Thursday, 29 August 2013

Castles, Customs and Kings

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that The White Rajah and Cawnpore had both been featured in 'English Epochs'. This is a blog covering much of British history and books written about it. 

The blog owner is Debra Brown, an American author with a passion for British (or she keeps insisting "English") history. She has just (together with M M Bennetts) edited a chunky book, Castles, Customs and Kings which will be published by Madison Street Publishing next month. As she was kind enough to draw my books to the attention of her blog readers, I'm returning the favour.

Castles, Customs and Kings is not a book to be read from cover-to-cover: the paper version comes in at about 500 pages. In any case, it's an anthology, rather than a single narrative. An impressive array of historical novelists have each contributed a short chapter on some aspect of British history that interests them. Obviously, most have chosen to write about the eras that they cover in their novels and a certain amount of more or less blatant plugging rears its ugly head.

As with all anthologies, there are significant differences in quality and style between the different chapters. However, the editors have done a good job of making sure that all of them pass muster. There are some contradictions between different authors discussing the same period. However, history is not an exact science, and I appreciated seeing the way in which different commentators came to different conclusions. Some chapters carried more authority than others and this is reflected in the fact that some produce bibliographic references and others do not.

I was surprised at the distinctly 'old-fashioned' feel of much of it. It reminded me of history is that I read as a child – books which were quaintly out of date even then. This is history as Michael Gove would have it. There is some social history, but generally the writers concentrate on battles and Kings and the doings of the rich and famous. I found the approach charming and reassuring. In the end, most people are more interested in the steps of the dances in the Regency period than they are in the detail of a skivvy's timetable. As an author who is unashamedly old-fashioned in my approach to historical writing, I rather enjoyed it. It did tell me things I didn't know and sparked an interest in some people and places I hadn't heard of before, but it is in no way a textbook. It's an amusing trot through British history and excellent bedtime reading, but don't expect it to help your children with their school exams.

Many of the authors seem to write historical romances and it is a book which will appeal particularly strongly to readers of this genre who want a little more history and a little less fiction. For me, it was literary comfort food – a recollection of childhood, warm and satisfying, if a little on the sweet side.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Love has no boundaries. Discuss.

Apparently, the planned film on James Brooke's life may feature his romance to a Brunei princess. Of course, I'm sceptical about this 'romance' as I am firmly convinced he was gay, but there are stories that he married a local princess. (Not that the two possibilities are entirely mutually exclusive.)

The person who told me this wondered if the idea of an inter-racial romance would work in a Hollywood movie. That raised an interesting point.

In Cawnpore, John Williamson leaves Borneo and travels to India, where he falls in love with an Indian noble. Although reviews of Cawnpore have been very good (better than for TheWhite Rajah), sales have been disappointing. I asked my publisher if she had any idea why this might be and she came up with a few. For example, things like the cover design might have put Cawnpore at a disadvantage. I think her instincts are sound and her ideas made sense. Then she said that she had noticed that stories featuring inter-racial romance generally did not sell well.

I was shocked. Yet it fitted with stuff I remembered from years ago, when I worked on romance magazines for teenage girls. Studies have shown that romance magazines featuring mixed-race couples on the cover sold significantly less well than those where the couple were both of the same race.

I wonder if this is still true. I have a horrible feeling that it is. I am sure everyone can tell me about Hollywood movies that do star a mixed-race couple, but they seem to be a tiny minority of all the hit films that Hollywood turns out. In an attempt to see if I was imagining this, I checked out Sky Movies' "
Top 100 Rom-Coms at the box office" and didn't even see a black face until number 30, Coming to America. This starred Eddie Murphy. The love interest here was Shari Headley, who is also a person of colour. In fact, based on the top 30 films listed there, the love interest is as likely to be a different species (the mermaid in Splash) as a different race.

I know that, statistically, people are more likely to settle down with someone from their own racial group. But, living in multi-cultural London, I see mixed-race couples all the time. Only this morning, my Facebook feed was full of photos of friends of mine who married at the weekend and who are definitely not both the same skin colour. So why do we apparently struggle to accept in fiction what we see all around us in fact?

There is an obvious example of a successful movie featuring an inter-racial romance and that's Disney's hit, Pocahontas. But then, that's a cartoon.

Do we find it so difficult to accept that real-life people can love other real-life people with a different skin colour to their own? And, if this is the case, what does that say about us?

Monday, 12 August 2013

Reviews of 'The White Rajah'

I keep saying how important reviews are. It's not just Amazon. A lot of people are becoming disillusioned with Amazon reviews and there is a school of thought that says that the reviews on sites like Goodreads are a more reliable guide to the quality of book. So, for those of you who haven't seen them, here are some of the things people have said about The White Rajah in places other than Amazon.

On Goodreads:

A great 'little' read… It is written with a delicate touch, very cleverly taking the reader to the time and place, the characters, mainly based on real people, are believable, likeable and hateable with all the human frailties and characteristics that draw the reader in… Would recommend as a good read for one and all.

… full of rich details …

… This well-written biographical novel is a young man's adventure story as well as his moral coming-of-age…

Ripping yarn…

... Worth the read, that's for sure.

I loved this book…

Very well written and nicely done…


Absolutely brilliant. A fast paced, perfectly edited, superbly written novel that kept me enthralled from the first word…

Bloomsbury Review

... An interesting tale, well told...

Any reviews, anywhere, help sales (and The White Rajah is still selling, slowly but steadily). A few sentences saying what you like (or even what you hate) about the book are more important to potential readers than a star rating, so go ahead and knock yourselves out. Thanks.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

English Epochs

I've just got back from a few days away, to see that 'English Epochs 101' featured Cawnpore last week, having covered The White Rajah the week before. Every Wednesday, 'English Epochs' features a few historical novels, giving some less well-known writers a chance to be seen. It's a useful service to readers and invaluable to writers, so I'm happy to mention it here.

When it's not helping out new writers, 'English Epochs' has posts on all sorts of oddities from English history. Whether it's health and medical treatment in Victorian England or the story of Simon de Montfort, there are some nicely laid out little snippets that may inform or entertain. They're not that easy to find, though. Look for the 'Popular Posts' listings toward the bottom of the right-hand side of the homepage or the index to the blog archive below that.