Crime Novel Review: Holy Island by LJ Ross

After a long absence enforced by having to read a lot of non-fiction, EJ Knight returns with a review of the bestselling Holy Island by LJ Ross, whose author has been described by one reviewer as ‘the queen of Kindle’.

I’m always interested in other writers who have mastered the direct or independent publishing route, not least to see whether they have used the route to circumvent agency/publisher processes with strong genre material, or used the independence to try something startlingly innovative that a commercially-minded publisher would not have the guts to take a risk with. LJ Ross falls into the former category, embracing the geography well known to readers of Ann Cleeves’ Vera series, with a series starring Detective Chief Inspector Ryan.

The first in the series, Holy Island, is set around the winter solstice on the mystical and historic Holy Island of Lindisfarne, its intense community cut off twice daily by the sea that swells over the causeway. DCI Ryan, sequestered there with demons of loss from a recent case, finds his unsettled isolation brutally disrupted by the murder of a local teenager, whose body is arranged in a clinically ritualistic manner. Ryan gets himself reinstated on the grounds of geographical convenience, but must negotiate with the input of a former island resident and expert on paganism to whom he becomes reluctantly attracted. As another murder is committed and the ritualistic elements become more complicated, Ryan encounters the complexities of a community that has one face for the outside world and another that looks inwards.

As other KDP success stories Rachel Abbott and Mel Sherratt have shown, the direct publishing market is a really effective one for genre crime, whatever that expression really means now with so many sub-strands, and LJ Ross has certainly taken her place in that roll call. Is this novel fluent and readable? Yes. Is it a pageturner? Mostly yes. Does it break new ground? Not really. The attraction between Ryan and the pagan expert Anna Taylor feels inevitable and its final consequences are predictable. The layers of interpersonal complexity and the impact of a tight-knit community on social identities and people’s choices are also not particularly surprising, and the small tragedies of village life are not unexpected. As the novel unwinds in the last third and the emotional relationships tighten up, I felt the plot became increasingly diffuse and with it the resolution of the murders.

There are some clever twists, but oddly the one thing that kept bothering me throughout was that this novel would somehow damage the reputation of Holy Island as a beautiful and restorative place. I can see Ross’s motivation for undoing the mysticism with reality and deconstructing the myth of spirituality with the liberal brutality of human motive (I’m sure my fellow allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore would also have something to say on that). But the pagan ‘expert’ doesn’t actually offer that much to Ryan’s understanding of what’s happening on the island, nor does Ross use Anna’s specialist knowledge to exploit the slippery interface between the predictable and the unpredictable. Furthermore, Ryan keeps control throughout the case because Ross remains in police procedural territory; Ryan surely should be much nearer the edge of his comfort zone but instead Anna is essentially his safety net which, given her personal situation in the novel, felt unlikely to me.

 

I can absolutely see why this has been successful, and with regard to a very early post that Evie made about pricing, I don’t think that does any harm either. Will I buy another? Probably not. But many people have enjoyed this book, because it is what it says it is. Solid crime fiction.

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EJ Knight is the author of Broadway Murder of 1928.

Crime Novel Review: A Man of Some Repute by Elizabeth Edmondson

This week, allonymbooks author EJ Knight reviews Elizabeth Edmondson’s period crime novel, A Man of Some Repute.

Period tone is always a controversial area for writers, actors, directors, filmmakers and musicians. We pursue authenticity relentlessly, and yet sometimes only hindsight makes it possible for certain stories to be written. An opera buddy of mine refuses to see any productions of operas which are set in ‘modern’ productions, hating the reinterpretations of what he sees as classic stories and music against the framework of anachronistic contemporary values. In a similar vein, a piece about British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in The Guardian quoted director Marilyn Imrie on Cumberbatch’s uncannily accurate and rare grasp of the post-war vernacular in both movement and dialogue style: “he has that rare thing in a younger actor – he can summon up that quality of post-war Englishness that a lot of actors under 40 really can’t capture.”

One considers many of the same issues when reading Elizabeth Edmondson’s crime novel set in  1953. Hugo Hawksworth relocates to deeply rural Selchester Castle, still adjusting to an injury he received when undercover during the war. With his 13 year old sister, Georgia, he is seeking stability of a sort, and yet he is not a man to settle easily. Nor, it seems, are the bones of Lord Selchester which are found shortly after his arrival in the Castle, giving prospect to the solving of his disappearance – and, it seems, murder – six years ago. In the company of the last remaining resident of the Castle, Selchester’s niece Freya, Hugo explores the background to Selchester’s death, driven partly by Freya’s insistence that she is innocent, and partly by some murky business that he must undertake on behalf of Sir Bernard at The Hall, a local outpost of the intelligence community. Hugo, keen to prove his worth despite his injury, uses his natural investigative instinct, aided for the most part by the zealous and enthusiastic Georgia, and eventually by Freya who must face the fact that the Selchester she thought she knew had clearly made an enemy.

Making a story period is, however, about much more than just inserting period details. Edmondson is thorough with reference to the stringencies of post-war life, from ration books to clothes, rural poverty, switchboard telephony and modes of transport. There is also detailed historical framing, particularly with reference to social themes regarding sex, adultery, homosexuality, secrecy, and the financial independence of women, as well as the political landscape of post-war Britain, America and the Soviet Union. And it is here that the challenge for the historical novelist starts and ends. To what extent can motives, motivations and morals of a period be authentically employed by a contemporary writer?

It is easy enough for us to research and review what we know about lives lived before, and create plots from what we understand to be the complexities of life, but the truth is often that the sorts of themes we write about now would not have been written about then. The paradox of Edmondson’s novel is, to me, that she has written in a very authentic period voice, but that the plot itself is redolent of a more contemporary interpretation of social motivations and thus motives for murder. Indeed, the main opening of the novel is so period that I had to check that it wasn’t actually written in the 1950s, for it has the flavour of the style, a sort of Tommy and Tuppence scent to it. (I would note that Edmondson’s editor has let one or two verbal oddities escape: there is reference to ‘ultra casual’ which is surely a 21st century modifier, and a ‘soft drink’ which, if it is not an alcohol-awareness label, surely sounds anachronistic enough to stick out.) But if I have a criticism of this novel which otherwise flies along in dialogue terms, albeit with periodic down time for extensive description which does slow the pace, it is that it feels slightly forced from the plot point of view. And there is a faint hint of stereotype about the characters with motive for murder, all of whom stack up very plausibly in terms of motive, but whose secrets are so because they belong to the period. 

*****

EJ Knight’s historical crime novel Broadway Murder of 1928 is available from all Amazon sites for Kindle. Broadway Murder is the first in the Lucille Landau series.

Visionary Fiction: Does the same wine taste different out of a new bottle?

allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore has recently joined the Visionary Fiction Alliance. She ponders how this might affect her ongoing questions about genres and labelling.

Years ago, when I was a student, I took a class on artistic criticism – literature, art, music and so on. We spent some time criticising stuff, and we spent some time reading other people’s criticism of stuff, all the while a-pondering who we were as critics and the impact of that on how we criticised. In many respects, it was quite a revolutionary class at the time, for reception theory was not all that widely taught, and because I was also interested in movies, I began to think a lot about how who we are impacts on the way we retell stories that we read or see on screen.

The Salt Factory by Evie Woolmore

Decades on, as a writer, this idea has come to pre-occupy me a lot, and as anyone who has followed the excellent blogs on the Magical Realism Blog Hops (2013 and 2014) will know, those of us who call ourselves magical realist writers spend a lot of time thinking about what this genre means, and how it is defined. We think a lot about what readers bring and expect when they pick a book that belongs to our genre, and how expectations can be both enhancing and problematic to us as writers. We think also about how different themes in our stories are picked out and remembered by reviewers, quite often unrelated to what we intended as writers. I think I’ve disappointed a fair few magical realist and historical fiction readers along the way, so I was curious when someone suggested to during the last Blog Hop that perhaps what I wrote could also be defined as Visionary Fiction.

One of the interesting aspects of writing anything with a paranormal, supernatural or otherworldly element to it, is just how many labels you can apply to the finished book, and how many of these categories overlap. Amazon makes my life very difficult by over-simplifying its categorisations, though they are just one sieve through which my books will fall. I’m better at defining what my books aren’t – at least by looking at what other books fall into that category – than I am at defining what my books are. A quick swipe through the Goodreads ‘Historical Paranormal’ list made me realise that I definitely don’t belong there, and yet my books are definitely historical fiction with a paranormal twist.

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So what I like about the idea of Visionary Fiction is the idea that VF is a tone of writing, as much as it is about content. In writing historical fiction, I could hardly be described as an architect of the future, which is often considered an aspect of VF, but what makes my writing very definitely VF is “the emphasis is on our limitless human potential, where transformation and evolution are entirely possible“.

A more long-winded way of saying that is something I’ve quoted of myself before: “The [magical realist] aspects in my novels do not exist in parallel to our world, they are right here in it. They are discoveries like electro-magnetism and radiation in the nineteenth century, and the Higgs-Boson particle in the twenty-first; they are part of the fabric of this all-too-real world, visible all along if only you would just tilt your head a little further to one side and set yourself free of some of your pre-conceptions.”

For me that is the tone of writing. What I write is entirely possible. smaller_ru

So, while I do not have the vampires or exoticism that so often feature in the outlying areas of paranormal and magical realist fiction, I do have “dreams, visions, paranormal events, psychic abilities, and other metaphysical plot devices”.  And perhaps, in having them, I have at last also found the right home for my novels.

*****

You can download samples of all Evie’s books by clicking on the cover images, or you can go to her webpage and find out more about her novels. Evie Woolmore‘s novels are available on all Amazon websites.

Magical Realism Blog Hop 2014: Cadell Blackstock responds to Leigh Podgorski

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Leigh Podgorski wrote a really interesting blog for the Magic Realism Blog Hop yesterday, in which this quote caught my eye:

In today’s literary marketplace it seems at times that it is all about the label—though in truth, Magic Realism does not seem to entice anyone to pounce upon the BUY NOW button.”

Leigh had started her piece by sharing some different definitions of magical realism, and I liked Susan Napier’s suggestion that magical realist fiction “takes the supernatural for granted”. It sort of got me thinking about genre again, a topic which we argue about regularly at allonymbooks and which my stablemate Evie Woolmore has blogged about before: is magical realism the principle genre of the books she writes (and I dabble in), or is it just one of several?

In this incredibly crowded market for fiction, aren’t all writers looking for something that makes their work stand out? And yet, as Leigh implies, that’s thinking like a writer, not thinking like a reader. Readers – and I’m no different – look for the familiar, something they’re going to feel comfortable with, a bit like not sitting next to the panic-stricken guy on the plane. I was surfing through the top 100 Kindle books last week, looking for some holiday reading, and I was kind of mad at myself for drifting towards the familiar all the time. But unless your reading mindset is deliberately adventurous, and you want to be challenged all the time, you’re probably not the sort of reader who does press ‘Buy Now’ when you see a book is magical realist.

Crash Cole in 'The Rake Spared' coverSo I’m thinking some more about this idea of taking the supernatural for granted. Is that like saying that in magical realist fiction, the supernatural is the least remarkable thing about the book? I know Evie’s approach is to normalise the supernatural stuff, to make it seem like it’s been there all along. Now by contrast, my lead character, Crash Cole, (let’s not pretend the guy’s a hero!) knows that what’s happening to him is anything but normal, but in all honesty I was more interested in writing innovatively about the lack of social and emotional boundaries we have now, and using the supernatural element (that Crash can hear everyone’s thoughts) as a way to show that. I was taking the supernatural for granted. But as a writer. I’m still not sure what readers think about that.

Leigh goes on to say “Still, a category is a category, or a label is a label, and it would matter to the loyal group of readers.” Which makes me wonder if readers are clinging on to the genre elements they can more easily relate to – the romance, the history – and they let the magical realism be the sprinkles on the cupcake. A kind of fancy add-on which doesn’t stand out as a flavour but makes the cake a bit more special. Would you buy a cupcake because it had yellow sprinkles rather than green ones? You might do if you were five (which is why kids are great audiences for magical realism), but as an adult you’re thinking “Is that red velvet under all that goo?”

I’m no further on in answering the question I set myself, but I’d like to thank Leigh for making me think about it. And actually, I kind of like the idea that we can take the supernatural for granted. It might make marketing my next book a bit easier too.

*****

Cadell Blackstock is the author of Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’, a contemporary satire on sex and celebrity (with a bit of supernatural thrown in, but don’t make a big deal out of it).

MAGIC REALISM BLOGHOP 2014
This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (6th – 8th August) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the link below to find out about the other posts and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

 

 

 

 

 

Magical Realist Book Review: The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore, herself a writer of magical realist historical fiction, reviews The Firebird. 

I’m a relative latecomer to Susanna Kearsley’s work, as the first of what I would describe as her magical realist novels, Mariana, was published in 1994. Kearsley’s books could be defined broadly as historical fiction, where the past offers a portal for the present day heroine to witness history first hand and understand the truth of her own situation in some respect. It could be more simply described as time travel fiction, but what drew me to reading The Firebird (2013) was the focus on a more specifically psychic skill, psychometry or psychoscopy. This is the ability to ‘read’ something of an object’s past by touching it, explained by the psychometrist picking up traces of the energy of past owners or inhabitants. The word psychometry was coined in the nineteenth century, and literally means ‘reading the soul’, which in itself is an apt metaphor for this particular novel.

The Firebird‘s heroine, Nicola Marter is an expert in Russian art, and when she comes into contact with a small carved wooden bird, she instantly senses something powerful and significant in the object’s past, that it once belonged to the Russian Empress Catherine. Compelled by the tragic circumstances of the bird’s owner, she seeks the help of an old friend whom she hasn’t faced for many years. Rob McMorran possesses a psychic gift of a strength matched only by his purity of spirit, and in revisiting her past decision to deny her own ability – and her feelings for Rob – Nicola becomes able to revisit the past. The novel then becomes two stories in one, the events which lead to Nicola’s acceptance of her own ability and the events which lead us to the bird’s original owner.

Kearsley’s approach to historical fiction – and to the historical story in the novel – is as thorough as any fan of traditional historical fiction would expect. Indeed, The Firebird is the second in the Slains series, novels which draw on the rich and dramatic history of Scotland’s Slains Castle. Kearsley is detailed, accurate, and readily gifted at reimagining the past for her reader, although at times I think the historical authenticity slightly weighs down the pacing. There are also an enormous number of characters in the historical story, and in the last third of the novel, as the plot became more complex, it became occasionally difficult to keep track of everyone, especially after a break in reading. This is though a mark of Kearsley’s determination to tell a historical story properly, and not to oversimplify what were key historical and cultural events in Scotland’s past.

My key reason for reading this book, of course, was the paranormal aspect, and the reason why I would broadly call her novels magical realist. Not having read any of her other books, I was struck immediately by two things: the direct way in which Kearlsey introduces the psychic ability into the story, and Nicola’s implied sense of shame at her ability. It becomes apparent as the book goes on that Nicola’s attitude to her ability is complex: having volunteered years before for scientific tests of her ability, she did not complete the process and her emotional entanglement with and abandonment of Rob has left her with unresolved feelings about everything. Indeed, the direct acceptance of the psychometry as valid, right from the outset of the novel (we are left in no doubt that Nicola believes what she has ‘seen’, even if it has left her unsettled), is somewhat at odds with Nicola’s doubts and uncertainties about her own psychometric ability: she is afraid of what Rob can do, and of what she might be capable of doing, but is never in any doubt about the validity of the ability.

This comes to a head when Nicola must decide whether to admit to the owner of a painting she has been sent to buy that she knows it is a fake because she has seen its true and far more contemporary artist painting it when she touches the picture. Rob confronts her reluctance to admit publicly who she truly is and thus who he is too, and although Nicola ultimately accepts her ability, I was left with the sensation that this was ‘a cross to bear’, so to speak, for all involved. The potential for being a social outcast in any community which did not readily accept their psychic gift, and the unending requirement for proof of ability, is a common theme in any novel which tries to resolve or explain the paranormal, and in many respects The Firebird is framed as Nicola’s search for her own authenticity. I was left wondering though what I was meant to believe about psychometry, which was a curiosity because the novel is constructed around that original assumption that it is valid. We can’t access the careful historical truth Kearsley has written for us, if we don’t believe that what Rob and Nicola can do is actually possible. And yet they are arguing about how publicly acknowledging that ability is part of what makes it genuine.  I felt slightly as if I was being given something at the same time as it was being taken away from me. And I think this is the core conundrum of what makes novels which try to reconcile the ability so problematic. And in this case, paradoxically, we need an explanation for the journey from fiction (where anything is possible) to fact (the historical aspects of the story).

Would I recommend it? For fans of historical fiction, yes, without question. For fans of magical realism, probably not, because Kearsley doesn’t really say anything new about psychic ability, or craft any originality with it as a story element. But I will read other books of hers, if only to satisfy my curiosity about how she uses this time travel device in other contexts.

To find out more about Evie Woolmore’s historical magical realist novels The Salt Factory, Equilibrium, and Rising Up, visit the pages on this website or go to Amazon to download samples.

Escape the chaos of Christmas: relax with a book!

Christmas is a vibrant, social time of year. But sometimes you just want to curl up quietly in a corner to recover from all that food (and drink!), and read a book. While you’re buying gifts for all your friends and family, why not treat yourself to one of the allonymbooks novels this year: high quality fiction at utterly affordable prices! From mystery to masculine satire, and historical fiction for adults and YA, there’s something for everyone. All allonymbooks books are available for Kindle at all Amazon sites.

Thank you to all our visitors in 2013. We hope you’ve enjoyed our blogs and reviews. If you read an allonymbooks novel, do please review it on Amazon and your other favourite sites!

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Firstly, if you’re a fan of mystery, try EJ Knight‘s new novel, Broadway Murder of 1928. (Available at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US).

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Introducing Lucille Landau,  this is the first in a series of four novels set in New York in the Roaring Twenties. Lucille, an East End piano player with dreams of being the next Lil Hardin, has killed a man in London and marries another to escape on a boat to America. She seems to fall on her feet, finding somewhere to stay and the perfect job – playing piano for a new show by rising Broadway stars Tommy Anzonetti and Manny Wolfe. But surely Lucille can’t escape the past forever, and when actor Alfred Duff sees through her story, she’s relieved when he is murdered in his dressing room. But the police aren’t far behind, and they’ve got plans for Lucille. It couldn’t get much worse, could it? Except that Lucille is falling in love with Tommy Anzonetti and her husband keeps showing up…

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If you like historical fiction or magical realismEvie Woolmore‘s haunting and imaginative novels will draw you in from the first page. Find out why Read Dream Relax say that Evie is “one indie author worth reading”.

THE SALT FACTORY by Evie Woolmore (Available at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US)

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‘I never shoot a man unless there is no other choice.’

The motto of Thelonia Jones, deputy Marshall, makes perfect sense in the silver-mining mountains of Colorado. But back in Victorian England, hoping to settle the debts of her half-brother Cadell, Thelonia finds much that bewilders her. Why has her wealthy stepfather abandoned his mansion to die alone in a rundown cottage by the sea? Who is the strange little girl who brings seagulls and sick people back to life? And why has the owner of the Greatest Freakshow on Earth followed her halfway around the world? For all her ease around matters of life and death, even Thelonia will be surprised by just how high the stakes are about to get. They say the past always catches up with you. For Thelonia Jones, that means literally.

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EQUILIBRIUM by Evie Woolmore (Available at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US)

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“…original, poignant, illuminating…”  “a “fine yarn” where spirits, mystery and love waver …”  “…evocative writing…highly recommended…”

Epiphany and Martha are sisters with a stage mediumship act in Edwardian London. When they are asked to give a private reading at the home of Lady Adelia Lyward to find out the truth about her brother’s death, Martha must face up to her past. For two years ago, her affair with Lord Rafe Lyward ended in pregnant disgrace, and her attempted suicide in the River Thames. But there is more at stake than Martha’s anonymous return, for Epiphany bears the burden of restoring the equilibrium, not just to the Lywards but to her sister and ultimately to herself.

The Historical Novel Society review says “the story is rich in complex characters … I recommend “Equilibrium” to readers who enjoy historical fiction with spiritualist influences.” Equilibrium is also Awesome Indies Approved.

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RISING UP by Evie Woolmore (Available at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US)

smaller_ru“…simple and beautiful, human and poignant…”   “…mystery, history and a bit of mysticism…” “….it’s one of the best books on the subject I’ve ever read…”

Tom Macindeor is an itinerant English teacher, spending the summer in Warsaw in the hope of finding out the truth about his grandfather, a Polish resistance fighter. But when he hears the voice of Ela, a young woman trapped in the Jewish Ghetto of 1942, a window opens not just on his past but the future of the ghetto and all those who live in it. Should he share what he knows of their fate, or will Ela’s search for the truth about her own family doom them both?

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If you yearn to be a teenager again – or are one still – try Flora Chase‘s luxurious young adult historical saga:

THE STRATTONS by Flora Chase (Available at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US)

The Strattons vol 1 cover

The Strattons, the first volume of The Strattons young adult historical saga, is set against the backdrop of the luxurious late Edwardian era, on the eve of the First World War. Four young people, aristocrats and servant, are about to find their safe, comfortable world changed forever. Each must come to terms with the expectations of their class, their gender, and their destiny, and decide whether to embrace them or find the courage to fight against them.

When their diplomat father, the 4th Marquess of Stratton, is killed in Germany, Freddie, Julia and Blanche Matchingham, and their housemaid Dinah, find their world changed forever. Freddie must abandon dreams of university to become the 5th Marquess. Julia is wrenched from the contented obscurity of her books to face the nosy aristocracy keen to marry off her brother. Shallow, sociable Blanche finds her ambitions to take London by storm thwarted by mourning and social restriction. And why is Dinah, the first housemaid, suddenly being sent away from Stratton? The arrival of a German prince and a factory worker will turn all their worlds upside down and each of them must decide what their future holds, and whether they have the courage to face it.

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Finally, if you like a contemporary satire with a dark side, look no further than CRASH COLE IN ‘THE RAKE SPARED’ by Cadell Blackstock (Available at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US)

Crash Cole in 'The Rake Spared' cover

This is a scandalous tale with a supernatural twist. If you like your heroes to be decent honourable men, then look away now.

Crash Cole’s fans love him enough to literally keep him alive. But who hated him enough to want him dead? Just like Don Juan before him, celebrity TV biker Crash Cole finds himself at the gates of hell as a consequence of his dissolute and promiscuous lifestyle. Except this hell is of his own making. Hauled back from the brink of death by the unfettered love of his fans, Crash can now hear every one of their voices inside his head, a chaotic din that obscures his memory of how he nearly died in the first place. Learning to live with it proves more than Crash can bear, and with his body mending at a phenomenal rate due to the healing love of his fans, he goes on the run, aided by Julia, a nurse with a bit of a crush on Crash.

Virtually unrecognisable due to terrible scars on his face, Crash revisits his life and the accident, a voyage of discovery constantly overshadowed by the thoughts of those who wished him live and the silence of those who didn’t. But will he learn the truth before his fate catches up with him?

Love him or hate him, you’ll want to get to know him.

Facts and Imagination: Evie Woolmore and Jane Davis discuss writing historical fiction

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore interviews Daily Mail award-winning novelist Jane Davis, whose novel These Fragile Things she recently reviewed.

“…I’ve never seen the point in historical drama. Or historical fiction for that matter. I once thought about writing a novel of that kind, but then I began to wonder, what possible patience could the public have for a young man arrogant enough to believe he has anything new to say about an epoch with which his only acquaintance is flipping listlessly through history books on train journeys?” (The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman)
Evie Woolmore: When we were chatting about doing this interview, Jane, you said this quote had caught your eye.
Jane Davis: I should probably start my answer by explaining that Beauman has one of his characters speak the words, and all too soon it becomes plain that they are spoken precisely because his novel is historical fiction with a twist. He is giving himself licence to play with the theme. The blurb describes The Teleportation Accident as ‘historical fiction that doesn’t know what year it is’. That said, one of the things he acheives so successfully is that his characters are very modern, as they would have been, and are obsessed by all of the same things that plague us – one whose obsession while the Nazi party is growing is not political uprising but whether he will ever have sex again, for example – which provides an instant connection.
To some, the idea of writing any novel may seem like a fairly arrogant and self-indulgent idea to entertain. In an age when we are told that life expectancy will increase to 100, and fiction is classified as ‘historicial’ if the setting is over 30 years ago, we can all expect to dabble with history in our characters’ back stories. Since we’ll find their motivation there, it can’t be ignored. My intention when writing I Stopped Time was to pay tribute to men and women (like my grandmother, who lived to the age of 99), who experienced an enormous period of change. I could have done so by simply reading a history book (although my preference would always be a biography), but I chose to do both. It’s said that reading novels allows a person to live thousands of lives. The same can be said of authors. To explore a period of history through one character – or perhaps a small cast – brings history down to a very personal level, making it easier to digest. For me, reading non-fiction can be a passive experience. When I am writing, I am actually inside the story. Through my characters, I have to confront sights and sounds and react to them in the moment. In that sense, unless you are writing comedy, I don’t think it is possible to take historical fiction ‘lightly’. I’m afraid to say that I found The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window, which was intended to be comedy, deeply offensive. Recent history is too raw and sensitive to be messed with.
EW: That’s an interesting point about recent history. Two reviews of my novel Rising Up reflected in different ways on the challenges of writing about the Holocaust: the novel is set simultaneously in the present and in the Warsaw Ghetto of 1942. While I had not intended to write ‘a Holocaust’ novel as such, the book does explore how our knowledge of the past might affect us were we actually to engage with the past. The city of Warsaw presents us with that question all the time. So should the present day character Tom tell the Ghetto character Ela what he knows of the fate of the Jewish people or not?

JD: Reviewers’ reactions to novels is always very interesting. One review described I Stopped Time as a feminist novel. I have yet to read Rising Up but can imagine that Tom’s dilemma provides a very interesting conflict.
EW: How do you perceive the temptation to superimpose our own contemporary values on historical fiction? It’s an issue that has reared its head again very recently with verbal anachronisms being spotted in Downton Abbey.
JD: I watched my first episode of Downton Abbey last week, not because I wanted to, but because my father-in-law assumed that I would have been tuned in from the beginning. No matter how many times I insisted that I didn’t usually watch it, he was equally keen to ensure that no-one spoke during ‘Jane’s programme’. That said, I do appreciate the difficulty of striking a balance between getting the ‘feel’ of the language right and borrowing directly from the language of the day. Ripper Street is another example of televised crime drama with a historical setting where it might be argued that the language was not absolutely authentic. I have to say that I particularly liked how one of your characters in Equilibrium exclaimed, ‘Mrs Keppel’s knickers.’ The knickers reference probably sounds far more risqué now than it was at the time. I have just found the extraordinary line: ‘Richer than the Keppel girls, Bertie was their godfather and their knickers were edged with lace,’ quite a leap in terms of subject-matter!
Taking the mid-twenties as an example, there were trends of speech – such as ‘sick-making’ – among the Bright Young Things that would just sound wrong to today’s ears. I have encountered the same difficulty writing accurate dialogue for contemporary teenagers. If you were include use of the word ‘like’ as often as it actually makes an appearance, all sense of meaning would be lost.
The issue of dialogue is one thing, but changing values is another. Here, an early editorial review of I Stopped Time criticised the apparent ease with which my main character deserted her young son. ‘Part of the problem, I know, is different mindsets. Today, we feel that a mother should always put her child above a husband or partner. A hundred years ago, children were seen as being relatively less important, and society structures and viewpoints placed the woman’s role as being with her husband – this is reflected in the fact that Lottie feels excluded from the raising of her child. I’m not suggesting that you traduce historical truth, but the whole thing should be much more of a crisis in which we in the twenty-first century can feel Lottie’s terrible suffering.’ In Equilibrium, one of your characters faces as similar dilemma, handing her child over to someone else when she knows that she cannot take care of her. It is not that I don’t understand how a nineteenth or twentieth century mother might seem ‘cold’ by today’s standards, but I do feel that writers have a duty to provide an insight into how things were and to illustrate how rapidly attitudes have changed. I recently found a picture on a historical photographic board on Pinterest of a Brooklyn mother who had put three of her children up for sale during the 1930’s depression. Far from receiving criticism, she was applauded for her practical solution of how to feed the other five. No-one felt the need to ask if her decision was heart-breaking. It had to be done. And presumably she had been forced to choose which of the eight to sell – the eldest, I’d imagine.

EW: And isn’t it interesting that the picture makes us do the work in thinking about the subject’s experience and probably makes us understand it more directly, whereas in a novel we have done that work for the reader, often only to be told that we’ve got it wrong, that we weren’t being realistic!
JD: Have you had a similar experience of having being asked to make a character’s decisions more understandable to a modern reader and, if so, what was your reaction?

EW: Not exactly, but it is the central dilemma of my novel Rising Up, in that because Tom and Ela are in different times, Tom (in particular) must decide that for himself. Are the actions taken by Ela and her sisters understandable to him in absolute early C21st terms of right and wrong, or are they understandable because he is applying the filter of hindsight? He must decide not only how much of Ela’s possible future he can or should share with her, but also how to respond when she begins to reveal how strikingly different her sisters’ behaviour is. Without giving too much away, her sisters have very different experiences of the Jewish Ghetto and the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, but even then, all is not what it seems. I think in a way – without necessarily intending to – I was writing about how difficult it is to understand the past without judging it – just as you describe in the photograph of the Brooklyn mother.
A criticism I have heard of Tom is that he is too passive and too focused on his own goal of finding out what happened to his grandfather. But that narrow-mindedness is an expression of his paralysis about the enormous burden the past can put upon us, that same paralysis that perhaps we have as writers of historical fiction at times, in how best to revisit and re-express the past. Is it possible for us to write a story that meets the demands of the way we read as sophisticated, worldy-wise C21st century citizens, while also doing justice to the fact that the values, attitudes and behaviour of the past are different? Are those two reconcilable? Does historical fiction require a different kind of reading mindset? I have wondered for a while if there are perhaps broadly three kinds of ‘historical novelists’: those who write in order to accurately reconstruct history in fictional or quasi fictional terms (Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel); those who write stories whose plot is reliant on and infused with the historical setting and thus which are historically very precise and well-researched (such as Harriet Steel’s novel Salvation, which I recently reviewed); and those (like me) who write novels which are not principally historical but work effectively in historical settings. Do you share that view?
JD: I think that is a fair breakdown, and, like your novels, I Stopped Time falls into the latter category. That said, I don’t think that readers or publishers are nearly so analytical. Hilary Mantel has raised the game for anyone writing in the broad historical genre. Her masterstroke in Wolf Hall was focusing on Cromwell, who was once hailed a hero but has been demonised by more recent historians, and humanising him again by starting with a scene in which his father beats him to a pulp and then showing the reader his love for his wife. Philippa Gregory is a historian who has chosen fiction as the medium through which she will make it more accessible, in particular to women, whose lives she concentrates on and who are so often left out of the history books.
The expectation once a story is given a historical setting is that the author will have researched that era thoroughly. You might think that going back further in time would give the author more licence, but readers are now so well-informed that there is no such thing as ‘getting away with it.’ I was very pleased to receive a book review from a historian who said that the historical detail in I Stopped Time was accurate, without being overpowering or slowing down the plot. I see that your review of Harriet Steel’s novel Salvation talks about the reader being overloaded with historical information at times. The real challenge is how to transport the reader to another time and place without doing this. So how much detail is too much?
EW: Perhaps it’s not a question of how much is too much, but rather how much is useful and how much is identifiable by the reader? I agree that readers are now better informed or can at least check out information more easily, but my concern is about giving them information that they can’t use or doesn’t enhance their imaginative interpretation. A writer I find challenging from that point of view is Nicola Upson, whose historical crime novels use the novelist Josephine Tey as their central character. The plotlines are always interesting and well-crafted but at times I feel overwhelmed by the authenticity, for the novels feel absolutely jammed with more detail than I feel I can process as a reader. I feel as if I am made too aware of the research, too aware of the historical markers as I read. And maybe this is the central conundrum of historical fiction: in our lives we don’t take as much notice of the signs which mark our world for the age it is, but when writers craft historical fiction, they seem to put in more detail than the average person would take notice of as they live their daily lives. What happens if a detail I’m given doesn’t mean anything to me, if I can’t use it to enhance my experience of the novel? I don’t read much futuristic science fiction, but I wonder if it is a similar conundrum there: how much detail do you need to make it feel authentic without slowing things down and cluttering the reader’s experience?
JD: Returning to the most recent ‘historical’ fiction I have read, what I particularly liked about the central character in Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident was his complete lack of political awareness. Although Egon Loeser’s unswerving obsession over when he last had sex is an extreme example of self-absorption, happening as the action does in Germany in the 1930s. It is very interesting how the reader’s knowledge of the era is largely assumed and how the author uses this to his advantage. Although I hope that I am a little more aware than Loeser about what is happening in the world, I find it very interesting to look back at a decade I have lived through and think about what I now consider the most pivotal events were and how all of the pieces of the jigsaw fit together. You simply don’t see them at the time, at least not with a God’s eye view. With historical fiction, the benefit of hindsight that the reader brings to the book informs the way that the central character is judged. In the case of Loeser, Beauman’s skill is that, despite his many flaws, he remains likable. Rather than a simple obsession with lust, Loeser has convinced himself that he is in love, and the pursuit of love to the exclusion of all other activities somehow seems noble. At the same time, I love a good re-telling of a historical event from an unusual viewpoint, woven richly with historical detail, such as fiction by historian Alison Weir. In fact, Alison Weir’s non-fiction is also so beautifully written that reading it is a sensory experience. I am instantly transported to era with all of its colour, sound and smells. As with any writing, subtlety is key. The point at which fiction begins to feel like a history lesson is the point at which the author needs to pull back. The way to create an authentic experience is not by finding ways to shoe-horn in every fact you have uncovered. The same applies to any form of writing, whether it has a contemporary or a historical setting. The writer must know the character’s complete back story. They must then judge what the reader needs to know.

EW: The last question I’d like to ask you (though frankly we could go on all day!) is about how historical fiction can be a home to other genres. Crime is commonly set in historical contexts these days, but I blogged recently about how a historical setting can be an interesting frame for magical realist and supernatural novels. What’s your view on that?

JD: I agree completely. I am not widely read on magical realist and supernatural novels, but I particularly enjoyed Barbara Ewing’s The Mesmerist, set in London in 1838. Miss Cordelia Preston, an ageing out-of-work actress, terrified of returning to the poverty of her childhood, who emerges in the guise of a Mesmerist. One of the things that this book illustrates so clearly is how limited options were for women, and, save for the workhouse, how little welfare and support was available. The relatively recent past is a very valuable era to explore through fiction. Nostalgia is a very powerful force to draw on. Historical fiction is a tool by which we can measure the speed of change. I never fail to read fiction set the Victorian and Edwardian eras without thanking my lucky stars that I was born in the 1960s, post-war, with equality on the agenda and a right to vote. In his recent speech to graduating university students, Tim Minchin mentioned that the current generation will have a life expectancy and riches that their grandparents and great-grandparents would never have dreamed of. As the popularity of the series Who Do You Think You Are? demonstrates, there is a resurgence of interest in genealogy and a feeling of loss for all of those true stories that were never shared between the generations, of lost opportunities. With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War fast approaching we are going to see more and more war dramas. The clever ones will challenge readers’ – or, in the case of the recent televised drama, The Wipers Times – viewers’ perception of what they thought they knew. The telling of a story through the eyes of one character, allowing the reader to live another life, makes it real. It brings history to life.
EW: Jane, this has been so interesting, thank you so much. I thoroughly enjoyed reading These Fragile Things, and this discussion has given me a fascinating insight into your ideas and motivations as a writer. I have I Stopped Time already installed on my Kindle and am thoroughly looking forward to reading it!
You can find out more about Jane Davis and her novels on her website, and about Evie Woolmore and her novels here at allonymbooks.