Here’s a repost from my writing blog: ldaviscarpenter.com (I’m trying to figure out the best way to cross-post my own material from different blogs.)
I’ve just learned that Google gets unhappy if you duplicate material on different web sites.This complicates my blogging life because it prevents my plans to cross-post material between my four blogs. I’ve been told it is best to summarize and then link back to the primary post. Sigh. I get there eventually.
So, here’s what you’ve missed:
A recommendation on a new and fascinating blog about Afghanistan.
Observations on the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
Reading Response to Tariq Ali’s Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree.
I’ll be back soon with a general update.
This post originally appeared here: Long Ago & Far Away.
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.
Managed to finish reading two historical novels recently. Posted thoughts about them on my Long Ago & Far Away blog. (And I have no idea why this post is insisting on this strange formating but I don’t have time to fiddle with it. I need to be working on my novel – right now. Or, write now.)
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.)
I was so exhausted by Penman’s Plantagenets that I searched for something in my To Be Read Pile that would be light and fun. So, of course, I settled on Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.
Really, I did. My other options were to start this or that series and I didn’t want to embark on another long-term commitment. Bring Up the Bodies was at hand, not nearly as massive as the three Penman tomes I’d finally completed and it is the 2nd in a trilogy I’d already started. So it took priority over starting something else.
The good news – I zipped through it in less than a week. It was strange reading more Henry stuff but this is No. 8, rather than No. 2. My brain wanted to merge them together for a while but I finally left the Plantagenets behind and caught up with the Tudors.
The first book in the series, Wolf Hall, started off as a difficult read. Mantel has chosen an unusual point of view – 3rd person present tense – all from the head of Thomas Cromwell. It took me about one hundred pages to get the POV and voice to sink up with my brain – sort of like trying to read Shakespeare after many years away from it. Once I found the right groove my only problem was the occasional confusing pronoun reference. Mantel’s writing is so immediate and nearly stream of conscious that it was easy to lose track of the “he” references in Wolf Hall.
Delving back into Thomas Cromwell’s head in Bring Up the Bodies was a synch. And I was thrilled to see that Mantel had found a device to solve the pronoun reference problem without tampering with her distinctive voice. In a given paragraph, if there is a risk of the “he” pronoun reference being unclear, she now writes, “he, Cromwell, blah, blah, blah”. Like the rest of the book, it is unusual but it works.
As to the story – Oh, my. Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is a disturbing enigma but how else do you explain the contradictions present in this singular human being? I flew through the book even already knowing the historical outcome.
Annamaria is the author of three murder mysteries set in South America. She has graciously agreed to take a little time out of publicizing her new murder mystery, Blood Tango, to answer a few questions for our blog. (Yay! Our first interview!)
I came to Blood Tango with zero background knowledge of the events surrounding Peron and Evita – in my theatre days I neither worked on nor saw a production of the Broadway hit “Evita”. Even so, I was able to enter right into the story context with Annamaria as my guide.
Why historical fiction?
I read my first historical novel when I was fourteen: Katherine, by the great Anya Seton. I hated studying history in school. It was all about memorizing dates, the causes of war and which country won. No context, no understanding of the people involved, certainly not of their emotions. Dry.
I did not think of writing historical novels myself, however, until I went to Potosi (Bolivia) and became entranced with its beauty and then its history. That’s when I decided that, rather than continue with the contemporary fiction I had been working on, I would write a historical mystery that took place there, as a way of communicating more broadly some fascinating and mostly unknown history. The result was City of Silver. (See the YouTube interview of Annamaria discussing her inspiration for City of Silver!)
Why Argentina? Why not some topic more familiar to readers?
Blood Tango is my third historical mystery. Once I set out telling about South American history, I stuck with it through three books. You are right. It is unfamiliar territory for many North American readers, but that is why I chose it. I think fiction readers in general, and mystery readers in particular, like to learn as well as be entertained. Most North Americans know very little about the history of the intriguing continent south of ours. There aren’t many novelists writing about that and I hoped to open a niche for myself there.
Did you come to the project with much background knowledge? Or did you have to start from scratch like I did while reading the book?
In all three cases, I began on unfamiliar ground. I had to research thoroughly to get a sense of the times, the place, and especially the historical characters.
What was the hardest part about writing this story in this context?
In the case of Blood Tango, all most American’s know about Evita, for instance, is what they learned from the Broadway musical. And that version of the history is distorted. That made the writing more difficult because I wanted to tell a compelling story, and try to do it without fighting too hard against the readers’ possible misconceptions.
I understand you’ve done some particularly creative events to publicize the book. Can you tell us about those? What did you learn from these efforts?
My daughter is a dancer, and we came up with the idea of doing a film featuring tango dancing. She produced and directed it, the choreography was done by the Paul Pellicoro Dancers. You can see it on YouTube here.
It got quite a lot of compliments and has been seen by, as of today, almost 1500 people. I am proud of it, especially since the choreography between the principal dancers captures what I think was the real relationship between Evita and Juan Peron.
You said to me at conference that you planned to be back at work writing the next book by July 1st. Have you managed to do that with publicity and life continuing to demand attention?
I DID! With the book touring, I have not been able to throw myself into it completely, but I am closing in on 20,000 words. This is a first draft of course. It will need a LOT of polishing before it is done.
I’m always interested in other writers/artists’ work habits. Do you have a daily writing schedule or goals that you try to stick to?
When I am in the first draft, I try to work six days a week. It takes a lot of energy to get my head into the story. If I leave it for two days, it is harder to get back into it to keep going. I am much more productive if I can hold on to the thread of the story. Even if it is just for an hour. Besides, I am happy when I am in the story. All the slings and arrows of everyday life can’t reach me if my mind is in the long ago and far away. I do not have to be coaxed to write.
Any time management tricks you recommend? Or is it “just say no” to everything else possible?
Your readers may not want to hear this, but I gave up reading magazines and almost all TV watching. I stay in touch with friends mostly on FaceBook and email. I don’t chat much. I cook, which I love to do, but only my thirty-minute meals except on Sundays. I take care of my family responsibilities. After that, my first priority is writing. Period. Full stop.
And anything else you would like to add would be great!
I love the idea for this blog. Lots of historical fiction is appealing and I do read and enjoy the stories that take place in the familiar times and locations. But I have such a fascination with the exotic. I am happy to be able to come here and find out what’s new on that horizon.
Thank you, Annamaria!
A cross-post from my Long Ago and Far Away blog:
In a prior post I explained that I do not intend to write proper reviews of books. I also mentioned that for a book to receive five stars from me, it would have to be more than entertaining and well written. It must also stick with me past the final page. Some books are technically perfect but forgettable. Others are unforgettable but could do with another hard edit, or they have some niggling thing that prevents the perfect 10 in my eyes. And, as I explained, trying to review books as a beginning novelist just feels awkward.
I don’t generally read reviews either. When I choose a book (or film) I like to know as little as possible before I begin. I don’t even read back covers. Writers work incredibly hard to create a story that unfolds and reveals information in exactly the right way. I hate to miss that experience by knowing anything before the writer wants me to. Tell me the genre and the period and that you recommend it – let the writer do the rest.
However, I would like to use this blog to make observations about various books and invite dialog on certain aspects. Which brings me to these thoughts about My Name is Red.
My Name is Red appears on many historical fiction “must read” lists and is set in a time/place which is well off the beaten path. So it seemed a good candidate for a lover of long ago and far away tales. Also, although 16th century Istanbul is many hundreds of years and miles from my current period of study – for my interests, that’s really close!
This murder/mystery was written in Turkish by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. With all the accolades, I figured I’d better read this and was excited to find something so intriguing.
At the time I read it, I was working about 60 hours per week at a brutal day job. I think it took me four months of dozing off before bed to get through this book. At times it was only the need to finally learn the identity of the murderer, and my general reluctance to ever abandon a book, that kept me going. (Don’t worry, no spoilers here. After all of that, I can’t remember who the murderer turned out to be.)
Many aspects of the book appealed to me: as an artist, I loved that the story is set among a community of miniaturist painters; the structure, voice and non-western worldview is compelling; the characters are complex and therefore unsentimental in their portrayal. But I felt vast portions of the book were repetitive and going no where, slowly. I could have enjoyed more of this world, these characters, if it had been additional material rather than the feeling that I was going in circles.
By the time I was done with it, I was relieved. And finding out the answer to the whodunit was, meh.
But here’s additional support for why I won’t formally review this book or others. Sometimes it is only after time and distance that the true impact of a book is realized. I am now 5-6 months from finishing that slog but find the book is still with me. Something of it’s essence lingers. What is it and why? I’m not really sure. I think a large part of it is the believability of the characters. They were just fickle, inconsistent and imperfect enough to truly breathe.
One intellectual question persists – I wonder if I were capable of reading the work in the original language, would the word crafting have extraordinary merit? Is it more beautifully written in the original? Did I miss some important aspect of the work by reading a translation?
This question buzzed around my head while I read the book and resurfaced when I read the article in the last Historical Novel Review, “Translating a Genre” by Lucinda Byatt. Ms Byatt makes a great argument for more historical fiction to be translated into English (Hear! Hear!). She also notes the difficulty for publishers to be sure of their translator’s skills. I couldn’t possibly critique Erdag M. Guknar’s translation of My Name is Red, but I can’t help wondering if I’ve missed out on something in the writing?
This book is also steeped in historical references that are probably familiar to eastern readers but are well outside of my exposure. It was fun though, just today, while readingThe History of al-Tabari for my own research, to come across the historical account of Shirin and Husrev, who’s love story figures so prominently in My Name is Red. I felt like I’d run into an old acquaintance.
I get the feeling that My Name is Red opened my mind to things I have yet to realize. The more reason not to rattle off hasty book reviews using the grade-inflation-tainted star system.
I’d love to hear from others who have read My Name is Red and your reaction to it. Is it just me? How do you feel about official/starred book reviews?
In 2012, I spent a few days at a writers’ conference participating in a critique group guided by mystery writer Ken Kuhlken. His most recent newsletter offered his readers a free Smashwords download of the short work Road Kill, Mystery Authors on the Book Signing Circuit. So I grabbed my copy and tagged along (all 40 pages) as Ken and his touring buddy, Alan Russell, endured the indignities of cheap hotels and empty bookstores, all for a few hard copy sales of their mystery novels. The nightmarish experience is redeemed by the writers’ ruthlessly honest, sarcastic wit.
As my mother would say, “may as well laugh as cry”.
Recommended for a cold splash of reality and biting humor. You can read it in one sitting.
(On my blog Long Ago and Far Away, I have recently explained why I am no longer writing formal book reviews. I do reserve the right to comment on my current reading and so – there you have it. No starred reviews – just commentary and random responses.)