Tuesday, June 30, 2009

We all love Richard, but sometimes we can love too much. A Historical Novel Review.

The Murders of Richard III
by Elizabeth Peters

Cover: Blah, what is that?!? That has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the story! A drama mask?!? So generic and ridiculous; I’m cutting myself off from complaining any further. Except I will add that when I was reading this on the bus across campus the other day, I’m sure I looked like quite the murder mystery fan.

Summary: Jacqueline, an American librarian with a dry sense of humor and a mysteriously large purse, entrances her British colleague enough for him to invite her for a special getaway while she is working in England. Thomas is a member of a pro-Richard III society that is having a gathering at an old manor house, and he wants Jacqueline to accompany him, although with an ulterior motive: he thinks her dabbling in old manuscripts might help them authenticate a Plantagenet age letter. The letter may or may not be the legendary missive from Elizabeth of York to her uncle Richard, believed lost to time, that might help prove Richard’s innocence in the deaths of the York princes. It supposedly details Elizabeth’s desire to marry Richard, which would be incongruous if he had already murdered her brothers and was trying to force himself upon her.

So the two arrive at the society meeting, which Jacqueline finds begins to resemble an English manor house party more than any sort of professional outing as the hours pass. The host believes he is an illegitimate descendant of Richard, is named Richard, and collects all sorts of Ricardian paraphernalia. In addition to dressing up as Richard. In fact, all the guests are dressed in medieval costume and have taken up the roles of the principal characters of the Wars of the Roses, no matter if they resemble the famous figures at all.

The party becomes even stranger as Jacqueline realizes that all the society members discuss and rehash the Wars of the Roses as though they had happened weeks ago, rather than centuries. They all seem entirely too invested in proclaiming Richard’s innocence. And on the first night, one guest has already taken the debate too far, and endangered a life. Jacqueline is almost pleased to find herself in the middle of a real, old fashioned English house party, and jumps right into solving the mystery, even if it means death could be on the line.

My Review: I will never not love an Elizabeth Peters novel (she writes the Amelia Peabody Egyptology mystery series, and if you haven’t read those yet, DO. IT.) so I may be am most definitely biased. But, it bears stating: I loved this book and devoured it in two sittings.

Despite my own summary right up there, the book is actually told (sort of) from Thomas’s point of view. Jacqueline, however, provides most of the outsider (or “our” viewpoint) commentary on all the events, so that is why she would probably be the main character. Of course, she is also the one to solve the mystery in the end, in a grandiose, old style, Sherlock Holmes type of explanatory monologue. The difference between this kind of ending and the mustache-twirling, villainous-explanation that I don’t really like lies in the author’s style; Peters is just ridiculously charming and witty. She is one of the few writers with whom I laugh out loud while reading.

I came to the wrong conclusions, of course, before the mystery was finally revealed, so I can also chalk that up to a decent read, and the “murderer” was fairly believable. I kind of wished that the mystery had had more to do with solving a Ricardian mystery, as well, but Peters deals with that in a tongue-in-cheek manner in the final pages, so I came away happy with the ending.

There is plenty of Ricardian historical chatter throughout the book, anyway, and it easily added a bit on to what I read in The Daughter of Time. This book has a great commentary on the nature of possession, and how the subject of our passions kind of possesses us, no matter if it’s a passion based 500 years in the past. Even sarcastic, smooth-talking American Jacqueline can’t avoid getting caught up in Ricardian drama. Even though this is an easy-to-read and entertaining mystery novel, there was plenty of character development and lingering moments to get caught up in.

Some notes I took while reading:

  • In the first pages, Jacqueline off-handedly judges all the royal figures in the National Portrait Gallery on a scale of sexiness. This is awesome.
  • Thomas discovers Jacqueline has actually heard the theory about Richard’s innocence before… when she read The Daughter of Time. Later on, Thomas brushes up on his pro-Richard debate skills be rereading Paul Kendall’s Richard the Third, which is the history book I picked up the other day. Well, I’m glad I’m in good company!
  • It is 1970s England, so there are a few elements that today could not figure in to this mystery. No one has cell phones, which would have solved the missing persons problem, carbon-dating techniques are briefly mentioned but today would be much more sophisticated, not knowing what someone looks like and yet not being able to look him up on Facebook, and the women’s pantsuits sound really weird. But it allows Thomas to keep holding old Social Class Issues, which are very funny.
  • Jacqueline is more amused than horrified by the dress-up activities of the society. I imagine I would react the same way, so this had me grinning throughout, as well.
  • There is a “boy” named Percy, who speaks to all the adults as though he is on the same level as them within the society, and takes on the role of one of the York princes, but I could never figure out how old he is. Especially since he is supposed to be enormous and fat. Whatever.
  • On P. 125 of my paperback: “Thomas found himself trying to decide which nation could claim the least-attractive tourists.” Ha! Love it.
  • When something goes wrong, all the members of the society automatically jump to the conclusion that an anti-Ricardian has penetrated their midst. Not, you know, that maybe someone is just trying to break into their house and steal things. This seems sooo fitting for so many “societies” today that I was highly amused.
Also, I finally figured out how to adjust the size of the pictures I post, so... yeah... I don't know why I didn't do it before.
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Web Spotlight Wednesday: The Republic of Pemberley

In honor of the first day of Stephanie’s Everything Austen Reading Challenge, I will be profiling “The Republic of Pemberley,” one of the best sites on the web for Jane Austen information and discussion!

The wealth of this site is the discussion forum. Jane Austen fans of every knowledge level frequent the boards and ask questions, read along together, and rave over the different novels. I like how there is an individual board for each of the six big novels, too.

Basically, I wish I had known about this site back when I was doing a paper on Pride & Prejudice in my senior year of high school; The Republic of Pemberley has all sorts of academic help (the forum is for general discussion, not homework answers) in its easy-to-understand site guide on the front page of the site. Their Jane Austen Information Page is a compilation of etexts of the novels as well as biographical and critical information regarding Austen and her era. I’m going to jump in here and add, though, that at least all six of the big novels should be available for free from Google and for the Sony eReader because they are no longer within copyright.

And of course, what kind of site would it be without a good gift shop? The Pemberley Shoppe has plenty of Café Press items featuring quotes and images either directly from or inspired by Austen.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Before the Da Vinci Code, there was The Daughter of Time. A Historical Novel Review.

The Daughter of Time

by Josephine Tey

Cover: I don’t know if you can tell from the picture here, but in the painting there is a pair of feet coming out from underneath a tapestry. This is irrelevant to anything that happens in the book, but quaintly intriguing, in that old “whodunit” sort of way.

Summary: Did Richard III really murder “the princes in the Tower”?

Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard is laid up in hospital for months with a leg horribly broken in the line of duty. He is dismayed to be without any sort of stimulating activity, grumbling to nurses and visitors alike, until one of his old friends presents him with a series of historical portraits. Knowing that he has a knack for discovering characters by examining faces, she implores him to study the portraits and see if he can resolve famous crimes of history. He lights upon one portrait of a man he claims could not be guilty of a crime, and is surprised to learn that it is Richard III, famous for brutally slaying his nephews and hiding their bodies toward the end of the Wars of the Roses. Everyone he consults seems to see something different in the face, but none conclusively see it as that of a murderer, much less a cold-blooded one. With the help of his friends, Grant sets himself to the task of vindicating the story of Richard.

My Review: This is a short book (about 200 pages), but I didn’t want to put it down for a moment… and the whole thing technically takes place in Grant’s hospital bed. It is a brilliant “literary thriller,” and for all I know it was one of the first of the genre, having been written in the 1940s. While the main character himself is never in any danger, I kept turning each page as fast as possible to find out what else the characters were going to find out… would they ultimately be disappointed? How could these two discover something that vigilant historians and royal scholars had not discovered over the last several centuries? I was hooked.

The novel acts as a great “gateway drug” (hehe!) to becoming addicted to Ricardian lore. I currently understand very little about the Wars of the Roses (being more of a Tudor reader, myself) and now I want to see if I can uncover for myself whether or not Richard could be guilty of the murder of the princes.

The main evidence—and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here if it’s 500 year old information, but just in case… SPOILER—rests on the fact that there is no contemporary record of an accusation against Richard during his lifetime. Inspector Grant points out that the murder of the princes should have acted as a rallying cry for Henry VII’s troops as he headed into the final battle at Bosworth. Furthermore, there were other heirs besides the two boys… in fact, there were nine others. Richard would have had a lot more killing to do.

And so on. I don’t know if I believe yet that Henry Tudor killed them, as Grant concludes, but he puts up a great case that makes it practically impossible to believe that Richard could have done the deed.

If you have ever done research, I think you’ll sympathize with the characters’ struggle for the perfect evidence for their theory, and if you enjoy British humor, I think you’ll like it even more.

Some notes I took while reading:

  • This is the portrait referred to in the novel, which is now part of the Royal Collection. According to this terrifically helpful article from the Richard III Society, it was definitely painted about 100 years or so after Richard's lifetime, but was likely a copy from a portrait painted from life. There is apparently evidence that the painting was later revised, probably to make Richard slightly uglier and more in fitting with the Tudor "mythology." The shoulder that we see on the left was repainted to look higher than the one on our right, and the eye that we see on the left was made to look narrower. The lips may have been thinned as well. All in all, this is what created the hunchbacked, monstrous character we all know and love.
  • While waiting for more primary document research to be conducted by his friend, Inspector Grant consults a novel on Cicely Nevill. On P. 59 of my paperback copy: "It was, moreover, the almost-respectable form of historical fiction which is merely history-with-conversation, so to speak." Heeeeey... I see what you did there, Josephine.
  • I love the ending, when Grant's research assistant comes to the devastating realization that he was not the first to absolve Richard of the murders. It's such a great moment that everyone has every once in a while, where you realize it's really hard to be original. But you have to keep going and keep searching and keep working at what you love, and Grant's assistant knows he must carry on in his mission.

I highly recommend this book. I read it for the first time years ago when a teacher recommended it to my history class, and reading it for the second time now, knowing a bit more and having done research for school, I got even more out of it. I want to go and read more about the Wars of the Roses and Richard, so I picked up a history book and an Elizabeth Peters mystery, The Murders of Richard III, at my last bookstore/library visit. Look for those reviews here in future.

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Reading Challenge July 1st- January 2010: Everything Austen!

Stephanie over at The Written Word is hosting the Everything Austen reading challenge from July 1-January 1. I’m really excited about this one, especially since I still haven’t read two of the original novels! The challenge is to complete at least six Jane Austen-related books or movies within the time frame, and it’s very flexible, because you can even choose derivative works, like sequels or modern adaptations.

I hope you will join me in participating—go and sign up, and let me know in the comments here if you do!

Here is my list:

1. Mansfield Park-- Ugh, I can’t believe I’ve still never read this one. I saw the 1999 movie and found that I didn’t really like Fanny Price, so I’ve never felt compelled to read it. However, I am determined to find something to like about it!
2. Persuasion-- I have also seen the Ciaran Hinds version of this movie, liked it very much, and yet never read the book. I know quite a few people who say that this is their favorite, so I am excited.
3. Sanditon-- I plan to go out and find a good version of this, though I’ve seen some places where different authors have edited it or added to it and that seems iffy to me. Now I will finally have completed all the Austen novels!
4. Pride and Prejudice, the 2005 film—This is just one of my favorite movies. I’ll probably watch it this week, anyway.
5. Pride and Prejudice, the 1995 BBC miniseries—I haven’t sat down and watched this whole thing since the first time I saw it years ago. It’s time I watched it again and remembered how much I loved it.
6. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool—I’ve been meaning to read this ever since I first opened an Austen novel. I’ve only ever heard rave reviews about it.

And bonus… as if I didn’t have enough in my TBR pile…

7. Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife by Linda Berdoll—I’m laughing as I type this because one of my best friends read this book and told me she hated it so much she threw it across the room. But I obviously like a romance novel every once in a while, and I think that this is the sequel that has gotten the most press out of all of the many that have cropped up over the last few years, so I might as well borrow her battered copy and give it a go.
8. Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel—This is a short story that I downloaded for free to my Sony eReader that I’ve been meaning to get to. So this is just a little bonus that will probably take an hour or so to read. Anyway, it’s a crossover that won some award (don’t worry; when I review it on here I’ll look up all these links!) where Mary Bennet meets Victor Frankenstein.

I will be reviewing everything here, posting along on the challenge board, and otherwise tagging everything having to do with the challenge with the label "Everything Austen." I also will keep a link to the challenge on the sidebar of this blog.

Happy reading, and I hope you’ll follow along with me!

Too Many Bros, Not Enough... Well. A Historical Novel Review.

A Hint of Wicked
by Jennifer Haymore

Cover: To be honest, I wouldn’t have known this was a historical romance just by looking at the cover. The dress is rather non-descript, and not really relevant to anything the character wears in the book whatsoever. But this book is making the blog rounds, both historical fiction and romance, so I picked it up last time I was at Borders.

Summary: Okay, I have to include the tagline that’s on the back of my book… What happens when a lady desires not one man, but two? That’s pretty much what this book is about. Also, it takes place in late Regency England, and there is a slight mystery involved. There, that’s it.

My Review: Romances should be easy to read in a sitting or two, at least from what I know of them. A Hint of Wicked took me almost a week to finish. This has less to do with its length (400 pages) and more to do with the drag in the middle. I want more romance in my romances!

Here’s what happens: Sophie, the Duchess of Calton, loses her husband Garrett when he goes to fight for Lord Nelson in the Battle of Waterloo. Left with his unborn child and only their mutual best friend Tristan, a lord in his own right, for company, she eventually realizes a new love for Tristan and marries him years after the incident.

But Garrett is not really dead! It turns out he was horribly wounded in the battle (a facial scar that acts as a veritable mood ring the only visible sign of this) and suffered amnesia. He has been working as a farmhand in Belgium ever since! Even though he barely spoke any French!

Garrett comes back at the fortuitous moment when Tristan and Sophie have gone to bed together and flies into a rage at the sight. He tries to throw Tristan out of the house and claim Sophie as his own again.

How has he suddenly regained his memory enough to come back and reclaim his title as Duke? That is the mystery that threads its way through the rest of the novel, and it may or may not have anything to do with the mysterious steward who has come back with Garrett, of whom everyone is suspicious from the first moment.

This was an okay read. The romance portion of the book was definitely intriguing, and Haymore made a good case for why Sophie could still be in love with Garrett, even after she has moved on to Tristan. The romance scenes were well-written, too, and devoid of purple prose, which is always refreshing.

This is not a regency romance in the style of Georgette Heyer, however. The historical aspects only act as a pretty backdrop for the characters to play in. Sophie is a bit more modern in her thinking than a typical Regency aristocrat would have been. At least marriage laws play in as a believable ploy into this story. Nevertheless, these characters are not at all products of their environment; rather, they seem placed a little haphazardly into the Regency era. They could just as easily have been placed in the 1960s.

The thing that I really did not like about this book was the mystery part of the story. It would have been enough just to learn about how Garrett had been injured, and perhaps a flashback to his journey home from Belgium. But instead we get a highly convoluted and set-up intrigue involving random characters, and it is of absolutely no consequence at the end of the book. I’m not a reader who automatically figures out a mystery at the beginning of the book; I tend to just get caught up in the story and follow along with the characters. This one, however, was blatantly obvious to me, and thus uninteresting for the remaining 300 pages.

Overall, I liked the characters (even despite anachronisms), I liked the dialogue, and I liked the style, but the plot meant very little to me.

In the end, I’m not sure if I will read the next book by this author. A Hint of Wicked contains a sneak peek at A Hint of Scandal, which reportedly will come out in 2010. I think I’ll wait to read other reviews, hopefully discussing some improvement on the author’s plotting skill.

Visit the author's website

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Brunch

Location: Barnes & Noble café

Food: House coffee and a cinnamon scone

Book at table: Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty by Lacey Baldwin Smith (non-fiction, psychological portrait of the later days of Henry VIII, written in the 80s and found in a haphazard stack of used books at an indie bookstore, and I’m loving it)

Sunday mornings are often my favorite moments during the week. It’s just before you have to get started working on things for the coming week, and most people are not yet awake, so there is a quiet freshness to the day. My family often gets together to catch up and relax. And of course, I love coffee almost as much as I love books, so what better way to run a Sunday salon than with plenty of coffee, history geek chatter, and books to review?

Having just begun this blog, I have been reminiscing a lot lately about how I got into historical fiction and realized it was my favorite genre, so I thought I might talk about that today.

The summer before my sophomore year in high school I read Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. The interesting thing about this cinder block book is that to modern readers it is historical by virtue of having been written during the late Victorian era, but at the time of its writing it was already historical fiction, since it covers the early Victorian era in revolutionary France. Hugo used history because he could play with more fictional or fantastical elements of a story and thus develop his Romantic style of writing. He wrote about the infinite capabilities and possibilities of humans and individuals, and how those capabilities played out in various societies. In Les Miz, the idealistic university students get quashed by the monarchy. In Notre Dame de Paris (or The Hunchback of Notre Dame in most English translations), the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda is destroyed by the failings of the medieval justice system. So, yes, they’re kind of depressing books, but after reading Les Miz I was entirely intrigued by the vast world of our own history. I had never read much about fictional characters in real worlds and events beyond the Dear America diaries when I was a kid.

I also read Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl that year. Of course, being a teenager, I was swept away by the romance of the Tudor era. Beyond classics (like Les Miz, and Tom Sawyer, and The Catcher in the Rye), it was the first adult book I had ever read. The Tudor era is still one of my favorites to read about, and as you can see above, I am slowly amassing my own, non-fiction Tudor library.

I signed up for the Advanced Placement history classes at my school because, beyond the wonderful worlds of historical fiction, I wanted to know what had really happened. I wanted to know the politics, and the thinking, and what it was like to live in older worlds. I have been taking history classes, reading history books, and learning about the past ever since.

So, today’s Sunday Brunch Question is: How did you first fall in love with historical fiction? Can you remember the first historical fiction novel that you read?

Friday, June 26, 2009

"What is true of most men is doubly so of him." Friday Film Review!

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Stephen Frears

Cast: John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman, Keanu Reeves

I caught this movie on HBO during the last week and fell back into it like a chaise longue. The thing I love about Dangerous Liaisons (adapted from the 18th century epistolic novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses) is that it is two movies in one (and they may be mutually exclusive): it’s a complex social commentary and/or a terrific, sexy soap opera.

While I have not read the original novel, from what I know this film follows the original story pretty closely. Not long before the French Revolution, the Vicomte de Valmont (Malkovich) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Close) are old friends and older lovers whose primary drive in life seems to be making other people as miserable as they are. The Marquise holds a grudge against the Volanges family and employs the Vicomte to avenge it, enticing him to seduce the young Volanges daughter, Cecile (Thurman) so that she is ruined for her contracted marriage. But these plans go awry due to two unforeseen circumstances: in simultaneously seducing the famed moralist Madame de Tourvel (Pfeiffer) the Vicomte begins to fall in love, and Cecile begins to fall in love herself with the Chevalier Danceny (Reeves… and don’t worry, he’s not in it very much). Needless to say, pandemonium and nakedness ensues.

The movie won a few Oscars, mostly for how gorgeous it is. Somehow, at this period in time, Malkovich is actually believable as a… how might we term it… “lothario”? What I’m trying to say is that this period piece looks well on him. See The Illusionist to similarly witness Edward Norton wear the Victorian age like he was born in it. Glenn Close got nominated for Best Actress and the whole thing was nominated for Best Picture.

This movie came out quite a while ago, and this wasn’t even the first time that I, myself, have seen it, but I thought it was such a perfect summer movie that I should write about it here. The characters are quite awesomely wicked and the costuming is drool-worthy. Someone came into the living room while I was watching this movie and commented that they couldn’t stand it because the characters were such horrible people. I would agree except for the fact that I have sat all the way through previously and learned that each character gets justice handed to them in some form. I like wicked characters as much as the next person, but I like them to learn from their mistakes or else be punished for them, or at least have a believable reason as to why they can continue to be wicked. I think it’s the writer in me that craves for complete character and story arcs. In the end, this film does not disappoint.

It's also a great story about the end of the Ancien Regime in France. It could also be said that this was a great movie about the 1980s, as it were: extreme capitalism and people who seemed devoid of social foresight. At any rate, the aristocracy was so debauched and out-of-touch with reality that their scheming and amorality was leading to their own downfall, which is just what happens to our aristocratic characters. Even the Vicomte is able to predict his own demise toward the end of the film. There is also light commentary on the different social roles given to men and women at this time period from the Marquise:

"When I came out into society I was 15. I already knew that the role I was condemned to, namely to keep quiet and do what I was told, gave me the perfect opportunity to listen and observe. Not to what people told me, which naturally was of no interest, but to whatever it was they were trying to hide. I practiced detachment. I learned how to look cheerful while under the table I stuck a fork into the back of my hand. I became a virtuoso of deceit. It wasn't pleasure I was after, it was knowledge. I consulted the strictest moralists to learn how to appear, philosophers to find out what to think, and novelists to see what I could get away with, and in the end, I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die."

She doubtlessly follows her own promise through to the end. It's easy to say that she didn't have to be so cold-hearted and ruthless toward everyone, but then we watch every single character fulfill her prophecy. In a way, the Marquise is her own Machiavelli, although she is not exactly dealing with matters of state here.

So whether you want to see intrigue and social commentary, or just want to watch a lot of pretty people screw each other over, I highly recommend this movie.

See the IMDB page for Dangerous Liaisons

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Law & Order: 12th Century... A Historical Novel Review

The Serpent's Tale
By Ariana Franklin

This particular cover is pretty photoshoppy. A painting laid over a painting with an embossed title on top of that. Also, the coloring is dark and pretty unattractive. But then, covers are never the most important aspect of a book, anyway.

Summary: Adelia Aguilar, an Italian in xenophobic 12th century England, is King Henry II’s “Mistress of the Art of Death.” In other words, she is an early forensics investigator. Using methods gleaned from studying under a medieval physician and her own experiences, Adelia can figure out when and how the king’s subjects meet their untimely deaths.

In this latest mystery, Adelia is commanded to uncover the true story behind the attempted murder of the king’s mistress, Rosamund, in her tower at Wormhold. Accompanied by a eunuch assistant, Mansur, her dog Ward, her maid Welsh maid Gyltha, and her young child Allie, she sets off for Woodstock.

They are led by Bishop Rowley, who before he became a man of the cloth fathered Allie, and who believes they will arrive only to find Rosamund dead. He’s right. Surrounded by a nearly-impenetrable labyrinth (the “serpent” of the title) and frozen in a high tower, the king’s mistress is dead, but she still holds a secret. Rumors of war, carried over from the civil war between Stephen and Maud, have begun to surface again, this time between King Henry and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor is interested in Rosamund’s possessions, and may have had an interest in Rosamund’s death. Adelia can ascertain that Rosamund was poisoned, but as to whom is the culprit, there is an entire village nearby full of suspects.

In fact, some of the villagers themselves are falling prey to a killer who may or may not be related to Rosamund’s murder. Amidst royal intrigue, scientific inquiry, and state politics, Adelia must further fear for her own safety, and for that of her child. Someone seems to be aware that Adelia is on the case, and that she may know more about murderers than the average 12th century Englishwoman…

My Review:
I absolutely adored the beginning of this novel and could not put it down for the first 150 or so pages. Franklin is entirely convincing in describing the mythical tower of Wormhold and suggests a dark, Gothic twist on the relationship between Rosamund and Henry. I read Alison Weir’s Eleanor of Aquitaine not that long ago, however, so I am entirely disillusioned when it comes to the romance of Rosamund.

Weir disputes pretty thoroughly the existence of any sort of castle near Oxford where Henry could have kept his mistress. In fact, consulting the book now, she says “Rosamund’s death would in time give rise to many legends, none of which have any truth in them” (1). By her account, even by the 14th century there were tales of Eleanor poisoning Rosamund, burning her alive, and other dastardly sordid acts. Eleanor was, of course, already imprisoned at this time and so could not have poisoned Rosamund herself, not to mention that there is no evidence of any labyrinth that could have stood for the infamous one that protected Rosamund.

So, what can I say; I’m a bit jaded toward the subject matter already. But who doesn’t love a little alternate history? I still plowed through the first half of the book fairly quickly, and it was only when I got to Rowley’s disappearance from the novel and a sudden downturn in the action that I could put the book down.

Franklin does a fair job of rendering interesting dialogue that matches the social status of the individual characters. There is a fine line between conveying a low class accent and writing a parodied, incomprehensible dialogue, and Franklin toes it with ease.

Franklin also approaches these historical figures out of legend from multiple angles, which should appeal to a wide audience. Sometimes Henry is immature and almost comical in his ego trips, and sometimes Eleanor seems shrewish and petty (read her scene in Wormhold to see this unpredictable turn of character), but ultimately I think fans will be satisfied with the turn that Franklin gives them. However, you definitely have to read to the very last page to get that satisfaction…

Adelia, our heroine, provides an almost-21st century perspective, probably so that the audience can more easily connect with the medieval mindset. She is comfortable and confident being an outsider in a hostile land, being an unwed mother in a strictly religious society, and various other anachronisms. I understand that Franklin wants to reach a wider audience than only the history snob geek squad, but I think I found it harder vacillating between Adelia’s more “welcome” perspective and the antiquated medieval mindset. It’s hard to sympathize with the medieval characters when you keep getting thrust back into a modern mindset because that happens to be your “eyes and ears.”

Of course, another viewpoint is that the Middle Ages were, in fact, early modernism, and so it might not be entirely impossible that a woman like Adelia could have the opinions and drive that she does. No two people are exactly alike, and anyway I’ve mentioned before how even the most famous historical figures never followed all the rules of their society. So, I hope to hear from more people what they thought about the more “anachronistic” aspects of this novel!

Franklin’s plotting is well-paced, except for that mid-novel break that made it too easy for me to put down, and her resolution is satisfying and believable. There is no deus ex machina here, which was refreshing, and the characterization and ending left me wanting to read the next book in the series.

The side characters are funny and interesting and show immense care on the author’s part to develop a world and mythology for her heroine to live in for a longer series. In fact, Henry and Eleanor are almost “side” characters in this series, although you’re still interested to read more about their exploits. Overall, I was entertained and intrigued by The Serpent’s Tale, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, Grave Goods, particularly since it involves Arthurian legend.

Some notes I took while reading:

  • While Adelia’s “unmarried mother” status is questionable, the men’s reaction to it as she moves from location to location is hilarious.
  • On p. 34 of my paperback: “Rosamund Clifford?” “That Rosamund.” As if they could be unsure which Rosamund de Clifford the king’s priest had been talking about.
  • Be aware: there is some serious, rampant feminism afoot in this book. Although, the way they’re treated throughout, it’s impossible not to sympathize.
  • Also, there are quite a few graphic descriptions of corpses, murders, fetid medieval folk, and other dastardly sordid acts. It’s not for the weak of stomach, but it's probably pretty educational.
  • There is a villainous confession toward the end where I half-expected the culprit to twirl a mustache or add "And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids and their dog." I mean, there are other ways to end a mystery novel. I'll have to read some more of this author's books to see if there is a pattern.

Visit the author's website

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1. Weir, Alison. Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life. New York: Random House. 1999.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Web Spotlight Wednesday: The Historical Novel Society

When I’m not reviewing books (or when I’m reading a lengthier tome), I will be hosting historical news, film reviews, and bits and pieces that strike the fancy. Today I’ll be reviewing the Historical Novel Society’s web page.

Mission Statement:
“promotes all aspects of historical fiction. We provide:

* Support and opportunities for new writers,
* Information for students, booksellers, and librarians,
* A community for authors, readers, agents, and publishers.”

My Review: The site does exactly what it sets out to do through a variety of easy-to-find venues. The flagship of the society appears to be their magazine, which aims to review as many historical fiction novels as possible (they claim to review all that are made known to them; approximately 800 a year!). What more could we, as historical fiction fans, ask for in a website?

They also maintain a subscription-only biannual magazine that publishes more news, interviews, and new fiction, and if I ever get off my butt I’ll get a subscription and review that here, too.

Like the books we love, the site lacks for a little color and illustration, but it more than makes up for it in content. This is the most comprehensive site for a database of all new fiction, though it is daunting to think about reading through all those titles without a clue of which ones are any good.

The few reviews that are posted online are critical and well-written, so the true fan may find their El Dorado by subscribing to their magazine and newsletter. They also post an “Editor’s Choice” list on a regular basis to further discern between the myriad of titles.

The site also has a list of member links and news about its authors. I highly recommend checking out this last link; it acts like a veritable who’s who of historical fiction authors, news, and gossip, and is very up to date.

I would have liked a whole archive section on this site. While their titles are archived year by year in their newsletter back to 2003, it would have been nice to see different ways of looking up titles, such as by author or publisher. Similarly, a search engine function would have been much appreciated on this comprehensive site.

Overall, this site provides a wealth of information and inspiration for the historical fiction fan and I encourage you to check it out, add it to your favorites, and hopefully join their society, as I plan to do.

Link to the Historical Novel Review's Table of Contents for Feb 2009

Link to a wrap-up on the annual Historical Novel Society's conference from the blog Reading the Past

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Recommend and Request!

Comment on this post to give recommendations and requests for reviews, and I will do my best to fulfill them. I'm looking for books, movies, and television with a distinct Historical (fiction or non) bent that you think people should know about.

This post will remain active and you can find it along the right-hand side of the blog when you would like to go back and add to it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"I'm a courtier, get me out of here!" A Historical Novel Review

Secrets of the Tudor Court: The Pleasure Palace
By Kate Emerson

Cover: Just another Headless Girl wearing period clothing, so nothing different from the norm. The coloring, however, is gorgeous and definitely stood out on the shelf when I was buying it.

Summary: Jane Popyncourt, born Jeanne of Brittany in the late 15th century, is a courtier born and bred. Though her father was a “common” merchant, her mother is gently-born and a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne of France. But when she is only eight years old, Jeanne and her mother achieve a mysterious escape to England and are taken in to serve Queen Elizabeth, wife to Henry VII. Jeanne changes her name and abandons her French heritage, embracing the skanky life of the Tudor court.

The “Pleasure Palace” of the title refers to Jane’s nickname for Greenwich Court, Henry VIII’s favorite palace. She grows up amid the revelry, debauchery, and tumultuous years of the two monarchs as a friend of the younger Henry’s sister, Mary, and easily finds herself drawn in among the English. Though confessing she is not a great beauty herself, she entertains the attentions of famous court lover Charles Brandon, and even the King himself.

When Henry VIII finally accepts France’s overtures of war, Jane becomes caught in the middle. She cannot figure out where her loyalties lie: with a handsome French duke held captive by Henry, the duke’s attendant and Jane’s childhood friend, or with the English King. Deciding wrongly could cost her life.

Among the court intrigue lies Jane’s personal mystery: why did her mother spirit her away to England and never explain the reason? Did she have a hand in the King of France’s supposed murder? And whatever compelled the elder Henry to take care of them in the first place? Jane struggles through war, love affairs, and dangerous liaisons throughout this romantic Tudor novel.

My Review: This was a good, breezy summer read. It caught my eye while I was shopping at Target and I proceeded to read it in two sessions of basking in the sun.

The novel is written in the first-person from Jane Popyncourt’s perspective, and our heroine spends most of her time relating events and background information in a gossipy voice. I loved the fact that Emerson didn’t put a 21st century woman’s mind in a 15th century woman’s body. Jane knows and accepts the woman’s role in the Tudor court: women must obey the men’s decisions, and sex can be used like currency. She plays into it when Henry VIII forces her to use her affaire with the Duke de Longueville to spy on the French, and we even see her assisting Henry’s various paramours from being discovered by Queen Catherine.

At the same time, Emerson still manages to comment on the sexual behavior of the Tudor court as being hypocritical. Henry is a womanizer, and yet he insists there never be “lewd” behavior at his court. Affaires are thus, if possible, more clandestine and exciting for these people than ever. In this regard, the actual historical bargain that the Princess Mary makes—she gets to choose her next husband for herself when her husband, the old French King, dies—is kind of awesome and very interesting to read in this book.

I had only a few problems with this book. The largest plotline is Jane trying to figure out her own past and why she and her mother fled France. Since Emerson spends so much time emphasizing the difficulty of keeping secrets at court, I just find it hard to believe that as few people as in the novel would not have guessed the truth long before she does. The mystery is wrapped up perhaps too succinctly at the end of the book, and I would have liked to see more interaction between Jane and her lover prior to their marriage (it is a romance, after all!). However, I overall had fun reading this book and will look for the next Tudor novel to come from this author.

Some notes I took while reading:

  • On p. 115 of my paperback— The elder Sir Thomas Brandon leaves his son Charles’s rightful property to his best friend’s widow. Jane muses on this mysterious allocation of property, saying, “[Thomas] must have felt sorry for her.” My thinking? Given the nature of this court, the two were probably going at it behind everyone’s back. And thus we know we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator… interesting!
  • The “missing past” plotline reminds me of that old scary story… a girl and her mother check into a hotel, when the mother becomes violently ill. The hotel sends up a doctor, who requests that the daughter drive out to pick up a prescription. The girl does so, but on her way back her taxi takes her all around the city, rather on a straight path back to the hotel. By the time she gets back to the hotel, her mother has disappeared, the room is entirely different than she remembers, and the hotel staff act as though they had never seen her before… alright, so maybe it’s not that similar. But Jane interrogates quite a few courtiers who claim not to have known her mother, and then turn out to have had a hand in her fate. Then again, it also reminds me of that Julianne Moore movie where she loses her kid and everyone pretends she’s crazy… which is the same plot device used in that Jodie Foster movie… Ok, I guess this is a weird story line that has been tossed around a lot lately.
  • In the amazing Showtime series The Tudors (which will probably merit it’s own review at some future date in this blog), Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, looks like this: charles brandon 2... since I kept imagining Brandon thus while reading this book, I found it very difficult to believe that Jane could keep turning down his advances. I realize this is a personal problem.
  • charles brandon 3 That was one more, just because I felt like it.

The Author’s Website: Kate Emerson Historicals

*Note* There appears to be another "Secrets of the Tudor Court" novel slated to come out in 2010 called Between Two Queens

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