The Inconvenient Past

I have been such a bad blogger lately and I do apologise. I just have too much on at the moment, and when something has to give, it has to be the least work-related activity. Also, the last couple of months I’ve reviewed books a lot less here in order to write reviews for Shiny New Books. Instead, I’ve enjoyed writing more personal pieces on this blog. However, there are plenty of weeks – and I call them good weeks – when nothing much happens of interest to tell you about. Having just written that, I should confess that I was at the Cambridge literary festival on the weekend, which theoretically is a good blogging topic but I can’t quite work the enthusiasm up for writing about it. It was good! Really, writers talked about their work, they were witty and clever, the audience enjoyed themselves. You get the picture.

Instead, let me tell you about a couple more of the books that didn’t quite make it into Shiny and my probably very contentious reasons for not putting them there: two historical novels from debut writers, The Tutor by Andrea Chapin and The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester.

Okay, so here’s a question: why set a novel in the past? Ostensibly there’s a simple answer to that – Andrea Chapin is writing about a part of Shakespeare’s life for which there is no actual historical record, Lucy Ribchester about the Suffragettes. Historical characters, in other words, for whom we still have a measure of curiosity. But I found myself wondering about the heroines of these novels and the role they served.

the tutorIn Chapin’s lushly romantic novel, young widow, Katherine de L’Isle lives with her uncle and his family, having lost two families of her own. They are Catholics at a time of great persecution and all sorts of disturbing events occur, beginning with the murder on their grounds of the family priest. Katherine’s uncle, fearing his presence as the main cause of persecution flees to France, leaving a power vacuum behind in his family. Into this chaos comes the young Will Shakespeare, occasional player, unconventional tutor to the family’s young children, and would-be poet. This Will is a shameless flirt and a charmer, constantly on the lookout for opportunities to weasel his way into rewarding relationships. Realising Katherine is a keen and astute reader, he ends up sending her his poem on Venus and Adonis for Katherine to critique, and as the poem proceeds, so Katherine begins to fall for Will and to imagine that their responses to one another are echoed in the verse. More fool Katherine, for Will is a tease and too interested in his own aspirations to care for her; she is about to hit a rocky end.

the hourglass factoryIn The Hourglass Factory, Frankie George is a rookie reporter for the London Evening Gazette, determined to make her name despite her gender. At present she is a reluctant ‘odds and sods’ columnist, teamed up with the overblown and demanding Twinkle, so when she is asked for a profile of infamous trapeze artist, Ebony Diamond, Frankie leaps at the chance. Particularly when she is quickly made aware that Ebony, with her Suffragette leanings, is swimming in dangerous waters. Following her to the London Coliseum to pursue her investigation, Frankie is as astonished as the rest of the audience when Ebony seems to disappear into thin air, the mystery compounded by an escaped tiger from an earlier act – which may or may not have eaten her. Frankie risks the ire of her boss, the vengeance of corrupt police officers and a variety of reckless and dangerous characters around her to pursue the truth.

Both of these novels are very well-written and carefully plotted with swooping stories. They’ve got everything: corpses, love affairs, mysteries, famous figures from the past, exotic locations. They have, in other words, a wholly 21st century mentality, nowhere more evident than in their female heroines who rush into the heart of the action without a backward glance.

So I get it; a lot of readers find it hard to forgive the past for its ideologies and don’t want to read about the sort of mindset women of those ages might likely have had. But why, in that case, write historical fiction employing such 21st century characters? Why not place them where they belong, in the current day? And weirdly, what’s the trend in popular contemporary novels but women struggling against their own weakness and dissolution, like the dreadful The Girl on the Train. If we still like the women-in-peril novel, if we are fascinated by women as their own worst enemies, why are we so insistent that women in the past should behave with autonomy and ambition? Is it only me who thinks that odd?

For my money, the only reason to write about the past is to inhabit the strange otherness of the past, the way it differed so profoundly from life as we know it. And for sure, we see that in the backdrop of both of these novels. Are we to think, then, that history is only used as intriguing scenery? A particularly attractive backcloth? If I go down this track, then I become cynical. Are authors latching onto these famous names – Shakespeare, the Suffragettes – just because they will sell? The reader gets a little bit of a history lesson from the details, and can enjoy a rambunctious story with lots of strong characters?

It’s the current style, and I am out of step. But in my heart, I find myself uneasy with this sort of falsification of history. This is not how it was. And it’s important we remember how it was, the reasons human beings chose eventually to live and think differently and the reasons why we do not wish to go back to those old habits. The past was not a nice place and women certainly did not think as if they were free. And the world today is not a nice place, with all sorts of self-serving ideologies still doing the rounds and holding us hostage. I hope future writers will not spare us by prettying it up and pretending we valiantly rose above it all.

In all fairness, Lucy Ribchester does give a very vivid portrait of what Suffragettes went through at the hands of the police and the jailors and Andrea Chapin makes it clear how brutal persecution of Catholics was in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. As I said, they are very good books on their own terms, with a lot of verve and colour. You will probably enjoy them! You should certainly try them to see what you think.

 

A Double Anniversary

SNB-logoYes,  it’s our first year anniversary at Shiny New Books and we’re celebrating with our 5th edition. Please do go over and check out our reviews, features, interviews and articles. Plus, we’ve got a special announcement about our new Shiny Book Club.

And on the 2nd April, this blog marked its 9th anniversary. That’s scary, isn’t it? It doesn’t feel as if nine years have gone past, though a lot has happened, admittedly. Nine years ago, I had just come off work on sick leave from the university, my son’s voice hadn’t even broken, and Mr Litlove was working for a different company. We were all quite different people, I think; there’s been a lot of changing and growing and developing going on here in all that time.

But the main constant – and the loveliest gift of all from blogging – has been the company of many dear virtual friends. So many of you have been visiting here faithfully for years, and I can’t thank you enough for that. And it’s been an extra delight to have good friends from the Reading Room become good friends at Shiny, too.

So a special thank you to Annabel, Harriet, Simon and Bookgazing, who are all on the Shiny Adventure.

And I am so pleased to direct you towards some of the fabulous reviews and articles in our 5th edition by these wonderful people:

Danielle picks us Books for Spring

Jean encourages us toward Reading in Translation

Arti considers the role Stefan Zweig played in Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ingrid interviews American giant of letters, Phillip Lopate

Stefanie reviews Orlando and The Waves

Susan reviews the new Patrick Gale, A Place Called Winter

Denise reviews Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

Karen reviews The Man In A Hurry by Paul Morand

And now that Shiny no.5 is finally out, I catch up with my email correspondence! If I owe you an email, a thousand apologies – I’ll be writing very soon!

 

 

 

A Word From Our Sponsors

SNB-logoYes, in just a week’s time we’ll be unveiling the new Spring edition of Shiny New Books! If I’ve been a little quiet lately, it’s because I’m working my way through the reviews for Shiny. This time around, I’ve decided to become even more picky about what I put in the magazine, and among the highlights there’ll be Sarah Hall’s mesmerising new novel, The Wolf Border, an absolutely brilliant book of cinema history, Five Came Back, about Hollywood directors who took their skills into the Second World War, Alexandra Fuller’s moving memoir of her failed marriage and the legacy of her African upbringing, Leaving Before the Rains Come, and a wonderfully funny and touching crime novel from Malcolm Pryce, The Case of the Hail Mary Celeste. And more! But I’ll mention just those for now.

Also some exciting news – we’re beginning a book club! I won’t say any more about that either, but I hope you’ll check out the details next Tuesday.

Right, I had better get back to the reviews. This afternoon I’m writing about a novel that’s recently out in paperback, all about ballet dancers. Have you read it too?

 

In Which I Fight The March of Progress

I love audiobooks. They are so soothing and comforting and nothing says relaxation to me like lying on my bed listening to a great story. Over the years I’ve amassed quite a library, the oldest on cassette tape – which are now hard to listen to because my cassette player is so ancient and well-used that the wheels scream in protest after an hour or so – the next era on CD, and then the most recent on the ipod Mr Litlove gave me for Christmas a couple of years ago. For my next birthday he gave me a docking station, because I prefer that to ear buds and because the docking station has no function buttons on it whatsoever, it comes with a remote.

Now the first little mishap I had occurred one night while I was sleeping. Evidently a butterfly flapped its wings in China, I turned over in bed, the thick corner of the duvet shifted, clipped the remote on the bedside table, and sent it on a neat dive head-first into my nighttime glass of water which was standing half full on the floor. I put the glass there so that it shouldn’t get knocked over and spill onto the pile of books I happen to have beside me. This goes to show that you really can’t think of everything.

Well, you may imagine my horror when I woke in the morning to witness the mischief that had taken place. Without the remote, the docking station is useless. But I dried it off, and by the end of the day it was working again, albeit unreliably. The on/off button worked, even if all the others didn’t seem responsive. I couldn’t honestly tell you it was much different when it was new, as I would often poke and prod it without effecting noticable change to anything other than the volume.

The next little mishap wasn’t even a mishap. I’d taken the docking station downstairs to listen, and then returned it to the bedroom. Obviously it travels as well as I do, because this caused some sort of short-circuit or dodgy connection at the point where the ipod fits onto the station. If I fiddled about with it and pushed it down harder, I could get it to play, but the sound could cut off abruptly if an atom shifted in the universe.

But hey, I could still get it to work, and after a long, frustrating evening, Mr Litlove managed to find a way to continue downloading audio books onto it, after itunes and audible decided that no one uses such obsolete devices as ipods any more. I think I’m supposed to own a swanky phone or tablet instead, so it’s a good job that none of these young turks at the forefront of modern technology have seen my 2004-bought pay-as-you-go phone which beeps every time I press a button, much to the amusement of my son, and can only save about a dozen messages at a time. In my defence, if I decide to commit a crime, I’m pretty sure the police will never trace me.

So having negotiated all these technological pitfalls, I finally discovered there was one thing I simply could not get around – and that was the chaos caused by falling asleep. It’s very hard not to, when you are warm and cozy and doing nothing more than listening to a soothing voice. Recently, I’d used my latest audible credit on Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I was loving. It’s a wonderful family story, with all the trademark Tylerisms that make it so good to listen to, in particular her ability to turn out both a beautiful sentence and a great line of dialogue. Well, I was enjoying it immensely, but the inevitable happened and without being able to tell you at what point exactly it happened, I fell asleep.

I woke up to silence. This was worse than usual, as it meant that the ipod must have shifted on its docking station and lost its connection. How long had I been asleep before that happened? I’ve woken up before to disconcerting déjà vu when the story has both finished and seamlessly started all over again. But now I had no idea how much of the narration I’d missed. The remote was useless to me, so I went over to the ipod and fiddled about with it until it started speaking again.

My ipod has a touch screen the size of a large-ish postage stamp. It has two little lines or an arrow in the middle, for play or pause, and a triangle either side for fast forward or rewind. If you tap the triangle it skips a chapter (not at all the same thing as a chapter in the book, alas) and if you hold your finger down, it supposedly moves forwards and backwards more slowly so you can skim. HAH is all I have to say to that. I touched the screen and we instantly jumped forward by several book chapters. Now I was even more lost than before. I touched the screen to move backwards, and this time it was enough to cut the connection. After more wobbling and poking and calling it some ugly names, the narration resumed but way further back, back at a part I’d been listening to the previous day. There was more back and forth that I’ll spare you, but eventually I ended up deciding the best policy was to listen again to a chunk I’d already heard.

After the half hour it took to reach the place I fell asleep, I turned out to have missed only a paragraph or two.

What is this obsession with tininess? I don’t have particularly large hands, but this whole poking and swiping business is a nightmare of inaccuracy. My ipod could be three times larger than it is, and it would still be small. It could have buttons on it, so I could actually be sure what function I was selecting. The ‘chapter’ divisions could correspond to actual chapters in the book. And the most smiled-upon solution, to switch to a newer form of technology, means learning a whole new host of instructions on ever more complicated gadgets. What is a dinosaur of technology like me supposed to do?