Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Jean Plaidy's Katharine of Aragon, Three Kings Named Edward, and My Mustard Chorus Line

I've been reading Jean Plaidy's Katharine of Aragon, which is a reissue in one volume of three books originally published in the 1960's. So far, I'm rather enjoying it. Plaidy's style can get rather repetitive, but in this particular case, with so many characters to keep track of, this can be a blessing. Plaidy also describes the events from the perspective of a number of different characters, not just Katharine, so the pace of the book, though leisurely, doesn't feel slow. I may try her reissued book on Charles II next, and there's also a book (not by Plaidy) called Marrying Mozart that's waiting patiently on the library hold shelf for me.

By the way, if you enjoy discussing Edward I, Edward II, and Edward III, along with the important events and people of their reigns, there's a new Yahoo group just for you! Check it out under The First Three Edwards link to your right.

Last night my daughter saw fit to Make a Statement About My Housekeeping by arranging all of our waiting-to-be-recycled mustard containers in a neat little row in the pantry. Having no shame (hey, Martha Stewart's served time! I haven't), I've taken a picture of the result:

If I don't post again soon, it'll be because the folks from House Beautiful are just taking too much of my time.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

What Not to Web

As a reader as well as a writer, I always enjoy looking at author websites, especially when I'm deciding whether to buy a certain book. I've gained valuable ideas for my own site from such surfing. Unfortunately, I've also seen much to avoid. Here are some website blunders that have kept me from buying an author's books:

  1. Poor grammar and spelling. I'm not talking about the occasional typographical error that slips by the best of us. I'm talking about authors who have no idea of the difference between "who's" and "whose," whose subjects and verbs don't agree, and whose pages are full of misspelled words. Why would I buy such an author's book when the website is so painful to view?

  2. Dated material. I've seen many websites where the author has a page listing his scheduled appearances, such as at book-signings. When I click the page, I find out that all of the appearances are a year or more old. Similarly, I saw one page recently where the author used a Halloween theme, which was cute in October but wore decidedly thin after Thanksgiving. An author's website is a valuable sales tool. If he doesn't care enough about it to keep it fresh-looking, why should I assume that more care went into his book?

  3. No excerpts. I want to sample a book before I buy it, unless it's by someone whose books I always buy. Ice cream stores have those little spoons their customers can taste a flavor with before springing for a double scoop—why not give readers the same benefit with an excerpt they can read?

  4. Fussy script. Would you buy a book written entirely in cursive script? Then why would you use all-cursive script on your website? Aside from the difficulty in reading it, not everyone has sharp young eyes, and some of us, like me, never had sharp eyes even when we were young. Pander to us a little.

  5. Busy, busy, busy. A reader looking at an author's site is interested in the books the author writes, not in how many cute icons the writer can squeeze on a page. Unless you're a talented graphic designer or have hired one, it's best to err on the side of simplicity. Remember, too, that not everyone has high-speed Internet access—if a site's so graphic-intensive it takes a long time to load, the reader's likely to press the Stop button.

  6. You like me, you really, really like me! Patting oneself on the back is fine on an author's website, in moderation, but some authors overdo it. Quote some favorable reviews, list the awards you've received, keep a guestbook full of flattering comments—but don't tell me on every page how fortunate I am just to be breathing the same air that you do. It backfires. It really, really backfires.

  7. Boring websites. Some writers list only their books and their biographical information on the websites. Why not give the viewer something to linger over, even if it's only a few links to click? If a website's captured my interest, I might well come back to it later—and this time, I might have some money to burn and be ready to buy your book.

  8. Navel-gazing. This may be my own idiosyncratic prejudice, but I dislike author websites where all or most of the links are to sites about writing and where all or most of the author Q & A's are about how to get published—as if the only people viewing the author's site are aspiring writers themselves. Of course, authors do get asked advice on how to get published, and putting it on the website saves repetition, but give folks who aren't interested in being writers or who don't need the advice something to look at also.

  9. Whining. Some authors, particularly in their blogs, go on and on about the difficulty of writing, their problems with their publishers, their battles with the phone company, and so forth. A little of this goes a very long way. Unless a reputation as a kvetch is part of your literary persona, or unless whiners are the readers you're looking for, go easy on the griping. Most people have relatives to complain to them—they don't need to search the web for that.

  10. Snarling photographs. It's a very small quibble, but I prefer to buy books from nice people rather than from mean people. Some authors, presumably trying to look serious and/or thoughtful (or, perhaps, thinner?), succeed only in looking mean. If that's the case with you, leave the picture off the website, or at least substitute a picture of yourself at age three looking mean. Leave the scowls to the high-fashion models.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Too Much Richard III, and The Spanish Bride

Yes, I keep changing the title of this blog. But the idea of doing lists when I'd really just like to rattle on about things was getting too confining, and it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind.

Though I liked the novel, I've put down The Broken Sword for the time being--I'm suffering from a surfeit of Richard III fiction. There are only so many solutions to the Princes in the Tower mystery, after all, and once you figure out whether a novelist is going to make Richard III a bad guy or a good guy, you pretty much know how the rest of the novel is going to go. Bad guy--sighs of relief at the end, Richard III kills princes. Good guy--mourning at the end, someone else, or no one, kills Princes.

What I'd like to see is more Wars of the Roses novels "starring" the other major players during that time--Warwick the Kingmaker, for instance, or the Duchess of York, or William Hastings. I'd particularly like to see a novel about William Hastings, because he was treated so badly in a recent pro-Richard novel I read. In it, he had a virgin peasant girl abducted, taken to a brothel, and drugged so that he could rape her. The narrator stated that this was a common practice for him. There's no historical evidence for this that I know of--Hastings, like his friend King Edward IV, was known as a womanizer, but that's hardly the same thing as being a serial rapist. The episode seemed designed solely to make Hastings such an unsympathetic character that the reader wouldn't hold it against Richard later when he executed Hastings without trial on very dubious grounds. So I think Hastings is very much in need of a novel (and for that matter, a biographical study). Maybe I should try it, if no one else will!

Anyway, I've switched to The Spanish Bride by Laurien Gardner, which I understand is a pseudonym for various authors doing a series of books on Henry VIII's wives. This one is about Catherine of Aragon. So far, I'm liking it--it switches back and forth in time, giving the reader a nice perspective on how the aging characters (the narrator, who's fictional as far as I know, is one of Catherine's ladies) have changed over the years. After that, I just might go wild and move into the 16th century, or perhaps out of England altogether for a little while.

What I'm drumming my heels impatiently awaiting these days is the publication of Ian Mortimer's biography of Edward III. I like the one by Michael Packe, but it'd be good to see another one as well. And it'd also be nice to see one on his queen, Philippa.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Historical Fiction Haters (Rant O' the Week)

Since writing and publishing my own novel, I've noticed that there are people who hate historical fiction. Mind you, I don't mean people who simply aren't interested in reading it. That's their preference, and I respect it. I myself have no interest in science fiction or fantasy, for example, but I don't have any animosity toward these genres or toward their readers or writers. I wish I did like such books, as a matter of fact--there'd be much fewer days when I can't find anything to read.

But the historical fiction haters I've encountered are a rather different breed. They regard historical fiction as dishonest and duplicitous, a deliberate attempt to distort history. (Could I have gotten some more words that begin with "D" in that sentence? Probably, but I'm feeling lazy.)

Part of this, I suspect, is a confusion of historical fiction with historical romance--an assumption that historical fiction is simply an excuse to dress people up in fancy clothes, put them in a castle or a mansion, and let them go at it like bunnies for 300 pages or so. It doesn't help that back in the 1970's and 1980's, mainstream historical fiction was often marketed with covers that appealed to the historical romance reader--ladies with flowing blond or black (never brown) hair being clutched by bare-chested men who often appeared to have spent more time at the hairdresser than the ladies had. Rather than take the trouble to distinguish mainstream historical fiction from the worst historical romances--the type where medieval heroines have names like "Amber" or "Jade"--the historical fiction haters lump them all together. Sheer laziness.

But a lot of the animosity felt by the historical fiction haters is the result of a paternalistic attitude toward the reader. Historical fiction should not be read, the line goes, because the poor benighted reader won't be able to know what's based on historical fact and what's purely the product of the writer's imagination. Now it's true that there are some people who have difficulty discerning fact from fiction--someone must believe those supermarket tabloids, and TV actors who play doctors used to get letters asking them for medical advice. But to assume that all readers are credulous to this degree is to show an enormous contempt for the reading public.

Of course, some people will read a historical novel and never take the trouble to find out what was "made up" and what wasn't. (The same, of course, is true for moviegoers--there's a sizable part of the population that is convinced, from the movie Braveheart, that William Wallace was the father of Edward III. He wasn't, folks. Do two simple things on Google: search for William Wallace's date of death and Edward III's date of birth.) That's unfortunate. But historical fiction is exactly that--fiction. The reader's been put on warning by that classification that some or all of the incidents and dialogue in the book may be purely the product of imagination. If he or she doesn't care to investigate further, that's his failure, not the writer's.

In researching my own novel, I read a great deal of nonfiction books, and I found errors in quite a few of them--most of them minor. I also came across a Ph.D. dissertation so sloppily researched that I could not believe the author was awarded her doctorate. People were given titles they never held; people were confused with their relatives. One man was described as being out of favor at court and therefore "keeping a low profile." Well, he was indeed keeping a low profile--six feet under, to be precise. He was dead at the time of the events described by the author.

Errors in nonfiction are unavoidable; authors get tired, get notes confused, make typographical errors. (To say nothing of so-called nonfiction writers who deliberately mislead readers, like the egregious James Frey.) But the reader of nonfiction, unlike the reader of fiction, has a right to expect accuracy, and unless he's widely read on a subject or the error is so glaring as to be obvious, he's unlikely to catch errors or even to be looking out for them. So if I took the attitude of the historical fiction haters, I'd warn people off nonfiction--all nonfiction--since it too has the potential to mislead readers. That would be quite silly, wouldn't it?

No girl was ever ruined by reading a book. Remember that.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

My Favorite Dickens Novels

In honor of the new BBC production of Bleak House finally making its way across the Atlantic (well, it hasn't been that long, but it feels like it), I'm blogging today on my favorite Dickens novels. There's a tie at the top, with 1 being the best score:

1. Bleak House. Every time I read this novel I find something new to admire about it. Dickens's range in it is shown most clearly by the fact that the funniest scene in the novel (if you like black humor), the tea party at the Snagbys' house, and the most tragic one, the death of Jo the crossing sweeper, both involve some of the same characters. There are very few authors who can blend comedy and tragedy in a single work. Shakespeare is one, Dickens another.

1. Our Mutual Friend. Maybe not quite as good, from a purely critical standpoint, as Bleak House, but still tied for first place as far as I'm concerned. It has screamingly funny scenes, like the one where Dickens describes a ragged school and its highly unenthusiastic pupils, thrilling scenes, like Lizzie's rescue of Eugene, and touching scenes, like the marriage at the end.

3. David Copperfield. I don't think there's another novel that describes the influence of other people, good and bad, on one person's life so nicely.

4. Great Expectations. If you can read the scene where Pip goes to see Wopsle play Hamlet without screaming with laughter, you need antidepressants.

5. Little Dorrit. The last line in this novel is one of the nicest ever written.

6.A Tale of Two Cities. The first Dickens novel I ever read, on a subway going from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I ought to send a thank-you card to the guy who didn't want his copy and gave it to me.

7.Nicholas Nickleby. In all honesty, I probably like the RSC adaptation of the book as much if not more than the book itself, but that's a lot of liking either way.

8.The Pickwick Papers. A little too episodic for me to place higher, but still very funny. Its scenes in debtors' prison are a nice rehearsal for Dickens's later works.

9.Dombey and Son. I feel a little bad about ranking this so low, since there's much in it to admire. I had a feminist professor who analyzed its gender aspects half to death, which may account for my failure to warm to it more.

10.Hard Times. I like it better than The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, but I still think of this book as a Dickens novel that's had all the life drained out of it. Still, it's worth reading, especially in conjunction with Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth, which has certain similarities to it with regard to family relationships. This novel was the darling of anti-Thatcherites during the 1980's and 1990's--one TV adaptation even had Sissy Jupe (or Louisa?) anachronistically denouncing the Conservative Party, which was a very different animal from the Utilitarians mocked in the novel.

Historical fiction update: Been sort of slow in the reading department lately, but I finally received Rhoda Edwards' novel about Richard III, The Broken Sword. It uses the device of multiple narrators that was used in Rosemary Jarman's We Speak No Treason, but The Broken Sword is the better book by far, without the purple prose and romance-novel elements that marred We Speak No Treason. Its characterizations are good, and the author has a wry sense of humor that gives a refreshing note to the usual strife of the Wars of the Roses.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Top 10 Anne Tyler Novels

Since I've been writing historical fiction lately, I've been reading a lot of it too, but my favorite living novelist is not a historical novelist, but Anne Tyler. Here (1 being the best) are my favorite novels by her:

1. Saint Maybe. When a careless remark by high school student Ian leads to the deaths of his brother and his sister-in-law, he turns to religion to deal with his guilt. This, and his penance of taking over the rearing of the couple's children, alienates him from his old friends. This could have been a gloomy book in some authors' hands (picture it in those of Joyce Carol Oates!), but Tyler makes this story poignant and often hilarious, without ever mocking Ian's genuine religious faith.

2. Breathing Lessons. Extroverted, impulsive Maggie and introverted, rigid Ira, married for decades, drive to a friend's funeral. On the way home, Maggie takes the opportunity to visit her son's ex-wife and decides, against all reason and probability, to reconcile the couple. The novel flashes back to Maggie and Ira's courtship, their son's marriage, and the breakup of the son's marriage. It's funny, poignant (one has to use this word a lot with Tyler), and sometimes heartbreaking.

3. A Patchwork Planet. Ex-delinquent Barnaby, from a wealthy, philanthropic Baltimore family, is a trusted employee of a business that does errands for the old or incapacitated, but his family hasn't made it easy for him to put the past behind him, and his prim new girlfriend complicates matters.

4.Ladder of Years. Mourning her elderly father's death, attracted by a younger man, and feeling unappreciated by her family and irritated with her husband, Delia disappears during a family vacation and starts life anew in a small town. But her job as a housekeeper to a handsome high school principal entangles her in the problems of another family, while her own won't let her go that easily.

5. Back When We Were Grownups. A middle-aged widow tries to reconnect with her younger, more serious, studious self.

6. Morgan's Passing. Married to a wealthy wife, middle-aged Morgan has little to do but hold a busy-work job in one of her family's stores, so he passes the time assuming other identities. Along the way, he meets a young couple, Emily and Leon, whose baby he delivers and whose spare lifestyle entrances him. Then he falls in love with Emily.

7.Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Pearl's husband goes off on a sales trip and never returns, leaving angry Pearl to rear the couple's three children, who cope with their father's absence and their mother's sometimes erratic behavior in entirely different ways. This is darker than many Tyler novels--Pearl's behavior borders on child abuse--but it's an ultimately hopeful one, with characters who can learn from the past rather than being enslaved by it.

8.The Accidental Tourist. Probably the best known of Tyler's novels because of its movie adaptation. When the murder of his son destroys his marriage, Macon finds solace in Muriel, a much younger woman who takes both him and his Welsh corgi in hand.

9.The Amateur Marriage. Tyler's latest novel (the next is forthcoming this spring). Though this is not Tyler at her best--I never connected very well with the main characters, one of whom Tyler takes the strange step of killing offstage--it's still worth reading, especially for the opening scenes in World-War-II-era Baltimore. Tyler has the endearing habit of sometimes recycling characters from one novel to another, and Gina Meredith, a sulky adolescent in Morgan's Passing, turns up as a bossy spouse in this one.

10.A Slipping-Down Life. In general, I don't care for Tyler's earliest novels, which tend toward the Southern Eccentric tradition of novel-writing and can get cloying. This, however, is one of the better ones. In a small town in 1960's North Carolina, overweight Evie, a shy high-school student, develops a crush on a small-time rock musician and ends up as his wife after carving his initials on her forehead to gain his attention. This was recently made into a movie, where for reasons best known to Hollywood, teenage Evie was turned into a woman in her thirties.