Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: historical fiction

Shadows

shadowsMy play Shadows will be performed on five dates during the Monash University Container Festival 2014.

Directed by Ephiny Gale and starring Maria Roitman, Victoria Brown and Lauren O’Dwyer, Shadows was written to exploit the enclosed theatre spaces involved in the Container Festival. It examines the choices made by three women separated by time but linked by the eternal forces of love and death.

Performance Dates:

Wednesday 6th of August – 8:30pm
Friday 8th of August – 9:15pm
Monday 11th of August – 8:35pm
Tuesday 12th of August – 7:45pm
Friday 15th of August – 7:10pm

Due to the nature of the performance space, seating is limited, so pre-booking is encouraged. Details of how to do so can be found on the Facebook event page.

Undertow and Shadows

undertowAKA: Finally, an update.

Firstly, Undertow is now officially launched and available for purchase on Amazon. My piece ‘Breath’, a historical ghost story, is one of twenty stories with links to the Gold Coast. I really like the cover art and am looking forward to getting my own copy so that I can read the other stories in the anthology.

Secondly, I have actually been doing some writing. Will wonders never, etc etc. It’s a short play of approximately 20-25 minutes, called ‘Shadows’. Comprising of three monologues about three women with three secrets, it was written to exploit the enclosed theatre spaces involved in The Container Festival at Monash University. Hopefully it’ll be produced there later this year under the direction of Ephiny Gale.

Review: Forget me not – Sue Lawson

Forget me notIt’s hard to believe that April the 15th will be the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Sue Lawson has marked the event with the release of her latest novel for young readers, Forget me not. It’s a book that should appeal both to those who are familiar with the Titanic’s story and those with little knowledge of the tragedy. In it, Lawson tells the tale of one family’s experiences on board the ship, from the beginning of their journey to the events of the sinking and its immediate aftermath.

Forget me not focusses on Thomas and Eve, brother and sister, with chapters alternating between their perspectives. While Eve’s chapters are written in first person, Thomas’s are in third, which is an unusual technique that didn’t entirely work for me as a reader. I can guess at Lawson’s reasoning behind this stylistic choice – and did guess at it from the beginning of the novel, which rather muted the ending for me – but the change tended to bring me out of the text a little and I probably would have found the reading experience a little smoother if both perspectives had been related in the third person.

Apart from this small matter of personal taste, I thought that Eve and Thomas were well chosen as the co-protagonists of Forget me not. They allow readers to view life on board the Titanic from the perspectives of both male and female passengers – a fact that becomes particularly important once the boat begins to sink and it is the women and children who receive priority access to the lifeboats. Thomas is on the verge of adulthood and his frustration with not being treated as the man he wishes to be is well portrayed. Similarly, Lawson does a good job of presenting the conflict between Eve’s wishes for herself and her mother’s opinions of what constitutes proper behaviour for a girl or woman in the 1910s.

I particularly enjoyed Hugh as a secondary character. Like Thomas, he’s on the line between childhood and adulthood and, as such, he can be a little changeable when it comes to his interactions with Thomas and Eve. He’s always kind and reliable where needed, though, which should make him a favourite with a lot of readers. Thomas and Eve’s father is also an extremely likeable character – possibly even my own favourite. In contrast, it is a lot more difficult to appreciate their mother, even if the reader later learns to be sympathetic as to why she is the way she is.

Forget me not is a little slow-moving for the first half of the book, but this rapidly changes once the Titanic hits the fatal iceberg. Lawson has a talent for making her action both exciting and emotive, which is an excellent skill to have when dealing with real life disaster in a fictional frame. I think it would be extremely difficult for a reader to set down the novel once it reaches the point of the Titanic’s impact with the iceberg, so engrossing is the narrative in the latter part of the text.

Forget me not is a solid historical novel for younger readers, which should help to spark an interest in the real life events that it is based upon. It should particularly appeal to readers at an upper primary or lower secondary level, but the story of the Titanic is so timeless that older readers should find a lot to appreciate as well.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Drawn – Marie Lamba

drawnRecently moved from America, due to her father finding work at a prestigious English school, Michelle feels rather out of place in her new castle town home. When she first starts drawing a handsome guy in historical attire, she thinks nothing of it. But then a strange encounter at the castle makes her question whether the man in her drawings is truly a figment of her imagination – and draws her into the long-ago events that set into place the social structure still governing the modern day town.

Marie Lamba has proven herself to be a very proficient author of realistic young adult fiction, with her first novel, What I Meant… being published by Random House in 2007 and its sequel, Over My Head being much enjoyed by me when I reviewed it for my blog last year. I was intrigued, therefore, to discover that her next offering would be a paranormal offerings. There are no vampires or werewolves here, however. Instead, Drawn explores a connection across the centuries with a romantic interest who appears in Michelle’s life like a ghost from the distant past.

Michelle is a likeable protagonist, whom readers should find it very easy to identify with. Her isolation in her new home makes her immediately sympathetic and her determination to ensure Christopher’s safety is admirable. More importantly, she doesn’t fall into that all-too-common paranormal trap of losing herself in order to be with her love interest. She is willing to make sacrifices for Christopher, but will not stand for too many of his dated ideas about women.

Indeed, the best thing about Christopher, in my opinion, was the fact that he isn’t just a modern character in historical dress. He does not react to Michelle like someone from her own era and nor is his behaviour modern – especially when it comes to modesty! Lamba prevents him from ever seeming boorish, however, even at his most unrefined, which makes Michelle’s feelings for him believable – and will probably ensure he earns a lot of reader fans as well.

For me, however, the most fascinating character was William, son of the town’s most influential man. His depiction had so many different facets to it and his nature was so complex that I couldn’t help but be intrigued by him. He’s never entirely likeable – but that’s rather the point! In contrast, I wished that we had seen a little more of Constance. I found her character very interesting and a good foil to William and I would have liked to see how things worked out for her.

With a little help from Back To The Future, Drawn looks at the troubles associated with time travel to the past, in terms of changing the present, but also deals with the difficulties of a a romance where the two lovers’ worlds and lives are not just separated by states or oceans, but rather by time itself. While I thought that the novel’s ending was possibly a little too perfect (or perhaps that should just be enormously lucky!), I enjoyed the way that Lamba presented Michelle’s struggle to balance family ties and romantic love and thought her conclusions were very appropriate.

A clever and enjoyable paranormal romance with a love affair that fans of the genre are sure to swoon over.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Caldecott Chronicles – R.G. Bullet

The Caldecott Chronicles book coverOne hundred years after the death of the Earl of Rothshire, his great great granddaughter released his account of the strange goings on that occurred on his property in 1896. in a series of letters to his son, he recounts the story of his battles with the undead that have taken over his estate and the surrounding area.

The Caldecott Chronicles is a fun novella that combines two of my favourite things: the Victorian era and zombies. They actually fit together surprisingly well, due in part to the fantastic voice of R.G Bullet’s protagonist, Radclyffe. As well as being full of wonderfully dry humour, Radclyffe’s letters are written in a style that feels surprisingly authentic, given the subject matter of the book.

Radclyffe is portrayed very much as the lord of the manor, although his character grows and becomes less snobbish as the book progresses. Always very aware of his position in society, he is also taken to brief reminiscence about his military past. The epistolary style of the novella cleverly allows for Radclyffe to award the reader a glimpse of personal and family history without an overwhelming backstory.

The development of Saffy’s character is limited a little by The Caldecott Chronicles‘s strong focus on Radclyffe’s perspective, but the reader is nonethless shown a spirited and interesting girl who seems to thrive in the unusual conditions into which she is thrust. In age, nature and class, she is the perfect foil for Radclyffe and adds a good deal of life to what might otherwise be a narrative-heavy book.

The undead themselves are wonderfully described. Squeamish readers may shudder a little at Radclyffe’s accounts of shattered bones and splattering bodies, but I personally enjoyed the particularly gruesome detailing of the decay the creatures have undergone. What can I say – I grew up on horror!

Although this is the first of several ‘excerpts’ from Radclyffe’s letters, the story is left at an appropriate point and doesn’t leave the reader feeling disgruntled. They will want to read on, but this is due to the clever voice and fun universe, not to a frustrating cliff-hanger.

Overall, The Caldecott Chronicles is a quick read and an enjoyable one. Recommended for lovers of zombies in unexpected places.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Cross My Heart – Sasha Gould

Cross My Heart book coverLaura has spent the last few years of her life in a convent, and when her father calls her back to her family home, she is thrilled to leave its restrictive walls. When she arrives back at the Venetian house she grew up in, however, she discovers it run down and her family tragically changed. Her father tells her she is to wed, in a match intended to repair his fortune. But will Laura accept her father’s choice.. or look for assistance behind the fans and masks of Venetian society.

Firstly, I must say that I really didn’t like the cover choice for Cross My Heart. I don’t think it captures the feel of the book at all, and certainly doesn’t indicate it’s historical fiction. The blurb isn’t great either. It’s only very loosely tied to the actual action of the novel, and has the wrong tone to sit well with the actual text. Luckily, however, in this case I didn’t judge the book by its cover!

Cross My Heart is a well crafted historical YA novel. Set in Renaissance Venice, it is full of little details that help set the scene and draw the reader into the past. It’s not my area of historical expertise, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of Gould’s world, but it’s certainly attractive and easy to visualise. Venice is a memorable location but, interestingly, it was the descriptions of the Venetians’ clothing and grooming that proved particularly evocative to me.

Gould’s characters are good, if a little too close to archetype in places. Laura is a strong protagonist, and I was able to forgive her head-turning beauty due to the fact that she proved likeable in most other ways. Paulina, although rarely present, is an enjoyable character, who I was disappointed I didn’t see more of. For me, however, the stand-outs were Allegreza and Grazia, who would certainly be able to command an audience for further novels based on their respective stories.

In contrast, I found the male characters a little close to type. Giacomo is the typical handsome love interest, Vincenzo a near-caricature of repugnance and Laura’s father the standard power-focussed strict parent. I’m sure there will be plenty of teenage girls swooning over the thought of a good-looking fresco painter, but I found his and Laura’s romance a little unsupported by the action. Then again, we do live in the fiction era of Soulmates At First Sight 😉

I think, though, that the combination of romance and intrigue was what prevented me from enjoying Cross My Heart more than I did. The romance was very traditional in form (as the male character descriptions probably suggest) and followed a standard structure: so much so that I joked with my mother about what I expected would happen in Giacomo’s story line – and then was proven right as the book progressed! There is absolutely a market for this kind of historical romance… but I’m not really it

The other aspect of the novel, however, was a tale of intrigue, complete with murders, false identities and secret societies. I loved that side of Cross My Heart. Historical thrillers are right up my alley, and I think Gould did a very good job of weaving the different threads of information together and tying them up at the end. The reader is thrust into a world of politics, society, danger and secrets, all against the backdrop of Venice. Great stuff!

The ending of Cross My Heart seems to suggest that there will be a sequel and I would certainly like to read more about the Segreta. I feel that Laura’s story has reached its natural conclusion with the end of this book, however, so if Gould writes more in this universe, I hope her focus rests upon other women.

Review: The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron book cover“Nature proves it to us very plainly, for she has made [women] soft and fragile of body, timid and fearful of heart, compassionate and benign of disposition, and has furnished us with meagre physical strength, pleasing voices, and gently moving limbs. All of which shows that we need to be governed by others; and it stands to reason that those who need to be aided and governed must be submissive, obedient, and deferential to their benefactors and governors. But who are the governors and benefactors of us women, if they are not our menfolk?”

With Florence in the grip of the Black Death of 1348, a group of seven women and three men retire to the countryside to escape the sickness and spend time in relaxation and frivolity. While there, they spend much of their days telling each other stories, ranging from very moral to very bawdy and from devious to munificent. Over ten days of storytelling, one hundred diverse tales are told.

The Decameron is a daunting book to pick up, given that it’s over eight hundred and thirty pages of 14th century writing. What’s more, it’s an equally daunting book to review, as it’s essentially a collection of short stories and it seems insufficient to review the whole – but just plain foolish to review all hundred tales separately instead.

Boccaccio’s work is of great importance to the literary tradition, but for me, as a historian, it’s the social setting of the tales and their underlying belief system that is most fascinating. In a sense, the stories themselves are of no great excitement to the modern reader, beyond the fact that they prove that some things really are timeless. There is an abundance of romance, plenty of trickery, smatterings of sex and the occasional moral for good measure. Usually, the guy will get the gal, but occasionally the gal will get the guy or they’ll both die horrible deaths.

Indeed, the predictability and repetitiveness of the stories is The Decameron‘s main downfall. It’s not a book that is easy to read in one go. After a point, I made the decision to read it a day (or ten stories) at a time, reading other books in between sessions, and my enjoyment increased greatly once I put this into practice. Many of the days involve ten stories told around a single theme, which tends to highlight the similarities in the collected tales. This didn’t bother me when it came to the themes I particularly enjoyed – the two days’ worth of tales of trickery, for example – but made the less-interesting themes seem to drag even longer.

The historical value of The Decameron is utterly priceless, however. Through fiction, the modern reader can learn so much about the society and social mores of Boccaccio’s time. The way in which the clergy is described was fascinating – both in terms of corruption and active sexuality. There are descriptions of political hierarchies, occupations, social groups, marriage rites, leisure activities and family routines. Each one of these hundred stories contains so much excellent information about 14th century Italian life.

Most intriguing to me is the way in which Boccaccio portrays his female characters. The quote above is uttered by one of the seven women in the prelude to her ninth story, which is a strong encouragement to husbands to soundly beat their wives. It’s an uncomfortable piece of writing, made more so by the knowledge that it is a woman who has been chosen as the moral’s advocate. And yet, elsewhere, Boccaccio’s women act in surprising ways. Women are portrayed as being smart, brave, strong, witty, loyal and accomplished. They are shown to possess healthy sexual appetites, rather than the common extremes of animalistic urges or chaste disinterest. Throughout the book, there is an obvious conflict between the accepted boundaries for women and the actual diverse natures of women, who may just as easily laugh at bawdy tales of lustful nuns as they may assert their own virtue.

The Decameron may be a daunting book to pick up, but it is worth the time you’ll spend buried in its pages. As a work of fiction, it is witty, romantic and perceptive; as a work of history, it is invaluable.

Review: Bereft, Chris Womersley

This is an excellent book and a powerful – if not at all times enjoyable – read. There is a poetic feel to the language and a tangibility to the landscapes in which the novel is set. While not getting caught up in description, Womersley still manages to paint a vivid scene inside the reader’s head. The storyline is fairly simple, yet placed against the backdrop of the Great War and the Spanish flu epidemic, its tragedy is emphasised. A slight hint of magic realism adds to the book’s overall feel of otherworldliness.

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Bereft through Goodreads FirstReads, and I think it’s the perfect example of why FirstReads is such a fantastic thing to be able to be a part of. Of my own accord, I possibly would never have picked this book up, because I don’t read a lot of modern non-genre fiction. But I really would have missed out, if that were the case, because Bereft is a wonderful book that was an absolute pleasure to read.

Warning: There is one scene involving an animal death that I found upsetting.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Waste Land – Simon Acland

On the whole, I found The Waste Land to be a very enjoyable read. Acland presents himself as being well-versed in the era during which the novel is set. It’s not my own period of historical expertise, but his universe felt authentic and meshed with my knowledge of earlier and later times. A bibliography is always a wonderful thing to see at the end of an historical novel, both because it provides a jumping-off point for further reading and because it suggests that a good level of research went into ensuring a good level of historical accuracy.

That said, one doesn’t need to be a history buff to appreciate this book. Acland’s writing style is quite formal throughout the novel, but accessible nonetheless, and the setting of the first crusade is one that lends itself to sword-wielding adventure. His protagonist is both sympathetic and likeable, and Acland surrounds him with a cast of well-drawn characters. The villains are suitably villainous and the heroes are pleasantly fallible.

The plot was not what I first expected it to be, but at no point did I find myself bored with the story and the ending left me mulling over the books entirety for quite some time.

My key difficulty with The Waste Land was the stylistic choice to place a story within a story. The segments set in the modern era are witty caricatures of types anyone with a knowledge of academia will recognise but, to me, they came to feel like unwelcome intrusions upon the story that I actually cared about. I understand that this format is what sets the novel aside from other historical works, but feel that the main story holds its own without the need to jolt the reader out of the action at the end of every chapter.

Despite this, however, I think that the book is a very good addition to the historical genre and would be most interested to see where Hugh de Verdon ends up in the sequel.

(I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.)

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