Saturday, June 16, 2007

My Book of the Year: The Scarlet Lion by E. Chadwick

I had intended to do another post about the wonders of the HNS Conference once I had got home and unpacked, but I was hijacked by the universe. I returned to learn that my mother is in the intensive care unit of an Arkansas hospital, desperately ill and fighting for her life. That same day, my ISP went down, making it impossible to post the gushing piece I had already written. I have intermittent web access now, but in the interim, my mood has changed too much to feel like reading that piece again, so to distract myself while waiting for my flight to Little Rock, I’ve decided to write about the best book I’ve read this year: The Scarlet Lion by Elizabeth Chadwick.

Earlier in the year, I wrote about how much I was looking forward to reading The Scarlet Lion, but although I read it not long afterwards, I felt it deserved more than the typical bland endorsement I sometimes do for books I enjoy. I’ve always loved her books, and as I’ve noted before, Elizabeth Chadwick is a friend, but that said, I also want to note that, here, I’m not writing about a friend’s book; I’m writing about a FINE book.

I could do a whole post filled with clichés – well drawn characters, terrific story, excellent research, ad nauseum. All those elements are there, and done as well as they’ll ever be done by anyone. However, the reason I wanted this post to transcend a friendly review is because The Scarlet Lion transcends genre fiction by a mile.

Historical fiction purists often focus on research and historical accuracy, and while E. Chadwick can rarely be faulted there, that narrow focus tends to overlook something more important in the wider world of literature: the writing itself. The Scarlet Lion is a terrific book for those looking for a “rousing story” or “historical accuracy” – the characters of William Marshall and his wife Isabelle “come alive” – there is Romance! Danger! Drama!

But, the thing that strikes me as being so much more important about this book is that it is just so beautifully written. For example:

William stood in silence for a while, watching Woodstock come to life. Old King Henry had housed his mistress Rosamund de Clifford here. There were extensive pleasure gardens that in summer drugged the air with the sensuous perfumes of lily, honeysuckle and gillyflower. The three-tiered pond was threaded by a silver cascade of water from the spring, and at the heart of the garden, amid trellises of dog roses, stood an elaborate fountain of pink-flecked marble quarried from the Purbeck hills. A beautiful, tainted paradise, dormant now in the late autumn chill. Those for whose joy it had been built were dead.

On the surface, that is a pretty scene, but it is also highly evocative of the characters’ own haunting sense of fleeting time. And even more haunting are the passages following the death of Alais:

Striguil’s small chapel was ablaze with expensive wax candles, their light clear and hot, redolent with the scent of clover and honey. Incense too filled the spaces and haltered his breath. Before the cross on the altar stood a bier covered in silk cloths of scarlet and gold, fringed with tassels, and upon that bier, in cold state, lay Alais, hands clasped together in prayer, eyes closed as if she slept.

Even in the battle scenes, the imagery is extraordinary:

The fighting bubbled through the streets of Lincoln like yeast frothing on top of new ale, churning up afresh as pockets of English and French met and clashed.

And while Chadwick’s language is often lyrical, she doesn’t pull her punches when harshness is required:

The ground was bloody underfoot. Men fell and were trampled. Horses screamed as they were slashed.

She leaves no illusion that war was a rougher version of a tournament:

… a knight thrust his sword through the eye slit of Perche’s helm, then wrenched it free, blood damascening the steel. Perche’s arm continued in motion for a second blow and then a third. On the downstroke, his fingers lost their grip and the sword fell from his hand. He slumped sideways from the horse and hit the ground with a thud like a sack of wet flour, and didn’t move again.

Much has been written about William Marshall in the 800-odd years since l'Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, and this period being my primary historical interest, I’ve read most of it. For anyone wanting to read about William and his era, The Scarlet Lion is the best of the lot – but really, the book is so well written, it hardly matters who it’s about.

It’s the sort of book that, in a few years, is likely to be classed as “literature” rather than “fiction.”

Funny, how that works…

Friday, June 8, 2007

Wish you were here!

We finally made it, after a really unpleasant flight in which an irate woman tried to exit the aircraft after the doors were closed and we were on the runway, ready for take-off. Although I will never fly United Airlines again unless I'm forced, the flight attendant did a magnificent job of handling the situation. I suspect that attendant, alone, averted the issuance of one of those ugly news releases about someone being arrested for air rage. I know I was feeling rage, but against a fellow passenger, rather than the airline itself because I damn well wanted to take off and the captain said that if this person were allowed to deplane, then the air manifest paperwork would have to be redone and we would be delayed until it was redone. When I heard that, I could have strangled the woman myself! Of course, I also feel a bit of rage towards United for "allowing" me to purchase a packet of disgusting trail mix for $5 -- and at myself for being hungry enough after 24 hours with no sustenance to pay for it.

All's well that ends well, though, and we did finally hit the sheets somewhere around 4am. DH managed to make it to one of the site-seeing tours, but it was all I could do to make it down in time for registration, and then to the dinner, where Bernard Cornwell was the keynote speaker. Cornwell did an excellent job of being funny while discouraging would-be authors from thinking they'll ever be able to quit their day jobs. I'm not sure of what to make of that, but I do have to admit that it's true; few will ever achieve his level of success. I suppose my problem with the message is in believing that it isn't worthwhile for those who don't get to his level. Maybe it isn't, but I'm not entirely sure of that.

I have to say -- attendance at the conference is amazing. It is quite literally, packed, and so far, everything is terrific. I doubt she knows what a great job she does, but I put a lot of that down to Sarah Johnson.

Once I had got over my horrific travel woes, I was ready to have a good time and I am. It's wonderful to see so many people I met at the last conference, and people I've wanted to meet. It isn't as much fun without Lady Tess, but it's still fun to tell everyone about how we've signed a brilliant new author named Louise Turner and how Brian Wainwright's book continues to make its way up the charts.

Nancy Atwell and I had a lovely chat about publishing issues, while sipping drinks in the lobby -- the bar here makes a mean margarita (with Cointreau) and after a couple of them I allowed myself to be shanghaied into playing pool with DH, a couple of librarians, and a former AOL exec named Lawrence, who is charming as well as savvy about software. In case you haven't guessed, I suck at pool. I really really suck. Lawrence, whose partner I was, was a good sport about my awfulness -- and the margaritas eased my pain. It's interesting, btw, that you can be married to someone for going on 20 years, and not have had the faintest idea that he plays pool really well! He's smart too; he didn't want me on his team. *g*

Alas, I'm still stuck on west coast time, which means it feels like 11pm to me, but it's really 2am, and I have to get up in 4 hours if I'm going to make it to any of the early panels (doubtful). However, I do need to be up and about at a reasonable hour to make it to the next batch (and lunch!). I have also learned that our panel is up against one of Diana's Gabaldon's -- and, of course, no one will come to ours for me (although they may come to hear Pat Wynn and Nancy Atwell) -- unless I work out how to be charming in the next 24 hours (not likely).

Wish you were here!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Foiled Again!

I wonder why it is that all I ever seem to write about is the misery of travel! Today I'm in Chicago. I love Chicago. I lived here for years and other than the brutal winters, I always thought it was a pretty great place. Today it's a little lacking in its usual gloss because I'm supposed to be in Albany, NY right now.

This is a problem.

I am not happy. Well, let me qualify that; the plane didn't crash. I'm happy about that. The weather here is noxious, however, and I'm not looking forward to the rest of the evening -- however long it may be (probably a long time since they STILL don't have a plane here at the gate). All I can say is -- wish me luck that I've endured the worst of my flight-curse for the day! If so, then I'll still make to Albany in time for the HNS Conference. If not, then hell, we might as well hit Michigan Avenue for some shoe shopping...

Monday, June 4, 2007

Onward!

Since my last cranky rant, I finally managed to get in the groove and get some things done! Not everything, since that's quite impossible, but I got my website updated, completed my notes for my HNS panel, fixed the wireless connection on my laptop, answered about a million emails, watched a cute but stupid Hugh Grant movie with DH, cleaned my house, and had some neighbors over for dinner. I even survived the eye infection that left me looking like a cyclops for a couple of days. It's just as well that my eye isn't swollen any more because my doctor has been tinkering with my thyroid medication, and presently, I'm so hoarse I would probably be easier to understand if I were to just bark like a dog. ARF!

I leave for the HNS Conference in two days, so all of this is a huge relief (well, except for the part about barking like a dog).

Of course, it would have been a bigger relief if only the United States postal service weren't such massive shits. Media mail was the most popular shipping option for our books; it's gone now, and our shopping cart system is totally wrecked. Oh well; as a famous Southern Belle once said, "I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow."

My HNS panel is about finding the right publisher, so that's what I'm going to think about in the near future (like now). It's funny how there are so many venues devoted to instructing would-be authors in "how to get published," but from what I can tell, not very many seem to provide a critical piece of information: how to find the RIGHT publisher. [Hint: It doesn't help an author's case to suggest that the right publisher is anyone willing to publish their book!]

Seriously, I'm mystified by the number of queries I receive for books I would never even consider publishing. It's a waste of my time to deal with them, but it's also a waste of the author's time to send them, sometimes repeatedly. Not to mention that it's a MAJOR irritant to receive the same query more than once, and I do keep a record of the queries I get.

Whenever asked, I've always been clear that we publish historical fiction and alternate history and that's it. The thing I don't understand is why someone would query me about a techno thriller, a spy novel, a Christian romance, a children's story, a nonfiction book about lesbian culture, etc. Do these authors not understand that even were we to suddenly decide to publish other genres, with no experience in a particular market, we wouldn't have a chance in hell of being able to sell their books? Do they not understand that if we were to publish them, we'd be confirming our own stupidity? Do they really want a stupid publisher? Really?

It's utterly maddening -- I'm almost to the point of responding to queries by asking for a detailed description of the author's favorite of our books -- assuming they've read at least one of them, which, of course, they have not. It's obvious they haven't or they wouldn't waste time querying, but why on earth would they think we'd publish them when they haven't even bothered to find out who we are?

Maybe I need to set up an automated form on our web site.

1) Is your book fiction or nonfiction?

Fiction: Sends them forward
Nonfiction: Sends them to a "thanks but no thanks" page

2) Select the period in which your novel is set:

Prior to 1500 CE: Forward
1500 - 1900 CE: Forward
1900 - 1950: Forward to a different set of questions
1950 - Present: Thanks but no thanks

Something to think about...