Monthly Archives: June 2008

Medieval Historical Fiction

You’ve finished all your Ken Folletts and Dorothy Dunnett is dead and you’re sad because you’re thinking you’ve already read every historical novel on the planet that is set in the Middle Ages? Fear not, for the good people at are here to show you just how unlikely that is. The post that will make your head explode (but in a good way) is this one which lists all the medieval novels in alphabetical order with links to each one. They have a separate section for medieval mysteries right here for all your Brother Cadfael/Dame Frevisse needs.

So don’t tell me you’ve got nothing to read.

Catherine Delors, Mistress of the Revolution

As I mentioned below, the moment I saw the announcement for this book in Publisher’s Marketplace, I thought it would be something I’d like and, believe me, that is something that happens far less often than I would expect.  Now I have finished it, and thought I would share some thoughts.

I have read a number of novels about the French Revolution that I have liked — Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety remains a favourite. While many of these use real and invented characters to tell the story of the revolution, Delors’ book is quite different. It’s not the story of the revolution, but rather the story of the minor noble Gabrielle de Montserrat, and it is her experiences and reactions that remain paramount. I think this is a huge strength. Delors’ Gabrielle experiences the cataclysmic events of her time the way most of do our own, as spectators and as victims, without the power to change the turbulence around her but with the strength to endure its effects. As Gabrielle experiences it, the unfolding of the revolution seems to have an inevitable quality about it, which is surely how it must have seemed to those buffeted by its currents.

Delors avoids one of what I think is one of the pitfalls of first person historical fiction: she gives Gabrielle a reason for telling her story. The book is written as Gabrielle’s memoir, written by her in England, in English, long after the events she relates are over. This allows Gabrielle to “tell” of many things that both her imagined historical audience and her audience of contemporary readers wouldn’t know, but better than that, the voice is perfect. The book truly reads like it was written by a Frenchwoman writing for an English audience. That is probably because, erm, it was.

My favourite part of the novel wasn’t, in the end, the broad movements of history, or even the tragic love story at the book’s heart, but rather the story of Gabrielle’s relationship with Villiers. Without being in the least anachronistic, their relationship has a very contemporary resonance. He’s the wrong guy, the one you date though you know you shouldn’t because he wants it so much, and then he utterly fails to be what he has promised. As she transacts this relationship of compromise and tries to make it work, Gabrielle’s character emerges, both innocent and wise. I loved how she checked the value of the diamonds he gave her before they began their liaison.

I wanted more. I know in an earlier incarnation this book was longer, and I think I wanted that version, publishing constraints and norms be damned. I guess I’ll just have to wait for her next one!

Beyond the Great Wall

As if I didn’t have enough lovely fiction to read, my favourite cookbook writing duo, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid have come up with a new one, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China (Artisan, 2008), which i simply had to buy. When I say I am a fan, I’m not kidding. The Seductions of Rice was the first book of theirs I received, followed by Flatbreads and Flavors and Hot Sour Salty Sweet, abut the cuisines of South Asia. Then last spring, I was searching for meaning in the cookbook aisle and I thought to myself, how wonderful it would be if they wrote a book for India like the one they had done for South Asia. I looked up and, lo, there was Mangoes & Curry Leaves.
Why do I like their books so much? Two reasons. First, they’re political.  Their attitude towards food and eating is one of both delight and responsibility in a world of scarcity.  Their way of eating urges the western world away from making costly (in so many ways) meat the centre of our diet and towards thinking of meat as a delicious accent to a diet based in vegetables and staples like bread and rice.  In addition to being guardians of resources, and no more so than in this most recent book, they are guardians of cultures.  They are photographers and essayists as well as fine cooks and their stories and pictures document and defend little known cultures and peoples.

The second reason I love their books is that the food is delicious.  The receipts typically have modest lists of ingredients and they always work.  I admit that my pantry may be better stocked with unusual ingredients than most, but almost everything in their latest book can be made with things you’d find at an ordinary grocery store.  It isn’t “restaurant” ethnic food; it tastes more like home cooking, and it is often based directly on dishes they have eaten on their travels, with ordinary people.  The classics make way for unusual and unique receipts and their books will not duplicate anything else you have in your collection.

But why take my word for it?  I thought I’d make one of their receipts and present it here for you.  So, below the fold: Savory Boiled Dumplings! Continue reading

Books I Bought Last Week

…And where I first learned about them.  My local independent bookstore has a sale every year, and I use it as a time to buy books by new authors, as well as some old favourites. I thought it might be fun to list them, and to try to figure out what made me buy them.

David Blixt, The Master of Verona St. Martin’s Press, 2007.
I definitely learned about this one online first, most likely here. Shakespeare and Dante? Looks yummy.




Charles de Lint, Widdershins (Tor, 2006).
The first de Lint book I read, many moons ago, was his book in the Fairy tale series, Jack of Kinrowan. I loved the Ottawa setting, and I’ve been a fan ever since.




Catherine Delors, Mistress of the Revolution Dutton, 2008.
I first learned of this book when I saw the sale posted on Publisher’s Marketplace last January. “That looks like something I’d read,” I thought, “Maybe her agent would be the right one for me.”



William Gibson, Spook Country Berkley, 2007.
I picked his Pattern Recognition up off a library shelf and loved it, and though I did not enjoy Neuromancer or Mona Lisa Overdrive quite as much, I thought I’d try this.




Conn Iggulden, Genghis: Birth of an Empire Dell, 2007.
This was a spontaneous buy. I love historical fiction about Asia and I read Cecilia Holland’s Mongol novel, Until the Sun Falls for the second time recently with great delight. And he was one of the author’s of The Dangerous Book for Boys. How can i go wrong?



Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Harper, 2007.
My only non-fiction book in this group. When I read for pleasure, it is almost always fiction. My sister introduced me to Kingsolver through Prodigal Summer and I have become a fan.




Lisa See, Peony in Love Random House, 2008.
See about abut Asian historical fiction. I haven’t read anything by her before. I suspect I first saw her books on a front table at a bookstore.




Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale Washington Square Press, 2006.
I am sure I first heard about this one on the internet, and I think it was through some online contest the publisher was running to promote it. I didn’t participate in the contest, but I did remember the book, and I’ve been picking it up and putting it down every time I am in a bookstore for months. This time I didn’t put it down.



Rebecca Stott, Ghostwalk Spiegel & Grau, 2008.
If you’d asked me before I did this exercise how I found new books to read, I would have told you I browse the front tables and shelves of bookstores and choose books that way. This is the only book from this marathon purchasing session that I got that way. It was on the front table in the store, I picked it up, read the cover copy, and put it on my pile.



So, bought any good books lately? Let me know! I’m sure I’ll be back to the bookstore before long…


Cory Doctorow, Little Brother

I often write about books that I am reading, but today I am going to write about a book my son read.  We had to buy him a horrendously expensive calculator for school last autumn, and now that he has reached the end of the school year without losing it (touch wood — he has one more week) I told him I’d buy him a book as a reward, so last Friday we went to our local book store.

My son inhales books, but he has pretty firm tastes, like most almost-thirteen year olds I know.  When we’re in a bookstore, I usually hand him things I think he might like, and insist he read the first paragraph or jacket copy.  He tends to think very little of my suggestions (like most almost-thirteen year olds I know).  I had heard a lot of Cory Doctorow’s venture into YA fiction, Little Brother, online at places like John Scalzi’s Whatever and over at Making Light, and it sounded like just the thing my son should enjoy —  computers, hackers, terrorists, and evil authority figures.  So I handed it to him, and hoped for the best.  Dear reader, he was enthralled.  We took it home, and he kept trying to read it while we were walking.  He’d stop and say, “I really should be talking to you now,” and then he’d start reading again.  And now he’s finished it and is threatening to put something called “Paranoid Linux” on my old laptop computer.  I’m not exactly certain what that is, but somehow it is all connected.

This made me think about where I learn about new books, and it strikes me that a large number of them I hear about first on the internet, mostly through blogs.  I bought a whole pile of new books last week in addition to the Doctorow, and I am going to mention them in a future post and try to figure out where I first learned about them, and whether that might say anything useful about book publicity.


I’m trying to write a scene about a tournament and it’s a bit of a stretch for me.  That was an understatement.  I tend to skim battle and fight scenes in books, and glaze over in the movie theatre, and now I find myself having to come up with something more interesting than “He hit him with his sword and then the other guy struck back and then…”

So while I’m procrastinating, I will offer you this interesting factoid I just learned.  Did you know that our word “tournament” comes from the fact that, after the two jousting knight had made their initial charges towards each other on horseback, they had to quickly turn around, the “tournament,” to face each other and charge again?  Imagine the challenge of halting the momentum of a galloping horse, heavy with armor-laden rider, and turning the animal in the opposite direction.  The one who could do this with the most speed and skill had a definite advantage.

WordPress 2.5.1

After much procrastination, I finally upgraded my WordPress to the new version.  I feared I was going to have much drama what with backing up and file deleting and FTPing and similar hoo ha, but in the end, it just took two clicks and I was done. Not sure how I feel about the new interface, but anyway: Thanks, Bluehost.  Thanks, Fantastico.  Erm, now I feel a bit sheepish.