Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Last Summer: A Review

Note: I have tried to make this review as spoiler-free as possible, because I think quite a few of you will be interested in reading this book and I don’t want to give anything away!

A grand old English country estate.  A forbidden romance set against the backdrop of World War I.    The blurb for Judith Kinghorn’s The Last Summer intrigued me, and in all honesty, I was hoping to get a Downton Abbey fix.  But what I got was so much more.

Spanning roughly 16 years (1914-1930), The Last Summer is a beautifully written story about the young generation impacted by World War I.  Told through the eyes of Clarissa Granville, we see how the war crashes into her life and those around her, smashing every hope and dream in its path, causing inexplicable loss that sets all Clarissa thought she knew adrift.  But there is one thing that she always comes back to, one true thing that guides her: her love for Tom Cuthbert.

Clarissa meets Tom at her family’s country estate, Deyning.  Tom is the son of the housekeeper, and she is quickly drawn to his quiet intensity, despite their class difference.  The two make a connection that last summer before the First World War begins that cannot be broken, even with the many obstacles they face in the years to come.

I appreciated how the story didn’t stop with the war’s end, allowing the reader to see the long-lasting impact the conflict has on Clarissa and her generation.  Through her, we experience the pain, the loss, and the need to escape from it all.

Through the first-person narrative, the reader develops a very intimate relationship with Clarissa.  Every thought, every hope, every justification is laid out.  She hides nothing from us, but there is much she feels she must conceal from the other characters in the story.

We only see the other main characters through Clarissa’s eyes, but they are well-developed and all play a major role in Clarissa’s life and the decisions she makes.

As a writer, I have huge respect for what Judith Kinghorn was able to accomplish with this novel.  The story is well-crafted, the characters rich, the prose brilliant.  It will take up a permanent place on my bookshelf (yes, I still read real-life, feel-in-your-hands paper books).  If you have an interest in World War I and the period directly following it, societal change, or just a great love story, get thee to the bookstore and pick up a copy of The Last Summer.

Here’s a link to The Last Summer’s GoodReads page.

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Happy Birthday, The Great Gatsby!

The Great Gatsby cover

Today F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby turns 88.  As I have previously posted, this is on my list of all time favorite novels.  And a month from today Baz Luhrmann’s movie based on the book comes out.  At first I was a bit skeptical about this film, but the latest trailer has me psyched about it.

An article published by the Huffington Post about a Fitzgerald scholar and his interaction with Luhrmann shows the level of research the director’s done to make sure he gets this right.  The piece is interesting, and you can read it here.

The article mentions Ginevra King, the inspiration behind the character of Daisy Buchanan.  She was Fitzgerald’s first love, and though she jilted him, he kept her love letters and used her as a model for many of his female characters featured in both his novels and short stories.

Ginevra King

Ginevra King

Caroline Preston did a tremendous amount of research on Ginevra that resulted in Gatsby’s Girl, a novel I highly recommend.  But it is fiction.  The relationship between Ginevra and Fitzgerald is largely based on fact, but the rest of the character’s journey is Preston’s creation.  In an interview she says that Ginevra King was never interested in Fitzgerald’s books, but her character in the novel obsesses over them.  You can read more about the novel and the interview with the author here.

Ginevra King’s teenage diary and her letters to Fitzgerald are housed in the Princeton University Library.  Carey Mulligan, who portrays Daisy in the film, read them.  I can’t wait to see how she decides to play the character.

So Happy Birthday, Jay!  We’ll be seeing you on the big screen soon.

Great Gatsby Leonardo DiCaprio

Here’s the latest trailer, in case you haven’t seen it, or are like me and want to see it again:

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Period Pieces

Judging a book by its cover

Who  hasn’t been enticed to pick up a book due to its attractive cover?  When I peruse the book store for historical fiction I’m certainly more likely to read the jacket flap of a book with intriguing cover art that gives me some idea of the time period in which the story takes place.  Same goes with the library–sometimes I’ll just wander the aisles until I see a title written in “old-fashioned” cursive, and pull it out–9 times out of 10 it’s historical fiction.

But sometimes book cover art isn’t quite so obvious.  Which brings me to a funny blog post I had to share.  Sunny Chanel, a blogger on the Babble website, got her six-year old to give her own interpretation of what she believed some works of classic literature were about, based on their covers.  The results were, in my opinion at least, pretty entertaining.  Here’s her take on The Great Gatsby:

I think it’s a book about a haunted theme park and it stars a magical magic guy and he’s good and evil and he’s trying to get rid of the ghosts. And I think at the end, since it’s haunted by a ghost, he tried to make the park go on fire and it did.

Not a bad guess by just looking at the cover and the title, right?

You can read more 6-year-old takes on classic literature by visiting the blog post here.  Wuthering Heights, Animal Farm, The Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, and more….all judged by their cover by a 6-year-old.  Enjoy.

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The American Heiress: A Review

Since Downton Abbey’s second season ended, I’ve been in search of another grand fictional English estate full of scheming and intrigue to get lost in.  Lulworth Castle, the main setting of The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin, fit the bill splendidly.  Set in the last decade of the 19th century, the story focuses on Miss Cora Cash, daughter of one of the wealthiest families in America.  Since their wealth is a product of new money, Cora’s ambitious mother takes her daughter overseas in hopes of attracting a cash-poor but well-titled Englishman.  The practice was far from uncommon during this time period (in fact, Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jarome, is one such example).  Cora succeeds beyond her mother’s wildest imaginings when she lands the dark but alluring Duke of Wareham.

Thus Cora is uprooted from her glittering American society and transplanted into stuffy English customs hundreds of years old.  The servants laugh behind her back as she tries to learn proper English etiquette.  Her demanding mother-in-law raises an eyebrow as Cora tries to implement changes to the way Lulworth Castle is run.  Her husband supports some changes, is appalled by others, and baffled Cora never knows which reaction her initiatives will incite.  And throughout all this is the running undercurrent hinting to a past (and potentially present) relationship between the Duke and Lady Charlotte Beauchamp that everyone but Cora seems to notice.

The American Heiress had me hooked from start to finish.  It’s a great summer read and I highly recommend it.  Ms. Goodwin is a gifted storyteller, never giving away too much, just enough to keep you turning the pages in anticipation.  Dropping subtle hints, we are allowed to draw our own conclusions about the Duke of Wareham’s character, as we try to figure him out alongside Cora.  It’s an entertaining read, with enough plotting and scheming to assuage your need for more Downton Abbey, if only for a little while.

To learn more about author Daisy Goodwin, you can check out her website here.

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Interview with author Amber Leah Brock

I recently had the opportunity to interview Amber Leah Brock, who just signed with literary agent Clare Wallace of the Darley Anderson Agency. Her book Blessed Among Women is work of historical fiction based on the life of King Henri II, who ruled France from 1547-1559, and his relationship with his wife, Catherine de’ Medici, and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.

Q: A lot of historical fiction focuses on Henry VIII and the Tudor era these days. What made you look to France for inspiration?

Amber Leah Brock: France sort of came to me, in a way. I read a lot of non-fiction about European royalty, and I had just finished a book called Notorious Royal Marriages. I guess the story of Henri and Diane stuck with me, because I had a sort of silly dream one night that I was involved with a much younger man (my husband loves that part of the story). The next morning I was struck by the fact that throughout the dream people were obsessed with the difference in our ages, and wondered what a young guy like him saw in a thirtysomething woman. I realized I had wondered the same thing about Henri and Diane, and that was the genesis of the story.

Q: How did you go about crafting this idea in your novel?

ALB: I was fascinated by the question “why her?”, and I built the novel around that. Though the real Diane was by all accounts vibrant and strikingly beautiful, I decided to dull her light a little bit to make the question even more poignant. So my Diane is the very definition of ordinary. She’s pretty but not beautiful, sweet but not memorable–except for Henri. I wanted to build that mystery around her. Why would a young prince, who could have any woman he wanted, be so obsessed with this particular woman?

Q: In what ways does your story differ from the actual history of Henri, Catherine de Medici, and Diane de Poitiers? 

ALB: There are several big differences. One is my portrayal of Diane, as mentioned above. Another is the addition of her husband, Richard de Belloy. Her real husband passed away years before her affair started with Henri, so I created Richard pretty much out of whole cloth. In the novel he basically sells Diane to Henri in hopes of gaining favor at court. Another huge change was the scope–Henri and Diane were involved for several decades, but my novel only covers the course of a year (with flashbacks to key moments of the past). Perhaps the most significant change is that in the novel Henri is 20 and Diane is 30 when they begin their affair. In real life he was 15 and she was 35. That was a little too much “ick factor” for my modern mind, so I moved their ages to something I was more comfortable with.

Q: Who was your favorite character to write about? Did you have a least favorite?

ALB: I’m so glad you asked that! I totally had a couple of favorite characters. My absolute favorite is Charles, Henri’s younger brother. I loved how serious he was, trying to boss his wayward older brother around and get him in line. I loved writing Henri’s scenes with him, too–Henri is so careless and immature, which gets on Charles’s nerves, but ultimately there’s this unbreakable brotherly bond between them.

I really didn’t like writing about Henri’s wife Catherine de’ Medici. People always think that sounds weird because, hey, she’s my character, right? But I just don’t like her, I didn’t like writing about her. She kind of bored me, but I must have done justice by her, because several of my beta readers said she’s their favorite. Go figure.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges in writing historical fiction?

ALB: When writing about historical figures my biggest challenge was with the notion of artistic license. These are real people, and I don’t want to do anything to disrespect the lives they lived and the things they did. If I have the good fortune to get published, I plan to include a historical note outlining what in my novel is not historically accurate. The main reason that’s so important to me is because one time I read an article on a fairly respectable website talking about how much the author had learned about what “really happened” with Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn based on The Other Boleyn Girl. Eeek! As a history nut, I want my readers to understand that they shouldn’t consult a novel to find out what “really happened”.

Q: Congratulations on signing with agent Clare Wallace! What’s the next step for your novel?

ALB: Right now I’m in edits; nothing too drastic, just adding a few scenes and enriching a few key moments. I hope to have the next draft to her by the end of July, then probably one more edit before she starts shopping to UK publishers in September.

Q: Are you working on any new projects right now?

ALB: I’m halfway through a contemporary time-travel about a woman who travels back to her senior year of high school, sort of a play on “if I knew then what I know now”. It’s very light-hearted, a refreshing change of pace after Blessed Among Women. I also have an outline for two other historical projects, one set at a boarding school in the 1950s and another at the court of Felipe IV of Spain. I like to jump around!

Q: Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring authors?

ALB: Research and work. There is no substitute for either one of those. Read everything you can not only about the craft of writing (and the myriad joys of editing), but also research agents, reach out to other writers to learn from their experience, and read as much already-published fiction as you can.

Another thing that I’ve learned from this process and being in touch with other writers is that rejections make us all cranky. No one likes it. But it can make some writers think of agents as either untouchable gods or sadistic devils. They’re neither of those things. They’re businesspeople who have a job to do. It’s hard not to take it personally when you get a form reject with your name misspelled, but it doesn’t mean the agent is an imbecile who will starve in the streets while you’re raking in big advances. Neither does it mean that you are a talentless hack doomed to eternal failure. Remember both of those things and treat the agent with the same courtesy you’d offer someone interviewing you for a job. Play by the rules. If they turn you down…on to the next. (But feel free to have some Ben and Jerry’s to soothe the pain a little bit–rejection hurts!)

Thank you, Amber, for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope you’ll have time to come back for another interview once Blessed Among Women is on the bookshelves!

It was my pleasure! I appreciate the opportunity.

To learn more about Amber, please visit allmyfriendsarepretend.blogspot.com or follow her on twitter at @AmberLBrock.

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Birdsong: Part I

Written in 1993 by Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong is considered a classic of modern English literature.  It tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, a troubled young man who falls deeply in love with a married Frenchwoman named Isabelle Azaire in 1910.  The book follows Wraysford into the trenches during World War I, and through his eyes the reader experiences some of the major battles fought on the Western Front.  Millions of copies of Birdsong have been sold worldwide and it is regularly voted one of Britain’s favorite novels.  It is considered so significant, in fact, that it is required reading in British schools.

All that being said, I’ve tried picking the book up twice, and have twice failed to finish it.  It’s a tough read.  I breezed through Part I, the portion focusing on the love/lust relationship that develops between Stephen and Isabelle.  But at the beginning of Part II I was suddenly plunged 45 feet below No Man’s Land into a claustrophobic earthen tunnel with Jack Firebrace, a completely new character that had nothing to do with Part I.  The stark contrast between a forbidden love affair  in the lush Amiens countryside and the gritty, depressing conditions of the Great War was a very jarring adjustment.  I put the book down again, time passed, and it went back on the shelf.

Jack Firebrace listening for enemy tunnelers

Then last night the first of the two-part miniseries based on the book aired on PBS.  I tuned in because I was curious how Birdsong would adapt to the screen.  After all, it’s taken Working Title 13 years to get it there since buying the film rights to the book.  And I have to say, I was very impressed.  Unlike the novel, which progresses in chronological order, this adaptation chose to intersperse the pre-war love story scenes as flashbacks Stephen Wraysford has during the war.  The film weaves between the light and the dark, contrasting the young Wraysford and the hardened soldier he turns out to be, leaving the viewer wondering what caused such a transformation in his character.  In the book we already know by the end of Part I, but the series lets the two stories play out simultaneously, so the viewer is left guessing what happens both in the past and present.

Stephen and Isabelle steal a moment alone together.

The cinematography is beautiful, the actors’ performances solid (Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Wraysford while Clemence Poesy plays Isabelle Azaire), and the war scenes bring the bitter reality of the First World War home (a much grittier portrayal than what you’ll find on Downton Abbey).  I look forward to seeing how it wraps up next week.  This adaptation inspired me to take the book off the shelf.  Maybe the third try’s the charm.

Wraysford at the Front

Be sure to check out this interesting article about the filming (and why it took 13 years to get it on the screen).

See my thoughts on Part II here.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Period Pieces, World War I

Book vs. Movie: Which should come first?

I read an interesting post on Book Blob yesterday about books and their movie adaptations.  The author of the post asked if it was better to read the book before watching its movie, or if it was okay to see the movie first.

My gut reaction was that of a purist–book first, allowing you to read and interpret the author’s story for yourself, rather than watching someone else’s interpretation.  Then you can go to the theater and yell at the screen every time a change in the plot is made (while your fellow movie goers are giving you the stink eye because no, they did not read the book first and have no clue what you are yelling about).

But plot isn’t the only consideration.  There are the characters themselves.  You’ve formed an image in your mind of their appearance and mannerisms.  And then these Hollywood faces appear, replacing those of your imagination.  Sometimes the casting can be so off-putting that I spend half the movie wondering who in the heck was in charge of it and what they were thinking (and that they obviously did NOT read the book first).  And sometimes for the movie’s entirety, if that movie is Cold Mountain.  Nicole Kidman, seriously?  Her character, Ada Monroe, is consistently described in the book as having beautiful thick dark hair, and is in her very early 20’s.  Not 30 something with blonde hair and a terrible fake Southern accent.

I don't believe Botox was in vogue in the 1860s either.

However, after all that, I think something can be said for seeing the film first.  Not only will you spare your companions the constant prattle of “Can you believe that?  They just skipped over the most important part!”, but you might be able to enjoy the movie in its own right, separate from the book.  After all, it is an adaptation.  (But I’ll never be able to accept the way the Cold Mountain adaptation changed Inman’s final stand off with the blue-eyed boy of the Home Guard)

No Jude, it didn't happen that way. Go read the book.

What do you think?  Which should come first, the book or the movie?

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Period Pieces