Interview with Bernard Cornwell, author of 1356

Bernard Cornwell has been a force in historical fiction since the 1980s with the release of Sharpe’s Eagle, the first in his series about a British soldier during the Napoleonic War. Since then he’s written around fifty historical novels. His most recent is 1356, a novel of the battle of Poitiers. Cornwell stopped by to answer a few of my questions about his prolific writing career.

DevourerofBooks: Can you give us the one sentence synopsis of 1356?

Bernard Cornwell: 1356 is an historical novel postulating a series of unlikely events that culminated in the battle of Poitiers which took place, unsurprisingly, in 1356.

Dob: Why the Hundred Years War, and the Battle of Poitiers in particular?

BC: I wrote a trilogy set in the Hundred Years War and 1356 is really the fourth book of that trilogy!  I was born and raised in England (but have spent most of my adult life in the States), and the English tend to define their history by the long rivalry with France. The most famous battles of English and British history are all against the French; Hastings, Crecy, Agincourt, Trafalgar and Waterloo, yet Poitiers was just as decisive and in some ways more astonishing than Agincourt, but strangely it is a little known event.  It’s also a magnificent story, how a small English army is trapped by the French King, how they attempt to surrender, have their terms rejected and so are forced to fight and, in so doing, win a crushing victory which ends with the French King in English captivity.  Fact, they tell me, is stranger than fiction, and Poitiers stretches credulity, but it’s all true and is, as well, a terrific story!

DoB: What is it that drew you to historical fiction as an author? Have you always been interested in this genre?

BC: We write first for ourselves, and so we write what we want to read. From a child I loved historical fiction and so when I gave up my proper job (I was a television producer with the BBC) I naturally wrote what I wanted to read. Initially that was the Sharpe series about a British rifleman fighting against Napoleon, which was a rip-off of the Hornblower books, but the repertoire has expanded since those early days.

DoB; After approximately 50 books, how do you continue to find new topics to write about?

BC: The difficulty is not finding new topics, but winnowing down the vast number of possibilities that history offers. I have enough ideas to keep me going for at least another hundred years, but tobacco, whiskey and other joys will ensure that I won’t last that long.  The ancient classical aphorism is right, ars longa, vita brevis, and I’m not saying what I do is ‘art’, but it certainly takes a long time and life is, indeed, short. A book takes, roughly, six months to write and while I used to write two a year I have given up one of those to appear on stage in a summer-stock theatre each year. So one idea a year?  Out of all history? Out of the long centuries of conflict and drama and passion and cruelty and disappointment and ecstasy? There’s no shortage of topics!

DoB: What books are you reading right now, or what books are on the top of your to be read pile?

BC: I’m reading Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, who wrote the magnificent Will in the World, which is one of the best books about Shakespeare. Swerve is about the rediscovery of Lucretius’s poem de Natura Rerum and its effect on Renaissance thinking, which sounds fairly dry, but Stephen Greenblatt is incapable of writing a dull book. It’s a book about the birth of modern thinking, and it’s terrific!  I’m also reading Sam Willis’s In the Hour of Victory, which is a fascinating redaction of the dispatches sent to the Admiralty by Royal Navy commanders during the Napoleonic Wars (shades of Hornblower).  Next on the list, and much anticipated, is Stuart MacBride’s Birthdays for the Dead. I’m a huge fan of police procedurals and love Stuart’s books (Scottish noir). His series beginning with Cold Granite is, for me, a must-read!

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The Perfect Gentleman by Imran Ahmad – Book Review

The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West by Imran Ahmad
Published by Center Street, an imprint of Hachette

From the publisher:

Both deliciously funny and deeply insightful, THE PERFECT GENTLEMAN is a beguiling multi-layered memoir that has touched the hearts of readers all over the world. At the age of one, Imran Ahmad moved from Pakistan to London, growing up torn between his Islamic identity and his desire to embrace the West. Join Imran in his lifelong struggle against corruption and injustice, and as he grapples with some of Life’s most profound questions. What does God do exactly? Do you automatically go to Hell for following the wrong religion? How do you persuade a beautiful woman to become your girlfriend (and would driving a Jaguar XJS help?) Can you maintain a James Bond persona without the vodka, cigarettes and women – even whilst your parents are trying to arrange your marriage?

Ah, The Perfect Gentleman sounded, well, perfect for me. I pictured a heartfelt memoir of an identity struggle. The structure that Ahmad uses for his memoir stymied me a bit, though. Most of the chapters were formulated to cover a single school year, often with surprisingly specific memories. This creates a narrative that lacked much of the cohesiveness that I expected and hoped for. Often themes are brought up that seem as if they might be important later in Ahmad’s life, but many of them fail to reappear in any significant way, although the very end of The Perfect Gentleman did tie a few things back together.

Ahmad is a good writer, but as occasionally happens with memoir, he and I simply didn’t mesh. The Perfect Gentleman is not the story I hoped for, and Ahmad’s humor doesn’t do much for me – perhaps I don’t do British humor well in print – although others may find his self-deprecating style charming.

I know there is a reader out there perfect for The Perfect Gentleman, but she is not me.

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The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian – Book Review

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
Published by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House

Laura Petrosian is an author of light-hearted women’s fiction who also happens to be 1/4 Armenian, although for most of her life she gave her heritage little thought. When an old friend calls, claiming she has seen a picture of Laura’s grandmother from the time of the Armenian genocide in the newspaper, she decides to delve more deeply into her family’s past and write a book completely different than anything she has written before.

In 1915, Elizabeth Endicott of Boston arrives in Syria with some minimal nursing training and the blessing of the Friends of Armenia in order to help the refugees and witness and report on the genocide occurring in the Ottoman Empire. While there, she meets and falls in love with a young Armenian engineer named Armen Petrosian who lost his wife and infant daughter to the marches across the desert.

Chris Bohjalian has called The Sandcastle Girls the most important book he will ever write, but it is not strictly didactic. Instead, The Sandcastle Girls is beautiful and sad; Bohjalian walks a fine line, sharing the realities of the tragedies of the Armenian genocide without being too clinical or engaging in emotional manipulation. His characters are realistic, flawed but likable. Particularly impressive is how he keeps even the most minor characters – the American consul, a pair of German engineers, an Armenian woman and the orphaned girl she has taken into her heart – engaging. Their stories are interspesed with Laura, Elizabeth, and Armen’s and Bohjalian manages to do this without slowing down the story. If anything, these additional stories add richness and layers toThe Sandcastle Girls, layers that help make it such a wonderfully epic and meaningful novel.

I’ve never read another work of fiction that has more completely and almost effortlessly captured the Armenian genocide of the early 2oth century. Bohjalian manages to capture both the emotional impact of the events in question as well as the facts and background, all smoothly within his narrative and without resorting to any info dumps. The Sandcastle Girlsis a truly wonderful and important novel. Very highly recommended.

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The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones – Book Review

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins

Sterne has been thrown into disarray. It is Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday and guests will be arriving any minute, even as her stepfather is off bargaining with business men beneath their status in order to keep Sterne in the family. If this was not all dramatic enough, shortly after their guests arrive, the Torringtons receive word that there has been an accident on a nearby rail line, and their house is being commandeered to house the survivors. The somewhat snobby family is not particularly happy about opening their house to third class passengers when they have a celebration happening, and so the small group is ushered into the morning room and all but ignored. The number of passengers seems to keep climbing, though, and they are getting increasingly frustrated with their inability to move on, and with the lack of contact from the Railway. It is the appearance of an old acquaintance of Mrs. Torrington’s from amongst the rabble, though, that really sets the evening awry.

The Uninvited Guests has a bit of a slow start, partially because Emerald and her family are not particularly appealing characters. They are overly proud and extremely concerned with their station in life, which certainly does not promote empathy. They spend a fair amount of time ridiculing the guests they have invited and worrying about showing off their greatness at the party, while simultaneously worrying about losing their grand estate and all that it represents. If you keep reading, though, the plot begins to slowly sneak up on you, and before long you will not want to close the book.

Once the night begins to fall apart, the reader gets caught up in Jones’s story, wondering if he or she has guessed correctly as to just what is going on with the guests and just what about this man from Mrs. Torrington’s past has her so upset. The Uninvited Guests was wisely kept to under 300 pages, much more might have made the characters hard to swallow, but at this length the storytelling was tight enough to engage the reader in the events of this bizarre evening.

Recommended.

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Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear – Book Review

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Penguin
Book 2 in the Maisie Dobbs series

My review of the first book in the series: Maisie Dobbs

At the opening of Birds of a Feather, Maisie is becoming pretty well established in her business. She has even been contacted by Joseph Waite, one of the richest men in England and a one-time client of her mentor, Maurice. Waite’s daughter has gone missing – again – and as Maisie begins to investigate, she discovers that there may be a connection to a series of dead women.

Birds of a Feather is precisely the book I was hoping for after Maisie Dobbs. In this second book in the series, Maisie truly comes into her own, and the reader is finally able to address her on her own terms, instead of dwelling extensively on her past through the copious backstory that comprised Maisie Dobbs. Here the reader gets to follow Maisie through a full and well-developed case. She has a great process and watching her work a case is fascinating.

I also appreciated that Maisie continued to develop as a character in Birds of a Feather. Since the action rested primarily in the present, Maisie was able to indulge in some introspection without losing the reader.

Based on my experience with the first two books, I think I would classify the Maisie Dobbs series as smart cozies. Not that other cozies aren’t smart, but there is an extra intelligence and class to Maisie Dobbs that makes the series particularly enjoyable. The great development of story and character, along with the somewhat more genteel inter-war time period make this a series that is suitable for and could appeal to a wide range of readers.

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