Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book City: Historical London

image by Tanita Davis

A while back a group of us were kicking around a collaborative endeavor, and well, we're all pretty busy, so it turned into a celebration of cities. Any city, in any representation, anywhere in the world. An especially great companion to this post, among the many participating, is Sarah Stevenson's Alternate London, over at Finding Wonderland. Check out the entire (growing) tour over at Chasing Ray*

I don't know what it is about London. I don't tend to specifically get into much of the contemporary realistic fiction set there, but historical? I can't really get quite enough. Between Reformation and Restoration and the hell London went through during WWII, I'm fascinated. I intended to give you a list of some of my favorite titles set in historical London, but this post got hijacked - by the latent passion I discovered that I feel toward one of the books:

FitzOsbornes in Exile by Michelle Cooper
I have unbridled love for this second book of the Montmaray Journals. The enormous love I thought I felt for A Brief History of Montmaray pales in comparison for this longer, quieter, less axe-laden sequel. Our fictional royalty has moved off their island nation because of Nazi bombing, and now find themselves in London in the late 1930's as WWII is reving, fascism is creating divisions among and within the classes, and the city has no real understanding of what is in store for them just over the horizon.

Sophie, whose journal we're reading, Veronica, and the rest of the Montmaray Royalty... wait. Let me explain this first. That sounds all posh. It's not...

So, the first book, A Brief History of Montmaray, finds Sophie, her younger sister Henry and her cousin Veronica holding up the crumbling remains of their castle as her uncle the King gets progressively more insane, and her brother comes home more infrequently. They get by on selling the treasures of their formerly wealthy kingdom. They don't have much left and are the very picture of impoverished royalty. Then the Nazi's arrive. The Nazi's have their eye on their small but strategically located island nation for a couple of reasons. The impact of this results in lots of drama, some lethal axe-wielding, and some things that aren't going to be shared with the high society the group finds themselves plunged into at the start of FitzOsbornes in Exile. They've lost control of their beloved and historic nation, and they want it back. Now in the titular exile, and having fled to London and the estate of their long-expat, and very wealthy, Aunt Charlotte, the girls find themselves torn between Charlotte's expectations (they must be presented to society as proper royals of the highest order, and find very wealthy husbands) and their own concern for Montmaray. The girls, however, are far past the pretentious and uselessness of one ball after another (even if Sophie sometimes doesn't hate it), and their goal is to speak to the League of Nations and secure support for them to reclaim their island. But, royal or not, they're just a bunch of teenagers from a country no one remembers existing.

It is beautifully written and character-driven, full of fascinating historical and political details that are so perfectly woven into the plot that there is nary a single example of those pesky info-dumps so frequent in epic historical novels like this. You will learn a ton about the era without even realizing it - and it's definitely not at all the point. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of the location and time. None of it could have happened anywhere else. What you have is a quintet of characters desperately trying to grow up while being respectful to their heritage in a most tumultuous time. Oh, and due to the youngest of the clan, it's also often quite hilarious. It's not easy to prep a tomboy used to having reign of an entire island to become a debutante someday. Luckily (?) for Henry, we know that by the time she comes of age, there won't be so many balls.

The balance of fantastic, fully-developed, and lovable (no mere likable here!) characters set in a fascinating fully-realized setting, with a plot that is seemingly insurmountable for anyone, except maybe the particular talent combination of these characters, makes this a book that will always have a place in my heart alongside my rabid love for Ellen Emerson White's President's Daughter series, and Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia series. Cheesy or not, there you have it. Total fawning love.

Oh, and FitzOsbornes at War will be out on October 9, 2012. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to know that I get another one. Sadly, it looks like that's the final one, making this a trilogy, when I was hoping for a series taking us at least to 1945. Something epic like that.

Comparisons to I Capture the Castle are of course obvious, but even the most rapid fan of Dodie Smith's classic will not be disappointed with this trilogy.

As for the cover: Kelly pointed out some crazy about it some time ago, but regardless of phantom smoke (which until she said something, I'd just assumed it was light from a window I couldn't see), I think that it perfectly captures the tone of the book. Sophie right there in the thick of things, but still outside, looking in, and observing with an eye more aware than even she realizes.

Now, those other books I was planning to tell you about:

Newes From the Dead by Mary Hooper
Once upon a time I interviewed the author, and reviewed this one. It's based on a true account of a girl who failed to die when hanged, and was paralyzed, but fully aware, as the medical community of 1650 prepared to preform an autopsy. If you poke around enough, I bet you can find a digital version of the pamphlet this story was based on.

Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer
Ok, I'll be honest here. I stopped reading this series. No, not like that. I switched to consuming these on audio. Katheryn Kellgren is THAT GOOD. She is, in my opinion, the absolute best audio narrator out there today. She rivals Jim Dale in talent. I'm not kidding. The ninth (!!) book in the series was just released in October, and while this series has covered almost every ocean and continent on earth, Bloody Jacky Faber often returns to good olde London (and Boston!). When she's not fighting pirates or the British government itself. The first book is most effective in its depiction of life a street urchin in the 1790s, and how desperate that life was.

Cat Royal Adventures by Julia Golding
Very much a Jacky Faber with a bit less sparkle, this still raucous adventure series starts with Cat being abandoned in a theater in London around 1790. There's more focus on mystery than with Jacky, at least in the first novel, and much more focus on slavery for the whole series (I've liked what I've read, but I haven't read them all).

I, Coriander by Sally Gardner
An older title with tinges of fantasy, this is set in Cromwell's England. As with any situation of tyranny, it's a frightening and precarious time where any misstep can end with deadly result. I posted about this one way back in 2006 (!). Notable mostly for the setting during the English Reformation and the fascinating (and/or horrifying) political situation, as well as the unusual combination of fantasy. I still think there should be more books set during this time period. Gardner has since come out with The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade about the French Revolution, which has been recommended with the highest enthusiasm, but I've yet to get to it. But I will.

A True and Faithful Narrative by Katherine Sturtevant
Reviewed back in 2007 (I'm really mining the archives here, aren't I?) this is set just a bit after I, Coriander, during the Restoration. Meg desperately wants to be a writer, but in the 1680's the "gentler sex" were not respectable writers. This remains a favorite four years later.

The Agency: Mary Quinn Mysteries by Y.S. Lee
I haven't yet read the second in this series, The Body at the Tower, but the interwebs reveal that the third book, The Traitor and the Tunnel was released in the UK in August. I'm hoping to see this hop the pond, because I was pleasantly surprised with the nuance of the first title, A Spy in the House. It was just a Victorian mystery, it explored every aspect of class of the time, from the upper, to the poor, to, most interestingly, the hidden Asian population of London.

Folly by Marthe Jocelyn
Speaking of Victorian... This was a tough read. One thing you have to know is that there was no tolerance of unwed pregnant servants during this era (and several after). A maid would find herself ruined if she were to be discovered to be pregnant. She would get dismissed without reference, reputation ruined. Many of that era then found themselves in squalor, and often turning to prostitution to survive. Mary Finn is lucky, comparatively, but she's still got a hard road in front of her. Side note: Holy new cover! I hadn't seen this, and I think it'll reach more readers than the original.

*and read Colleen's book The Map of My Dead Pilots!

Friday, November 04, 2011

All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky or Pretty, Pretty Titles sometime aren't

I'm going to say that I loved the first chapter of this. Loved. Even now, as I read it for the fourth time, I believe that first chapter and a few that follow it are beautifully written, tonally perfect, and bleak as hell. Bleak in a deliciously appropriate way. It is, after all, set during the Dust Bowl. All the Earth Thrown to the Sky by Joe Lansdale begs to be read aloud, and I was happy to oblige with Kyle as my quickly engrossed victim.

"The wind could blow down a full-grown man, but it was the dust that was the worst. If the dust was red, I could figure it was out of Oklahoma, where we were. But if it was white, it was part of Texas come to fall on us, and if it was darker, it was probably peppering down from Kansas or Nebraska.

Mama always claimed you could see the face of the devil in them sandstorms, you looked hard enough. I don't know about that, it being the devil and all, but I can tell you for sure there were times when the sand seemed to have shape, and I thought maybe I could see a face in it, and it was a mean face, and it was a face that had come to puff up and blow us away"
p 1.

June 4, 1937. Goodwell, Oklahoma (picture by Mrs. Emma Love)
Found here.

There's nothing left in Oklahoma for Jack Catcher. His parents are dead; his mom from the dirty pneumonia of the dust storms, his dad, suicide. There's nothing left for Jane and Tony Lewis either. Their dad got run over by his tractor as he fruitlessly tried to plant in dead ground, and their mom disappeared as easily as the good farming soil that used to provide a living for both families. It's the Great Depression, and there's nothing left for anyone, so the three of them might as well set out and just hope for something better than the nothing they've got. There's nothing to lose but their sorry lives - which might be exactly what the wind takes next as they spin from one adventure to the next, stealing cars, hopping trains, running into murderous bank robbers and criminal farmers and traveling circuses.

To my disappointment, while the writing is always beautiful, as the madcap - well, madcap isn't quite the correct word as it implies a levity that the book lacks, but we'll go with it - as the madcap plot revs up it never quite matches the tone of the writing. Does the writing match the barren setting? Yes. The hopeless era? Definitely. What you essentially have in this novel is an old-fashioned adventure plot that has potential for serious consequences. But despite the horror of the first chapters, and even of the repeated danger of the subsequent events, there is a distancing that takes away the visceral impact the first chapter had, and therefore removes the feeling of true danger the events warrant. Now, of course, that's my interpretation, so perhaps others felt differently while reading. However, when you never really believe the worst will actually happen to the characters, dire situations become less threatening and that bleak, hopeless writing doesn't have anywhere to go.

This is what I believe the intent to be: I think Lansdale wanted the plot to mirror the uncontrollable dust storms with three kids swept up in adventure and danger as though they were the earth that had lost its ground. It is in part, successful. But not entirely. After those first few chapters I never felt invested in Jack Catcher again. He's overshadowed by Jane and her lying ways (despite the fact that we never really understand quite why she's so pathological in her falsehoods). The driving force is not so much the wind and it's random ways, as it is Jane. Now, does Jane personify the wind? Perhaps. Everyone and thing must fall in line with her whims, and she'll say anything to make it happen. Which is not bad, but if this is her story, and Jack is detritus that helps her on her way, her character isn't quite developed enough for the reader to become anything but irritated at how she gets in everyone's way by lying outrageously each time she opens her mouth.

It ceased to be the character driven novel one would expect from the opening chapters and the traditional "road trip" theme, and became merely a series of crazy events that were not only improbable in a setting that was all too real, but didn't possess gravitas in tune with that beautiful opening. You can't have a character be the driving force unless you want to have a character-driven plot, and you can't have a plot-driven plot diven book unless you want to invest in some sort of logic to the series of events. What happens in cases like these, when you don't pick a side (or fail to invest enough in either side), is that the whole thing flounders. And that's what happened here. It just got boring. Which, HELLO, there are murderous robbers, and kindly old ladies, and alligators, and carnies, and... and... WHY WAS THIS BORING?

"The humming blackness came doen from the sky and hit the willows down below, and in a moment the grasshoppers ate the green off of them, and the willows shook like they was in a high wind, but the only wind was the wind the grasshoppers made" p 76.

It may appeal to those who liked As Easy as Falling of the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins. Or those who really dig the old-time romantic bank robbers and gangsters from that era like Bonnie and Clyde and Babyface Nelson, who were clearly inspiration to the plot. Although those looking for that subplot will probably be left wanting more than the book delivers on that subject. It was beautifully written on the technical and art side, but lacked both plot and character development.

Found here.

Copy obtained through publisher, Delacorte Press. Started to read because I wanted to, finished because it is a Cybils 2011 YA Fiction nominated title.