Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndŵr – the last days of Owain Gyndŵr

No one knows how Owain Glyndŵr spent his final days. He simply vanished. Some claim he died, his mortal remains interred in secret to prevent desecration by his enemies. But as always, when considering the ‘legendary’ life of Glyndŵr, there is much debate. My fictional character, his wife, will not, in fact, know how her husband’s fate. She would have been imprisoned in the Tower long before Glynŵr left the stage. But fiction is not real life. Meaning can be drawn by the writer without the conscious knowledge of the character. I therefore needed to know what people were saying about Glyndŵr’s exit from the world.

I wanted a scholarly book (trust me there are some wild theories out there), written by a writer who understood the poetic traditions surrounding the Glyndŵr and was keen to explore them in non-fanciful ways. Gruffudd Aled Williams appeared to be my man. He grew up in Glyn Dyfrydwy, Glyndŵr’s old stomping ground, and is a renowned scholar of Welsh medieval poetry. His book, Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndŵr was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year in 2016. I placed an order and looked forward to the book wending its way across the world to my letter box.

‘Mam and Dad have read that book.’ One of my fellow Welsh tutors informed me one Tuesday evening. ‘They are in the same historical society as Gruffydd  Aled Williams.’ (like, is there anyone in Welsh speaking Wales that doesn’t know everybody?)

‘Was the book any good?’ I asked him.

‘Yes. But it wasn’t an easy read.’

Now, I can read Welsh. Of course, I can. I read I Botany Bay, didn’t I? And Fy mhobl i? And Blasu (sort of). But here’s the thing. My leaner’s Welsh is not as fluid as it was while living in Wales (sob). Added to which, when two first-language Welsh speakers who are living in Bala (the heart of Cymru Cymraeg) say the book was not an easy read, then you are facing a seriously difficult situation.

Fortunately, I live in a part of Melbourne that is densely populated with Welsh speakers. There are four of us living within two kilometres of each other. That’s right, practically a ghetto. One of them, my friend Ceri, is a Welsh woman from Harlech who studied Welsh at Aberystwyth University when Gruffudd Aled Williams was head of the Welsh Language Department (ditto, the comment about anyone and everyone). I asked Ceri whether she’d help me read the book. She took it home, perused the beginning and handed it back.

‘Have a go at reading the first chapters,’ she said, ‘then we can meet.’ (Did I also mention she trained as a teacher).

I read the first four chapters quite easily. They simply summarised aspects of the revolt I am now familiar with. But Aled’s parents were right. This was academic writing, with literary forms of verbs, multiple clauses and subtly wrought arguments. When Ceri texted, suggesting we meet in a cafe and tackle a couple of chapters together, I jumped at the offer.

We met at Padre and read aloud in tandem, not bothering to translate word for word, so much as paraphrase to confirm meaning. For example, on reading the following sentence:

O’r manna a gysylltir ȃ ddyddiau olaf Owain Glyndŵr, ei farwolaeth a’i glad – chai ohonynt a chanddynt well hawl i gael eu hystyried o ddifri na’i gilled – mae’n drawiadol cynifer ohonynta leolir yn Swydd Henfordd; one of us would say something like:

‘So, there are a few places in Herefordshire worth considering.’

‘Yr oedd rhai o’r mannau hyn o few terfynau’r sir felly bodolai yn ystod cyfnod   y gwrthryfel; daeth eraill, a leolid mewn arglwyddiaethau ar gyrion y sir, yn rhannau o Swydd Henfordd yn sgilDeddf Uno 1535-6.’

‘Because the borders were different before the Acts of Union.’

Every now and again, Ceri would insert unknown words to save me looking them up in the dictionary. Sometimes she would say, I know the meaning but I can’t think of the word in English. Still other times, we would be completely stumped and would have to consult multiple sources. I mean, we meet regular to speak Welsh in the ghetto but we don’t often discuss antiquarians (hynafiaethydd), chancels (canghellau), burial chambers (beddgellau), outlawry (herwriaeth), illegitimacy (anghyfreithlondeb) or, indeed, concubines (gordderchadon). When the cafe finally kicked us out at closing time, I felt like I’d been put through a heavily soiled washing machine cycle. I suspect Ceri felt the same. It was a sincere measure of her friendship that she offered to meet again the next week – and in the weeks following.

By week three, all sites, in Herefordshire had been thoroughly discussed. We were racing against the clock, meeting twice weekly in order to finish the book before Ceri returned to her university studies. To my profound relief, the discussion had crossed the border back into Wales. Look, I know the boundaries were different back then, that large parts of Herefordshire were in fact Welsh speaking. But hasn’t England taken enough, without adding Wales’ national hero to the body count? (yes, I take a cool-headed non-partisan approach to my research) 🙂

On the final coffee afternoon, we got kicked out of the cafe with only a few pages left to read. We sat on a sun-bright bench on Lygon Street reading about Glyndŵr’s final days with the metallic sgleen of tram-wheels in the background. It is a measure of the writer’s success that, by that point, we were reading fast and furious, desperate to reach his final conclusions. Which, although sombre, were, in the end, quite satisfying.

What’s that, I hear you say? Where was Glyndŵr finally buried?Buried! What kind of soft question is that? Glyndŵr didn’t die. He vanished. The poets all agree. He rests beneath the mountains surrounded by gold and jewels the likes of which man has never seen. When a bell tolls he will rise with a mighty army and drive our enemies beyond the sea. That’s how all good Welsh stories end. What were you thinking?

March is women’s History month – and I’m involved :-)

In December last year I received an invitation from Wendy J Dunn. It started like this:

Late in 2016, the British newspapers’ “History Book of the Year” lists caused consternation amongst many writers who write history. In these lists, the Telegraph listed nineteen works written by men and only three by women, the Independent listed 8 works by men and two by women and the Times 8 works out of 9 authored by by men. This aroused a global twitter protest, with the hashtag #Historybooksbywomen being shared by those who know that women who write history – either that of non-fiction or fiction – are unsung stars and a force to be reckoned with.

Wendy went on to invite local women history writers – fiction and non-fiction – to participate in a month-long Women’s History event at Eltham Library. Now being an eager beaver, I shot a note back straight away, explaining that I’d had success with historical short stories and that my first full length publication, The Tides Between, would be published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. I then sat back and watched others respond – real writers (see the biographies below) with impressive qualifications and significant publications under their belts and, as the list grew, I felt less sanguine about my chances of being included.

Imagine my delight therefore, to be asked to participate in an initial panel discussion on Sunday 5 March and to speak in more depth at a meet the author event on Saturday 18 March. Like, wow! Two pre-publication author events, just like that.

I’ve included the full program below and put my name in bold because, of course, it’s all about me. 🙂 But seriously, the line up looks amazing. If you are free in March why not booking into one of the sessions?

Women’s History Month – March 2017
Eltham Library
Join a celebration of Women writers of history with this opportunity to meet local writers in a series of Readings and Panels.

Sunday 5 March 1.15pm – 4.30pm

1.15-2.45 – Panel Discussion: why women write history. Chair: Catherine Padmore
Panel: Kelly Gardner, Barbara Gaskell Denvil, Elizabeth Jane Corbett, Kate Mildenhall, Glenice Whitting, Kathryn Gauci.

2.45-3.15 – Afternoon tea and launch of Barbara Gaskell Denvil’s new historical novel The deception of consequences

3.15-4.30 – Historical fiction Readings and book discussions.
Kathryn Gauci, Barbara Gaskell Denvil and Wendy J. Dunn

Book here

Saturday 11 March 12.30pm – 4.30pm

12.30-2.00 – Readings and Discussion from their works
Katie Holmes, Janis Sheldrick, Christina Twomey, Liz Conor

Afternoon tea

2.30-4.30 – What draws women to write about the past?
Chair: Wendy J. Dunn
Panel: Liz Conor, Katie Holmes, Christina Twomey

Book here

Saturday 18 March 12.30pm – 4.30pm

12.30-2.00 – Meet the Authors
Elise McCune, Wendy J. Dunn

Afternoon tea

2.30-4.30 – Meet the Authors
Rachel Rossignol, Elizabeth Jane Corbett

Book here

Saturday 25 March 12.30pm – 4.30pm

12.30-3.00 – The powerful and different ways that non fiction and fiction tell the stories of the past, and why women are so good at telling these stories.
Chair: Eloise Faichney
Panel: Professor Josie Arnold, Barbara Gaskell Denvil,, Kelly Gardiner, Glenice Whitting

Book here

Author Biographies:

Josie Arnold
Dr.Josie Arnold is Professor of Writing. She developed the MA (Writing) online course and the PhD by Artefact & Exegesis for creative practitioners. She is the author of over 45 books in many genres and academic articles about theories such as writing, feminism and Indigenous inclusion in the curriculum. She is currently working on producing a PhD training hub for postgraduate work on creative, traditional, contemporary or scientific areas of knowledge and an Indigenous Knowledge Hub to contribute to teaching and learning and the decolonization of scholarly ways of knowing.

Liz Conor
Dr Liz Conor is an ARC Future Fellow in History at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [IndianaUP, 2004]. Liz is editor of the Aboriginal History Journal, a columnist at New Matilda, and freelance essays have appeared in The Age, The Conversation, The Drum, Crikey.com, and Arena and her blog has been archived by the National Library of Australia. She is former editor of Metro Magazine and Australian Screen Education and has published extensively on colonial and modern visual and print history. Liz is a community campaigner, founding and convening the Coalition Against Sexual Violence Propaganda (1990) on media portrayal of sexual violence, the Stick with Wik (1997) campaign on native title, the Mother’s of Intervention (2000) campaign on maternity leave, and the guerilla theatre troupe The John Howard Ladies’ Auxiliary Fanclub (with Zelda Da, 1996) and most recently the Climate Guardians (with Deborah Hart).

Elizabeth Jane Corbett
When Elizabeth Jane isn’t writing, she works as a librarian, teaches Welsh at the Celtic Club in Melbourne, writes reviews and articles for the Historical Novels Society and blogs at elizabethjanecorbett.com. In 2009, her short-story, Beyond the Blackout Curtain, won the Bristol Short Story Prize. Another short story, Silent Night, was short listed for the Allan Marshall early draft of her first novel, The Tides Between, was short listed for a manuscript development award. It will be published in by Odyssey Books in October 2107. Elizabeth has an active social media presence, is an experienced public speaker and is in her element discussing books and ideas.

Barbara Gaskell Denvil
Barbara Gaskell Denvil is the author of five published historical novels – Satin Cinnabar, a crime adventure tale actually commencing on the Bosworth battlefield, Sumerford’s Autumn, an adventure mystery with strong romantic overtones, set in the early years of the Tudor reign, Blessop’s Wife, (published in Australia as The King’s Shadow), a crime/romance set in England during 1482-3 in those turbulent years around the death of King Edward IV, The Flame Eater, a romantic crime novel also set in 1482/3, and a time-slip novel Fair Weather, a highly adventurous mystery set during the reign of King John. Barbara is also an author of fantasy – both fantasy and historical fiction take us into new worlds and Barbara’s books do exactly this – being multi-layered, and rich in both characterisation and atmosphere.

Wendy J. Dunn
Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of three Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel, and Falling Pomegranate Seeds.

Eloise Faichney
Eloise Faichney is an emerging writer and editor from Melbourne. She is a PhD candidate in creative writing at Monash University and Co-Senior editor of Other Terrain and Backstory literary journals. Her work has been published in the Medical Journal of Australia, SMUT zine, Stormcloud Poets Anthology and others.

Kelly Gardiner
Kelly Gardiner writes historical fiction for readers of all ages. Her latest novel is 1917: Australia’s Great War. Kelly’s previous books include the young adult novels Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes, both of which were shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and Goddess, a novel for adults based on the life of the seventeenth century French swordswoman, cross-dresser and opera singer, Mademoiselle de Maupin. She teaches writing at La Trobe University, and digital literacy at the State Library of Victoria. Kelly is also the co-host of Unladylike, a podcast about women and writing.

Kathryn Gauci
Kathryn Gauci was born in Leicestershire, England, and studied textile design at Art College. After graduating, she spent a year in Vienna, Austria before moving to Greece where she worked as a carpet designer in Athens for six years. There followed another brief period in New Zealand before eventually settling in Melbourne. Before turning to writing full-time, Kathryn ran her own textile design studio for over fifteen years, which she enjoyed tremendously as it allowed her the luxury of travelling worldwide, often taking her off the beaten track and exploring other cultures. The Embroiderer is her first novel. Set against the mosques and minarets of Asia Minor and the ruins of ancient Athens, it is a gripping saga of love and loss, hope and despair based on historic events spanning the period from The Greek War of Independence in 1821 to the Nazi occupation of Athens in 1941. It has recently been picked up by a Greek publisher and is available in Greek. Currently, it is being considered for publication in Turkish and Romanian. Her second novel, Conspiracy of Lies, a drama set in France during WWII will be published during the first half of 2017.
Katie Holmes
Katie Holmes is Professor of History and Director of the Centre for the Study of the Inland at La Trobe University. Her research spans Australian gender and environmental history and she has written about women’s diaries, gardens, gender and war and environmental history. Her books include: Spaces in Her Day: Australian women’s diaries from the 1920s & 1930s; Reading the Garden: the settlement of Australia (with Susan K Martin & Kylie Mirmohamadi) and Between the Leaves: stories of Australian women, writing and gardens. She is currently co-authoring a history of the Mallee lands of Southern Australia.

Rachel Le Rossignol
Rachel Le Rossignol has been writing since the age of 8 (early works are safely hidden away). She holds a Masters degree and PhD in Creative Writing. Her short stories have been selected several times for exhibition as part of the Cancer Council Arts awards and winning the Mercury Short Story competition (junior section) at the age of 16 only fuelled her desire to share her stories with the world. One of her plays, No Sequel, won the People’s Choice Award and First Prize at the Eltham Little Theatre’s 10 Minute Play competition in 2014 whilst another, Crime Fiction, was performed at Short and Sweet Manila and Sydney in 2016/17. Her second passion after writing is the theatre, and she has been performing in shows and working backstage for a rather long time. She co-wrote and performed in the 2012-2015 version of the hugely popular Murder on the Puffing Billy Express, a 1920s murder mystery set on the iconic Dandenong Ranges train. The inspiration for the Tarya trilogy, which begins with Harlequin’s Riddle (to be released in 2017), began when she read a quote by Broadway actor Alan Cumming about that in-between moment just before you step on stage and enter a different world, a moment when anything is possible…

Elise McCune
Elise McCune is an Australian, Melbourne-based writer. Born in New South Wales, Elise moved to Perth, where she raised her two children. She worked for many years in the Western Australian Museum and in this time she travelled to Egypt where she visited Cairo and Alexandria. It was during this visit that she first became interested in researching the stories of Australian WW1 soldiers who fought in the Middle East. Elise writes dual narrative stories set in two time periods and while her first novel Castle of Dreams (Allen & Unwin 2016) has one narrative set against a backdrop of the Pacific War in WW2 her work in progress has one narrative set in WW1. The memory of her time spent in Egypt and the research she has done on Australian soldiers fighting in the Middle East during WW1 will be woven through her story.

Kate Mildenhall
Kate Mildenhall is the author of Skylarking, published by Black Inc. in 2016. She is a writer and teacher. She has taught in schools, at RMIT University and State Library Victoria, and has volunteered with Teachers Across Borders, delivering professional development to Khmer teachers in Cambodia. Skylarking is her debut novel, and is based on the true story of Kate and Harriet, best friends growing up on a remote Australian Cape in the 1880s, and the tragic event that befalls them. Skylarking was named in Readings bookstore’s Top Ten Fiction Books of 2016 and longlisted for Debut Fiction in The Indie Book Awards 2017.
Kate lives in Hurstbridge, Victoria, and is currently working on a new novel.

Catherine Padmore
Dr Catherine Padmore was awarded her PhD in creative writing in 2002, and she has taught literary studies and creative writing at La Trobe since 2005. Her first novel, Sibyl’s Cave (Allen and Unwin, 2004) was shortlisted for The Australian/Vogel Award and commended in the first book category of The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (South-East Asia and South Pacific region). Catherine has been awarded two retreat fellowships at Varuna, the Writers’ House, and in 2014 she was short-listed for their Publisher Introduction Program. She has novels-in-progress about Amy Dudley and Levina Teerlinc. Her short creative works have been published in Island, The Journal of Australian Writers and Writing, The Big Issue, The Australian, Dotlit, Antithesis and in the anthology Reflecting on Melbourne (Poetica Christi, 2009). Catherine’s scholarly work has been published in Australian Literary Studies, TEXT, JASAL, Life Writing and Lateral, with chapters in Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature 1935-2012 (MUP, 2013) and Expanding the Canon of Early Modern Women’s Writing (CSP, 2010).

Janis Sheldrick
Janis Sheldrick is an independent scholar who initially studied philosophy and began historical research for a biography with the support of Deakin University through a PhD in Literary Studies by Creative Thesis. Nature’s Line: George Goyder, surveyor, environmentalist, visionary was shortlisted in 2014 for the Ernest Scott Prize (for an original contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or colonisation) and the University of Queensland non-fiction book award.

Christina Twomey
Professor Christina Twomey is Head of History in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies. She is the author of three books, A History of Australia (2011, co-authored with Mark Peel), Australia’s Forgotten Prisoners: Civilians Interned by the Japanese in World War II (2007) and Deserted and Destitute: Motherhood, Wife Desertion and Colonial Welfare (2002). Christina has also published widely on the cultural history of war, with a focus on issues of imprisonment, captivity, witnessing, the photography of atrocity, gender and memory.

Okay so this is getting real – an author interview and a photo shoot

Round Table Discaussion

Two important things happened last week. First, I was included in a historical fiction round table discussion on Sophie Schiller’s blog. If you take time to read the discussion – and it is well worth a read – you will notice two things. 

Firstly, only one male writer was interviewed. This is not a matter of discrimination (the participants were largely voluntary) so much as a reflection of who is reading and writing historical fiction. Women. Certainly a quick perusal of the Historical Novels Society membership list would bear this out. Yet, women writers are consistently under reviewed. Interviews like Sophie’s help correct the imbalance. Yay, Sophie!

The second thing you’ll notice if you read the interview is that I am the only author on the list who has not yet had a full length work published. So, like, I was so lucky to be included. Reading back over the interview, I could have answered some questions differently. Bit mostly, I think it went okay. If you have time, click on the link and let me know. 

Photo shoot

As a consequence of the round table discussion, I had a note from my publisher. Actually, hang on a sec, let’s just pause and reapeat those words. I had a note from my publisher 🙂 🙂 🙂 saying I would need a bigger (as in pixels) photo for future publicity. She was right. I knew this to be true. As my current headshot is a cropped photo taken at our son’s wedding with my husband’s head artfully removed. Oops! 

Fortunately, our daughter houseshares with a photographer, Anthony Cleave, and as Anthony took our family photo at Christmas time, I had already seen his work. An added bonus was that he was happy to do the shoot at my house. Added to which, my daughter Priya decided to come along for the ride. This made the whole event pretty relaxed with Priya telling me I needed a necklace and fluffing up my hair and generally making me laugh. We had some silly moments.

   

 

Four hours later, I received seven digital photos through Onefile. I posted them to our family Viber group for a vote. This is the one we decided on.

 

 

An S.O.S. from Biskit the family dog

Help! If you are reading this, I’m in danger. The only place I feel safe is rolling around in the dirt beneath the house. But now Andrew’s setting booby traps. No, I’m not joking. It’s real. All around the world, small white dogs who were originally bought for the youngest daughter who left home are under threat. Seriously, Andrew’s on the phone at the crack of dawn and late into the night. He speaks in code, of course. Uses phrases like site remediation and safety procedures, but I hear those American accents and know he’s operating on a global scale.

We had explosions the week after Christmas, then there was thunder. I managed to force my way through the barriers along the sides of the house only to find miles of deadly blue cabling had been installed. I had to chew my way out. Liz doesn’t realise. Why doesn’t she realise? She thinks this is about dirt and fleas. I dragged a length of cabling out to demonstrate the situation. The next morning the secret international phone calls stopped. Andrew hunched over his mobile phone trying to communicate with the outside world. He said he’d have to ‘go into the office.’ Liz didn’t seem too worried. She never does. She just flipped over to 4G and kept on reading. About Owain Glyndwr, for heaven’s sake, a fourteenth century Welsh malcontent. She needs to forget about Wales and  and start focusing on what’s happening in her own backyard.

When Andrew got home from ‘the office’, that night, he found the cable. Grim. That’s the only word for his face. He hammered on Liz’s study window. Called, it an ADSL line. Used the words, No WIFI, No phone. Liz turned pale, saw the effect it was going to have on her social media profile. She sided with Andrew. Yes, you heard me. She sided with Andrew. Called the ADSL police. Had those trip wires re-installed in no time. Now my days are numbered. I’m hacking into Liz’s blog to get my message out. She’s going to be furious. I’ll be kept in close confinement from now on. But if you’re reading this, you’ll know the truth. So, please, please, please come and rescue me.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar – a tender loss of innocence

Having grown up in South Australia on a surfeit of Colin Thiele novels and having endured too many bleak windy drives along the Coorong, Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek wasn’t initially appealing. In fact, I returned it to the library unread on that unsound basis. A few days later, however, when discussing my desire to find a recently written, Australian historical fiction coming-of-age novel (to be absolutely specific), I decided that decision needed to be re-visited. ‘It is nothing like Storm Boy,’ my friend assured me, ‘and it may well have the coming-of-age elements you are looking for.’

Set in the 1850’s the majority of Salt Creek’s narrative takes the from an extended flashback written from the first person viewpoint of fifteen-year-old, Hester Finch, as she and her family struggle to recover debts by attempting to farm the isolated, sandy reaches of the Corrong. As the family seek to make their peace with their reduced situation and the demands of their primitive location, they come into contact with mixed race aboriginal boy Tully. In line with Hester’s father’s seemingly enlightened principles, the family attempt to civilize the local Ngarrimderji. But when tragedies strike and events spiral out of control the true character of their ‘civilizing principles are exposed.

On the surface, this book may sound not unlike many other early Australian revisionist narratives that are being written in a much needed attempt to scrape away the white-washed veneer of Australia’s colonial past. However, to put this book in a more-of-the-same category would be mistake because, despite the familiar issues, it is fresh, interesting and unsurpassed on a number of levels.

Voice

Hester Finch’s looking-back-on-her-youth voice is unique and distinctive. We get a sense that she is at once young and old. Although the the main action in the book starts quite slowly, and there are some passages where the narrative seems to lose direction and become a little too detailed, we get a sense that Hester can be trusted. That this interesting, intelligent, unorthodox young woman will not waste our time telling a story of no consequence. Here is how she introduces the innocent character around which the plot of the novel turns:

‘Tull was already quite tall and narrow. He was no one in particular to us and over some months it was as if he were resolving under Fred’s microscope, until he was part of us and moving among us. A remarkable person: he altered our course, not only on the Coorong, but for always.’

Prose

Treloar’s prose is simple and unlaboured. But it has a quiet beauty that made the writer inside me weep with envy.

‘Her skin took the sun, turning dusky, and her eyes were pale as a calm sea close to shore, like the sea glass I found one day among the shells. Who knew where it had come from or where it had been? I also kept a piece of driftwood, which was differently transformed. It had turned to silk and weighed nothing at all. When I stroked it against my cheek it was like the touch of another.’

Characterization

Hester, her parents and siblings are all delightfully non-cliche both in their appearance and interests. Added to which, Treloar uses their spectrum of responses to the Ngarrindjeri people to add nuance to the homogenized view we are often given of frontier society. Her characterization of the aboriginal boy Tully is the triumph of the novel. Tully is at home in his original culture and increasingly with the Finch family, joining the children in their lessons, learning chess and reading Darwin’s Origin of the Species. His dialogue is refreshingly clear of awkward pidgin English attempts to show that he is a second language speaker, Treloar preferring to show this by an occasional search for unfamiliar words. When he froms an attachment for which he is eminently suitable – hard working, knowledgeable, intelligent, tender – apart from the  matter of his skin colour, we feel the sting of injustice.

Dialogue

The final wow factor of this novel is its dialogue. I’m hard pressed to find a single example as it generally flows gently out of the prose and slips back into the stream of introspection without a ripple, giving us tiny unexpected glimpses of character and theme at every turn.

‘What are rules?’ Tull asked.

‘The things people may and may not do.’

‘Oh yes. We have that too. A tendi.’

‘I did not know.’

‘We don’t eat some birds.’

‘Why not? Is the taste bad?

‘No. They make us sick. Boys, like me. Men can eat them. Other things too, some animals.’

‘Which animals?’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘We have so many rules I can’t remember them all. About manners and clothes and respect. People may not kill other people, or take things from them. That is stealing. We may not steal. And other things too.’

‘Take what?’

‘Well, cattle – kill and eat them that is. And we may not take your possessions.’ I could not think what they had that we might wish for. One black had a shell necklace that I admired. I had heard people in Adelaide liked the carvings on their weapons and collected them. ‘Your spears and clubs for instance. But you can sell them, if you like.’

‘Fish? Kangaroos? You kill and eat them?’

‘They are wild. They are on our land, but you may eat them Papa says.’

 

 

Since publication, Salt Creek has received wide acclaim and, having overcome my post traumatic experience of sitting in Mrs Morphett’s grade four classroom listening to my classmates taking turns to massacre Colin Thiele’s prose, I can heartily recommend it. Salt Creek is a novel that sits way above the ordinary. And as Lucy Treloar will be one of the speakers at the Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference in September, I can look forward to hearing all about her writing journey.

 

Why did I ever leave it so long? A review of the Rowland Sinclair mysteries

I can’t believe I took so long to start reading Sulari Gentil’s Rowland Sinclair series. I’d heard Gentil speak at the 2015 HNSA conference, had listened to readers sing her praises and had loaned the books out to every one of my crime-reading, housebound library clients, without ever having read them. But December arrived and, with my husband away, my mum terminally ill, and me sitting on the exciting but not yet signed news of a publishing contract, I needed a distraction. I downloaded the first book, A few right thinking men, on impulse. Within minutes of meeting, Rowland Sinclair, the wealthy, self-effacing, piercing blue-eyed, Sydney based, artist and his bohemian friends, I was hooked.

There is something almost Whimsyesque about Rowland Sinclair. Possibly it’s the impeccable tailoring of his suits, or era he lives in, or the gentility of old money, maybe the unrequited love interest? The Australian sleuth, is every bit as captivating as Lord Peter Whimsey. The feel of the novel as authentic as if it had indeed been written in Dorothy Sayers’ day. If Rowland is Whimsyesque, his three friends – Clyde, Edna, and Milt, are somewhat Blytonesque. In saying that, I’m not implying that Rowland’s circle of friends are childlike. However, I do not believe there was ever a Famous Five adventure in which all four cousins did not participate. As Rowland’s friends sit on the end of his bed, drinking beverages that only occasionally involve cocoa, they make false assumptions, take wrong turns, get caught in cliff hanging situations and solve mysteries in settings as divergent as Germany, Paris, London and Sydney. They are, at once, a well crafted complimentary group and complex individual characters. It is though the group’s eyes that we get a fuller image of Rowland Sinclair.

However excellent Gentill’s characterisation, to me, the wow factor of this series lies in its historical detail. Set between the wars and succinctly chronicling the rise of fascism amid the widespread fear of communism, each mystery is interwoven with real 1930s historical events. Chapters begin with a series of newspaper snippets. Participating in each self-contained mystery are historical figures such as Norman Lindsay, H.G. Wells, Eva Braun, Eric Campbell, Charles Kingsford Smith, Somerset Maugham, Albert Göring and Unity Mitford, just to name a few. The skilful interweaving of the characters with the fictitious plot lines lifts the Rowland Sinclair  books above being just-another-crime-series, and gives the reader a seemingly behind-the-scenes glimpse at historic events.

The final feather in this series’ cap is its subtle humour. There is a delicious sense of tongue in cheek throughout the series’ pages. For example, on page 128 of A few right thinking men, after struggling to paint an accurate portrait, of triple-chinned, buck toothed, squint eyed Lady McKenzie that was also pleasing to the eye, Clyde, presents the finished work to his friends.

“Lady Mckenzie is finished, at last,” he announced. “I’m taking her to be framed with the most lavish gold leaf frame known to man.”

“So let’s see her.”

Clyde swivelled the canvas round. For a moment there was silence as they gazed at the dreaded portrait. Rowland broke it first.

“Clyde, old boy, you’re brilliant!” He applauded.

Clyde had depicted Lady Mckenzie accurately, but she was no longer the focus. The foreground was now dominated by a poodle with large beseeching eyes which, by distraction, softened its owner’s severe and unwelcome features.

“My friend, you have painted Medusa without turning us all to stone,” waxed Milton.”

The classical allusion was lost on Clyde, but he gathered it was a statement of approval nonetheless. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier,” he grinned. “She loves that mutt.”

“She’ll be happy with it, Clyde,” said Edna. “It’s such a cute dog.”

“It’s a vicious smelly beast, actually,” Clyde replied, “but its a lot prettier than the good lady.”

The former is smile worthy. But it is not the end of the poodle joke. On page 162, Rowland’s sister-in-law, Kate, is trying to set him up with Lucy Bennett, a suitable young woman from his own social class with whom she hopes he will settle down and forget his bohemian lifestyle. In an effort to draw Rowland into the scheme, a naive Kate suggests he paint Lucy. Flicking through Rowland’s notebook, Lucy quickly becomes alarmed at the suggestion.

“No, I really couldn’t,” she said. “I just couldn’t.” She pushed the notebook back across the table towards Rowland.

Kate looked at her friend, dismayed. Wilfred appeared distinctly disgruntled. Rowland’s lips hinted a smile, but he tried to seem politely disappointed. He slipped his notebook back into his pocket. He knew Lucy had found the pencil studies he’d done of Edna for the nude he’d given his uncle. He was relieved. There was nothing interesting about Lucy Bennett; nothing worth capturing on canvas. As far as he knew, she didn’t even own a poodle.

There are seven books in this series, so far. I read them all in quick succession, during which time, I found myself glancing over my shoulder, fearing dead bodies, ghosts, would be assassins, Hitler’s brownshirts, Moseley’s fascists, and members of the Australian New Guard to attack me. Thankfully, they were too busy beating up Rowland Sinclair. So, I headed over to his Facebook fan page and left this message.

To which the author kindly replied:

 

 

Getting back on the horse – the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

Confession: I failed. In 2015, I jauntily signed up for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I committed to writing four reviews of historical novels by Australian women – four measly reviews! I only wrote three. To be fair, I went to Wales mid 2015 and, although it was possible to keep reading Aussie books, it made more sense to be reading local ones – particularly of the Welsh language variety. I read my first non-learners, Welsh language novel during my seven months in Wales and my first non-learner’s adult biography as well as a host of magazines, articles and shorter language learner novels. In effect, 2015 became a year of living, speaking and reading in Welsh. That final elusive fourth review never materialised.

What about 2016? Well, I blinked and missed it. I’m not sure how. But somewhere amidst the arriving, adjusting, trying to pick up the pieces, I realised it wasn’t possible to just carry on as before. I spent the year re-calibrating my priorities. So, I failed, fell of the horse. Or maybe I jumped off into an alternative language and cultural field? The mode of descent is not important. Only the fact that I am now ready to get back on the horse. That’s what you do when you fall off, isn’t it? You get back on.

The impetus for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge started late in 2011 when after reading a blog about the gender imbalance in the reviewing of books written by women Elizabeth Lhuede, an Australian poet, academic and romance writer, was forced to examine the gender imbalance in her own reading choices. The outcome,  the Australian Women Writers Challenge – a blog dedicated to the reviewing of books by Aussie women.

In 2017, I plan to review at least four books by Australian women in the historical fiction category. This is not many titles (yes, I have commitment issues). But I have an article on coming-of-age novels to read for. And I’m still trying  to read some books in Welsh. And I do like to read books written further afield. But, despite this, I fully expect to read more than four historical novels by Australian women as the Melbourne, Historical Novels Society of Australasia conference will take place in 2017. From my experience as a librarian, I know that you engage better with the conference if you are familiar with the authors’ works. My first review will be of an historical crime series. But I’m not going to talk about it now as it deserves a post all of its own. I’m simply asking you to watch this space.

Thanks #aww2017 for letting me get back on the horse.

Eureka! She’s signed a publishing contract

So, you decided to write a novel – an historical novel. The first piece of fiction you have written since a dreadful short story in year eleven. You have an idea of a time period. You begin to research. But actually you have no idea what you are doing. You just write. You get some early encouragement. Get shortlisted for awards. Win a short story prize. You keep on writing. You have a full, redrafted manuscript before you realise that the whole damned publishing industry is market driven — the manuscript you’ve written won’t fit neatly on the bookshop shelves.

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You should have known this. You are a librarian. You are used to putting books in categories. But the truth hits home at the Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference as you listen to a grim publishing panel rip your colleagues’ work apart. They tell you most Australian book sales take place in Kmart or Big. There is a big demand for rural romance, why not try your hand at that?

You realise your manuscript is going to be hard to pitch — an historical coming-of-age about fairy tales and facing the truth. With both adult and young adult viewpoint characters. Like, what were you thinking? You sink to the bottom of a dark pond. You drive your room mate crazy with your OMG why-didn’t-I-realize script.

You attend MWF — a session on publishing perspectives. You are told colouring books are artificially inflating print book sales. That mainstream publishers can’t take a risk. They have to make money. This is the era of the small press. Hadn’t Black Rock, White City, just won the Miles Franklin Award?  A small press! You remember the only smiling face on the HNSA panel was a publisher from an independent press.

You Google the Small Press Network, start sending out query letters. You also attend a Literary Speed Dating Event at Writers’ Victoria. You get quick responses from the small presses – far quicker than you get from the established publishers. They’re working smarter, electronically. You get loads of encouragement. Rejections too. You start a new project. That’s what you do, isn’t it? Move onto the next book. You consider self-publishing. Remember how much you suck at administration. Still you are waiting. A few, independent publishers have asked for your full manuscript. You notice that opening your email makes your tummy ache. You consider staying in bed. Forever. You think maybe you’re not cut out for this.

Then an email from Odyssey Books arrives. The opening line says:

“Thank you for sending us “The Tides Between”.

You brace. Think the word “Unfortunately” is going to come next.

“It’s an original concept with a great voice and well-developed characters. We love it and would like to publish it.”

Publish? You blink, shake your head. Read again more slowly. Publish! A mercury shot of realization. You leap out of bed, calling your husband’s name. He’s not in his office. You turn, this way, that. Search the garden, the shed, his bike rack. Gone. He’s gone. You are shaking, crying, running in circles. You think frenetic is a good description. You send a text to your husband, ring your mum, tell your writing buddies, put the news on the family Viber group, answer responses. Then you sit, letting the news sink in. Your book may not be Kmart or BigW material, neither is it a rural romance. It certainly doesn’t fit neatly on the bookshelf. But someone loved it, enough to publish it. You think this truly is the era of the small press. That Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books has just become your new best friend.

Cuts, colours and the magic of Christmas

Some say the bloom of the Jacaranda tree heralds the beginning of Christmas, or cherries in the shops (this is Australia I’m talking about), or children lighting candles. In a less innocent world, we speak of Black Friday, online shopping, and Santa’s Sled wending its way from China. For me, there is another, magical Advent marker.

Namely, the Christmas cut and colour.

What? You didn’t know of this was a phenomena! You clearly haven’t worked in the public library service. We are a female dominated industry and some many of us are no longer young. One by one, from around mid December, my colleagues and I, take turns to flex off work early. Only to return, the following morning, a brighter, crisper version of ourselves.

I’m not working at a single library branch anymore. So this year, the ritual has been less apparent. But it is happening, as surely as the sun rises in the east, I know it is happening and, as I’m going to a work party tomorrow, the need to get my act together has been looming.

My husband says I should abandon the pretence, go grey naturally (aka, keep him company). But here’s the thing. Sometimes, when I tell people I’m a Mam-gu, they say:

‘Oh, no, surely not! You’re way too young.’

Which I kind of like. It makes up for the fact that people keep asking me if I’m pregnant (gotta take the good with the bad). When people stop making these comments, I will surrender my youthful image. Until then, I’m a slave to the Christmas cut and colour.

I have a great hairdresser in Coburg. My first haircut after moving north, my son said:

‘Wow! You look like you haven’t been going to the same suburban hairdresser for twenty years.’

Having my hair cut in Coburg, is an altogether different experience to the chatty, know-everything-about-you event in the leafy suburbs. My hairdresser is from the middle-east. Her salon is filled with family and friends. She talks on her mobile phone, while cutting my hair, switching back and forth between languages. I’m no one. Just a fly on the wall. But I keep going back. Even when the salon had its windows shot in by the underworld, I kept my appointment. A good haircut is worth the risk. It is also expensive (far more expensive than its same-for-twenty-years equivalent). Which is why I now do the colouring myself.

I started dyeing my own hair while in Wales. My friend, Veronica, and I, decided, we’d cut the cost, by sharing the packet of hair dye. Veronica’s sister had been a hairdresser. So she had a little bowl and brush. It was my idea to turn a plastic glove inside out so we had a right hand one each (still pretty proud of that thought). Halving the cost seemed like a good idea at the time. Next day we both noticed the cover was, well, let’s say a little…patchy.

A month later, I lashed out, bought an entire packet and did the dyeing without help. But I didn’t have a little bowl and brush and I was in a rush so I could scuttle back to my room before the other Maelor residents caught me (gotta keep up the pretence). Trouble is, I didn’t have a good mirror in my room. So I didn’t notice the dye all over my left cheek. The end result, a dark-haired woman who looked like she’d been beaten about the face with a rolling pin.

With this colourful (pun intended) history you’d think I’d be begging the hairdresser to do my Christmas cut and colour. But, no, I learned to use a drill in Wales, unblock toilets, catch bats, paint walls, frame artwork, pack sculptures, take down exhibitions, eat chips with cheese, and do second-to-none hill starts. I owed it to myself not to back down. I applied the dye, without mishap, wiped my face, the bathroom sink, the floor, and, oh, yes, maybe also the shower screen. I sat, with the arms of my glasses wrapped in cling-wrap, while reading Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndwr (that’s gotta be a first for the author).

Now, it’s done. My youthful facade is fully restored. The nativity scene is set up in the living room, Jacaranda’s are blooming, the cherries are in the shops. Tomorrow, I will turn up at work, a brighter, crisper version of myself and no one will mention the cut and colour, or the wisps of grey I’ve somehow missed, because we have a ritual to maintain, part of the time-honoured Christmas magic. So let the festivities begin!

Nadolig Llawen pawb a blwyddyn newydd da i chi i gyd!

Corny Christmas Commercials – and some difficult news on the family front

Confession – I do love corny a Christmas commercial. Despite their mercenary motivation, they bring back memories of daylight saving and summer pyjamas, the smell of radiatta pine, jacaranda’s blooms, carols by candle light, and the early Christmas morning santa-shrieks of delight. It’s absurd really; they are only trying to sell something. This year I need that kind of comfort.

I saw the John Lewis ad as the Trump debacle was unfolding. We’d received some bad news about my mother’s health and after a sober family meeting, the John Lewis ad made us all laugh.

 

 

This time last year I was in the northern hemisphere enjoying my first English Christmas since childhood. Mince pies, puddings, mulled wine, Christmas lights, the Queen’s speech, board games and rugged-up walks in the park all made sense in those short, dark days of winter. We do things differently down under. It was one of my emigrant mother’s hardest adjustments, singing jingle bells in the summer sun. I’m not sure what Ronan Keating has to do with Air New Zealand but I guess that’s the making money part of the equation.

 

 

The commercial purpose of this final ad is so subtle, I’m still not sure what they are selling. But it made me cry and I was sitting in a cafe. You see we’d just found out my mother is dying. This will be her final Christmas. I’m not sure what the next few months will look like. Only that they will be a sacred time in our family life. So if things go a bit quiet on my blog, you’ll understand why.

 

 

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