Thursday, 21 February 2013

Medieval Underpants & Other Blunders

Medieval Underpants & Other Blunders by Susanne Alleyn 

A wonderful little book aimed at writers of historical fiction. This book (I bought the paperback as I thought I'd want to refer to it over and over) tells you of the most common anachronisms to be found in historical fiction, and teaches you how to avoid making the same mistakes.

The basic message is - look it up! Always look it up, even if you think you know. Did Dark Ages Irish peasants eat spuds? No, because potatoes originate in South America so BC (Before Columbus) they were unknown in Europe. What kind of underpants did medieval peasant women wear under their skirts? None. You try peeing in the corner of a field in long skirts, if you've also got to untie your knickers and pull them down.

Having once almost had my 1820s child go to sleep cuddling a teddy bear (which were named after US president Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt after he refused to shoot a bear during a hunting trip) I thought I could make good use of this book. You need to be very careful when writing historical fiction - it's not just the obvious anachronisms, but the less obvious ones such as use of colloquialisms and cliches. Your seventeenth century teenager couldn't be accused of going off the rails, for example (refers to train derailments); neither could he get tired and run out of steam (steam engines not invented till 1780s).

As the author says in her book, Wikipedia is your Friend.
This book is a lively and informative read, and is recommended for all those who love history, but especially if you are aiming to write historical fiction.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
I wanted to read this as soon as I read an early review of it, but waited for the paperback. 

Newly retired Harold gets a letter from a one-time colleague, saying she is dying of cancer. He sets out to post a reply to her, but doesn't stop walking, and in the end walks the length of England (south Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed) to see her in person, having phoned the hospice she's in to tell her to wait for him. His marriage has more or less broken down, and he's estranged from his son. His journey through England puts everything right. 

This is a beautiful book with some wonderful use of language. How's this for conciseness of description - setting an entire scene in 1 sentence on page 1: 'It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelled of clean washing and grass cuttings.' You are instantly in middle-class suburbia with that line! And it's really clever - we learn that Harold's wife Miriam is constantly washing and cleaning, and his job is to mow the lawn. But on the day the letter arrives, the lawn has been mown. He has nothing else to do, only walk to the postbox with his letter...

There are some wonderful characters, not least Harold himself, who you really warm to. And some emotional scenes as Harold comes to terms with his own past. 

Friday, 15 February 2013

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

I read this on my Kindle. Bought it ages ago but took a while to get around to it. It's exactly the sort of novel I love - a timeslip novel, with a story from the past being uncovered in the present. In this novel there's a mystery in the present which is revealed as you hear more of what happened in the past.

In the historical story set in 1923, Eva and her sister Lizzie, and a formidable missionary woman Millicent arrive at Kashgar in north-western China to set up a Christian mission. They try to help a young girl who's been outcast and is giving birth, but sadly the girl dies and Eva ends up taking care of the baby, while Millicent is accused of causing the girl's death. While under house-arrest, Eva starts writing her cycling guide to Kashgar (yes, she has brought a bicycle with her...)

In the present day story, Frieda unexpectedly inherits a flat-full of items from an old lady named Irene who she'd never heard of, but to whom she's apparently next-of-kin. Helped by a refugee Tayeb who's on the run, being an illegal immigrant, Frieda tracks down her mother to help find out who Irene was.

The book flips back and forth between the two stories. Both are completely absorbing, peopled by memorable characters who you really care about (except the deeply unpleasant Millicent, I guess) Kashgar and environs makes for an unusual setting  - especially in 1923! Very satisfying ending.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Sunday, 3 February 2013


ChiRunning by Danny Dreyer

Now that I'm getting more serious about running and am trying to increase my distance, I liked the sound of a book which promised to teach me how to run further, faster for less effort while removing the chance of injury. I have dodgy knees and will do anything to protect them while still allowing myself to be as active as possible.

The basis of ChiRunning is to develop a running technique which uses core muscles and lessens the stresses on your legs, knees and ankles. Essentially, you lean forward (from the ankles not the waist) while running, land on the mid-foot and never heel strike, and stretch out your stride behind you (by leaning further forward) to increase your pace. It all makes perfect sense.

There's a lot in here about being in touch with your centre, applying Tai Chi techniques, and knowing your own body etc. I glossed over the more hippy elements, but on the whole the book makes a lot of sense and I have begun trying out the techniques. Yes, I think it works, so far!

The book's style is very American which can be irritating to us Brits after a while, but is certainly worth reading if you're a runner or would like to run, especially if you are prone to injury.

The Secret Keeper

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

I read this on my Kindle as I did not want the hardback and could not wait for the paperback. I'm a big fan of Kate Morton's books. She writes timeslip novels - where two connected stories from different time periods unfold in alternate chapters throughout the book. These are my favourite kind of novels, and I'm currently trying to write one myself.

This book was no disappointment. It opens with a young girl, Laurel, witnessing something truly shocking in 1961.  She finds herself covering the crime up, for her mother, but always wonders just what it was that drove her mother to do such a thing. Fifty years later, Laurel's mother is at the end of her life, and Laurel wants to finally get to the bottom of what happened that day and why it happened. Her mother is barely awake and barely lucid.

In alternate chapters, the back story is told. In wartime London, Dorothy and her suitor Jimmy meet the glamourous Vivien, wife of a respected author. Their lives become intertwined, and the secrets they keep from each other lead to dramatic events which will reverberate down the years. Can't say more for fear of spoilers.

Wonderfully drawn characters, an intriguing mystery and a fabulous twist which I did not see coming. Very enjoyable book and highly recommended.