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?

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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!

Hooked on History II

Roman Main Street

The rest of the story. Originally posted on my Long Ago & Far Away blog in August of 2013:

It happened in an instant. I’d read the last page of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, closed the book and saw this kid running through ancient streets. Who was he?

The fact of real people living their lives through cataclysmic events overwhelmed me. How do they do it? How did they do it? Who were they?

It has long baffled me that, in the midst of upheaval, famine, war, and illness, people go on. They cope. They live their lives. Somehow. Whether the British during the Blitz or a nameless dancing boy escaped from a sinking ship, people adjust and do what life requires.

I was compelled to examine this resilience; to imagine their stories. My thoughts flashed to the times and places that fascinate me most – Late Antique Syria and points further east – and I knew I had tales to tell.

That was in 1993.

My life moved on. From time to time I thought about that kid who wouldn’t completely go away. I now knew who he was and what he was doing but I was busy. I left London for the US, got married, then left the US for Indonesia. While on a much needed vacation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, the plot spun out before me over the course of three days. But I still thought I’d never really write it. I was, though, compiling reference materials as I could. All that time the resources were few and expensive. I had to request an out-of-print Amazon search for the book The Early Islamic Conquests by Fred Donner. It was nearly 2 years before I received a notice that they had found it. I paid $80.00 for it in 2001. (It looks like it’s playing hard to get again.)

Life carried on. I returned to the US in 2002, ran a decorative painting/murals business for eight years and designed scenery and lighting for several professional theatre companies. In 2010, we moved to Florida and I started yet another career – this time in a cubical!

About eighteen months ago my work schedule became so crazy that my only possible creative time was the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t going to make it to my downtown art studio at 5am, so I decided it was time to write. The story is finally under way.

What strikes me now is how difficult it would have been to write any of my planned stories back in the early 1990s. There was no WWW. And, few of my primary reference books were published in 1993, most were written much later. If I could have learned to read Arabic, Greek, Latin and Aramaic while camping out at SOAS, I might have had a chance. So, although I’ve taken the long way to it, it’s just as well.

I would love to hear the research methods of others writing about obscure times and places. Do you think you could have tackled your current projects in the pre-Internet world?

Squeezing in Some Reading Time

This is a repost from my Long Ago & Far Away blog. (And pardon the weird formatting. Not sure why it’s happening, but I’ve no time to fiddle with it. I need to be writing my own novel just now.)

Wilber Smith’s River God and The Quest – Some Observations

In my efforts to expand my exposure to Long Ago & Far Away historical fiction, it was past time that I read some Wilbur Smith. His novels of ancient Egypt intrigued me so I picked up River God and ventured in – as always without reading the back cover, reviews, etc.

From the first page I knew that Smith was writing my kind of historical fiction: accent on adventure and mostly fictitious main characters allowing lots of room to play. I am observing that, the more locked to historical figures, the more difficult it is to craft a satisfying story. (Though the likes of Sharon Kay Penman and C. W. Gortner do it with aplomb). Call me low-brow but I like heroes and villains and adventure rooted in some other world than ours – historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. For historical fiction I want the context to be accurate but after that, I just want a good story.

So, River God: the most compelling aspect of this work is not so much the story as the voice of the main character. Our first-person hero, Taita, borders on the fantastical – no, is fantastical. He is a Renaissance Man in extreme: playwright, architect, administrator, military strategist, physician, mural painter, jeweler, hydraulic engineer, embalmer, musician – what have I missed? There are chariot battles, damsels in distress and adventures into sub-Saharan Africa. I know so little about the history or geography that, besides the epic exaggerations, I had to largely take Smith at his word on the basic facts. But it’s Taita’s voice that carries this book. His voice will stay with me when the story is forgotten.

Imagine my shock when I opened The Quest and found a third-person narrative, mostly in Taita’s point of view, but also from other characters and even much use of the omniscient. I had skipped two books in the series, so I knew there would be story I’d missed and I expected subtle changes in the author’s style but I grieved the loss of Taita’s voice for 100 pages before I finally let it go.

Also, by the time you reach The Quest, there has been a shift in genre from imaginative historical adventure to what is essentially a fantasy set in ancient Egypt/Africa. Taita is no longer simply skilled at everything. In the interim he has become a mage and a long-liver. Rather than the natural enemy of an invading force (River God) Taita is now pitted against a thousand year old witch.

I read fantasy so it should have been easy to make the transition, but it took me about as long to let the historicity go as it did to relinquish Taita’s voice. I do not want to be the one to pigeon-hole writers into strict genre distinctions but I really struggled with it. I like historical characters to take on as much of their own worldview as I can possibly comprehend, and the people of ancient Egypt would understand the world very differently from me, but that’s not what The Quest is. The Quest is fantasy – best to make that mental switch in your head before you start page one.

It would be interesting to read the interim books and observe when and how Smith makes this transition. I suspect it is gradual and would not have shocked me so if I had read the progression as written. I’d love to hear from folks who have read all four to learn if this is the case or if The Quest was a leap in style and or genre.

And, a warning about The Quest: this story is sexually visceral. For the most part, the sexuality is rooted in the themes of power, identity and transformation that run through both books, but there were bits that seemed gratuitous.

River God: Recommended – here is it’s review page on GoodReads (interesting that the reviews are mostly divided between love it/hate it. Few in between.)

The Quest: Recommended with caution – here’s it’s review page on GoodReads (also very divided opinions). And one from the Historical Novel Society.

Reading Response: The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

I have somehow managed, while working 7 days/11 hours, to complete reading a book and writing a blog post.  I’m reposting it here from it’s original location on my Long Ago and Far Away Blog.

Posted on March 14, 2014

I have mentioned before that I prefer to approach a book knowing only the genre and that it is recommended by someone aware of my interests. Reading back covers, reviews and synopses prevents me from experiencing the story the way the writer intended – a deliberate unfolding of information and events.

I began The Gift of Rain in the same manner. I knew it was an historical fiction set in WWII Penang, Malaysia – nothing more. I was excited about it because I spent four years across the Malacca Straits in Sumatra and made a brief visited to Penang while in the region. I suspected the book would have a Chinese focus because the author’s name indicates a Chinese heritage. (Malaysia is primarily Malay, Chinese and Indian.) I hoped though that there would be enough Malay environment to feed my hunger for something familiar but rare in literary resources.

Unfortunately for me, The Gift of Rain takes place at the crossroads of English, Chinese and Japanese cultures. Other than the tropical weather and interspersed Malay words and food, there is little of ethnic Malay culture here.

More importantly, this book is driven by a deep psychological study of a relationship between a charismatic, middle-aged Japanese man and a coming-of-age teenage boy. The writer’s fascination with mentorship through martial arts is clear but I just could not enter into it.

Early on, I broke my habit of not peeking. I was having trouble getting into the book so I did a quick, reluctant scan of the blurbs. That intrigued me enough to keep me going but also grieved me because that foreknowledge broke the immediacy of the first person narrative. I didn’t like knowing what the writer had not already revealed. But it did add some tension – knowing what was coming, identifying the clues along the way – and it gave me hope that I would eventually be gripped. I never really was.

I couldn’t identify with the Japanese character’s seductive power over the protagonist. (To be clear, this is emotional and cultural seduction, not physical.) I understood it and it was intellectually believable, but it didn’t do it for me. That made it difficult to remain sympathetic to the main character as he became drawn into the Japanese atrocities. It’s hard to walk with a first person protagonist when you can’t identify with his motivations.

I had several other difficulties connecting with the story. Japanese martial arts figure prominently – no attraction for me. There was little action other than about 30 pages towards the end of the book. Without more emotional connection to the story I needed something to keep me turning the page. The Japanese horrors did make me angry. That was more reason for me put the book down.

But after all of that, I still intend to read Mr. Eng’s next book, The Garden of Evening Mists – another intersection of Chinese and Japanese culture. At least I am forewarned this time. I will read it because it is set in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia where I spent an important, rare vacation in 2002. It was there that the plot of my own novel came tumbling out of my brain. Something about the cool air and the tea. I am passionate about tea and this is a plantation area. And I remain hungry for anything set in the Malay environment. The only other English language fiction I have ever read placed there is Clavell’s King Rat. (Oh, WOW, what a story!) And it is, again, about the intersection of Westerners and their Japanese oppressors with nothing of the Malay context other than a few locations, words and food references. I will also read Mr. Eng’s next book because he is a wonderful word crafter. I am well aware that my lack of passion for The Gift of Rain is all about me and not about his skills as a writer. I understand why this book has turned heads and won awards. He deserves the accolades. Few books can capture the heart of every reader.

This brings me once again to my decision not to write starred reviews. My purpose here is to describe my response and offer my observations in case they are helpful to someone else. I would love to interact with anyone who has read the book and had a different experience. Clearly this book is a great read to the right audience.

If you are interested in psychological character studies, Chinese Malay or Japanese culture or martial arts and beautiful word-crafting – recommended.

If you want Malay culture or action adventure – not so much.

Next up: River God – Wilbur Smith (This is my first Wilber Smith read – as usual, starting with zero info ahead of time. Already fun.)

Recent Reading: Sharon Kay Penman

When Christ and His Saints Slept is on the Kindle

When Christ and His Saints Slept is on the Kindle

Since I am writing historical fiction, it follows that I would read as much as possible in the genre. I am really trying to catch up.

In order to be well-read in historical fiction, one must read Sharon Kay Penman. So, I think I spent most of 2013 making my way through her Plantagenet Series – When Christ and His Saints Slept, Time and Chance, and Devil’s Brood. These books are massive but took me even longer because I found myself avoiding them – especially Devil’s Brood. Don’t misunderstand me – Ms. Penman is brilliant. Her writing is dense with historical detail and her character’s are as real as you and I. But I found myself wanting to slap nearly every one of them. Page after page of family squabbles result in the burning and pillaging of the French and English countryside for decades, generations. I found myself aimlessly surfing the web or scrolling through Facebook again just to avoid these people. What’s more amazing is that I liked most of the characters – even as I wanted to spank them.

Penman’s Lionheart – the story of Richard – sits on my dresser, but he will have to wait. I need a breather from these spoiled brats.

It reminds me of trying to read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror while living in Indonesia. I got through about half of it and couldn’t take it anymore. In this narrative history of 14th century Europe, Tuchman repeatedly points out that the rulers wreaking havoc on ordinary folks’ lives were really just teenagers run amuk. I felt like I was watching the same nonsense in Indonesia at the time and so put the book down. Why torment myself?

I suppose that’s somewhat the point in both works: people don’t change. Given the opportunity, a world run by teenagers will pretty much look like medieval Europe.

Thank God for democracy. Let’s keep it that way.

New Year’s Revolutions – 2014

Yes. Revolutions. Time to bust through the status quo and it’s inertia. Time to start something, change something.

I’ll begin with this blog that has been sitting for 6 months with nary a post.

2013 – my writing goal was to finish my novel’s rough draft. Didn’t happen. Got bogged down in life. But the first third of the book is a solid draft, so the 2014 goal is to get the rest of the book to a similar state. It will be a challenge.

For the first half of 2013, I still had a normal day job as a staff, in-office, catastrophe adjuster for a major insurance company. I worked long hours with lots of overtime but at least I knew my general schedule. I was able to get up at 5am and know I could get a good 90 minutes of writing time.

In mid-June I quit that staff job to go independent. I had a gig lined up. It fell apart. I enjoyed the summer catching up on everything else and making strides on my novel. Then, in September, a prior manifestation of my life came rushing back at me. I was suddenly a decorative painter again. The novel was set aside so I could be 150% self-employed.

You can read about all of that on my other blogs: Lausanne’s Golden Road and Marsh Hawk Studio.

To be painting again is a wonder, but the novel has been on the shelf – so to speak (hah, couldn’t resist).

In just a few more days, I will complete the large painting project that started it all. And return to the novel. Knowing that, with Spring approaching, I could be called up for adjusting duty and be working 12 hours/7 days week for a while. Or, another mural client could come calling.

There’s much to be said for an ordered life. Mine will never be. So I must figure out how to write without a set schedule.