Madeline Hunter not only writes great historical romances, she also has a column she writes for USA Today called HEA (Happily Ever After) about romance novels more generally. For today’s edition she interviewed a number of historical novelists (including me) about the difference between historical fiction and historical romance (you can read it here).
It was very interesting to me to see how other writers (including Donna Thorland, whose novels I really like and I have been meaning to review) answered some very thought-provoking questions.
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Historical fiction is my natural habitat. I write it for a living, and I read it constantly. I know what went into the writing of this novel and I admire the way the author brought Charleston to life. The history itself, the story of the Grimke sisters and their dedication to abolition and women’s rights, is enthralling stuff.
Sue Monk Kidd can write a beautiful sentence, she can construct a paragraph and a scene and put it all together. So all the pieces are there, but the novel failed to come together for me. The problem for me was mostly about mechanics, pacing and focus.
Kidd seems to never really decide what this novel is about. If it’s about the Grimke sisters and their mission to educate the country and bring about justice, then it takes far too long to get off the ground. A full half of the novel takes place before they really get started. If it’s about Handful, then her story is unbalanced and piecemeal. Pacing is crucial to a story like this, and the pacing was off.
My strong impression is that Kidd would have been better able to find a rhythm if she had written this in third person. She never really gets her feet on the ground writing as Sarah or as Handful; approaching the story in third person would have given her more perspective and focused the narrative.
A number of times I felt as if we were finally shifting up out of first gear only to fall back again into a putter. It’s unfortunate, because the material is very rich and full of promise.
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It’s not often that I’m so drawn into a novel that I can’t put it down. In fact, I don’t remember the last time that happened. Now I’m reading The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes, and I find myself thinking about it constantly.
This woman can tell a story, and she can write a sentence and a paragraph and handle dialogue. And by god, she can plot. The Girl You Left Behind is half historical and half contemporary, set in France and England. That’s pretty difficult to pull off, but she does it effortlessly.
I read Me Before You first (also a great title) and that was very good, thought provoking and sad and not-sad all at once, but The Girl You Left Behind is a step beyond. Moyes has more of a backlist, and I’m going to be reading whatever there is to read straight away.
I’m not going to review either novel here, not now, because I haven’t finished The Girl You Left Behind yet and also because I need to think about it for a while. But I wanted to say this. It’s good to come across a storyteller who can handle both extremes of emotion and the high and low points of experience so deftly. There is sorrow here, of the deepest and most moving kind, and a bone-deep understanding of what it is to lose someone you love. There is also new love and friendship and animosity and fear. On a couple of occasions things come close to — but don’t quite cross — the line into too much.
The historical half of the story is set in France during WWI, which is a little out of the ordinary because that war is far less visited in fiction these days than its follow-up. It is also of special interest to me because it was so central to Homestead and I studied it for a long time. The characters in the first part of The Girl You Left Behind are very well drawn and evocative, but it’s the second half of the novel that really has grabbed me.
I haven’t read any reviews because I didn’t want to be influenced, but my guess is that Moyes will be compared to Jodi Picoult and Jacquelyn Mitchard, because in each of Moyes’ novels there’s an unusual premise or backstory built around a difficult or controversial ethical issue. Picoult runs hot and cold for me; in my opinion, Mitchard is the far better writer. And I think the same can be said of Moyes. It won’t be clear until she’s got a larger body of work, which I hope is forthcoming.
A Faint Cold Fear by Karin Slaughter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Somehow or another Karin Slaughter never came into my radar, which is surprising as I like this kind of crime drama, a lot. So now I’ve read the first three in the Grant County series, and I feel compelled to write a short review.
Slaughter doesn’t coddle her characters. She throws believable stuff at them. Extreme extreme, but still within the realm of believable. Her people are complex, nuanced, and each of them handles the dog-awful stuff differently. There are a couple of characters who could be more developed, but then there are characters who have small roles but who are incredibly well drawn and vivid. Eddie, I’m looking at you.
In particular one character — Lena Adams — was interesting to me in this third novel because she’s been through hell, and there’s no telling if she’ll be able to pull herself out of the resulting self destructive spiral. I thought her development was handled really well, and then out of left field: a twist I never saw coming. Now I am really wondering how Slaughter is going to handle this in the rest of the series. She’s not afraid to do bad, bad things to her characters but she’s also making things challenging for herself. Which is brave, and promising both.
Warning: not for the faint of heart.
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