Downton Abbey

Jill (my agent) brought this to my attention (it’s about six months old but I’m –as ever — behind the curve) from Slate:

Julian Fellows

Yesterday we learned that Julian Fellowes is developing a TV series set in Gilded Age New York City for NBC. As fans of both Fellowes’ work—from Gosford Park to Downton Abbey—and historical TV shows more generally, we immediately started guessing just which people and events from that period might inspire him. Fellowes frequently delves into the stories of historical figures for his dramas… The series will be set in the 1880s, a decade Fellowes has described as “a vivid time with dizzying, brilliant ascents and calamitous falls; of record-breaking ostentation and savage rivalry; a time when money was king.”

My novel-in-progress (The Gilded Hour) is set in 1880s Manhattan, as you may have read here. Jill thinks this is very good timing.  Maybe I should send Mr. Fellows my research materials and notes, all two thousand + pages worth.

But if he calls the series The Gilded Age  I’m worried I’ll have to change my title, just when I got comfortable with it.

And I’ve been meaning to ask: is there any interest in a excerpt out there?

Ariana Franklin’s newest

I have posted quite a lot about Ariana Franklin‘s (aka Diana Norman’s) historical fiction, because I like her work so much. In fact, I interviewed her (you can read that interview here) after the release of the second book in the Mistress of the Art of Death series. We talked about all her fiction, her writing and research habits, and how she came to be a historical novelist.

[asa book]0399155449[/asa] Diana’s work is set primarily in England, but there’s also a series that begins in the American Colonies at the time of the Revolution, and then her masterful City of Shadows set in post WWII Berlin. Grave Goods, the third novel in her Adelia Aguilar series has just been published in the U.S. I read it without 48 hours of it showing up in my Kindle queue, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

One of the biggest challenges in writing a series of novels is capturing the interest of new readers without boring those who have been following the story from the beginning. There’s a delicate balance that has to be achieved.  If you can pull off just the right amount of backstory, new readers will stay with the book, and if you’ve done it really well, they’ll go look up the earlier books in the series. But it’s tricky. This is something Diana does with apparent ease (which means, of course, that she had to work at it very hard). She also has a deft touch for bringing the right details to the fore to make the time and place come alive without sounding like an academic treatise.

And she loves her material. Adelia’s story is set in late 12th century England, when Henry II was in power. If you’re one of those people who avoid history because you have found it dry and boring, you will think differently after you see Henry II in action through Diana’s eyes. He is one of those pivotal historical characters whose story sounds like fiction, but isn’t.

Henry II is presented as a vibrant, devious, far-sighted, brilliant man, and he’s not even a major character. Adelia Aguilar is the central character, someone you get to know so well she feels as if she shouldn’t be fictional. Raised and educated in 12th century Italy (where women were not barred from medical education) she first comes to England in her capacity as a reader of bones, or, in more current terms, a coroner. She is part of a party that is summoned to solve a series of murders that are tragic in and of themselves, and also threaten to trigger a larger political crisis.  Adelia  finds herself sparring with Henry (who enjoys it more than she does), with the religious leaders (who do not enjoy their encounters very much at all), with just about everyone, including Rowley, who will eventually become more to her than an obstacle.

In the beginning of Grave Goods, Adelia and her household have to abandon their home in Cambridgeshire because the local priests have had enough of her and are cooking up an excuse to accuse her of witchcraft and get rid of her. At the same time, Henry II summons her to fix something for him, this time to Glastonbury Abbey, which is reputed to be the burying ground of the original King Arthur.

This is, in the first line, a historical mystery, but in her usual fashion Franklin lets Adelia lead the way. While she’s delving deeper into the fire that destroyed the Abbey and the rumors having to do with a particular grave, she is also struggling with  challenges to her understanding of herself and her wants and needs. She begins to question some of the decisions she has made, with repercussions readers of the earlier books may not have seen coming.

And that’s an excellent thing for the story and for Adelia, as well. I highly recommend all of Diana/Ariana’s work, and I’m really looking forward to the next installation of Ariana’s story.

The Girl in a Swing – Richard Adams

Richard Adams
This is one of those novels I haven’t thought about for a good while. It came back to mind because (of course) of LibraryThing.

The Girl in a Swing is absolutely nothing like Watership Down, no talking animals at all. Instead this is a story about love and obsession and ghosts, and it’s really spectacular. The main character is a young man from a stable family who has taken over his father’s fine china business in a small town in England. He has the slightest bit of extrasensory perception, which shows itself only rarely in his boyhood and young adulthood.

Traveling on business to Scandinavia, he meets a beautiful woman and falls in love. She is bright and funny and evocative, and she brings him out of his shell. She’s also secretive in ways that are vaguely alluring and disturbing both. In a matter of weeks it’s decided that they will marry. She will quit her secretarial job and join him in England. They marry in the spring, and the rest of the novel takes place over the summer.

This was a truly frightening and sad story, and it’s also a very well written one. There are several layers of things going on at any one time. I had read the book three times before I felt I had caught most of the subtle interwoven connections.

I recommend this book very highly, unless you really can’t stand to be frightened. There is no gore, you see no violence — anything like that happens well off-stage and is only approached from an angle, after the fact.

Oh and: this is one of the few novels set in contemporary England where I felt … I suppose the word is, at home. It felt real to me, as real as my husband’s home town and his friends and the extended family, in the way people talk to each other (and don’t). Also, I blame this book for a minor obsession with the history of fine china and porcelain. And if you’re wondering who the girl in the swing is — that’s an excellent question. I have thought about it alot, and I’m still not sure.

Ain’t She Sweet — Susan Elizabeth Phillips

[asa book]0066211247] First: I listened to this as an audiobook, and I’m going to evaluate the book separately from the reading.

The book is, for my money, probably going to be my favorite Susan Elizabeth Phillips. It’s funny and sweet, but it’s also quite thoughtful. It’s a twist on Cinderella and her stepsister — because you don’t know which one is which, and by the end, you’re still debating. In a good way. Can they both be Cinderella, with dashes of stepsister? Pretty much, because the main female characters (Sugar Beth, the former high school beauty queen of Parrish, Mississippi, now down on her luck) and Winifred (her half sister by her father’s open relationship to another woman) are complex in the way they see themselves, each other, and the world. In the end I liked Sugar Beth the best, because she comes a long way, learns a lot, but doesn’t lose her edge.

The novel is very atmospheric, full of southern smells and sights and sounds (I’ll get to more about this in a minute) and does a great job of capturing the good and bad of small town life. I highly recommend it for anybody who likes a well done love story. Unless you’ve got a lot of biased, preconceived notions about romance, you should read this book.

Now about the audio. The reader is Kate Flemming, and she knows her way around a variety of southern accents. Flemming reads Sugar Beth with just the right amount of vinegar; I don’t think I would have liked Sugar Beth quite so much if I had been reading rather than listening. Really.

The problem is Flemming’s reading of Colin Byrne, the main male character. A successful author, once Sugar Beth’s reviled high school English teacher — she got him fired by telling a lie after he proved that a man could be immune to her charms. Colin is supposed to be the son of an Irish mason, a boy with ambition who managed to get an education beyond his social standing and pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps. I don’t believe there’s ever a mention of where he went to university, but it’s clear that he worked for what he’s got, and re-cast himself. And then Kate Flemming goes and reads him with an outdated posh upper class accent.

There are lots of examples of current day upper-class English accents out there. Colin Firth in What a Girl Wants jumps to mind, along with a dozen other examples from modern movies. But this Colin Byrne talks like an overdone Basil Rathbone circa 1930, all glottal creak (which is, in fact, a technical term) and plummy vowels. I kept thinking it was a joke, that there would be some explanation in the story of why he affected such an outlandish accent, but nope. It was so overdone it almost stopped me from listening to the book, but the story pulled me along and I learned to ignore it. I think I would have liked the character Colin Byrne a lot more if he hadn’t sounded like such a dweeb of a throwback.

Please note that I do have some grounds for making such judgments — my husband is a Brit with the kind of educational background that Colin Byrne is supposed to have. I played a bit of the audiobook for him so he could hear the character, and he burst into laughter.

But. In the end Flemming does such a great job with the other characters, I have to give the audiobook a pass.