There’s mutiny afoot…

“History is written by the winners”

This quote is attributed to either Churchill or perhaps Hermann Göring (the jury is still out!) and it’s pretty accurate – if yours is the only side of the story people hear, then its probably going to be the one that everybody believes. But the not-so-recent rise of fictional accounts of real historical events and significant historical figures has been trying to even the ledger by giving us the other side of the coin!

And we’ve had LOADS of writers contributing to this movement; think Hodd by Adam Thorpe – depicting Robin Hood as an outlaw, a thief, and generally a really bad man; or The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson – exposing John Batman as a scoundrel and murderer with his attempts to control (and/or massacre) the indigenous population of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and Victoria; and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – the courts of King Henry VIII from Cromwell’s view-point.

Each of these stories seeks to expose the “truth” or at least broader context of historical events in whatever form that can take since so long a time has passed…And now there’s a new title to add! In his new book Fletcher of the Bounty, Graeme Lay recounts the story of the mutiny on the Bounty with Fletcher Christian as the central character.

Lay’s skilled storytelling builds a world of contrast, between the confines of life on board a naval vessel adhering to authority and routine, to the freedom and love of life experienced during the time spent in Tahiti, connecting with people from another world and ultimately falling in love with an indigenous girl. He also describes well the slow unravelling of the ship’s commander William Bligh, and demonstrates just how alien he must have seemed while in Tahiti – clinging desperately onto his military ceremonies and brutal disciplines (continuing to wear full dress uniform in the sweltering heat, for example), while at the same time considering himself far superior to all others, crew and islanders both.

The story of the Bounty, one of idealism, betrayal and the resulting struggle to create a Utopian ideal, is familiar to all of us and as far as rewriting the story of the Bounty, the relationship breakdown between Bligh and Christian, and the inevitable mutiny, Lay doesn’t really push any boundaries beyond what we already know. It’s a well written sea-tale/love-story, and it does expand brilliantly on many of the themes dealt with in brief in the 1984 Roger Donaldson film The Bounty, (with the two leading characters played by the greats Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins).

His compelling character-driven narrative is highly descriptive and contextual and if you like a good nautical tale or are a fan of historical fiction then you should get a kick out of this retelling of the tale – I especially like the inclusion of regional languages as the crew travel around the Antipodes. Just don’t expect any new earth-shattering nuggets of insight.

Fletcher of the Bounty
by Graeme Lay
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781775541066

And while we’re talking about stories in this vein, here’s a list of other titles that fall under the banner of Hard-Hitting Historical Fiction, explore, read, and enjoy!

Going a-Viking with Linnea Hartsuyker

I love a good work of hard-hitting historical fiction, and it doesn’t get much better than a viking saga!

The best example is The Long Ship by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson – it’s probably the oldest, most famous, and (for me at least) the bench mark against which all others are measured.

So I was excited to learn that a new author, Linnea Hartsuyker has entered the genre with her new debut novel The Half Drowned King.

Before we talk about the story – volume one in a trilogy to come, let’s go over what we know about the author…

  1. She spent her childhood in Ithica (US) living on the edges of a large forest
  2. She has qualifications in Creative Writing, and Material Science and Engineering
  3. She traces her own lineage back to Harald Fairhair (Harfagr – the first King of Norway)
  4. She enjoys a life of travel, food & competes in Strong-Woman events

Fair to say then that she’s got the background to deliver some knowledgeable and interesting stories and I’m very pleased to say that this first installment of her trilogy is richly layered with culture, has plenty of grit and action, and keeps decent pace while outlining the lives of the people of ancient Norway.

The story is centred around a brother and sister, Ragnvald and Svanhild, as they negotiate the brutal realities of life in times of upheaval and uncertainty.

Ragnvald has been betrayed and left for dead by an assassination attempt orchestrated by his step-father and embarks on the slow road of obtaining a satisfying vengeance – all the while trying to ingratiate himself into the fold and remain useful to the young man who would be King of a united Norway, Harald Fairhair.

Meanwhile Svanhild has her own worries. Suffering abuses at the hands of the stepfather who wants her out of the way, he tries to marry her off to a local Jarl. But hearing of Ragnvald’s survival she is desperate to be reunited with her brother and protector so flees to find him – her story takes some interesting turns, none of which I will write about as I’d prefer you read the book, but suffice to say life unfolds in unusual and unexpected ways for all of us and Svanhild’s story is equal parts light and dark.

The most impressive aspect of this book is the way in which the author describes events and drives the plot by placing events into cultural context. A great example of this is after Ragnvalds survival and recuperation from his “near-death experience”. His plan to seek revenge entails arriving at the annual ting, a yearly gathering of the Kings and Jarls of Norway, and following the traditional route of challenging his rival to either a formal duel or recompense in front of witnesses and within their framework of honour – not your usual story of confrontation, and clever writing makes this an engaging device that carries the plot along nicely.

The action scenes are brutal, blood, and injuries occur to significant characters – there’s nothing worse than a lead character who is seemingly immune to everything that befalls everyone else! There is an amount of battle tactics but it’s not overly done, and the common folk are never forgotten.

She is also very good at her descriptions of place, giving the reader a good sense of the landscape, environment, and weather conditions, and how these affect the character, the plot, and the action.

Also, by centring the story on a young man and a young woman the author is able to demonstrate the cultural expectations, limitations, and values of young people living in that environment and under those circumstances. It gives great depth and width to the story and provides a broader avenue of access for readers while giving a greater cultural context to the times.

So with strong characters, a beaut story of revenge, lots of well described battle-action & an amazing sense of place, this book ticks a lot of boxes and stacks right up against The Long Ships!

If you are a fan of Hard-Hitting Historical Fiction and are drawn to stories by Giles Kristian, Bernard Cornwell, or even George R. R. Martin, then give this series a go, you should not be disappointed!

Skol!

The Half-Drowned King

The Half Drowned King
by Linnea Hartsuyker
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781408708798

Want more hard-hitting historical fiction recommendations? Try my Historical Fiction of the masses list

Cold Cures – relax and listen to an eAudiobook

Right at the end of the School Holidays I succumbed to ‘The bug’.

Temperature, shivers, face-ache, sneezing, splutterings, sore throat, several hot-water bottles, over the counter meds and copious amounts of tea/coffee/honey, lemon and ginger combos later, I am now dealing with a more head cold-like scenario.  What really upset me is my diligence in having the Flu Jab appears to have been for nowt!!  Swiftly moving on …

Streaming eyes and almost constant nose-blowing meant that the only source of entertainment I could tolerate was talking-books … Plug in and LISTEN.  So I did.

First offering from OverDrive audiobooks was Round the Horne Movie Spoofs.  In my weakened state I managed several wry smiles – OK 1960s British ‘camp’ humour admittedly, but quite clever for all that although one offering was sufficient as smiling wasn’t helping the face & teeth-ache symptoms!

Second offering was The Captive Queen the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine – wife of two kings – King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England, and mother of such notables as Richard the Lionheart and King John (of ‘Magna Carta’ fame).  I just thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t live in huge, draughty castles and gratefully placed my hot water bottles in my ‘nest of rest’ set-up for the requisite warmth and comfort.

Third offering I had picked up from the library prior to being ‘felled’ – I persevered, but really CDs don’t work in a sick-room environment.  The constant getting up to change the discs is tiring.  It takes forever to rearrange yourself back to that exact comfortable position you had previously discovered.  But then, adding insult to injury, just as you start to feel relaxed and drowsy, the sonorous tones of the narrator announce that ‘this ends Disc xx’.  Do this manoeuvre fifteen times and you are ready to hurl said CD Player through the bedroom window.  Common sense prevailed as this would have left me both freezing cold and wet as rain lashed down the east coast of the South Island.  Sufficed to say I can remember little of the plot or characters.

CoverFinal offering is a BBC Radio dramatization of an Ellis Peters ‘Cadfael’ mystery and will keep me going until I feel ready to open the physical pages of a book.

My listening choices will, in all probability, not be yours, BUT the variety that is available is a fantastic resource to have with just a library card and a Pin/Password.

I must now remember to promote OverDrive and BorrowBox for eAudiobooks as well as Overdrive, Askews, Wheelers and Playaways for eBooks to patrons who are feeling ‘under the weather’.

The tale of a murderous governess

Cover of Jane Steele: A confessionIf you loved the Brontë classic Jane Eyre but always wished Jane had been a bit more… murderous then Lyndsay Faye’s novel, Jane Steele: A confession may be just your glass of arsenic-laden brandy.

The novel follows another unfortunate 19th century orphan girl looking for her place in the world, but she’s a good deal “spunkier” and prone to violence than Miss Eyre. In fact, she’s rather more modern than Jane Eyre in a number of ways (sex, swearing, self-defense etc.)

Jane Steele’s life is a mirror to Eyre’s in many ways from attendance at an abominable boarding school to securing a place as governess in a home that harbours secrets. Although the deaths are always justified after a fashion, the bodies do start to pile up and a worryingly perceptive policeman may just be onto her.

Author Lyndsay Faye is a fan of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and in the historical afterword reveals that it was the author’s scathing rebuff to her critics in the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre that partly inspired her to write the novel, in particular the quote, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion”.

And so she’s succeeded in creating an unconventional heroine imbued with more than a little “self-wrongedness”. Jane (Steele, that is), doubts herself, her worth and her goodness constantly but loves fiercely and loyally… much like that other Jane.

There’s a good deal of mystery in the story from Jane’s mystery inheritance to the traumatic past of her young charge and the plot gallops along like a runaway horse making it a fairly riveting page-turner, and… Reader, I devoured it.

So if ladies in corsets (who also carry knives in their skirts) sounds your thing then I’d highly recommend Jane Steele for your next wet weekend.

Further reading

Buses, Byzantium and fangirling Stella Duffy

image_proxyMany years ago I used to bus up and down the Walworth Road and round the Elephant and Castle, south of the Thames in London, either on the 68 or the 468 (if memory serves me right Janet Frame used to take one of those buses, or one very similar).

While I’d spend quite a lot of that time reading I also used to enjoy looking out of the window at the variety of people and places. I always enjoyed the Mixed Blessings Bakery, Rimworld the hat shop, and the halal noodle bar. On a more serious note, there was also a memorial to victims of the Blitz on the side of the Cuming Museum. As with any city it was a true palimpsest, with many layers of history side by side and intermingled.

Imagine my nostalgia when the pages of a book took me on that same journey, but decades earlier. A book which has a dedication which talks of a taniwha in the Thames. I just loved Stella Duffy’s London Lies Beneath, so rich and evocative of the melting pot of the city in 1912.

This sense of place and history and connections is one of many reasons I am so excited that Stella is coming to the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season on 15th May to talk about her latest books, including London Lies Beneath, and her task of finishing Ngaio Marsh‘s unfinished Money in the Morgue.

Stella Duffy, photo by
Stella Duffy, photo by Gino Spiro

Stella writes and campaigns in many areas, such as the arts, breast cancer, women’s and LGBT issues, and has worked in the theatre and written a number of novels and short stories. More recently she has become a co-director of Fun Palaces – a weekend each year where a variety of venues and locations enable arts and science for all, with a belief that community belongs at the core of all culture. They are a brilliant idea and Central Library Peterborough has had the opportunity to host a Fun Palace for the last couple of years.

I have also only just realised that Stella has written fiction about the Empress Theodora – I do love a bit of Byzantium!

I can’t wait for 15th May and hope to see you there.

Back in time and half a world away

Armchair travel is always a big hit over the Summer holidays, so we’ve put together a travel list with a bit of a twist… Come, throw yourself backwards in time and half a world away.

Our new booklist, International Historical Fiction, has heaps of recommendations from all over the world, and from many different time periods.

My personal favourite is Eowyn Ivey’s new one To the Bright Edge of the World – Alaskan wilderness, science and exploration bordering on the world of magic and myth. Sophie, young and newlywed in the 1880s, is fascinated with the science of photography and a bit of a weird outcast among the other women, while her husband Allan is leading an expedition across the unexplored (by white people, at least) wilderness of Alaska. I could use lots of words like ‘frontier’ and ‘isolation’ and ‘fascinating detail’ and ‘gosh white explorers are awful when it comes to the native people.’

Cover of 'to the bright edge of the world'  Cover of 'Homegoing' cover of 'Barkskins'

If you like stories with huge scope that traverse through multiple countries and confront harsh historical realities, have a look at Homegoing, a story of half-sisters with two remarkably different destinies. One young woman, Effia, is given in marriage to a high ranking British official, while her half-sister, Esi, is held in the dungeons below as a slave. The ramifications of the distance between them and the unhealed scars of slavery run through this novel for seven generations.

Similar in scope is Annie Proulx’s new novel, Barkskins. Both Homegoing and Barkskins begin in the 18th century, but Barkskins opens in New France. At over 700 pages it should keep you going all holidays, and take you through the two intertwining families through the generations.

Or if you want to load up on an entire epic series, let Conn Iggulden’s five book Conqueror series take you back to the time of Ghengis Khan on the Mongolian Plains, or head east, to David Kirk’s Sword of Honour if you want to meet some samurai out for revenge.

Cover of 'Conqueror' Cover of 'Sword of honour' Cover of 'Snow flower and the secret fan' Cover of 'Under the Udala Trees' 

For something perhaps a little gentler, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a beautiful story of a deep and powerful friendship between two women in 19th century China. Something a little bit more modern? Under the Udala Trees is set in the 1960s and 1970s in Nigera, a dangerous place to be if you’re a woman in love with another woman. A debut novel of gender equality and the right to love in a country recovering from civil war.

Recommended booklists from Christchurch City Libraries:

Staff pickles logo Or check out our Staff Pickles personalised lists, some choice lists with a historical or international flavour are:

  • Historical Fiction of the Masses – no drawing-room gossip or swooning in these novels! A list by Dan.
  • Translated Reads – a glimpse of a life and a world originally told in another language. A list by Roberta.
  • The World Wars: fiction and fantasy – stories of the brightest and darkest of humanities nature during two horrific time periods. A list by Alison.
  • Behaving Badly in the 1800s – mostly young adult fiction, these are books about people busting out and breaking rules. Another list by Alison.
  • Dead Dames – books written by dead women. A list by Alina.
  • Microhistories – discover the unusual and often surprising history of things like sugar, human waste, bananas, milk, coal, plants and that most mysterious of the cutlery family, the fork. Another list by Alina.

Historical Fiction of the Masses

Historical fiction is beaut and I read LOADS of it!

I find that it’s an opportunity for talented writers to explore a tiny part of history and expand on it in a way that keeps within the spirit of the times. With the added bonus of hindsight, they might get into some areas that perhaps weren’t fully described by contemporary historians in factual writings.

There’s another side to historical fiction too, and this is the tendency to lean towards topics & settings centred on ladies holding court in the drawing room or the Upstairs-Downstairs type narrative full of posh English aristocrats, much like the recently popular Downton Abbey or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall which has had the tele treatment.

There’s nothing wrong with these stories, some of them are written beautifully and they sure make good TV fodder, but my concern is that we may be boxing the term “historical fiction” into these aristocratic themes and subsequently some other great works about the “historical common people” are not reaching audiences that would love them. So let’s get into the gritty side of what I like to call (for lack of a better term) Historical Fiction of the Masses.

CoverA fine example of Historical Fiction of the Masses (and I may be showing by Tasmanian roots here) is one of my favourite books of all time – Gould’s Book of Fish – a Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan. He’s a Tasmanian author who most recently won the Man Booker Prize for his work (also historical fiction) Narrow Road to the Deep North.

In Gould’s Book of Fish he delves deeply into the corruption, lunacy and brutality of the penal system of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land in the 17th/18th centuries. This is a history not often told in its full brutal reality by history’s keepers, until quite recently when shame around the perceived “convict stain” was turned around and many people began speaking with pride of their convicted and transported ancestors.

CoverThere’s another very accomplished and award winning Tasmanian author who writes good “Historical Fiction of the Masses” – Rohan Wilson. His two titles – The Roving Party and To Name Those Lost are full of grit and reality and are based on real points of history, and the characters based on real people.

And there’s other great international titles in this vein too, The Revenant by Michael Punke is a survivalist story set in the 19th century Rocky Mountains frontier and has recently achieved a lot of attention with Leonardo Dicaprio claiming his first Oscar for his role as the main character.

CoverThe North Water by Ian McGuire dealing with life on a whaling ship in the North Sea & the ship’s morally corrupt crew was long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize

There’s a huge depth of writing in this style and a new title piqued my interest after I heard an interview with the author Eowyn Ivey on Radio New Zealand.

CoverHer book is titled To the Bright Edge of the World and during her interview she expressed her admiration for minimalist writers such as Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. She even said that one of her best-loved books was Gould’s Book of Fish by Flanagan – how could you resist!? Her book is written as diary entries and other correspondence amongst a group travelling through the wilds of frozen Alaska, their families & their descendants. It’s brutal, realistic and believable with strong engaging characters, a weight of mysticism and a deep plot – all the elements for a fine example of Historical Fiction of the Masses!

Go get some titles like these and get reading! Ma Te Wa.

In which Katherine indulges her weakness for Lord Byron

Cover of Selected poems, Lord ByronIt is always a great feeling to discover a book that you didn’t really know anything about before you picked it up and find that you can’t put it down. Recently a new book, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club caught my eye. The synopsis looked promising – young adult urban fantasy set in Regency London, and it involved Lord Byron (always a plus in my book).

I simply could not put it down, yet at the same time I didn’t want it to finish – the curse of many a good book. The plot isn’t terribly original (sparky heroine discovers she has special powers and is introduced to a secret supernatural underworld), there are many familiar tropes (tortured, but dashingly attractive Byronic hero etc), but the quality of the writing and the attention to period detail – such as the inclusion of the real life assassination of the British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval – in the setting make for an excellent read.

Young adult urban fantasy is an extremely popular genre (see Twilight, Fallen, Vampire Academy etc, as is Georgian / Regency fiction like Georgette Heyer, and Jane Austen and her imitators, so it is kind of fun for an author to mash up these genres to create something that is both familiar and fresh. And which uses words like ‘gallivanting’ and ‘fornication’.

A rollickin’ good yarn

Cover of The Fair FightAfter reading two bleak stories I needed a complete change. For this reason I chose an historical first novel by Anna Freeman titled The Fair Fight. It turned out to be a rollickin’ good yarn from beginning to end.

When I read historical fiction I want to be transported to another time and place. I want true characters that I can commit to and stories I can believe in. I want real voices and language that evokes the period of the time. I was lucky as Anna Freeman skilfully and naturally blends these elements to create a story that comes alive.

From the first pages I was immersed in 18th century Bristol where pugilists, brothels, brawling and gambling rule the day. I enjoyed discovering and absorbing new/old words like “mollies”, “pugs”, “cullies”, and “swells”.

Three of the main characters, Ruth, Charlotte and George, are the storytellers with each voice adding suspense and vibrancy to the drama. This is a well realised and oftentimes brutal tale.

elizabeth stokesBy the end I wanted to know more about women and boxing during these times so turned to the 17th – 18th Century Burney Collection of Historical Newspapers available from the library.

I found an advertisement from Oct 1st, 1726, about a Mary Welch and Elizabeth Stokes. They talk up their fighting skills to excite readers and announce they will “mount at Four” and “fight in cloth Jackets, short Petticoats coming just below the Knee, Holland Drawers, white Stockings, and Pumps”. Cor blimey!

A fascinating account that all started with historical fiction.

Outlandish kilt addiction

Cover of OutlanderThe things you find when trawling through the library catalogue.

I was just trying to fill the hole that the conclusion of the first season of the Outlander TV series, based on the books by Diana Gabaldon, had left in my leisure time.

I found a blog post about the source novels, and an If you like… Diana Gabaldon book list. It seemed I wouldn’t have to wait until the next series to get some more 18th century kilted historical-time-travel-romance in my life. Very good.

But then I idly went searching to see if we had any copies of Highlander (either the movie, or the TV series) and shove me in a sheep’s gut and call me haggis, I stumbled upon… a bunch of shirtless kilt-wearing cover-boys. And not just a couple, but legions of them. Well hello, Jamie Fraser!

It must have been warmer in Scotland in days of yore if this lack of upper body garments is anything to go by. Will ye nae put a vest on, lad?

After rigorous research I can confirm that covers in this particular genre fall in to three categories in which the muscular hero can be –

holding a lady,
Cover of Rogue with a brogueCover of Mad, bad, and dangerous in plaidCover of to marry a scottish lairdCover of In bed with a highlanderCover of Never seduce a Scot

holding a sword, either pointy side up…
Cover of To wed a wicked highlanderCover of The chieftainCover of Sins of the highlanderCover of The guardian

…or down,
Cover of Temptation in a kiltCover of The stone maidenCover of Moon awakeningCover of The hellion and the highlander

or at least, wearing some kind of armband (face optional).
Cover of awaken the highland warriorCover of The immortal highlanderCover of The dark highlanderCover of Sweet revenge

And am I allowed to say that some of the titles are AMAZING? For my money Mad, bad and dangerous in plaid is a standout, though Temptation in a kilt must surely get an honorable mention.

You’ll be pleased to know that almost all of these titles are available in eBook format, possibly as a result of the “embarrassment factor” that does apparently influence choice of format for recreational reading. Though why you’d be whakamā about reading In bed with a highlander on the bus, I can’t imagine (okay, yes I can).

Which of the above is your favourite Caledonian cover-boy?