I Don’t Read English Novels–And Neither Should You!

Celebrity Irish writer Marian Keyes made headlines recently when she said she doesn’t read male writers because their lives aren’t as interesting as women’s lives–they were “limited.”  I totally get her frustration.

Because I don’t read English writers.  I mean I know that they write books, but if I can read books by American writers, why bother?  What could be more limited than an English novel?

I hear about all those English books when they get made into endless boring shows on PBS, but what’s the point?  English people’s lives are beyond limited.  Poldark?  Seriously?  I watched ten minutes and all they did was walk back and forth along cliffs with the wind blowing through their hair, though sometimes they rode back and forth along cliffs.  That says almost everything you need to know about England.  Oh yeah, there’s also Jane Austen.  Bonnets.

The English truly have such limited experience.  I mean, come on, they live on a crummy little island for God’s sake and nobody even gets voted off (well maybe immigrants down the road thanks to Boris Johnson)  And it’s not even their own island.  They have to share it with two other countries, Wales, whatever that is, and Scotland, which at least has whiskey.

You see all those goofy soldiers at Buckingham Palace marching back and forth like Poldark without cliffs and when’s the last time the English won a war on their own without American help?  That was against Napoleon, right?

Haven’t there been enough English novels been written already–can’t they just give it a rest? Don’t the English have better things?  Like figure out why they’re so brutal to people marrying into that hot mess royal family?  And why that whole Brexit thing was like they were the drunk-ass party guest who keeps saying he’s going but just won’t get the hell off your couch?

I admit I might read an occasional English novel if I’m crazy bored, but Americans, we really know how to live la vida loca.  I mean look at us now: D.C. drama 24/7, exciting tweets every few minutes.  We’re in the fast lane.  And driving on the right side of the road, too.

So English writers, just **** off, as Marian Keyes said about her male colleagues, without the asterisks, of course, bless her heart.

Review: “Sword of Kings” is Another Bernard Cornwell Triumph

The best historical novels create a world so immersive that you don’t just live inside of it while read the book, you carry that world with you for days or weeks afterward, and see everything around you through new eyes. That’s the genius of Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo-Saxon tales set in early medieval England, books that make him the king of this genre.

England in fact does not exist as a country in the period he explores.  The land is divided into rival kingdoms and they themselves are split between Christians and Danes.  Standing athwart two very different religious and political cultures is a hero who knows both of them intimately: Uhtred, Lord of Bebbannburg, which is a redoutable fortress in Northumbria, the last Kingdom ruled by a pagan king.

Each of these books is epic in scope but as intimate as a confession, thanks to that unforgettable narrator in a series with a cast of thousands: priests, lords, soldiers, slaves, wives, peasants, children, traitors, spies, royalty, raiders, lords, thugs, runaways, starvelings, sailors, witches. All of them are as real as your neighbors, thanks to Cornwell’s quick brush strokes and his sly humor.

His prose is brisk but never mechanical. He can find poetry in the rush of water under a bridge or the changing light at dusk, and even in the gory slide of a sword into a man’s guts. Cornwell doesn’t hold anything back in portraying the brutality of this period which he evokes through its sites and sights, sounds, and smell and the way people dwell on the importance of dreams and find omens at every turn.

Uhtred was born Christian but raised by Danes and his heart is pagan.  Despite that reality, he’s served Christian kings through sometimes bizarre twists of fate he hasn’t been able to escape.  Fate is inexorable he keeps saying, and events keep proving him right.

The Lord of Bebbanburg is a keen strategist and fierce warrior, but first and foremost a man of honor who values keeping an oath even if it takes him into danger, which it does time and again.  Why?  Because he believes that a man leaves nothing behind when he dies but his reputation.  And yet, as he says, “We seek it, we prize it, and then it turns on us like a cornered wolf.”

In this book Uhtred is a grandfather but as a brave as ever and no less determined to fulfill the oaths he’s sworn to keep, which paradoxically bind him to the dead King Alfred who dreamed of one vast English-speaking Christian land uniting all the warring kingdoms.

Uhtred’s first mission seems hopeless amid the turmoil sure to follow the death of King Edward: rescue a queen and kill a king.  That adventure involves unique dangers, amazing hand-to-hand combat, a breathtaking battle at sea and a remarkable chase scene, capped by a humiliation as profound as anything Uhtred has suffered in the previous 11 books.

Though he may be battered and battle-scarred, he’s still remarkably thoughtful, and he’s still a man of bold action.  After a crushing defeat when someone advises rest, his longtime comrade in arms violently disagrees: “He must fight.  He’s Uhtred of Bebbanburg.  He doesn’t lie in a bed feeling sorry for himself.  Uhtred of Bebbanburg puts on his mail, straps on a sword, and takes death to his enemies.”

The stakes here are higher than ever: in the battle between Danes and Christians, should the Christians keep expanding their reach, they will eventually swallow his native Northumbria and change his life and the life of everyone he knows and loves forever.

The prize-winning author of 26 books in many genres, Lev Raphael teaches creative writing and offers editing services at writewithoutborders.com.

Review: “The Bookshop” is a Haunting Tale of Dangerous Dreams

If you’re thinking of watching The Bookshop starring Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy on Amazon Prime, wait. Read the short novel it’s based on first.  The movie adds touches of romance and intensifies Penelope Fitzgerald’s drama in ways that don’t betray the novel, but do make the story less subtle.  More than that, the dispassionate, incisive narrative is gone, with the exception of some voice overs.

This short novel contains a world of heartbreak and cruelty.   In the late 1950s, Florence Green decides to live her dream and open a book shop in a small English coastal town.  The building she chooses for her home and business is damp, decayed, and mournful.  Her courage seems more like naivety.

Though the shop seems to start off well, the portents are not good from the very beginning.  The town seems a dead end and suffers regular devastation.  Its name is warning enough: Hardborough.

“The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt cold.  Every fifty years or so it had lost, as though careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication.  By 1850 the [river] had ceased to be navigable and the wharfs and ferries rotted away.  In 1910 the swing bridge fell in, and since then all traffic had to go ten miles round by Saxford in order to cross the river.  In 1920 the old railway was closed….The great floods of 1953 caught the seas wall and caved it in, so that the harbour mouth was dangerous to cross, except at very low tide.”

Later on we learn that new homes have been and washed out to sea by erosion, a force that works on Florence herself.

In a town this besieged and small, everyone knows every step Florence takes.  More and more it seems people are leagued against her, egged on by a wealthy doyenne who says she wants the house Florence has leased to become an arts center–that’s supposedly her dream.  But what this arbitrary, rich woman really wants is to deny anyone else a place of even minor honor and notoriety.  She dreams about power, not culture.  She employs rumor and worse to get her way and to ruin Florence, whose love of books is overflowing, but whose knowledge of the world is very flawed.

Fitzgerald excels at small, cutting descriptions of people, like this one about Milo North, someone vaguely employed by the BBC who worms his way into Florence’s life:

“What seemed delicacy in him was usually a way of avoiding trouble; what seemed like sympathy was the instinct to avoid trouble before it started…His emotions, from lack of exercise, had disappeared almost altogether.  Adaptability and curiosity, he had found, did just as well.”

The movie gives viewers a sort of happy or redemptive ending, but the novel is hauntingly unsparing–and Florence’s home itself is haunted.  Though The Bookshop is quite short, there’s an epic feel to this rich and thoughtful novel that might make you want to read it again as soon as you’re done.

Lev Raphael teaches one-on-one online workshops at  writewithouborders.com.  He’s the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

 

Re-reading My Favorite Authors Makes Me A Better Writer

When I’m on a book tour fans often ask me “What are you reading?”  I get the same question when I teach a creative writing workshop or master class like I just did at Oakland University, sponsored by Rochester Writers.  I’m often reading books that will inspire me to write and lately I’ve been-re-reading favorite authors like Martin Cruz Smith.  His novels set after the fall of the Soviet Union explore a country that’s just as cruel and dangerous, but one where oligarchs are becoming swollen with daring, arrogance, and billions in wealth.

In Three Stations there’s a gigantic contrast between diamond-studded luxury goods and homeless kids stealing whatever they can to survive in the heart of Moscow. Arkady Renko is a disgraced police investigator with a clear eye for what’s happening around him and a dedication to justice. Though he’s the son of a famous general and communist, he is truly an outsider because he won’t follow orders. I’m really glad I missed this one somehow as I worked through the series, because I found it really inspiring.

And for authors who struggle with writing good sex scenes, he dispatches one in a brilliant paragraph that could be a model for anyone. It inspired me in my stand-alone currently about 200 pages along which will be my 28th book.

I’m also re-reading luminous, thrilling mystery novels by C.S. Harris set in Regency England, starting with Why Kings Confess, one of my favorites in the series.  These books feature nobleman Sebastian St. Cyr who has access to all levels of society and is indefatigable in solving any crime that he comes across and intrigues him.  He’s a dashing figure with almost magically keen eyesight and hearing, and a man not remotely averse to challenging the rich and powerful.  Harris is brilliant at evoking the period through appealing to sight, sound, and smells–you can almost taste the acrid fog that’s so much a part of the era when coal was burned indiscriminately.  Who even thought of climate disruption back then?

The two authors are very different in setting, tone, and prose style.  Harris is more sensual, Cruz is more spare.  Cruz’s books ooze cynicism about old and new Russia’s corruption and greed, while Harris fields a sleuth who serves justice and believes it exists.  Both authors evoke their time and place with dazzling detail and tell fast-paced, gripping stories.

I learned years ago in my writing career that what could stimulate and inspire my work was a creative clash of voices and styles.  Reading these two different authors again right now has made me very productive: I wrote two chapters of my next mystery in under a week.  This method of reading different writers in succession might not work for everyone, and that’s something I tell all my writing students and workshop participants: find what works for you.  But whether you’re a writer or not, C.S. Harris and Martin Cruz Smith are authors you should add to your TBR pile.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, most recently State University of Murder and Let’s Get Criminal, newly released as an ebook.  He teaches online writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Sometimes Planning a Trip is Almost as Good as Going

I’ve been lucky over the years to travel abroad extensively on book tours, but primarily for research or just for fun. I’ve been to France, Belgium, England, The Netherlands, Italy, and Germany many times.

My French and German are good, my Dutch passable, and I can manage “travel Italian” though I know my accent needs work.

Many of these trips fulfilled dreams. I’d always hoped to one day teach abroad and I wound up with a six-week gig in London where the museums blew my mind and I fell in love with the Pimlico neighborhood I was staying in. For years I’d fantasized about visiting Bruges in Belgium and my week there doing research forr a book was unbelievably fulfilling. The food, the historical sites, the museums and churches surpassed my expectations. Oh, and then there’s the beer. I tried local varieties but also beers I’d had at home in bottles, this time they were on tap and tasted so much better. In Bruges I felt like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited: drowning in honey.

I’d spent some time studying Dutch before my trip and found it really made a difference doors when shopping or ordering food or chatting with the B&B owner.  I ahd somehow even picked up a word for “amazing” that the owner, from the French part of Belgium didn’t know: verbazingwekkend.  When I used it, she was delighted.

As backup, my French was very handy and I once even found myself asking directions in German from someone whose accent in Dutch made it very clear where he was from.

I’ve had that same feeling of bliss elsewhere. Like standing on a bridge in Paris at night my first evening there with my beloved spouse, gazing at the buildings glowing with light and watching bateaux mouches glide down the river.  Once, through some scheduling mix-ups on one German tour, I ended up with something rare: free time. It happened to be in Munich and I actually had two entire days there for tourism, slow, fantastic meals in a number of restaurants, and a whole afternoon at the Nymphenburg palace and grounds.

There was a time I thought I might be teaching in Sweden, so along with studying Swedish (which I loved), I spent months researching sites across the southern part of the country for myself and whoever my students would be.  I read deeply about Swedish history and customs, tried out my Swedish on a friend with Swedish family and even studied a Swedish art song in my voice lessons.

The trip fell through for complicated reasons, but I’d been so immersed in what might be happening, watched so many videos, it felt as if I’d actually been there.  For a whole year and a half, I was dedicated to the idea of being in Sweden for a month and a half, and when it didn’t happen, I somehow wasn’t as disappointed as I expected to be.  The same thing has happened with trips to Nice and other cities where I had tremendous fun just planning: studying everything from train schedules to walking tour maps and restaurant menus.  When I plan a trip, I buy books, watch travel videos, study the destination in depth and the immersion is all-consuming.

It’s said that the journey not the arrival matters, but sometimes, for me, the journey doesn’t get father than my iPad–and that’s fine.

How about you?  Have you ever felt like this about a trip that didn’t happen?

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.  He is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.