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Reading matter: Medieval underpants and Other Blunders

photo I was half-way through the book when it happened. Up until that point it had been a perfectly enjoyable historical fiction novel: good plot, strong characters, authentic-sounding dialogue, and plenty of research that grounded the novel in the era in which it was set without being overwhelming.

And then it happened. The Thing that pulled me right out of the world the author had created. A simple, trivial little thing. Perhaps, to many readers, it would have gone unnoticed but to a local it was glaring: the hero travelled to Sheffield and spoke admiringly of the flat, open expanses of fields to the west of the city.

The most trivial online research will tell you that Sheffield is a city built on hills, and to the west lies the Peak District/South Pennines. Oops.

Which brings me to Susanne Alleyn’s excellent book, Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths. Not only is this highly educational for anyone who likes their history with a side of geekery, I think it’s also a must-read for anyone writing – or thinking of writing – historical fiction.

It won’t tell you how to write, or how to write HF; what it does instead is walk the reader through the most common errors and misunderstandings (and why you really shouldn’t use Hollywood movies as a source) about all kinds of topics. Food and drink, social customs, clothing, modes of address, travel, arms and armour – it’s all here, explained simply and clearly.

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Reading matter: The Odessa File

TheOdessaFile_FrederickForsyth

Can you forgive the past? It’s 1963 and a young German reporter has been assigned the suicide of a holocaust survivor. The news story seems straightforward, this is a tragic insight into one man’s suffering. But a long hidden secret is discovered in the pages of the dead man’s diary. What follows is life-and-death hunt for a notorious former concentration camp-commander, a man responsible for the deaths of thousands, a man as yet unpunished.

Over Christmas I’ve been re-reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, the story of an investigative journalist tracking down a prominent former Nazi in 1960s Germany. The real triumph of this novel, I think – apart from the fact that it’s an excellent thriller – is the strong sense of time and place. Forsyth’s tale puts us into a very specific period of history and gives us an evocative and very real “stage” for the action to be played out, as well as a fascinating look into post-war Germany.

The story revolves around Peter Miller, a journalist who stumbles into a world he – and by extension the reader – is unprepared for. His journey is our journey too and Forsyth neatly explores the contradictions and confusion of a country and its people struggling to come to terms with a terrible and at that time still very recent past in a much more nuanced way than I expected. Here be monsters – but not cartoon villains.

There are aspects I don’t care for: the girlfriend subplot feels tacked-on and a weak excuse for a few uninspired sex scenes, and the rockets subplot is exposition-heavy and, at times, a serious distraction from the main plot. Overall, though, this is a solid thriller and an entertaining read.

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