Historical fiction can be a slippery genre. How do you write about the past and make it relevant for today? How do you know that you’re telling the truth about the lives of people who lived before you? Is it okay to add bits? To embellish and turn facts on their head for the sake of a good story? I wrestle with these dilemmas all the time.
I read several different approaches to historical fiction over the weekend. Jackie French’s ‘Macbeth and Son’ was terrific. I’ve always admired her historical fiction – she’s so meticulous about historical detail that she really makes the past feel rich and vivid. I can see why this book wound up on the CBCA younger reader’s shortlist because it’s a great read. It could almost fudge into the bottom of the older reader’s list as the heroes of the story, Luke/Luchlan are both in their teens – their lives running parallel though centuries apart. The historical element was the most compelling section of the book but maybe, as a history buff, I’m biased.
‘I, Coriander’ by Sally Gardner has a completely different approach to history, merging magic and historical fact in a way that I’d normally find distracting. Coriander’s mother keeps a magic, silvery ‘shadow’ in an ebony box in their London home during Cromwell’s reign in the late 17th century. But the magic and the history merge into an engrossing read. The sort of book you can’t put down.
The history felt so authentic and rich and the fantasy was equally satisfying though I can’t help feeling a twinge of slightly pedantic unease about combining the two. But I couldn’t have been that uneasy because I sat up until 2.00 am to finish it. Serious fun.
What happened to July? I can’t believe the month clocked over and I have an ‘archive’ for July! I’m still figuring out how to manage this blog. As I spend a lot of time grazing non-fiction, munching on poetry, dipping into reference books, and even occasionally re-reading novels that I’ve loved or that I feel a need to re-visit, this blog could get very cluttered. So I’ve figured I need to keep the focus on the new fiction I’ve discovered (whether it’s a recent release or otherwise.)
Ironically, August is going to a much leaner month on the new reading front. But for the record, following is a list of the ‘new’ fiction I read in July. I mentioned some of them in earlier postings and haven’t listed some of the non-fiction or ‘second-read’ novels that I’ve referred to throughout July. If you want to know what I actually thought about any title that I didn’t review, send me an email.
Junior & YA fiction
Drift – Penni Russon, Bird & Sugar Boy – Sophie Laguna, Being Bee – Catherine Bateson, Leaving Barrumbi – Leonie Norrington, Layla Queen of Hearts – Glenda Millard, My Life My Love My Lasagna – Stephen Herrick, The Tuckshop Kid – Pat Flynn, The Punjabi Pappadum – Robert Newton, Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbit, Skullduggery Pleasant – Derek Landy, Dog Boy – Victor Kelleher
Black Swan Green – David Mitchell, The history of love – Nicole Krauss, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathon Safran Foer, The Second Wife – Elizabeth Buchan, Oryx & Crake – Margaret Atwood, Happenstance – Carol Shields, Selected Short Stories – Dave Eggers
I found a book that swallowed me whole. It was fantastic – just like free-falling. Penni Russon‘s ‘Drift’ was a breath-taking finale to her Undine trilogy. I couldn’t put it down which was exactly the sort of tonic I was looking for after a heavy week of reading reference materials.
I also had a lot of fun with Catherine Bateson’s book ‘Being Bee’. It’s on this year’s CBCA Award shortlist with good reason. It was sharp and funny and touching without being sentimental. I liked Bee, the main character. Bee has to come to terms with her father introducing a ‘step-mother’ into her life. It’s a difficult time in any kid (or adult’s) life and a tough subject to write about without characters becoming cliched.
I almost can’t be bothered mentioning that I read Elizabeth Buchan’s ‘The Second Wife’ which is an adult book but it confirms that adult literature has no monopoly on good prose. It was clunky and unbelievable and I was cross I’d wasted my time. As a modern tale of second families, it wasn’t a patch on the charming ‘Being Bee’. There’s no question that Bateson is the better writer.
‘Layla, Queen of Hearts’ is also on the shortlist and was a sweet sequel to Glenda Millard’s earlier book ‘The Naming of Tishkin Silk’. I don’t usually go for this style of warm and fuzzy feel-good story but Millard does it so well and her prose is lovely.