Thursday, December 28, 2006

My Top Ten Historical Fiction Reads for 2006

As promised, here are my ten favorite historical fiction novels that I read in 2006. Some were published this year, others were published years ago. Here they are, in no particular order:

The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory (Jane Rochford, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard)
Mary by Janis Cooke Newman (Mary Todd Lincoln)
Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund (Marie Antoinette)
Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir (Lady Jane Grey)
Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles by Margaret George (Mary, Queen of Scots)
Fatal Majesty by Reay Tannahill (Mary, Queen of Scots)
The Seventh Son by Reay Tannahill (Richard III)
The Ivy Crown by Mary Luke (Katherine Parr)
The Severed Crown by Jane Lane (Charles I)
The Young and Lonely King by Jane Lane (Charles I)

Other favorites: A Lady Raised High by Laurien Gardner (Anne Boleyn), The Last Queen by C. W. Gortner (Juana the Mad), The Lord of Misrule by Eve Trevaskis (Edward II and Piers Gaveston), The Pleasures of Love by Jean Plaidy (Catherine of Braganza, reviewed on my Jean Plaidy blog), Loving Will Shakespeare by Carolyn Meyer (Anne Hathaway), Gatsby's Girl by Caroline Preston (F. Scott Fitzgerald's girlfriend Ginevra King), The Sceptre and the Rose by Doris Leslie (Catherine of Braganza), and My Lady of Cleves by Margaret Campbell Barnes (Anne of Cleves). I could add some more, but it's getting late.

Aside from reflecting my weakness for books about British royalty, what do these books have in common? Overwhelmingly, it's their depiction of character; all feature likable, yet flawed heroes and heroines. Add to that vivid, realistic dialogue and a distinct narrative voice in most cases, and I was hooked.

I may not be blogging again until after the New Year, so Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Catnip for Christmas

I promise this will be my last cute animal picture for 2006. After that, we'll move back to historical fiction. But after my daughter took this video of Baxter opening a container of catnip on Christmas day, I couldn't resist posting it:

Anyway, since many bloggers have been posting their Top 10 books for 2006, I will be following suit before the end of the year. (I'm still pondering the matter.)

On the nonfiction front, I got Eamon Duffy's Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers 1240-1570 for a Christmas present. For those interested in medieval history and/or religious history, I recommend it highly. Fascinating text, beautiful four-color illustrations throughout.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Onslow the Sweater Guy

First, a housekeeping note: I just updated my template tonight. In the process, some of my newer links disappeared. I believe I restored them all, but if I've left yours out (or if you'd like me to add a link now), just let me know.

Our dog Boswell has a brother named Merritt, who is quite a bit smaller. Merritt, who lives with my parents, was kind enough to lend Boswell his red sweater for Christmas pictures, but it turned out to be way too small for him. It did, however, fit Onslow purr-fectly. (You know I couldn't resist that.)

Speaking of pictures, a high school student in Rhode Island posed for his senior yearbook photo wearing chain mail and carrying a sword. (He's a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism.) The principal, however, claimed that the sword violated the school's "zero tolerance" weapons policy, despite the fact that the school's own mascot, a patriot, totes a weapon. The matter is now in court.

Personally, I say let the kid have his sword. Trust me, it's a lot less scary than the pastel, checked, or plaid polyester suits the senior boys are wearing in my high school yearbook.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

This Blog's Stop on the Advent Tour

We'll start this visit on Marg's and Kaliana's Advent Blog Tour with a very special guest:

In the mood for a movie this Christmas? Let me recommend Kenneth Branagh's In the Bleak Midwinter (also known as A Midwinter's Tale), about a group of actors putting on a Christmastime production of Hamlet. It's a funny, sweet story. (It is rated "R," but the rating seems way overcautious to me--there's no violence or sex, and the language isn't saltier than some of what gets on television these days.)

Read "A Christmas Carol" for the umpteenth time? Try "The Haunted Man," one of Charles Dickens's lesser known Christmas stories, this year instead.

And for our feature presentation, "Christmas 1484 With Richard III," see the post below.

Christmas 1484 with Richard III: A Playlet

Scene 1: Westminster Hall is bedecked with greenery and tapestries covered with little white boars as King Richard III and Queen Anne enter. They look around admiringly.

Anne: Isn’t it beautiful? (Coughs) I beg your pardon. And look, I’ve left a couple of places vacant just in case your nephews Edward and Richard return for Christmas from their grand tour of the Continent.

Richard: How thoughtful, my dear. (Aside) What am I going to tell her next? I can't keep them on the damn Grand Tour forever.

Scene 2: Some time later. The king and queen are mingling with their guests.

Anne: Here comes your brother’s daughter Elizabeth. I do think she's bearing up pretty well after being in sanctuary all that time, don't you? And look, Richard! Just in case the poor girl was feeling sad this Christmas I had her dress made from the same material as mine. Isn’t it beautiful?

Richard: (Eyes popping) Yes. She—er—it is.

(Elizabeth, heading toward the royal couple, passes courtiers)

Courtiers: Wowsa!

Elizabeth: (Aside) And I thought it was going to be no fun being a bastard. (Curtsies to Richard) I wish you good tidings of the season, your grace. Oh, and your grace too. (Turns to Anne) How are you feeling, your grace?

Anne: Perfectly well, thank you. (Coughs for five minutes or so) Excuse me for a few minutes.

Elizabeth: (Taking out a slip of paper from a pouch she wears at her side) I thought she’d never stop coughing. Do you know when the doctors say she’ll die? This is what I want engraved on our plate once we’re married, Dickon.

Richard: Sweetheart, I told you to keep calling me “uncle” in public.

Elizabeth: (Pouting) All right, Uncle. But what do you think about the engraving?

Richard: Beautiful. Er— Anne?

Anne: What are you showing your uncle, dear?

Elizabeth: Oh, that would spoil your surprise, your grace. (Scampers off)

Anne: What a sweet girl. We really need to find a husband for her, dear.

Richard: Oh, I’m working on it.

Anne: You think of everything.

Richard: Welcome, Lord Stanley! How goes it with your wife?

Stanley: My wife?

Richard: Yes, your wife, Margaret Beaufort. The woman you have under house arrest on my orders.

Stanley: Oh, yes, my wife. She is very well.

Richard: She doesn’t find her confinement disagreeable?

Stanley: Oh, she finds ways to pass the time.

Richard: And how is that son of hers? John, no, Edward, no, Henry. That’s it. Henry Tudor.

Stanley: Him. I have no idea. I don’t hear from him. She never hears from him. We never hear from him. Frankly, I think sometimes my wife forgets he’s even alive, he’s been abroad so long.

Richard: Indeed. Well, a merry Christmas to you, Lord Stanley. (Aside) Lying bastard.

Stanley: And a merry Christmas to you, your grace. (Aside) Not “your grace” for long if Maggie has her way. (Exits)

Richard: Oh, hello, Mother.

Cecily: Hello, dear.

Richard: Are you enjoying your Christmas?

Cecily: As much as I can since you spread that nasty rumor that I had been unfaithful to your father and that your brothers weren't his children.

Richard: Not that again. It was nothing personal, Mum. We went through this last Christmas.

Cecily: Yes, and we’ll go through it this Christmas too, and the Christmas after that, and the Christmas after that. And you know why? Because I’m your mother and I can say to you whatever I please. Even if you are the king. And don't get me started on how you got to be the king. Your dear little nephews—

Richard: Mother, how about going on pilgrimage next Christmas? I’ll pay for everything.

Scene 3: The royal bedchamber. Richard is lying alone in the royal bed. Suddenly a spirit appears, shrouded in a deep black garment that conceals all of it except for one outstretched hand. Richard stirs and wakes.

Richard: What—? (Aside) I knew that last cup of wine was a big mistake.

Spirit: I am the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Richard: The what?

Spirit: You’d understand better if you were living about 400 years later. By then, a chap named Charles Dickens— But I’ve got other visits to pay tonight. Let’s discuss Christmas Yet to Come.

Richard: Tell me, O Spirit.

Spirit: Well, to begin with, your wife is going to die. I know you’ve been expecting that, but it’s not going to work out as you planned. You’re going to have to give up your plans to marry that nubile little niece of yours.

Richard: No nubile niece!

Spirit: It goes downhill from there. She’s going to marry Henry Tudor.

Richard: Not Tudor, no! Not Tudor!

Spirit: They’re going to have sons, and one of the sons is going to have six wives.

Richard: Six wives! I can’t even marry two! Or can I? Do I get to marry anyone else? Do I get to have living children?

Spirit: Sorry, no. Now, how can I put this? Well, in your case there’s not going to be a Christmas Yet to Come. This is your last one. Hope the food was good tonight.

Richard: Spirit?

Spirit: You’re going to die in battle before the end of the coming year, and Tudor is going to take the crown. Then he gets your niece, and the son with the six wives becomes king after him. You’ll be the end of the Plantagenet dynasty.

Richard: (After a long silence) I killed the little brats for this?

Spirit: I'm afraid so. But you will fight pretty well in that last battle, aside from getting killed. That's something.

Richard: Spirit, what I can do to change this dire future?

Spirit: Not a blessed thing. Too many people are going to be making a living writing books about you and the king with the six wives. But there is an upside to all of this.

Richard: Tell me, O Spirit.

Spirit: Your reputation will be bad, and a glover’s son named William Shakespeare will make it even worse. You’ll even be depicted with a hump on your back. But after 500 years or so, it will start to get better. There will be a society devoted entirely to improving your reputation. There will be publications devoted to you. Your enemies will be slandered. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a novel about you where you aren’t the good guy. Women in particular will love you. Everyone will blame someone else for the Princes in the Tower, and people won’t even care that you executed Hastings, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, and Haute on trumped-up charges. You’ll be everybody’s favorite dead king.

Richard: So. Tudor gets the girl and the crown, and I get the Richard III Society and the adoring women?

Spirit: Yes.

Richard: (Sighing) Well, there are tradeoffs in life, aren’t there? Merry Christmas, Spirit.

Spirit: Merry Christmas. And to all a good night.

Monday, December 18, 2006

McMansions and More

Not far from our house, a development of McMansions has begun construction, and some homes are finally available for walk-through. Being curious to see how the other half lives, my family and I went out over the weekend and walked around a couple.

No doubt about it, these houses do have lots of space. If you were mad at your relatives, you could pretty much avoid them for days at a time. In fact, your cars wouldn't even have to talk to each other, because several of these places had two garages--just in case, I suppose, your Hummer gave your Mercedes-Benz bad vibes.

Unfortunately, there was one glaring design flaw. When I entered the first house, I was transfixed by the built-in bookshelves surrounding the fireplace and indulged in some fairly serious Bookcase Lust. As I was preparing to leave the house, however, I took a last lingering look at the shelves and realized what I hadn't seen before: you couldn't fit hardbacks on these shelves. Not even trade paperbacks. The only thing that would fit on them was small knickknacks and mass-market paperbacks.

Well, that was a deal-killer for me. Where would I put my Dickens? Where would I put my Plaidys? Where would I put my hard-to-find Robert Hale titles? And where would I put The Traitor's Wife? What's the point of spending $750,000 on a house if you can't stretch out on the couch and stare admiringly at one's own book on one's own built-in bookshelves? Does that mean I'd have to take up reading Danielle Steele?

So, no McMansion for me, thank you very much, until I see one that caters to the wishes of the discerning reader. (And, of course, until I address the small matter of affording one.)

Anyway, yesterday I finished reading Jane Lane's Bridge of Sighs (which wouldn't fit on the McMansion's bookshelves either). It's about Mary Beatrice, second wife of James II. I was rather disappointed in it, especially when compared to the other Jane Lane novels I've read, the best of which have a dry wit and a deep sympathy for the main characters. There are a few good moments here, but I never felt that I knew Mary Beatrice or believed in the emotions that we were told she was feeling. I kept reading it because I knew little about the history of the time and was curious to find out what happened, but otherwise I doubt it would have held my interest.

Finally, I've signed up to do a posting for Marg and Kailana’s 2006 Advent Blog Tour. There's been a lot of nice posts so far, and I'm looking forward to reading what comes next. Mine is scheduled for December 21, and will feature Christmas of 1484 with Richard III. (If you're a diehard Ricardian without a sense of humor--not that you probably read this blog if you are--pass this one by.)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

So Why Don't I Like Fantasy? Beats Me . . .

There was a post on Carla's blog the other day about historical fantasy, and as I mentioned on the comments section there, I've never cared for fantasy. I've been trying to figure out why. It's not that I have a Gradgrindian aversion to fancy; after all, there's a miniature Christmas tree in my kitchen that opens up its mouth (yes, its mouth, cleverly concealed under its branches) and sings "Jingle Bells" when you wave a hand in front of it. It's not that I'm a religious fanatic who sees something sinister in Harry Potter; quite the contrary. But for whatever reason, fantasy, as well as science fiction, has never appealed to me.

In the end, I suppose it's like chocolate ice cream. I don't like it. I know lots of people love it. I know there are excellent varieties of it. I'll buy it for my family. I'll even make an effort to eat it now and again to be polite. I'll never attempt to dissuade someone else from eating and enjoying it. But I just plain don't like it. Give me vanilla any day.

That being said, I'm not immune entirely to fantasy, it turns out, at least not at the level of wanting to see what happens next. I volunteer at my daughter's school library shelving books once a week. I come in at the same time a second-grade class comes in for its library hour, and part of the hour, of course, is story time. So for the past few weeks, I've been listening, with the second graders, to one of the librarians read a volume in "The Magic Tree House" series. The series, from what I can tell, involves a couple of modern-day kids who go to, well, a magic tree house, and get transported back into the past. Once the kids reach the past, there's always some crisis that only they can solve.

Anyway, in this volume--I haven't caught the name--the kids have been taken back to Camelot, only to find that the denizens of the Round Table are having a perfectly miserable Christmas, evidently because the leading knights have gone missing and none of the people left have the courage to go looking for them. Our modern-day kids, being a plucky pair, immediately volunteer, and just yesterday, they located the missing knights, who have all been put under some sort of a spell that makes them dance endlessly until they dance themselves to death. When the bell rang yesterday, the kids had hit on a solution: join the dancing circle, keep from falling under the spell themselves, and pull the dancers out of the circle, thereby breaking the spell and return everyone to Camelot. Things were looking dire, though, because it appeared that the kids might not be able to resist the spell themselves . . .

I hope this is all wrapped up next week, because I really don't think I can wait until after Christmas break to find out how this all ends up.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Philippa Gregory's Latest

I haven't read much of Philippa Gregory, and up to now, the only novel of hers that I found agreeable was The Constant Princess (and even that, I thought, was repetitive and on the politically correct side). I loathed all of the characters in The Virgin's Lover, so much that I never got past the first few chapters, and though The Other Boleyn Girl had some memorable scenes and vivid characters, the whole thing struck me as smarmy. But I'm always up for another round with Henry VIII and his wives, so I put myself on the library waiting list for The Boleyn Inheritance.

And I'm pleased to report that I enjoyed it immensely.

The Boleyn Inheritance is told by Jane, Lady Rochford, widow of the executed George Boleyn; Anne of Cleves; and Katherine "Kitty" Howard. Jane, self-justifying and self-deceiving, is obsessed with her past yet determined to do whatever she has to do in order to restore her life to its former glamour. Anne, no stupid Flanders mare but a sensible, honorable young woman who longs for freedom and respect, finds that she has exchanged the petty humiliations of her brother's court for the reign of terror of Henry's. Kitty is an airheaded teenager, with an endless capacity to push aside unpleasant realities in favor of her more satisfying preoccupations: young men, jewels, and pretty clothes. Manipulating Jane and Kitty is the sinister Duke of Norfolk, and stalking through all three women's lives is the unpredictable, increasingly tyrannical Henry VIII.

Gregory juggles the heroines' stories masterfully. Even when Anne of Cleves is relegated to the background and the machinations of the Duke of Norfolk and Jane take center stage, Anne remains to comment on what she sees around her. She, the outsider, becomes both the moral center of the novel and the narrator on which the reader can most rely for an accurate perception of events. Kitty's adolescent preoccupations and mercurial character are captured wonderfully, while Jane, morally repulsive as she is, has a normalcy about her that keeps us reading her story and wondering at her motivations.

There's a certain humor here, often quite dark, that was missing altogether in the very earnest Constant Princess. Much of this comes from Kitty's youthful blatherings ("France would be wonderful, except I cannot speak French, or at any rate only "voila!" but surely they must mostly all speak English? And if not, then they can learn?"), but the more cynical Jane Rochford contributes some memorable lines: "If she declares herself Dereham's wife, then she has not then cuckolded the king but only Dereham; and since his head is on London Bridge, he is in no position to complain."

And neither am I. Read this one.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

To Bibliography or Not to Bibliography?

Here's an excerpt from an interesting article by Julie Bosman, "Loved His New Novel, and What a Bibliography," in today's New York Times about the practice of including bibligraphies in novels:

“It’s terribly off-putting,” said James Wood, the literary critic for The New Republic. “It would be very odd if Thomas Hardy had put at the end of all his books, ‘I’m thankful to the Dorset County Chronicle for dialect books from the 18th century.’ We expect authors to do that work, and I don’t see why we should praise them for that work. And I don’t see why they should praise themselves for it.”

Traditionally confined to works of nonfiction, the bibliography has lately been creeping into novels, rankling critics who call it a pretentious extension of the acknowledgments page, which began appearing more than a decade ago and was roundly derided as the tacky literary equivalent of the Oscar speech. Purists contend that novelists have always done research, particularly in books like “Madame Bovary” that were inspired by real-life events, yet never felt a bibliography was necessary.

And many present-day writers like Thomas Pynchon, most recently in “Against the Day,” put extensive historical research into their novels without citing sources or explaining methods.

But some novelists defend the bibliography, pointing out that for writers who spend months or years doing research for historical novels, a list of sources is proof of labor and expertise. . . .

Of course some fiction writers have always tacked on bibliographies, as William T. Vollmann has done since his first book, “You Bright and Risen Angels,” published in 1987. Mr. Vollmann initially did it because the book was first published in Britain, and he wasn’t sure how many sources he was expected to cite according to British laws, he said.

But now, Mr. Vollmann says, he does it as a service to readers. “I think it’s nice for a reader to have the information available,” he said. “Let’s say somebody gets interested in a character, or is disbelieving of something I had a character do. He can look in the back of the book.” . . .

I'm with Mr. Vollmann. Personally, I regard a bibliography in a historical novel not as a bid for praise or as proof of labor and expertise, but simply as a tool for the reader who might be interested in reading more about the subject. I don't hold the absence of one against an author (there's none in my own book, although I do include an author's note in the book and a list of further reading on my website), but I do appreciate its inclusion. I certainly don't see its being there as pretentious or as a form of bragging. It's an aid to the reader, which the reader can either make use of or ignore.

Maybe Mr. Wood just doesn't read much commercial historical fiction, because bibliographies seem to have been quite common in it for some time. Jean Plaidy often included them in her novels (The Battle of the Queens, the one closest to hand on my bookshelf, lists 21 titles that Plaidy consulted), and King's Minions, a 1974 Brenda Honeyman novel about Edward II that I finally acquired yesterday after months of forlorn Googling, has a "Works Consulted" page. Even these now-dated bibliographies can be useful in leading readers to long-out-of-print books that may contain relevant information.

So I say, ignore Mr. Wood. Bring on the bibs (and keep the author's notes coming too, please).