrailler is an enigmatic cop somewhat in the manner of P D James’s Adam Dalgleish. He’s good-looking, urbane and can be charming but he has a cold streak that prevents him committing himself to a relationship. Tantalizing. And the other characters are equally interesting and well-defined, even the crime victims and the various members of the Serrailler family who all have their own difficulties and dilemmas. That’s what keeps me turning the pages as much as a desire to see the crime solved: the intense human interest offered by convincing, well-delineated characters and settings. Very much in the Trollopian (Anthony and Joanna) tradition, I’d say. I’ve just bought the third novel, The Risk of Darkness. I had to, you see, because the second ended on such a cliffhanger…

Posted by: Sarah | July 7, 2006

The Needle in the Blood and Snowbooks

I see from the Member News page on The Historical Novel Society’s website that my HNS chum Sarah Bower’s novel is to be published in 2007 (hurrah!):

SARAH BOWER, former UK coordinating editor for the Historical Novels Review, has signed a deal with Snowbooks for publication of her first novel, The Needle in the Blood, which is a tale of sexual obsession and the redemptive power of love set against the making of the Bayeux Tapestry. The book will come out in summer 2007.

Snowbooks is an enterprising and energetic new small publishing company whose business model seems remarkably like the old publishing model (only better). Read about it here. In May it won The Small Publisher of the Year Award jointly with Profile Books (publisher of Eats, Shoots and Leaves).

As well as having a small but interesting catalogue of new fiction and non-fiction, it has also published The London Scene, a collection of lost essays by Virginia Woolf, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K Jerome and The Sunny Side by A A Milne, a collection of “short stories and poems for proper grown-ups”.

I shall probably graduate to the latter when I finally stop reading the Winnie The Pooh books and Eeyore’s Little Book of Gloom, which never fails to cheer me up with its simple wisdom and rollicking humour.

A falling Pooh Bear will land on a gorse bush, but a falling Tigger will land on an Eeyore.

The Wrong Answers are the ones you go looking for when the right answer is staring you in the face.

Posted by: Sarah | June 29, 2006

Men in Kilts

For those who are partial to Highland dress, here are two of the wedding guests from north of the border:

Posted by: Sarah | June 25, 2006

Wedding Bells (II)

On 17 June 2006, our daughter Alix married Darran MacMaster at the parish church of St Nicholas, Worth, West Sussex. The ceremony was conducted by Rev Anthony Stidolph, and the reception was held at The Copthorne Hotel, Copthorne, West Sussex.
It was a perfect day, full of happy memories.

Alix and Darran with l-r Hayley, Max (best man), Jaime-Louise, Erin

Below, the happy couple flanked by Ian and I feeling rather uncomfortable in our respectable
wedding gear (I couldn’t wait to get those darned shoes off!)

And Jaime-Louise, our granddaughter, the little flower girl

Posted by: Sarah | June 12, 2006

Wedding Bells

On Saturday 17 June our lovely daughter Alix will marry Darran, her handsome RAF sweetheart, in our parish church of St Nicholas, Worth (memo to self: wear waterproof mascara and conceal plenty of Kleenex about one’s person).

Several generations of the Cuthbertson, MacMaster and Farrar families will be descending on us from all over the country in a few days’ time, some of them in kilts, I’m told.

I won’t be blogging for a week or so, but in the meantime here are some more photos of St Nicholas’s for those who enjoy this country’s beautiful parish churches. This one is a real hidden gem. Built in the 10 or 11th century in a clearing in the ancient forest of Anderedes Weald, it still stands on its Saxon foundations and contains several original Saxon features. It may
be the oldest church in Sussex. And it’s a bit like the Tardis, in that it looks much bigg
er on the inside than it does on the outside. OK, Pevsner wouldn’t have written that bit.

If I ever get to grips (aargh) with the digital camera I’ve just bought, I may post some wedding photos next week.

Posted by: Sarah | May 31, 2006

Summer Reading

Having overcome my fear of Dunnetting, I’m currently engrossed in Pawn in Frankincense, the fourth novel in Dorothy Dunnett’s rich, complex and exciting Lymond series. Thanks to everyone who responded to my confession of this crippling fear, and thereby helped me conquer it.

I’m also reading, for The Historical Novels Review, an advance proof copy of Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls by Ruth Downie, a crime mystery set in Roman Britain in the early 2nd century. Think Lindsey Davis, but (even) funnier. Downie’s sleuth is Gaius Petreius Ruso, a military surgeon with the Twentieth Legion at Deva (Chester), who would rather not be investigating the mysterious disappearances of two girls and the equally baffling appearance of a third. Ruso has a nice line in self-deprecating humour and a few family problems back home in Gaul which might be solved by a much-needed promotion, if only he could get his medical handbook written and the military red tape out of his hair. There’s a rather splendid joke on about page 117 which made me laugh out loud and will probably appeal to those, like Alex and Carla, who are familiar with Mary Beard’s dormouse test. The novel is published in August but my HNR review won’t be appearing until November. However, because that review will have to be brief, I’ll probably post a different, longer one here sometime soon.

Meanwhile, here are some recent and (I hope) imminent acquisitions which I plan to read this summer:

The Vanishing Point by Mary Sharratt. Mary took over from me as a reviews editor at HNR and is doing a super job, as well as being a gifted novelist and writing teacher. Here’s her website. And her blog, Sphinx Rising, which is dedicated to authors of historical fiction about women.

Sixty Lights
by Gail Jones. Recommended here by kimbofo over at Reading Matters, who also reviewed it here.

The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow. Reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver which I read a year or so ago and loved.

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. Someone (I forget who, sorry) recommended this as an antidote to clunky, po-faced conspiracy novels like The Da Vinci Code. It looks rather heavy-going but I enjoyed The Name of the Rose, so I’ll give this one a go when I’m feeling more lucid than usual.

Giving Up The Ghost by Hilary Mantel. An author’s memoir, recommended by my mother who doesn’t usually read authors’ memoirs.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. An impulse buy from the Oxfam shop. It was the subtitle that pulled me: “A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years”. I like reading popular science books, even if I don’t understand everything in them. (Your trusty blogger is pretty scientifically illiterate, I’m afraid, having failed all her science O-levels, and we’d best not mention maths, for shame.)

Wild Mary by Patrick Marnham. This is a biography of the novelist Mary Wesley who didn’t publish her first novel until she was 70, and then everyone was shocked at the sauciness of what issued from an old lady’s pen, such as The Camomile Lawn. Her life was pretty saucy too, what with all the torrid love affairs. But serious in parts – including a spell of code-breaking at Bletchley Park during World War II. I want to read this book on the strength of hearing an extract read on Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 last Bank Holiday Monday. I hope to listen to more extracts via Listen Again.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley. Extracts are appearing each week in The Guardian Book Review Section. Smiley, author of the Pulitzer-winning novel A Thousand Acres, cured a spell of writer’s block by reading 100 novels, about each of which which she writes rather interestingly in the second half of this bricklike paperback. The first half consists of her thoughts on the novel, novelists and the writing process. So, something for everyone there.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. Well, rumour has it that it’s mentioned in an episode of Lost, and that’s good enough for me.

If this all sounds rather earnest and highbrow, well, I suppose it is. I’ve noticed that as I’ve grown older my reading tastes have changed. I used to enjoy real escapist, popular, light novels (must be careful with the terminology or some people will be offended), but now I only read them occasionally – and feel a bit guilty when I do. I guess this is because I’ve recently realized that I’m not going to live long enough to read all the books that take my fancy, so I’m settling for the best – those that challenge me and make me think and feel more deeply. And I’m way behind on the classics, though wiser heads than mine have opined that one shouldn’t read Trollope, for example (Anthony, that is), until one is middle-aged. So it looks as if it might be a Trollopian autumn in the Cuthbertson bookroom.

Speaking of popular, light novels (and yes, I did read The Da Vinci Code, unfortunately), I missed the opportunity at work last week of nipping down to the Gatwick terminals to purchase a copy of Jilly Cooper’s latest bonkbuster, Wicked! – and have it signed personally by the toothsome Jilly herself. Wicked! Or not.

Posted by: Sarah | May 15, 2006

Boudica’s Last Testament

Sarah J over at Reading the Past has invited me to take part in this meme. Although it isn’t exactly convenient at the minute, what with me being somewhat in extremis, my faithful Druid scribe Dictafonix thinks I should let him take down my final words. So here goes…

I am: Boudica, widow of Prasutagus, chieftain of the Iceni tribe who left half his kingdom to the emperor Nero in his will. When Nero tried to steal the other half, and his procurator had my daughters raped and myself flogged, I became figurehead of the British resistance to the Roman occupation of my land.

I want: to be back home, spinning wool, riding horses, watching the turn of the seasons, seeing my daughters grow up and my people prosper.

I wish: We Britons had developed some better tactics to fight the Roman army, instead of depending on numbers, idealism, elegant weaponry, woad, Druids etc.

I hate: Romans, obviously. And turncoat Britons like the inhabitants of Verulamium. We taught them a lesson they won’t forget in a hurry (the few that survived, that is).

I miss: my husband, who was a sweetie really, but a wuss with fatally Romanophile tendencies.

I hear: that my nemesis, General Suetonius Paullinus, is coming to get me. I mustn’t be taken alive. I mustn’t.

I wonder: what he’ll do if he gets hold of me. Reports suggest that despite overwhelming victory, he’s personally furious with me (a woman!) that things ever got this far. What a prick.

I regret: my decision to meet the Roman army on an open battlefield. Just what they wanted. I should have taken my chieftains’ advice and stuck to guerrilla tactics, the one thing the Roman army isn’t designed to cope with.

I am not: a broad-shouldered, six-foot, short-fused, redheaded harpy with a loud voice and questionable taste in chariot accessories. Neither am I a warrior-priestess who can fight like a man yet remain ultra-feminine in a vague mother-earthy sort of way. I’m just a hurt, angry widow-woman whose daughters got raped.

I dance: not any more, I don’t.

I sing: my death song.

I cry: when I remember what that fat, ugly slob of a Roman procurator ordered to be done to my daughters.

I am not always: as fearless as I seem. Especially now that we’ve been comprehensively defeated by a Roman army that looked so weak: a few men in skirts brandishing little stubby swords. Hah!

I made: a vow that if were defeated, I’d die rather than let myself be captured. Would I have made such a vow if I’d really thought it might come to this?

I write: Actually, I don’t. We leave that sort of thing to the Druids. This probably means that our side of the story will never be told. Sad, isn’t it?

I confuse: the boundary between the dead and the living. It’s about to become clear, I feel.

I need: another cup of poison as I don’t appear to be quite dead yet.

I should: die soon, so that my enduring legend might be created, and future generations raise anachronistic statues in my honour and reimagine me as a romantic heroine/male fantasy figure or new age/feminist/spiritual icon. Whatever.

I finish: with a plea to the gods that they won’t let the Romans punish my people too harshly. However, knowing Romans, I’m not holding my breath, what’s left of it…

I tag: anybody who would like to play. If you’d like to read what other historical characters have written, Gabriele over at The Lost Fort is compiling a list.

Posted by: Sarah | May 15, 2006

Dialogue in Historical Fiction

Further to the comment about dialogue in historical fiction in my previous post. Whilst compiling review links for the next issue of The Historical Novel Society Online Newsletter*, I came across a review in Saturday’s Times of three new historical whodunnits, The Elixir of Death by Bernard Knight, Aztec: City of Spies by Simon Levack and Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead by Nick Drake. The reviewer, Peter Millar, comments thusly about what works and what doesn’t in the tricky matter of dialogue in historical novels:

Hilariously [Bernard Knight] says that he is not writing in “olde worlde” language, when that is exactly what he does: everybody sounds as if they have stepped out of a 1950s adventure story: as if Biggles and Algy had had a trip in the Tardis.

Simon Levack makes no apologies for having his Aztecs speak in thoroughly modern English, but he also comes a cropper. On the face of it Aztec: City of Spies, his attempt to bring to life the little-known world of pre-conquest Central America, is brave and original. Yaotl is not so much a sleuth as an intelligent slave who ends up in hot water that only solving mysteries can get him out of.

Levack’s world is illustrated with a teasing map revealing a lakeland landscape of rival kingdoms, all of which today lie buried under the sprawl of Mexico City. His translation of descriptive Aztec names feels a bit odd at first but is easily excused when you come across originals such as Xayacaxolochatl.

On the other hand lines such as “Oh well, that’s just great . . . smartarse here suddenly decides it’s all bollocks”, make it all seem more Essex than Aztec.

In Peter Millar’s opinion (and probably mine if ever read the book, as we seem to be of one mind), it’s only in Nefertiti that the dialogue works, using “a spare style and subtly avoiding too much anachronistic speech.”

As the examples show, anachronism can work (or rather not work) both ways: it can be too modern or too archaic or, gotesquely, both.

These tin-eared approaches can really ruin a novel for me, no matter how good it is in other respects. Of course, we’re talking here of novels set in pre-English-speaking times, or where an unrecognizable version of English is spoken. But I’m sure there’s just as much of an art to balancing a flavour of, say, Tudor or Stuart English with intelligibility to the modern historical fiction reader who isn’t a scholar of the period.

I’d love to know if historical novelists find it difficult to pitch their dialogue just right. Does it come naturally, or doesn’t it really matter?

*The Newsletter is free and you don’t have to be an HNS member to subscribe. There’s a quick link to your right, should you wish to avail yourself of it.

Posted by: Sarah | May 11, 2006

Dorothy Dunnett

A few years ago I asked Jeanne Fielder, Historical Novel Society member and keen Dorothy Dunnett fan, to write for the HNS magazine Solander* an appreciation of Lady Dunnett and her two series of novels, The Lymond Chronicles and The House of Niccolo.

Up to that point I’d never read any of the books, although I’d heard much praise and been warned that once I began to read I’d soon be hooked to the point of neglecting my family, missing meals, Christmases, birthdays etc.

Jeanne recommended that I start with King Hereafter, Dorothy Dunnett’s only standalone historical novel, which is about Macbeth as he may really have been (i.e. not Shakespeare’s version). I duly did so but, alas, despite the evocative settings and rich characterization, I gave up about a third of the way through, having become hopelessly bogged down in the complex plotting. In the end, I guess, I really didn’t care enough about the people to persevere and find out what happened to them all.

But a niggling feeling persisted that I hadn’t given Dunnett a fair crack of the reading whip, so I embarked on The Lymond Chronicles a couple of months ago and have now read the first two, The Game of Kings and Queens Play. I thoroughly enjoyed both. I loved being in that beautifully-imagined and totally convincing world of 16th-century Scotland, The Borders and France; loved rakish Lymond, and all those treacherous, reckless, hapless Lords and Marquises and their strong, sensible, loving women; loved the jokes and humour – and the dialogue which Dunnett gets so right for historical novels, neither too self-consciously archaic nor too jarringly modern. So few authors can bring this off nowadays; one of the best, in my opinion, is Elizabeth Chadwick.

However, I still couldn’t follow all the intricate plotting and interplotting and subplotting. although I did manage to hold on to the main plot thread in each book.

So – a couple of questions for Dunnett devotees in Blogland:

1. Am I missing something? Am I indeed alone in getting so muddled in the Dunnettian entanglements? (Be brutal – you can tell me I’m thick. I can take it. Indeed, I suspect it already.)

2. If I looked up all the literary allusions and the translations of foreign quotations in The Dorothy Dunnett Companion, would I be better able to follow the plots and plotettes? (Generally I don’t like doing this while reading a novel as it tends to jolt me out of the story.)


*Incidentally, Lady Dunnett died the day Jeanne turned in her article for Solander. A year or two later, I wrote an appreciation of the American historical novelist Howard Fast for the same organ, and guess what….! At that point I decided it was time to stand down as editor, lest Solander acquire a reputation for doing to historical novelists what Hello magazine is reputed to do to the celeb weddings it features.

Paul Daniels (no, no that one), a member of Harry Thompson’s team of hapless (and frequently legless) village cricketers, The Captain Scott Invitation XI, got in touch via my recent post on Harry’s book about the team’s world tour, Penguins Stopped Play. He has now sent me details of the team’s match against Lashings World XI on Friday 2 June at Roehampton in memory of Harry and in aid of The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. Here’s the flyer:

Paul tells me that the Lashings team will be full of test cricketers like Carl Hooper, Richie Richardson, Saqlain Mushtaq etc, etc. He adds with no doubt undue modesty that he is “the idiotic Welshman mentioned in the book who dressed as Father Christmas in Buenos Aires on New Year’s Eve!” Be like me and read Penguins Stopped Play to find out more!

PS There’s a map of the location and more details on the Lashings website.

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