Archive for June, 2011

Louisa Young’s “My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You:” Surprisingly Good WWI Historical/Romance

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You: A NovelLouisa Young’s MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU is a surprisingly good World War I historical with a goodly bit of romance.   Young’s novel starts out with a bang, literally, as she describes what’s going on with an offensive in 1917 — the description is so good that you can feel the bombardment, how it affects everyone for tens if not hundreds of miles, yet how the soldiers have learned to ignore it.  The scene is set in about a page and a half — really fine writing, that — then we shift to 1907, where future soldier Riley Purefoy has just met the love of his life, Nadine Waveney in the oddest of ways — by falling through the ice.  Nadine helps to rescues him (he’s eleven, and Nadine is a year or two older), and that’s how the two of them meet.  Because Riley’s parents, charitably, would be called lower-middle class and Nadine’s father is a noted orchestra conductor (upper-middle class or above), the two of them normally wouldn’t have met in a situation where they’d be equals, even as children.  But an emergency trumps all else, which is one of the main themes of this novel.

We also meet Peter Locke and his naïve, beautiful wife Julia, along with Peter’s relative Rose, a nurse.  Peter and Riley meet on the front lines, while Rose and Nadine meet later on due to Nadine taking up nursing because of the war.  The way people interrelate during wartime who’d normally never meet also is another main theme of this novel — along with the fact that people suffer during war who never get close to the front lines, such as Julia, who must mature and can’t deal with it, or Nadine, who must defy her parents to become a nurse, then must defy them again to keep her nascent romance with Riley alive.

Nadine and Riley’s stories are the easiest to follow and understand, because once you meet the two of them — Nadine smart and sprightly, with a backbone of steel, and Riley, someone with interests in art, music, reading, and serving his country — you see why they’ve fallen for each other, and why they both want to do the right thing with each other.  But war does strange things, especially when someone suffers a serious wound, as has Riley — and what Riley thinks is the right thing to do isn’t at all the same thing as Nadine would think if she realized the severity of Riley’s wound.  Which is why communication is important; if you have it, nothing can come between you, but if you don’t, that’s when you start to struggle — which is yet another theme of this book.

As for the other couple, while Peter’s military service is admirable (he becomes a Captain, and is a good leader of men), how he handles the war in his off-hours is awful — he frequents brothels, as many soldiers (married or not) do alongside him, he drinks far too much, and he can’t seem to handle the fact that his wife, Julia, is pregnant worth a damn.  While this is realistic — wars affect men in different ways, and most of them are far from pretty — it didn’t exactly make me root for Peter.  But believe it or not, Julia’s behavior is even worse; this is a woman of the upper class who’s been told her entire life to be beautiful, decorative, and “seen but not heard.”  She literally cannot deal with the changing circumstances of wartime; that there are shortages of food, fuel, clothing, etc., is something she just cannot comprehend.  She does have a talent to get around these things — apparently her beautiful face and winsome manner works wonders — but she’s self-obsessed, vain, and mostly useless.  And comparing her to Rose, who went immediately to become a nurse as soon as war was in the offing, and Nadine, who went to become a nurse once her beloved Riley signed up as she felt she must do her part — well, Julia doesn’t measure up.  At all.

The structure of MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU reminds me of D.H. Lawrence’s WOMEN IN LOVE in that we have a good couple, the ones who show the meaning of self-sacrifice and how love is often a force for positive transformation, and a bad couple — though Peter and Julia wouldn’t be “bad” in the same sense as Lawrence’s Gudrun and Gerald, as their self-destructive tendencies follow from the exigencies of war rather than huge personal failings that would show up no matter what the circumstances, they clearly are meant as “foils” to Riley and Nadine’s purer form of love.  (At that, Riley’s last name of “Purefoy” is obviously no accident.)

Everything in MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU is rendered well, without self-pity, and with a matter-of-fact completeness I liked a great deal.  I rooted for Nadine and Riley, appreciated Rose’s fortitude, and kept hoping someone would pound some sense into Julia and Peter’s heads because goodness knows, they need it.  I saw all of the characters, from major to minor, as real people with real, human failings and virtues, a major plus, and all of the characterization enhanced the overall story.

People suffer during wartime, which is something Ms. Young ably showed.  But more to the point, Ms. Young pointed out that World War I, often overlooked by contemporary historians, was not only a devastating event with modern warfare, but was the first war where medical research advanced by leaps and bounds because it had to in order to treat the returning, severely injured soldiers.  In that juxtaposition, Ms. Young has managed to make a point very few novelists or historians have ever made — and I thank her for it.

My recommendation is that you grab MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU now, in hardback, because it’s worth the price.   If you love historicals, realistic romances, cross-cultural conflict or all of these, you will truly appreciate Ms. Young’s novel.  If you’re someone who’s been wondering why World War I has been so greatly neglected — well, this story will be right up your alley.

Grade:  A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Interview — Scott Oden

Have you ever wanted to wander the streets of Cairo, or see the mighty armies of the Crusades? Ever wondered why Alexander the Great was able to rip through Persia so easily, or wanted to read intrigue and mystery in the ancient world? Author Scott Oden takes us there in his books, Men of Bronze, Memnon and his latest, The Lion of Cairo.

Shiny Book Review – Thanks for joining us, Scott. So tell us: what possessed you to write about Cairo in The Lion of Cairo?

Scott Oden, Author – Glad to be here.  There’s a line from Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights that has always stuck with me:

“Whoso hath not seen Cairo hath not seen the world. Her dust is golden and her Nile a miracle holden; and her women are as Houris fair; puppets, beautiful pictures; her houses are palaces rare; her water is sweet and light, and her mud a commodity and a medicine beyond compare . . . Moreover temperate is her air, and with fragrance blent, which surpasseth aloes wood in scent; and how should it be otherwise, she being the Mother of the World?”

So says the father of the Jewish doctor in The Hunchback’s Tale. Until I started work on the Lion of Cairo, my body of knowledge regarding Egypt didn’t extend much beyond the fall of the Ptolemaic dynasty in 30 BCE.  Indeed, besides the Arabian Nights, my library had but a single book that delved into the rise of Islamic Egypt—this book being Harold Lamb’s excellent The Crusades: the Flame of Islam (Garden City Publishing, 1931).

SBR – Interesting. So were you able to use any research from Memnon in The Lion of Cairo, or was that just a one time coincidence?

OdenNo, the research from Memnon didn’t really carry over, except in the most general sense.  But, my first book — Men of Bronze — was also set in Egypt (albeit the Late Period, circa 525 BC) so I had quite a few text to draw upon.  Part of the challenge to me was to make the ghost of ancient Egypt a tangible part of The Lion of Cairo.  I wanted visual reminders of ancient glories — repurposed columns, bits of carving half-glimpsed, that sort of thing.  The Lion of Cairo is as much a fantasy as it is an historical, so I felt compelled to assemble “Cairo as it should have been” . . . a kind of Arabian Nights hodge-podge of styles, drawn from such diverse times as the Mameluke era and the more recent Ottoman era.

SBR – Yes, I could feel the ghosts running through the streets of Cairo in The Lion of Cairo. It was a very vivid picture, imagining the smells, sights and sounds of Cairo during the times of the Crusades. Since you mentioned Men of Bronze (which is, I’ll add for the reader’s benefit, a bestseller and highly acclaimed novel which I recommend the voracious reader to pick up), I have to ask: Greeks and Persians, working together?

OdenIn answer, I give you Xenophon.  The whole thrust of the Anabasis was a band of Greek mercenaries working for a disaffected Persian noble who came *this* close to taking the purple tiara for their paymaster. Also, Memnon and Mentor of Rhodes: Greek brothers who married into the Persian royal family and fought against the invading Macedonians during the time of Alexander.  It happened so often the Greeks had a name for it: “Medizing” — the act of becoming an ally of the Medes (Persians).  So, there’s plenty of precedent for Greeks and Persians to wind up on the same side, be it for pay or for family.

SBR – See, this is what happens when you watch too much 300 and don’t read enough. You get horrible misconceptions! So tell us, what have you been up to lately? Any new projects in the works?

OdenAh, 300 . . . a great movie from a great graphic novel, but about as historically accurate as The Lord of the Rings. For the truth of Thermopylae, in fiction form, one needs must read Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire.  Probably the finest historical novel I’ve ever come across.

New projects?  Well, I got a couple: I’m wrapping up a novel set around the sea battle of Artemisium, circa 480 BC; I’m hammering out the outline to the sequel of The Lion of Cairo, called The Damascene Blade; I’m writing a wicked cycle of short stories for the revitalized Heroes in Hell franchise — tales featuring Leonidas and his 300 Spartans . . . in Hades; I’m working up another outline and sample chapters for a novel that will hopefully turn those staples of fantasy armies everywhere, the Orcs, on their pointy ears.  AND, I’m editing an anthology of Orcish short fiction featuring the work of Janet and Chris Morris, Ed Greenwood, and a veritable horde of talented wordsmiths!  I still need a name for it, though . . .

SBR – Wow, sounds like you’re keeping busy. Glad to see you aren’t resting on your laurels. Any advice for struggling writers out there who are trying to get into the business?

OdenProbably the best advice is to cultivate the two P’s: Patience and Persistence.  This is an industry that fickle on its best days, and now it’s been thrown for a loop thanks to the e-book revolution.

Patience will help a writer weather not only the paradigm shifts, but also the day-to-day annoyances, like slow response times and glacial publishing schedules.  Persistence is the true key: so long as you have an honest opinion of your writing (meaning you’re not comparing yourself to Tolkien or JK Rowling and counting your millions before you ever even finish a novel), you can be assured your work WILL find a home . . . it might take it a while, though.  Persistence will get you through those endless bouts of rejection.

The only other advice I can give is to volunteer as a slush reader. Go online and offer yourself as an intern or an unpaid reader to a literary agency.  No better primer for what NOT to do exists.  It will give you a new perspective on your work, on the notion of literary competition, and on why agents and editors are oft-times slow to respond.  Provided you don’t gouge your eyes out with a spork, first.

SBR – Good advice. Last question, Scott, then we’ll let you get back to your work. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Oden – Star Wars, man!  What are their paltry phasers compared to the power of the Force?!  Honestly, though, my answer would be C) None of the Above.  My geekgasm of choice is for the work of Robert E. Howard… Conan of Cimmeria would tear Darth Vader a new one, then shove Jean-Luc Picard into that newly-minted orifice…

SBR – The Barbarian for the win! Thank you again, Scott, for taking the time out to sit down with us. We look forward to seeing your work in the near future.

Don’t forget to check out Scott Oden in the upcoming Lawyers in Hell anthology, due to be released July 15, 2011 from Perseid Publishing. Also, remember that Amazon has his books at a discount rate. Watch for this exciting new writer in the years to come!

Author Bio: Hailing from the hills of rural North Alabama, Scott Oden’s fascination with far-off places began when his oldest brother introduced him to the staggering and savage vistas of Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb. Though Oden started writing his own tales at the age of fourteen, it would be many years before anything would come of it.

In the meantime, he had a brief and tempestuous fling with academia before retiring to the private sector, where he worked the usual roster of odd jobs-from delivering pizza to stacking paper in the bindery of a printing company to clerking at a video store. Nowadays, Oden writes full-time from his family home near Huntsville.

Oden is the author of Men of Bronze, Memnon, and The Lion of Cairo.