Friday, 29 November 2013

Xmas reads

Every newspaper and magazine seems to be suggesting books you might like to give as Christmas presents, so this year I've decided to join in.

I'm not going to tell you that you ought to be buying all your friends copies of The White Rajah and Cawnpore, because, of course, you've already done that. So here are a couple of alternatives from other authors you probably won't have heard of.

I have mentioned S A Meade here before. She wrote Lord of Endersley, which I reviewed earlier in the year. Like Cawnpore, it's the story of a gay man caught up in the Indian mutiny, but the resemblance pretty well ends there. Lord of Endersley is very definitely a gay romance and will appeal principally to people who like that kind of book. This is, apparently, not only gay men but also straight women, so if you have a female friend who will enjoy an explicit story of forbidden love, this one's for her. S A Meade does also write occasional heterosexual romances (as S A Laybourn) and her latest, Christopher'sMedal, is a well told tale of a man with post-traumatic stress disorder who is redeemed by love. Like Lord of Endersley, this is a story with graphic sexual detail, so possibly not one for your maiden aunt, though the "naughty" bits are easily skipped and the rest of the story is, in its way, quite charming.

I know I'm getting hung up on explicit romance here, but I'm going to mention one more: Where My Love Lies Dreaming by Christopher Moss. It's another gay romance, set on a Mississippi paddle steamer in 1859. Again, it's sexually explicit and not everyone's cup of tea, but Christopher Moss writes well and if you like tales of beautiful men falling in love, it may be yours.

For something completely different, I still love Tracy Franklin's Angst, Anger, Love, Hope. Tracy is a poet and a bloody good one. Tracy has published another collection, Looking for the Sun Door since then. If you like your poetry soulful and sort of poet-y, Looking for the Sun Door might be your thing, but I preferred the earthiness of Angst, Anger, Love, Hope. Both allow you a preview on Amazon, so read a couple and decide which style you prefer. I wouldn't generally buy anyone a book of poetry but I really do think Tracy is terrific, so give her a shot.

If you're buying for a teenage girl, you might consider Amy Saia's The Soul Seekers. It's part romance, part ghost story and part thriller. It's set in a small town in Indiana. Amy Saia knows a lot about growing up in small-town America and she writes about it beautifully. She's another writer who will never get the audience she deserves, so bear her in mind. The paperback has to be shipped from the USA, so you'll have to hurry if you live in the UK and want it by Xmas.

Amy is a lovely singer, too, with definite echoes of Carly Simon. Perhaps I'll recommend some CDs in my next post.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Christmas cacti

The Christmas cacti I keep at home are just coming into flower. While most cacti flower rarely as pot plants, the Christmas cacti bloom regularly at our house, the first sign here that it is time to start thinking of holly and ivy, tinsel and mistletoe.

It's also time to think of Xmas shopping. Now that I have books to sell, I can't ignore the fact that this is the time of year when people are most likely to go on to Amazon (other online stores are also available) and buy a paperback for a friend. For much of the year, I write about all sorts of things here, but I hope you'll understand that the next few weeks will see a certain concentration on the value of buying books, especially books published by independent publishers. Books are inexpensive gifts, but show you have given some thought to what your friends would like to read. And Xmas sales make a huge difference to less well-known authors.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Do historical novels exist?

Another historical novelist was asking recently what historical novelists could do to market their genre. I'm not sure it's entirely the right question. Is there really a genre of historical novels?

I keep reading that historical novels are madly popular right now. This seems to mean that there is a lot of enthusiasm for Hilary Mantel and Phillipa Gregory, partly because of success at the Bookers and on TV respectively. But an enthusiasm for what I (showing my age) still call mediaeval and Tudor fiction is not necessarily going to help me. I did hear on Radio Four that there is a fashion right now for what they called neo-Victorian books, which would help me if anybody had heard of this fashion outside the more aesthetic reaches of the BBC. But that's not necessarily going to sell the books that friends of mine have written set in revolutionary Russia or on the old paddle steamers of the Mississippi.

My point is that because you like the Falco stories set in ancient Rome doesn't mean that you'll like Bernard Cornwell's Napoleonic Sharpe tales. And you might think that a story based in the Korean War isn't historical at all – although, according to many definitions, it quite definitely is. In fact, a recent survey suggests that readers' favourite period is the 13th to 16th centuries (presumably the Mantel/Gregory effect) with the least favourite time periods being prehistory and the 2nd to 5th centuries. So I think we have to get away from the idea that there is one genre of "historical fiction" that people are buying into.

Apart from the whole question of period, there's the issue of subgenres. With historical fiction, the subgenres are not a trivial or artificial distinction. There is a massive market for what is called in the trade "Regency Romance". It is unlikely that a reader of Regency Romance is going to rush to buy my own The White Rajah, although it is set only a few decades after the Regency period. Some of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books actually take place during the Regency, but I think that Romance readers will not want to read his military fiction. Military fiction is, of course, another subgenre of historical fiction. Cornwell is a particularly strong presence here, but so are the naval adventures of CS Forester and Patrick O'Brian. But is it sensible to assume that same people that enjoy Forester's Hornblower stories are going to read the Empire series about the Roman legions?

The problem is that genre fiction sells. It is much easier to market a book that can be presented as a "thriller", "crime story", "romcom", or whatever than simply as a novel. In fact the books that are left over after genre fiction has been taken out tend to be lumped together as "literary novels", which get far more critical attention but, usually, much lower sales. Unsurprisingly, people like me, who write books that are not set in the present day, would rather have ourselves described as authors of "historical fiction" than as of (in my case) authors writing novels dealing with issues of colonialism and exclusion but with some quite exciting bits in. But I suspect that for every Regency Romance reader who looks my book before recoiling in horror, there is another potential reader who never gets that far because they "don't read historical novels".

What's the solution? I have no idea. If you have, please respond in the comments below and you will have my undying gratitude.