The William Shakespeare Detective Agency: The School of Night – by Colin Falconer

Falconer's William Shakespeare Detective Agency

Falconer’s William Shakespeare Detective Agency

On William Shakespeare’s birthday, I won a copy of Colin Falconer’s The William Shakespeare Detective Agency: The School of Night by simply sending the writer an email asking to enter the drawing. That was easy! (Woot! I actually WON something!)

Stuck in VA for extra days due to endless rain, I figured it was a great time to venture into my freebie. The work is right around novella size and I finished it in four evenings.

The story introduces country bumpkin William Shakespeare, cousin to THE William Shakespeare. Country Will has come to London to seek his fortune and landed on famous Will’s threshold penniless. Of course, he gets into immediate trouble and raucous fun ensues.

I don’t write starred or formal reviews, but I will say this was good entertainment: rough-and-tumble London, complete with murder mystery and forbidden romance. It is a bit bawdy, but then, so is our famous Shakespeare at times, when we high-brow readers are willing to admit it.

The main character is endearing, famous Will is well fleshed-out and the romantic interest has pizazz. Mr. Falconer is setting himself up with plenty of material for future escapades. The second installment – The William Detective Agency: The Dark Ladyhas also been published.

I confess, I’m easy pickings for London, theatre history and Shakespeare, but I’m sure anyone looking for a few evenings of escape to into Elizabethan England will enjoy it.

The author’s historical notes at the end are particularly amusing. Falconer has written these as if commenting on the historicity of the story as a found document/journal and notes various anachronisms or “poor memory” by the original “author”. Clever.

Recommended: for laughs and light reading

You can see Amazon reviews here.

And Goodreads reviews here.

Colin Falconer’s Blog is here.

7 Things I’ve Learned About Twitter

Call me slow, but I have finally joined the Twittershere.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:

  1. Twitter is not so much about relationships – I guess that time has passed.
  2. No, I don’t want to buy your book. “I mute you. I mute you. I mute you.” (Yay! for Tweetdeck!)
  3. I find it weird that people tweet about themselves in third person.
  4. I’ve found lots of new resources: writing, marketing, history.
  5. And medieval manuscripts –  – images work! I’m an artist. I’m visual. I’m giddy with the eye candy.
  6. But I quickly decided pictures without links to the original source irritate me. So I’m being careful not to post them myself and I’m no longer retweeting them.
  7. I lurked on my first live Twitter chat. That was like drinking from a fire hose. But I figured out how to just follow the feed of the main speaker and block out the other noise.

Not too bad for a newbie.

I’ve updated my Creative Accountability Page with my writing progress.

And added a blog post to the Long Ago & Far Away site. (The blog for Historical Fiction Off the Beaten Path).

I’d love to hear how you are using Twitter these days. Have you been at it for a while? Has it changed for you? Do you use it to interact directly with people? Or just participate in the big shotgun fest?

Water for Elephants and Self-Determination in Ageing

Water For ElephantsSara Gruen’s new book, At the Water’s Edge (Philadelphians pursue the Loch Ness monster – World War II) debuted this week at No. 12.

That makes it past time I complete this post that’s been simmering in draft mode for months.

I finally read Water for Elephants last winter. I know I’m swimming against the tide – again – but I didn’t really get the excitement over it.

I’ve not seen the movie, but I imagine the potential visuals were a strong driving force for the project. But the main story? Meh. Sorry, I didn’t find it that interesting. It was just a love triangle set in a circus environment. The lesson here might be that great word-crafting and an exciting context still requires a compelling story with compelling characters. Of course, the book received endless 5-star reviews. So what do I know? But I find it interesting that the critical movie reviewers complained that the two lovers lacked chemistry on screen. There might have been any number of causes: the acting? the directing? the screen play? the editing? But, I found the same problem in the book. The characters didn’t make me care and so I wasn’t convinced all the drama was worth it.

However – really big however – the circus story is narrated by the main character, now a nursing home resident. This character – present-day Mr. Jacob Jankowski – made an immediate, deep and lasting impression on me.

At 90+years-old, Jacob is fighting for self-determination. His nurses are kind and do their the best for him. They are trying to keep him out of trouble; keep him from danger. But he longs for freedom and he proves that he is capable of much more than they are comfortable with. No doubt they have residents with varying abilities, and so, like all institutions, they must standardize and systematize, reducing everyone to a lower commonality or else they would be undone. But Jacob clings to every last bit of control he can grasp.

The Take Away – I am helping my parents make the continuous adjustments that come with growing old: Dad no longer drives. Mom got rid of all their glassware. Throw rugs are gone – taken up to prevent falls. And now we are working to get them moved from ten hours to ten doors away. Water for Elephants sent up all sorts of flashing lights for me – not circus lights, warning lights. And they continue to flash every time I am about to make a decision that affects my parents’ lives: Am I making a decision for them based on my own preferences? Is this choice something they can and should still make for themselves? What do THEY want?

Jacob constantly reminds me: Let them have a say in every possible decision. There will be enough, and increasingly, fewer choices for them. Stop first and consider: Is this a question of danger in any way? If mom wants her new walls painted marigold when I would use a cooler color – what’s that to me?

Find every opportunity to let our elders retain their self-respect and determination.

– Recommended

Would I read more from Ms.Gruen? You bet.

Time Management and the Disordered Life – Update #1

Must Keep Writing!

10,000 new words in six days! Whew. Mostly rubbish but something to work with. I’m trying to set short-term goals based on what looks possible within the next chunk of time. Those six days were spent away from home, helping my parents with their move. While I am with them, we have a standing agreement that I spend my mornings working on my writing. I am often able to squeeze additional time (mostly reading, research and social media) into the evenings.

I’d set myself a minimum of 1500 words/day while there – see here – enough pressure to keep me focused but not so much to make failure inevitable. I’m not sure of the exact final count because I often delete chunks of in-line notes along the way. But I definitely averaged above my 1500 word/day goal.

Now I am home again – for about a week. This time must include unloading and finding room for the belongings I always cart south by truck and small trailer on these trips; quarterly and 2014 tax paperwork, phone calls regarding all of the preparation needed to establish Mom and Dad in their new home: new doctors, Invisible Fence estimates, lawyers; buying paint for their “new” house, the usual personal catching up (laundry), and, if the weather will allow, some exterior painting on my own house.

So, my next short-term goal is: a minimum of 500 words/day on the manuscript (blog posts don’t count!) and putting together some reference lists that I feel I need to finally tackle. I’m at the point in my scribbles where placeholders for the names of minor characters, major articles of clothing, architectural terms, etc, are slowing me down. One can only have so many Whosywhatsits, So&Sos and thingamajigs in a manuscript before going nutso.

Time Management and the Disordered Life

Down the Rabbit Hole

Down the Rabbit Hole

Day job, family, (laundry, errands, bills, stray cats and trying to move aging parents to new home), news headlines, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, real life relationships – everything conspires against our creative arts. This past week, with 20x more discretionary hours available than usual, I lost focus. I meandered down every possible rabbit hole. A lot of it was good – I’ve learned about marketing, how to use Twitter, found new resources and finished some research – but I didn’t add one word to my manuscript. I floundered.

Today I’m packing to head north again and wishing I’d used this week at home more effectively.

My life goes from 95% externally structured (when on an adjusting gig) to negligible external structure (between gigs). I have been self-employed most of my life so I am adept at self-structure and motivation. But from time to time even I fizzle out.

So, in an effort at self-help, I’ve added a special page to this blog to track my challenges in focus and productivity. I’ll keep it separate from this main feed in order to not clutter it up. Since technically it won’t scroll like a blog, I will continually update the page text and see if that works. It will include periodic reviews of how I am doing, plus observations, tips and resources to combat this struggle. I can’t promise there will be no pity parties.

I’m calling it Creative Accountability. We’ll see if it works.

Collateral Damage

The Shepherd's Song

Ever wonder about those poor peasants who are always raped, pillaged or wholesale deported to foreign lands?

I do.

I love reading historical fiction about movers and shakers; kings and queens whose passions turn the wheels of history. But every time a village is burned and the women and children are dragged off by their hair I think, what about them?

They are the red shirts of history.

Maybe I identify with them. Since childhood, I have read about historical upheavals and wondered, how do the regular folks survive? How did people get on with their lives during the bombing of Britain? What became of the ethnic Koreans deported to the Kazakh SSR? How do you feed your family when Boko Haram is in the neighborhood?

It is hard enough to hold a steady course when my plans are derailed by a sudden car repair..

Kings, queens, statesmen – the important people – are fascinating because they have choices and their choices affect the rest of us. Writers like Sharon Kay Penman and Hilary Mantel get into their heads and humanize them so we can imagine great moments in history through their personalized visions. But from my little person’s view I’m drawn to those who have to constantly adjust to a world not of their own making. Writing my novel is an exercise in answering this question: how does the baker, the miller, the foot soldier, the dairy maid, the sailor navigate this volatile world?

Reading Response: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

While working long hours last Fall, I slowly made my way through Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali. Set in 15th Century Spain, a family of Muslim landowners cope with Ferdinand and Isabella’s Reconquista.

I’ve written a blog post about the book on the Long Ago & Far Away blog.

I would cross-post the whole item but I’ve only now learned that Google gets annoyed with you duplicate content. Sigh. So much still left to learn.

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction – Longlist:

I see a pattern. Do you?

  • A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie – England, Turkey, India – WWI
  • Arctic Summer by Damon GalgutEngland, Cairo, India – 1912 (unclear from reviews if/how much WWI figures into the story)
  • Mac and Me by Esther Freud – England WWI
  • The Lie by Helen Dunmore – WWI France; Post-WWI Cornwall
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – 1922 England, Post-WWI
  • Wake by Anna Hope – England Post-WWI
  • The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth – England Post-1066

Observations:

  1. Western writers and readers obviously still can’t get enough of WWI and WWII.
  2. The 1600s remains a popular era.
  3. The context of war is fertile soil for story.

Publishing note: The Wake by Paul Kingsworth appears to have been originally published in 2014 by a crowdsourcing process. See:

http://unbound.co.uk/books/the-wake

Can you guess which just jumped to the top of my TBR list?

Strange Gods – Annamaria Alfieri

Strange Gods by Annamaria Alfieri

And the final “catch up” post brought over from my Long Ago & Far Away blog. I promise to keep this one more up to date in the future!

I recently enjoyed Annamaria Alfieri’s latest historical murder mystery: Strange Gods.

Set in 1911 British East Africa, a murder entangles a cross-section of expatriate and local characters into a complex but well constructed whodunit. And we get a love story as a bonus. Beyond the murder mystery and romance, Ms. Alfieri also illustrates the consequences of universal social ills and the challenges of those who must navigate through them.

I will leave the specifics for you to discover since I do not wish to slip into spoilers.

But, if you ask me, this book cries out to be expanded to film. Think of the scenery! The costumes! The culture and character contrasts! The discovery of dark secrets and passions! This could be both grand entertainment and worthy of critical acclaim.

Wouldn’t it be great to see some serious money poured into this project rather than another Transformers rehash?

Dare we hope?

When Ms. Alfieri has a break in her book promotion schedule and writing her next tale, maybe we can get her back here for another interview.

Have you read Strange Gods yet? Do you have any questions you would like me to ask of her? What do you think about putting it on the big screen?

In the meantime, I am observing certain recurring themes in my Long Ago & Far Awayreading. I will explore those in a near-future post.

More From Ancient Egypt: Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile

Another “catch up” cross post from my Long Ago & Far Away blog:

Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile, is an imaginative rendering of Cleopatra Selene’s formative tween years. Selene, daughter of the Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, was raised in the Roman household of Caesar Augustus after his triumph over her parents led them to commit suicide.

Rough start for a kid. But Dray’s Selene is no ordinary princess.

I usually resist anything suspect of girlishness but had picked up the book at the Historical Novel Society’s 2013 conference after hearing Ms. Dray talk about her work. Having recently read Wilbur Smith’s River God and The Quest, I figured I should get the last of my ancient Egypt stack taken care of. Although Lily of the Nile mostly takes place in Rome, the protagonist fits in my Egypt category.

I was pleasantly surprised at the unsentimental nature of Dray’s work and her ability to embed the historical context within an engaging story. I confess to an irresponsible lack of knowledge about the times and events so I was at Ms. Dray’s mercy for the facts but came away feeling better inform on all levels: people, events, culture and worldview.

Three areas of particular note:

1. Culture clash: I’d never given thought to how cold and rigid Roman culture must have felt to the conquered peoples. Selene’s Ptolemaic Egypt now seems the perfect foil to Augustus’ masculine authoritarianism.

And Dray’s representation of Isis worship in conflict with Roman religion was eye-opening. I’d always thought of Rome as primarily universalist – as long as the official gods were publicly honored. Dray makes it clear why the Romans might have seen Isis as a threat to their ordered social strata.

2. The Isis faith: Before reading Wilbur Smith’s stories mentioned above, I knew next to nothing about Isis or any of the Egyptian religions. In Lily of the Nile, Stephanie Dray does an excellent job of showing how the Isis religion may have contributed to the receptivity of Christianity and it’s eventual expression. Since Sunday School, I was taught that Rome’s Pax Romana paved the way for Christianity by facilitating the swift spread of ideas. I have some understanding of Hellenistic influence on the early church, and have a better-than-average awareness of other influences on the historical development of Christianity, but I was not aware of an active Egyptian religion contemporary with the birth of Jesus which preached love, appealed to the downtrodden and had a “Queen of Heaven” at the center. Okay, Isis also married her brother and included temple prostitution and magic in her cult. So there are plenty of differences. But after Dray’s portrayal of Isis it is hard to miss the universal tendency of human felt need for a Mother figure.

3. Dabbling in Fantasy: As with Wilbur Smith’s The Quest, Dray’s Lily of the Nile allows the magic of the worldview to manifest itself in the “real life” of the historical fiction. Maybe Smith’s The Quest prepared me for it here since I found it less disconcerting in Dray’s work. Possibly I was more jarred by it in The Quest because Smith’s earlier work, River God, with the same characters, did not blur the lines of genre. Suddenly, finding myself in a fantasy world threw me for several hundred pages. In reading reviews of The Quest and Lily of the Nile some readers are seriously put off by this genre mashup. I do not have a problem with it in principle – hey, we’re primarily telling fun stories here – as long as I feel prepared for it in some way. Since I don’t read back covers, synopses or reviews before reading, I take a bit of a risk when I venture in unaware. But I think that’s my own problem, not the writer’s, if there has been some hint beforehand.

I’d like to know what others think about this question. I love a story that goes deep into the worldview of the characters, but how do you feel about blurring the genre lines between historical fiction and fantasy? Historical fiction is fraught with plenty of debate already. (How much are you allowed to make up or change “history”?). I suspect some folks will want to keep the categories tight. I’m more inclined to let imaginations run wild as long as we all know we are reading fiction, in spite of my own experienced disconcertion. I do think the reader needs some kind of “heads up” though. How much of the supernatural should be there before labeling the book with a sub-genre?

Lily of the Nile: Recommended

If you would like to read story synopses and reviews for Lily of the Nile, check out the following links:

Goodreads

Amazon

I do plan to read Stephanie Dray’s next Cleopatra’s Daughter installment Song of the Nile.

But next up here is: Strange Gods by Annamaria Alfieri – Historical Mystery set in early 20th Century East Africa!