Reading Response: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

Pomegranate Flowers

While working long hours last Fall, I slowly made my way through Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali. Set in 15th Century Spain, a family of Muslim landowners cope with Ferdinand and Isabella’s Reconquista.

I am always excited to read a tale from Long Ago & Far Away. Unfortunately, this one was a struggle.

SPOILER ALERT!

For the first half of the book, it was difficult to know which character was the protagonist. Most of this portion is back story, or story within story. Who am I supposed to care about? I nearly put it down but hung in there because of what I had already invested. I love books set in other cultures and I accept that the target audience might be more accustom to the slower pace. So, thinking it could just be me, and not wanting to miss out, I slogged on.

Then things got more interesting and focused on two characters.

Then everyone died.

Except one fellow.

And the whole thing felt like a setup for the next phase of his life. A sequel?

The book is part of the Islam Quintet – a series by Mr. Ali. But the next book is not a sequel. It’s a story about Saladin – who is not a part of Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. As far as I can tell, we don’t ever get back to this story.

The problem is structure and focus. I love the idea of the book, but it meanders and then ends. Clearly Mr. Ali wants us to care about the loss of a centuries-old culture. But it’s the lives of people which draw readers in and I couldn’t care about anyone because the story is everywhere at once and therefore emotionally nowhere.

I wanted so much to love it. I may be willing to try the others in the series simply because I want them to be good.

You can read Amazon reviews here.

And Goodread reviews here.

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Interview with Annamaria Alfieri

I met Annamaria Alfieri at the Historical Novel Society Conference in St. Petersburg, FL in June. She was so much fun to talk to that we have kept in touch.

Annamaria is the author of three murder mysteries set in South America. She has graciously agreed to take a little time out of publicizing her new murder mystery, Blood Tango, to answer a few questions for our blog. (Yay! Our first interview!)

I came to Blood Tango with zero background knowledge of the events surrounding Peron and Evita – in my theatre days I neither worked on nor saw a production of the Broadway hit “Evita”. Even so, I was able to enter right into the story context with Annamaria as my guide.

Why historical fiction?

I read my first historical novel when I was fourteen: Katherine, by the great Anya Seton. I hated studying history in school. It was all about memorizing dates, the causes of war and which country won. No context, no understanding of the people involved, certainly not of their emotions. Dry.

I did not think of writing historical novels myself, however, until I went to Potosi (Bolivia) and became entranced with its beauty and then its history. That’s when I decided that, rather than continue with the contemporary fiction I had been working on, I would write a historical mystery that took place there, as a way of communicating more broadly some fascinating and mostly unknown history. The result was City of Silver. (See the YouTube interview of Annamaria discussing her inspiration for City of Silver!)

Why Argentina? Why not some topic more familiar to readers?

Blood Tango is my third historical mystery. Once I set out telling about South American history, I stuck with it through three books. You are right. It is unfamiliar territory for many North American readers, but that is why I chose it. I think fiction readers in general, and mystery readers in particular, like to learn as well as be entertained. Most North Americans know very little about the history of the intriguing continent south of ours. There aren’t many novelists writing about that and I hoped to open a niche for myself there.

Did you come to the project with much background knowledge? Or did you have to start from scratch like I did while reading the book?

In all three cases, I began on unfamiliar ground. I had to research thoroughly to get a sense of the times, the place, and especially the historical characters.

What was the hardest part about writing this story in this context?

In the case of Blood Tango, all most American’s know about Evita, for instance, is what they learned from the Broadway musical. And that version of the history is distorted. That made the writing more difficult because I wanted to tell a compelling story, and try to do it without fighting too hard against the readers’ possible misconceptions.

I understand you’ve done some particularly creative events to publicize the book. Can you tell us about those? What did you learn from these efforts?

My daughter is a dancer, and we came up with the idea of doing a film featuring tango dancing. She produced and directed it, the choreography was done by the Paul Pellicoro Dancers. You can see it on YouTube here.

It got quite a lot of compliments and has been seen by, as of today, almost 1500 people. I am proud of it, especially since the choreography between the principal dancers captures what I think was the real relationship between Evita and Juan Peron.

You said to me at conference that you planned to be back at work writing the next book by July 1st. Have you managed to do that with publicity and life continuing to demand attention?

I DID! With the book touring, I have not been able to throw myself into it completely, but I am closing in on 20,000 words. This is a first draft of course. It will need a LOT of polishing before it is done.

I’m always interested in other writers/artists’ work habits. Do you have a daily writing schedule or goals that you try to stick to?

When I am in the first draft, I try to work six days a week. It takes a lot of energy to get my head into the story. If I leave it for two days, it is harder to get back into it to keep going. I am much more productive if I can hold on to the thread of the story. Even if it is just for an hour. Besides, I am happy when I am in the story. All the slings and arrows of everyday life can’t reach me if my mind is in the long ago and far away. I do not have to be coaxed to write.

Any time management tricks you recommend? Or is it “just say no” to everything else possible?

Your readers may not want to hear this, but I gave up reading magazines and almost all TV watching. I stay in touch with friends mostly on FaceBook and email. I don’t chat much. I cook, which I love to do, but only my thirty-minute meals except on Sundays. I take care of my family responsibilities. After that, my first priority is writing. Period. Full stop.

And anything else you would like to add would be great!

I love the idea for this blog. Lots of historical fiction is appealing and I do read and enjoy the stories that take place in the familiar times and locations. But I have such a fascination with the exotic. I am happy to be able to come here and find out what’s new on that horizon.

Thank you, Annamaria!

Should Writers Write Reviews?

I might have already mentioned – I do not intend to provide formal/starred book reviews on this blog. I discussed this decision with several other writers and we felt reviewing novels within our own genre could be awkward and is best left to others.

Since reviews are crucial to a book’s/writer’s success, I decided some time ago I would only review a novel if I could give the work at least four stars. Simply completing and making available a mediocre novel is a heroic feat. But a three star review could discourage and damage a writer even if they had made great strides with that piece. I don’t want to be the one to bring down someone who has worked so hard.

For me to write a five star review, a book must be not only well crafted, but also memorable. I have read many entertaining and near flawless books only to forget them the next day. A five star book had better stick with me for days after the final page.

Until starting this blog those were my personal guidelines. In an era of grade inflation I’m a bit stingy with my “A”s (5 stars!). And this shows the subjectivity of reviews – who am I to withhold a five star review from a perfect, forgettable beach read?

As I begin to write I am naturally looking more closely at what I read, the same way my theatrical self notices the lighting at a live performance. I am learning from others, both techniques and pitfalls. To write a balanced review seems even more difficult now. So I have decided to refrain completely from starred reviews here, on Amazon or Goodreads, etc. I will, however, share my response to and observations about writers, books or passages that I find noteworthy. I may also link to the reviews of others. There are plenty of places to find them.

While thinking about this problem I stumbled across the New York Times Bookends column, “Are Novelists Too Wary of Criticizing Other Novelists?”. In it Zoe Heller and Adam Kirsch describe the problem but also argue the benefits of novelists reviewing novels. I see their point but will stick with my decision and defer writing formal/starred reviews until such a time that I have earned a literary voice. (What a pleasant thought!)

I would love to hear how others handle this question. As a writer, are you comfortable writing Amazon, Goodreads, blog, etc. reviews of material in your own genre?

Blog Launch: Historical Fiction Off the Beaten Path

The Vinoy - Venue

Venue for the Historical Novel Society’s 2013 Conference,
The Vinoy, St. Petersburg, FL

This summer I attended my first Historical Novel Society conference. The speakers and breakout sessions were great, the food was perfect, the venue stunning, but the best by far was each writer’s excitement for their projects – eyes lit up and hands in motion.

Most historical fiction is set in the United States or Western Europe but there are writers compelled to explore more obscure times and places. These are the people I gravitated towards – since I am doing the same. We have to build entire worlds using fragmented and vague historical records; often extrapolating based on resources from the nearest time or place even if hundreds of years or miles off our mark. All the while we know there is some specialist historian out there who will catch us out in some small (or large!) detail. Could anything be more daunting? Or exhilarating?

The three hour drive home allowed my brain to process a dozen fortuitous conversations. By the time I reached my door, this blog seemed the obvious response to my 48 hour conference experience.

Numerous blogs focus on general historical fiction and some have specific time/place specialties but I want this one to be a hub for readers and writers of historical fiction outside the usual settings. I hope to include the following:

  • Interviews with writers
  • News and observations relevant to our niche
  • A repository of resources, thought and discussion particular to writing about the Long Ago and Far Away.

I have discussed my vision with several other writers who are going off the beaten path and am looking forward to their involvement. One new friend is a writer of historical mysteries: Annamaria Alfieri. She is in the throws of launching her new book, Blood Tango. When she comes up for air I hope she will be the first interviewee for the site.

I hope you will visit often and join us on our journey to Long Ago and Far Away!

Hotel Provisions

Hotel Provisions for the Conference
And good for any other journey!