Friday, March 30, 2007

A Beaut of a Cover

Now, if Jean Plaidy's name wasn't on the cover of this 1952 paperback (a Pyramid Books Giant), would you have guessed who wrote it? Be honest, now.

The front cover isn't the only fun thing about this historical novel (about Jane Shore, of course). The back cover teases us with "From the king's boudoir to a prison for prostitutes!" Inside, there's a short biographical note stating that Jean Plaidy became "a best-selling novelist after successive steps as a secretary, rare gem salesman and housewife."

The back contains even more treats. For those who didn't have the nerve to walk into a bookstore, the publisher offered order coupons to order titles such as Cage of Lust ("The stark human drama of a love-starved young girl's passion and torment for her own father"), Teen-Age Vice! ("Inspired by J. Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I., this book rips the veil off the vice racket, juke joint binges, cabins for the night, prisons that pervert, the smut peddlers, lonely heart clubs"), and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. No, I don't see the connection between Wilkie Collins and Teen-Age Vice! either, except that in 1952 they each cost 35 cents, plus 5 cents for postage and handling.

Things get even cheaper on the previous page, with 25-cent offerings such as French Doctor ("His lady patients tempted him!"), Palm Beach Apartment ("Strange love story of a young girl and her benefactor!"), Farm Girl ("In the city--they would have called her a juvenile delinquent!), The Divided Path ("The story of a homosexual!"), and Blonde Mistress ("Daring expose of illicit love!). Somehow, Guy de Maupassant squeezed his way onto this page with The House of Madame Tellier and Other Stories, which merited the feeble blurb of "An exciting collection by the famous French storyteller!" Coming between Chain Gang ("Our most brutal prison system!) and Swamp Girl ("She had to choose between white man and black!"), poor Maupassant didn't stand a chance.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Hilda Lewis's Wife to Charles II

Not that long ago, I posted on Wife to Great Buckingham, a novel by Hilda Lewis. (You can look here to find some brief comments on her book about Queen Isabella, Harlot Queen--look for "Portraits of the She-Wolf" in the February/March 2007 issue.) I enjoyed Harlot Queen, but found Wife to Great Buckingham to be tedious, so I wasn't sure what to expect when I read Wife to Charles II, a 1965 novel that, like Harlot Queen, has recently been reissued by Torc, an imprint of Tempus Publishing.

Wife to Charles II, naturally, is about Catherine of Braganza, and is told in the third person. Most of the events are seen from Catherine's point of view, though occasionally the narrator will report on events at which Catherine wasn't present, such as the goings-on at Parliament, or listen in on a conversation between other characters.

This novel could have stood some judicious cutting, I think, particularly in the first half. Charles II takes a new mistress. Catherine is bothered by it and talks to her ladies about it. Charles II takes another mistress. Catherine is bothered by it and talks to her ladies again. Catherine frets about her inability to carry a child to term and wishes that Charles paid her more attention. After a while, this becomes wearying to the reader as well as to Catherine. Only with the arrival of the Popish Plot does the novel pick up its pace.

Lewis's prose style, though not what I'd call purple, takes a bit of getting used to. It's quite dramatic, and sadly, it's also devoid of humor, which is a liability as far as historically witty characters such as Charles II and Nell Gwyn are concerned. On the plus side, Lewis makes us share Catherine's and Charles's frustration and anger as the so-called Popish Plot holds the nation in thrall. There are some good set pieces here, such as the trial of Stafford and Charles II's deathbed.

The most fully realized character in this novel is Charles II himself, who for all of his faults comes across as being genuinely likable. Catherine herself is done well, her flashes of spirit saving her from the thankless role as put-upon wife. The rest of the characterizations are less than successful, and in some cases border on caricature. The only thing vivid in Lewis's presentation of Titus Oates is his physical description. Other villains in the novel, like Shaftesbury, don't even get that much. With the exception of Nell, who's curiously colorless, Charles II's mistresses are depicted as so hateful and greedy that it's impossible to understand what Charles sees in them, other than good looks. We certainly don't see any of the charm they must have exuded. Monmouth is another character who should have been interesting, but wasn't. We never get a hint of his motivations for acting as he does.

So should you read this novel? I liked it more than I disliked it, but I'd have to say on the whole that it's a mixed bag. I enjoyed the depiction of the relationship between Charles II and Catherine, and I give Lewis points for not glamorizing Charles II's adultery at the expense of making Catherine into a shrew or a cipher. Lewis also depicts the terrors of the Popish Plot period with verve and outrage, and her Charles II is well rounded and sympathetic. I just wish Lewis had found a way to champion Catherine's cause without sacrificing the complexity of her other characters.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I Can See Clearly Now (And Ramble Too)

I picked up my new glasses today, in a new prescription, and I'm seeing all sorts of little letters I couldn't see before. So bring on the wee footnotes, folks--I'm ready.

The optometrist's office is conveniently located in the same shopping plaza as my favorite book-and-mortar bookstore, so naturally I went there afterward, eager to try out my new specs. One of the few authors of contemporary literary fiction I like has a new book out, so my intent was to buy it and start reading my new acquisition at lunch.

That's not, however, how things worked out. First, I looked at the price (over $25) and the size of the book (about 200 pages), and got an instant case of tight pursestrings. I don't mind paying a little extra for a small-press book, a university-press book, or a self-published book, realizing as I do the economics involved, but this novel was published by a big New York house. Worse yet, the historical novel that was on the table beside it was being sold for the same price, but was about 300 pages longer--and was published by the same big New York house. Having just spent Major Bucks on my glasses, I couldn't quite bring myself to spring for the historical novel either, but if I had, at least I would have thought that I was getting my money's worth in word count if nothing else.

I might have overcome my Inner Cheapskate had I flipped through the book and been engrossed by what I saw, but my flip-through was rather discouraging. It seemed that the author was rehashing a plot he had used in an earlier novel--a clever rehash, but still a rehash.

Most important, however, I found that I just couldn't muster up the interest to buy a novel set in contemporary times. It would have probably been different had the author been Anne Tyler or P. D. James, mind you, but this novel just didn't exert enough force to pull me out of the past. So I let it sit there. I may well change my mind if the money tree blooms or when the book is discounted or comes out in paperback, but for now, I'm sticking with historical fiction--which is what I ended up buying today.

So why has contemporary fiction lost so much of its appeal to me? Part of it, I think, is that so many of the characters in contemporary fiction, particularly women's fiction, strike me as self-absorbed or trivial. Another reason, I suppose, is some form of escapism. Even though historical fiction might deal with some very grim events, they're events that are safely in the past. Given a choice between reading a novel about the Hundred Years' War and the current wars in the Middle East, I'd take the former any day. I suppose the elements of time and distance also play a part--I'd rather read a novel about adultery in Charles II's court than a novel about adultery in modern-day Hollywood or the Hamptons.

Yet another reason, though, is that a lot of contemporary novels, especially literary novels, have become too much alike and feature an increasing narrow range of themes and characters. There's the novel about a middle-aged person trying to find meaning in his or her life. There's the novel about someone trying to cope with some sort of disaster. There's the novel about someone abusing drugs or alcohol. There's the novel about bored and alienated people in the suburbs, the novel about bored and alienated people in the city. There's the novel about someone who's been sexually or physically abused as a child. There's the novel about mothers and daughters, the novel about fathers and sons. There's the novel about someone discovering his or her sexuality. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but for the most part, when I read a review of a contemporary literary novel or flip through one at the bookstore, the words that come to mind are most often, "Been there. Done that." Perhaps, then, I'm finding in historical fiction what I'm not finding in contemporary fiction--the whole gamut of human behavior and emotions.


ADDENDUM: Daphne (and Carla in her comment) have some nice thoughts here about historical fiction.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Last Justiciar

Yup, it's been a few days, but here's a meaty post to make up for it.

Long before his son and grandson became embroiled in the disputes between king and nobility during the reign of Edward II, Hugh le Despenser (d. 1265) was a key figure in the turmoil surrounding the reign of Henry III. An adherent of Simon de Montfort who remained faithful to his cause until the very last, he was the last justiciar of England, and his death on the field of Evesham was the beginning of the ill fortune that would plague subsequent generations of Despenser lords, all of whom would die violently, young, or both.

Hugh le Despenser was born in about 1223. His father (d. 1238), who needless to say was also named Hugh, was associated with Earl Ranulf of Chester; J. R. Maddicott indicates that he was probably the earl's hereditary steward. After his father's death, Hugh received several gifts from Henry III: two casks of wine in 1245, timber in 1247 and 1249, and free warren on a Rutland estate in 1253. In 1255 he was appointed constable of Horston, a royal castle, and in 1257 he accompanied Henry III's brother Richard of Cornwall to Aachen, where Richard was crowned King of the Romans.

It was Hugh's friendship with Simon de Montfort, however, that would shape Hugh's future. Hugh and Simon are first mentioned together in 1256, when Edmund de Lacy and William Longespee were arranging the marriage of their children, a task so complicated that each father appointed a team of negotiators to act on his behalf. Hugh le Despenser and Simon de Montfort were two of the three men on Lacy's side. By 1259, the relationship between Hugh and Simon had evidently become a close one, though Simon, born around 1208, was about fifteen years older than Hugh. Simon made his will in 1259, naming his wife and eldest son as the primary executors and Hugh le Despenser, Peter de Montfort, and Arnold du Bois as associate executors. (All the men named, save for Arnold du Bois, whose health kept him out of battle, died with Simon at Evesham.)

In the meantime, growing baronial discontent with Henry III forced the king to accept an arrangement under which the state of the realm would be "put in order, corrected, and reformed" by a group of twenty-four men, twelve from the king's side and twelve from the barons' side. The twenty-four men met at the Oxford Parliament in 1258, with Simon de Montfort and Hugh le Despenser among the twelve men chosen to represent the barons. The result, the Provisions of Oxford, would be the bane of Henry III's existence for the next seven years.

At Oxford, Hugh le Despenser and eleven other men were chosen to negotiate with the king's council "on behalf of the whole community of the land in the common business" during future Parliaments. What was to be of more significance to Despenser, however, was the revival of the office of justiciar, effectively abolished in 1234 by Henry III when he dismissed its current holder, Stephen of Seagrave. The justiciar's office was essentially a hybrid of administrative and judicial tasks; C. H. Knowles describes it as being established "to superintend the royal administrative machine, to remedy failures of justice, and to meet the need for a vice-regal authority in England when the monarch was visiting his continental lands." Hugh Bigod, whose brother Roger was the Earl of Norfolk and the marshal of England, was chosen to fill the revived office of justiciar.

By October 1260, Simon de Montfort had become a central figure in government. One of the actions of that month's Parliament was to replace the three chief royal officials: the chancellor, the treasurer, and the justiciar. Hugh le Despenser was elected as justiciar, against Henry III's wishes. Part of his duties was to try cases, which he did that ensuing fall and winter.

Despenser had also married at some time during this period. His wife was Aline Bassett, daughter of Philip Bassett. Bassett, like Hugh, had been involved in the reform movement, but he would eventually side with the king. Aline was unquestionably a good deal younger than her new husband; though her exact age is unknown. Postmortem inquisitions at the time of her father's death in 1271 give various ages for her, putting her birth year in 1241, 1245, 1247, or 1249. The last date, at least, is rather unlikely, since on March 1, 1261, Aline gave birth to a son, Hugh, who would be known in Edward II's reign as Hugh le Despenser the elder. Despenser seems to have had three daughters as well, but genealogists have puzzled over whether all three were the children of Aline. Possibly Despenser had been married and widowed before his marriage to Aline; in 1238, the king had permitted him to marry as his friends thought best, and it would have been strange had he waited twenty years or so to make his first marriage.

Henry III had chafed over the appointments of Despenser and the new chancellor and treasurer, complaining that they were "wholly ignorant of their offices." This was only one in a string of grievances by Henry against his council, which he claimed was treating him as its ward. By May 1261 Henry had regained control of his kingdom. He replaced a number of officials, among them Despenser, who lost both the justiciarship and his position of keeper of the Tower. To add insult to injury, Hugh was replaced as justiciar by his own father-in-law, Philip Basset.

The next several years would see several shifts of power. In July 1263, with Montfort once again in control, Despenser was reappointed as justiciar. Montfort stood on very shaky ground, however, and by early 1264, the King of France, having agreed to arbitrate between the royalists and the Monfortians, issued an award, known as the Mise of Amiens, that was entirely in favor of Henry III.

Montfort and his followers reacted furiously. Montfort's sons led attacks against Henry's supporters in the Welsh march—Montfort was laid up with a broken leg—and in March 1264, Despenser himself led a mob of Londoners in attacking Richard of Cornwall's manor at Isleworth. It was the Jewish community in London, however, that suffered the most in the spring of 1264. In April, a group of Londoners, led by Despenser's own brother-in-law, attacked the London Jews, killing hundreds and looting their property. The loot went into the hands of Montfort's supporters. Even in medieval England, where anti-Semitism was the norm, the massacre of the Jews shocked some chroniclers. The mayor of London and Despenser, however, did manage to save some of the Jews from the mob, and Despenser, who was in charge of the Tower, gave the survivors shelter there. He and the mayor may have been motivated more by a desire to restore order than humanitarian feelings, but at least they came out of the episode with more credit than some of Montfort's other supporters.

By this time the nation was in a state of civil war, which culminated in May 1264 at the Battle of Lewes. Montfort and his men were outnumbered, but were the victors. Among the many royalist prisoners taken was Philip Basset, who refused to surrender while he could still stand and suffered over twenty wounds before being captured by his son-in-law Hugh le Despenser. With Henry III now a figurehead, it was probably at Despenser's instigation that several weeks later, the king made granted venison and conies to the imprisoned Basset.

Though Henry III and his eldest son, the Lord Edward, were in Montfort's custody, Montfort's position was still not a secure one. Eleanor of Provence, Henry III's energetic queen, had gone abroad and raised a mercenary force. With the threat of invasion looming, Despenser was given responsibility for defending the Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex coastline. At the same time, Montfort negotiated with a papal legate and with Louis IX of France; Despenser was one of those entrusted with the negotiations. They proved fruitless, but the queen's invasion never materialized, apparently because Eleanor of Provence ran out of funds to pay her mercenaries. For a short period, it seemed that the Monfortian government was secure.

Then things unraveled quickly. The young, wealthy Earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare, defected from Montfort's camp in March 1265 after personal and policy differences arose. Despenser and others tried to resolve the dispute, but to no avail, and the situation only worsened in May when the Lord Edward escaped from custody via a ruse of trying out a fast horse. The future Edward I, allied now with Gilbert de Clare and the lords of the Welsh march, was a force to be feared.

Edward's troops and Montfort's troops, Despenser among them, spent the summer of 1265 moving around the Welsh marches. Montfort, planning to meet his son Simon's troops, arrived in Evesham on August 4, 1265, where Montfort's barber, who had climbed the abbey tower, spotted Edward's troops approaching from all sides.

Realizing that he was trapped, Montfort urged his closest allies to flee while there was time. To Despenser he is reported to have said, "My lord Hugh, consider your great age and look to saving yourself; consider the fact that your counsel can still be of great value to the whole country, for you will leave behind hardly anyone of such great value and worth." Hugh replied, "My lord, my lord, let it be. Today we shall all drink from one cup, just as we have in the past."

What followed was the slaughter of Montfort's troops. Hugh fell before Montfort did, dying by the thrust of a dagger, apparently at the hand of Roger Mortimer. Montfort, his horse having been killed beneath him, fought mightily but was at last killed by the king's men, who proceeded to dismember his corpse. A manuscript illustration shows Montfort's headless body, arms and feet severed, lying by Despenser's body.

Hugh's body and that of Montfort's eldest son, Henry, along with Montfort's torso, were taken to Evesham Abbey for burial by the foot of the steps leading to the high altar. Funeral services were held for all three men by the monks of Evesham.

Back in London, Hugh's widow, Aline, had been left in charge of the Tower and the royal prisoners lodged there. (Eerily, in 1326, the soon-to-be-widowed Eleanor de Clare, the wife of Aline's grandson, Hugh le Despenser the younger, would be left by her husband in a similar position at the Tower.) Hearing of the disaster at Evesham, Aline freed the prisoners, surrendered the Tower to the king's men, and sought out the protection of her father, who had evidently been freed from prison at some earlier point. Her decision to flee, while it lacked the grandeur of the defiance of Montfort's widow, who held Dover Castle against the king until October, was a sensible one for a young woman, probably barely out of her teens, with a four-year-old son and other small children in her care. Philip Basset used his influence with the restored Henry III to see that his daughter was well taken care of: thanks to his efforts, the Despenser lands passed to Aline's son intact. By 1271, Aline had remarried, probably at her father's arrangement. Her second husband, Roger Bigod, was the son of the justiciar who had preceded Despenser and the heir to the earldom of Norfolk. Aline thus became a countess, but documents suggests that she retained an affection for her first husband; she styled herself, "Aline le Despenser, Countess of Norfolk." She died in 1281.

At Evesham Abbey, the body of Simon de Montfort, which was reputed to work miracles, attracted pilgrims. Hugh's body was also credited with healing the blind and the crippled. Evesham Abbey was largely destroyed during the dissolution, though its Bell Tower, erected centuries after Evesham, and some fragments remain. Stained-glass windows in nearby St. Lawrence's church depict Montfort, Despenser, and others taking their last communion before battle.

Despenser's death at Evesham would have repercussions in the fourteenth century; according to the Vita Edwardi Secundi, his grandson, Hugh le Despenser the younger, was determined to avenge his grandfather's death upon Roger Mortimer, grandson of the man who had slain the justiciar at Evesham. The killing at Evesham was also a precursor of the ill fate that was to dog the family for the next century. Despenser's son and grandson were executed in 1326; another descendant, Thomas le Despenser, was beheaded by a Bristol mob in 1400. Hugh le Despenser (d. 1349) and his nephew Edward both enjoyed successful military careers, but died in their prime, Hugh possibly of the plague. Richard le Despenser, heir to Thomas, died in his teens. One hopes that Hugh the justiciar, knowing as he stood in Evesham Abbey that August 4, 1265, would be his last day on earth, was spared a glimpse into the future.

(Historical fiction note: Hugh the justiciar is a minor character in Sharon Penman's Falls the Shadow. He also has a few lines in Feona J. Hamilton's Belaset's Daughter, a novel about an English Jewish family set in 1264.)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Wolf! Wolf!

Last night, I was browsing on Amazon and noticed that Virginia Henley's forthcoming romance, Notorious, had its description posted. Notorious, set in 14th-century England during the reign of Edward II, features a heroine named Brianna, whose love interest is Wolf Mortimer, son of the Roger Mortimer who's been mentioned on this blog.

Don't start Googling, folks. Roger Mortimer did some dreadful things, but naming a son "Wolf" was not one of them.

So what's with these names? Are romance readers really put off by heroines and heroes with monikers that suit the times they live in? It doesn't seem so; I trolled through Romance Reviews Today and found that most of the historical romances there had protagonists with reasonably authentic-sounding names (though there were some groaners too).

For what it's worth for you marketing people out there, un-period names scare me off. Here are a couple of romances set in the nineteenth century that I wouldn't read on a dare, even though they sound strangely familiar somehow:

Fine-eyed, spirited Raven Bennett disliked proud, arrogant Brayden Darcy, her new neighbor, from the start . . .

Try as he might, brooding, mysterious Blake Rochester could not take his mind off his daughter's governess, Jade Eyre . . .

Moving on, in the always popular Prove Me Wrong department, my rambles brought me today to a romance novel with a plot that revolves around a nearsighted, glasses-wearing heroine, Love Is Blind by Lynsay Sands. There's hope for us spec-wearers yet.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Few Short Reviews

I've been busy readin' books and writin' reviews for the next issue of the Historical Novels Review, so I haven't had much chance to blog lately. So here are my reviews that have already appeared in the February 2007 issue. They are from areas outside of my usual preoccupations, as you can tell. Perhaps some of you might want to pick them up.

Mozart’s Sister
Nancy Moser, Bethany House, 2006, $12.99, pb, 336pp, 0764201239

Nannerl Mozart, a talented musician in her own right, is used to being overshadowed by her brother, Wolfgang. Nonetheless, she struggles with envy and frustration—particularly when as a young girl, she realizes that her gender, rather than her musical gifts, will shape her destiny.

As the story of a woman cheated of the opportunities enjoyed by her brother, Mozart’s Sister, narrated by Nannerl, could have made for depressing reading. Instead, it’s a moving story of a woman who must cope with often difficult circumstances while doing her best to build a satisfactory life for herself.

The novel did feel a bit unbalanced to me—there’s a great deal about Nannerl’s childhood and years as a single woman, while comparatively little of the book is given over to her married life. This made an epiphany Nannerl experiences feel somewhat forced and abrupt; it was also odd, in light of the dramatic opening scene, not to see more of the emotional impact Mozart’s death had on his sister. These minor flaws, however, are countered by the novel’s strengths: its characterizations, especially that of Leopold Mozart, who turns out to be more complex and sympathetic than the stage parent he appears to be at the beginning; Moser’s deftness at portraying the shifting relationships within the Mozart family; and Nannerl herself, a good but realistically flawed woman born in the wrong time.

Mama Fela’s Girls
Ana Baca, University of New Mexico Press, 2006, $24.95, hb, 318pp, 0826340237

Mama Fela’s Girls is a multi-generational tale in a fresh setting: Santa Luc╬»a, a small town in New Mexico in 1934. The generations of the Romero family are Mama Fela, an aging seamstress; her daughter, Cita, who longs to pursue a career as an artist; her daughter-in-law, Graciela, a schoolteacher who is also her family’s main breadwinner; and her granddaughter, little Cipriana, who loves Shirley Temple movies. Their good points and flaws are all well rendered, and their dialogue is convincing and natural, even down to the Spanish phrases these Mexican-American characters use on occasion.

The male characters are somewhat less successful than the female ones; with a couple of exceptions, most seemed unsatisfactory in some way, being either absent, undependable, or worse. Given the novel’s title, I wasn’t surprised that the female characters overshadowed the men, but I would have liked to have seen some more strong male characters alongside the many strong female ones. That, however, is purely a personal preference.

Though the settings are completely different and the plots and writing styles have little in common, Mama Fela’s Girls kept reminding me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, another novel about a family dominated by strong females. Perhaps that’s because what is at the heart of both novels is family life, with its attendant frustrations and joys. Indeed, much of the action of Mama Fela’s Girls involves characters who must choose between staying in the family circle and leaving it. In this debut novel, Baca excels at presenting both the conflict and the tightly knit family that gives rise to it.

The Green Glass Sea
Ellen Klages, Viking, 2006, $16.99/C$22.50, hb, 324pp, 0670061344

In 1943, Dewey Kerrigan, nearly eleven, finds herself on a train headed toward New Mexico to join her father, a mathematician who has been working on what Dewey can describe only as “secret stuff.” Dewey is bound for a place called “the Hill”—Los Alamos—that is populated by scientists and mathematicians and their families, all working on a mysterious project known only as the gadget, one that everyone hopes will end the war.

The Green Glass Sea (the reason for the title becomes clear only in the last chapter) has many strands running through it. In part, it’s about the budding friendship between two outsiders: Dewey, who reads The Boy Mechanic and who is building her own radio, and her belligerent, artistic classmate Suze Gordon. In part, it’s a tale of how Dewey copes with loss. In part, it’s a celebration of intelligence and nonconformity. In part, it’s a story of the World War II home front (the scene where Dewey hears of the death of FDR is particularly moving). And in part, it’s a story of how the adults of Los Alamos put in long hours and make sacrifices to create their gadget—with a success that exhilarates some and terrifies others.

Crisply and compassionately written, with period details (like Mrs. Gordon’s chain-smoking) that light up the story without overwhelming it, this is an excellent novel that adults might want to borrow from their children. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization
W. Hodding Carter, Atria Books, 2006, $24.00/C$33.00, hb, 241pp, 0743474082

If you have some disposable income, Flushed, Hodding Carter’s tribute to the “humble plumber,” is a fun, yet informative, way to spend it. And you won’t feel that your money has gone to waste—except, of course, that it has, in a sense.

Flushed begins and ends with Carter’s tribute to the Toto Washlet S300, an electronic toilet seat that serves as a bidet. In between, we learn about the marvels of Roman plumbing, take a tour of the London sewer, skip across the pond to a waste treatment facility at Boston Harbor, read Rabelais on wiping methods (the finicky may want to choose another book for mealtime reading), study the evolution of the modern toilet, meet some plumbers, and go to a plumbing trade show. You have to like a book where Robert the Bruce, Thomas Jefferson, William Butler Yeats, and Tobias Smollett all get a mention, along with a Japanese children’s book called Everyone Poops.

Convenient to hold while seated, entertaining, and easy to digest, Flushed makes for fine bathroom reading.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Ramblings on Spectacles

I went to have my eyes examined the other day and was greeted with the usual joy in the optometry department, since my prescription isn't the lenses-in-one-hour type but a high-powered one that sets my wallet to groaning.

One of the many reasons I've never been a fan of romance novels is because (if the covers are any indication of the contents), women with glasses simply don't exist in their universe. Admittedly, I may be dead wrong about this, since I've read very few contemporary romances, but I suspect that I'm right, at least in the case of the vast majority of books in this genre. One reason, I guess, is that glasses simply don't make for very good love scenes. They have a tendency to get in the way during kissing, especially if (God forbid) both parties are wearing them, and once things get steamy, lines like "She placed her glasses on the nightstand," just don't have the appeal of, "She let her negligee slide to the floor." (OK, I know that's not very steamy by modern standards. But this is a family-friendly blog.)

Romantic movies are equally inhospitable to those of us in glasses land. If a glasses-wearer appears at all in a lead role, it's most often as a mousy woman who gets transformed into a beauty, usually through the simple expedient of getting a decent hairstyle and--of course--getting rid of her glasses, the general idea being that she's wearing them to hide from the world, not for any mundane reason such as being able to see.

Though glasses-wearers have pretty much been exiled from the world of romance, there is a place for them in historical fiction, at least. I was delighted to find when researching The Traitor's Wife that one character, the ill-fated Bishop Stapeldon, owned a pair of spectacles, then a relatively newfangled device, at least in the West. I couldn't resist including a scene where the bishop, talking to a colleague, gestures with his spectacles.

Us spectacle-wearers have to stick together, after all.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Ten Reasons to Write Historical Fiction

1. If your hero is riddled with angst, it'll be because someone is trying to overthrow him, not because he is having a mid-life crisis.

2. There is seldom a need to have one character say to another, "I'll be there for you," "I'm conflicted," or, "You're just not meeting my needs."

3. Your heroine can be slightly plump yet not obsessed about losing weight.

4. The heroine, if she works at all, need not work in the publishing industry.

5. War, revolution, disease, infant mortality, and childbed fever allow you to kill off your characters with mad abandon when they start to get on your nerves.

6. You can buy all sorts of books in your field of interest and tell your spouse that they are for research purposes.

7. Your heroine can wear just plain shoes, not Jimmy Choos.

8. You will not have to write 400 pages about a woman who is juggling her family and her career.

9. If you get a lot of facts wrong, you can shrug off your critics on the ground that all fact is the biased distortion of (a) male chroniclers, (b) Tudor historians, (c) the victors, (d) the Church, (e) all or any combination of the above.

10. Your hero can be manly, wise, just, brave, strong, sensitive, and studly to boot, especially if he is Richard III.