Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: review (Page 1 of 4)

Panels, publications and Arthurian legends

I am new to author panels. So far, I’ve chaired one and sat on three. I generally come up with great answers around four o’clock in the morning, after the panel is finished. My most recent panel was at Conflux13, the annual Canberra speculative fiction conference where I felt more out of depth than usual. Why? Because speculative fiction (science fiction/fantasy) is not my natural domain. But the theme of Conflux was Grimm Tales and, as I’ve written a historical coming-of-age tale with embedded Wales fairy tales and fantasy elements, I slipped in under the razor wire.

The first panel, I participated in was entitled:

WTF is “crossover” anyway? Crossover, genre mashup, what is it? Why do we love it? What are your favourite examples?

I was fine on that panel. I’m a librarian. I can talk categories – their limits and uses –  for hours. The second panel was called:

Writing across cultures without @#!!*#@ing it up. Cultural appropriation. What is it? What are the impacts? What can we do to avoid it?

This was a topic in which I also have some insight as prior to writing The Tides Between, I knew little about Wales. Through my research, I’ve fallen in love with Welsh history, it’s myths and fairy tales and learned to speak the language. I’m not sure whether that counts as cultural appropriation? It feels more like I’ve been culturally appropriated. I sure do hope I haven’t @#!!*#@ed it up

I could easily have discussed cultural appropriation in works of historical fiction. But had less confidence in terms of speculative fiction. I therefore turned to the Heritage and History of Wales Facebook group and asked for examples in which Wales history and culture had been well represented, particularly in relation to the Arthurian legend, as this fell under the Speculative Fiction banner.

A group member suggested Bernard Cornwall’s Warlord Chronicles handled the British history elements well. Perfect! Cornwell is an Englishman, who lives in America, and no doubt, he didn’t consider his books as cultural appropriation. (Wales is after all part of England, isn’t it!? :-)) However, I downloaded the first book, started reading, and, after declaring the source of my information (Heritage and History of Wales), gave the trilogy as example of a culturally sensitive representation of Wales’ early history.

Now, thanks for your patience, here’s where the thinking of good panel answers in the middle of the night comes back into the story. I was challenged on the panel. Someone asserted that Cornwell had misrepresented the middle ages – by portraying it as non-religiously and ethnically diversity. Of course, the Warlord Chronicles are not set in the middle ages. They are set in the sixth century. But I didn’t think of that at the time (I think I may have just sat there slack jawed). But I have thought about the assertion a great deal since and, now, having read the complete trilogy  (which was magnificent, by the way, in terms of pace, character, story and voice). I am ready to give the answer I wish I’d given on the panel.

Religion

One of the things I enjoy about Cornwell’s writing, is his depiction of religion. The Warlord Chronicles are narrated through the first person viewpoint of Derfel, a Saxon child captured in a raid and raised British. Derfel, is proudly pagan and follows a pantheon of British Gods as well as Mithras, the warriors god. Derfel is not fond of the Christians. However, through his eyes, Cornwall gives us good druids, and evil druids, good Christian priests and evil Christian priests, faithful adherents to the Saxon Gods, as well as their opposite. We get a picture of a religiously, pluralist society in which religions both clashed and co-existed.

Race and Culture

I am not expert enough in the era in which the the Warlord Chronicles is set to say whether its depiction was ‘accurate’. But Cornwell makes a point of showing us black men, Irish men, and the British Kingdoms (in all their dynastic diversity). The Saxons are, likewise, not depicted as an ethnically homogenous group but a mixture of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. He gives us characters that believe in the ethic purity of Britain and want that purity restored and those who believe in the political unity of Britain but realise they can’t turn back the ethnic clock.

Women

Women didn’t do too well in this era of history. Cornwell doesn’t shy away from the facts. War involved rape, women were pawns in dynastic power struggles, and they had little opportunity to exercise power. However, within the constraints of that reality, he gives us strong women, flawed women, evil women and wise women. Although, their plight in this era was bleak, and the policies and attitudes towards them often appalling, there is an underlying respect for women throughout the trilogy and a sense that Cornwell is not using their subjugation as sexual titivation (as some current TV series seem wont to do).

Non-cliche

Cornwell’s characters are delightfully non-cliche. Merlin is a mischievous old man full of idiosyncratic ill-humour, Arthur is strong and fearsome but also shy of power and deeply flawed, Derfel is loyal, yet forced to make compromises, Guinevere is hard and ambitious, yet, also beautifully intelligent, Aelle, the Saxon King is fierce and blood thirsty, yet not without honour, Cerdic, more sinister, even Niume, the most single minded proponent of an ethnically pure Britain, evokes our sympathy, though her choices are often evil.

These books are amazing. A great example of: Writing across cultures without @#!!*#@ing it up. I didn’t do them justice on the panel. But hopefully I’ve now corrected that omission. They are officially on my favourite-books-to-be-re-read-often pile.

A review of Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin

Having read and reviewed Carol Lovekin’s debut novel, Ghostbird, I was eagerly awaiting the release of Snow Sisters, knowing it would be lyrical, delicately crafted and utterly enchanting. I was not disappointed. Here is the official blurb:

Two sisters, their grandmother’s old house and Angharad… the girl who cannot leave.

Meredith discovers a dusty sewing box in a disused attic. Once open the box releases the ghost of Angharad, a Victorian child-woman with a horrific secret she must share. Angharad slowly reveals her story to Meredith who fails to convince her more pragmatic sister of the visitations, until Verity sees Angharad for herself on the eve of an unseasonal April snowstorm.

Forced by her flighty mother to abandon Gull House for London, Meredith struggles to settle, still haunted by Angharad and her little red flannel hearts. This time, Verity is not sure she will be able to save her…

Snow Sisters is a ghost story. Not a scary, white-sheet ghost story, but the tale of a restless soul with issues that need to be resolved – issues that mirror and impact the present day lives of its main characters. Yet, unlike, Ghostbird, whose ghost was a third person baby sister from living memory, Angharad’s ghost is a non-family member from the past. Here is how Lovekin introduces her first-person voice:

My name is Angharad and I am not mad.

My heart is made of fragments: of bindweed and despair; thinner than skin and bloodless and my story is as old as the moon. It is one of love and death, as the stories most women tell. These two things make up the fabric of our lives, although I do not speak of romantic love. I refer to the kind that ought to provide a child with protection and in the end can destroy her.

The story switches between a present day Verity who is returning to her dead grandmother’s house after a long absence and Angharad’s first-person ghost narrative. Interspersed with these vignettes, are the omniscient, third person viewpoints of Verity, Meredith and occasionally their mother. A complex book to read, let alone write, yet Lovekin manages to pull it off with an easy aplomb. The use of italics for Angharad’s ghost voice and the word ‘Present’ at the top of each first-person Verity chapter, a great help for reader orientation.

The childhood relationship between Verity and Meredith is gentle and dream like, though not without its tensions. Verity’s concern is a stark contrast to the callous, self centred attitude of their mother. Through ever-so-delicate touches of magic realism, Lovekin, gives the girl’s young lives a fairy tale quality. We at once believe them to be living in the ‘real world’ at a place called Gull House, and in a mythical place, beyond the veil, where magic happens (a not surprising response to the mystical Welsh landscape). The overall effect — a world charged with wonder. A world in which, houses, gardens, birds and moths are at once real and also ‘the other.’

A latticework made of moon-shadow branches and moths on the way to find her [Meredith], decorated the bedroom wall. She strained to hear more. The voice was gone and the only thing she heard was the rustling of wisteria against the windowpane. She fell asleep, and then she woke again, confused and cold, with no idea if a minute or an entire night had passed, or if what she had heard was dream or reality.

A moth came in through the open window. It was transparent and as light as a feather, its wings moving in a blur. Meredith reached out her hadn’t and to her delight the moth landed on her finger.

‘You’re back.’

I’m not sure how you would describe this book – an almost gothic family story? A dark feminist fairy tale? An evocative reflection on the fragility of human nature? It is all those things and more. I’m not sure, even now, whether if I’ve understood all of its themes. It is one of those books that will no doubt improve with re-reading. For now, I am simply left with the impression of having been in the presence of a mystery, which is far too big for understanding, yet somehow gentle and awe-inspiring. A sense that my soul has somehow been expanded.

Snow Sisters is published by Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press.

A review of Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns

I love a novel based on fairy tales. In fact, I may just have written one. My nineteenth century Aussie immigration tale having been hijacked by its Welsh storyteller. For surely the archetypes found in age-old tales have stood the test of time, many of them having been told in various guises around the world. The fairytale is storytelling in its most primeval form.

I wrote an article on this topic after reading Kate Forsyth’s novel Bitter Greens. Since then, my pleasure in her work has not diminished. I devoured The Beast’s Tale, set in Nazi Germany, and am I even now rubbing my satisfied belly after feasting on her latest work: Beauty in Thorns.

Here is what the Penguin website has to say about the novel:

A spellbinding reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the wild bohemian circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets.

The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention.

Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum.

William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.

Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love.

Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.

Beauty in Thorns is written five parts – each starting with an excerpt from the Memorials of Edward Borne-Jones, which were written by the artist’s wife, Georgiana. Initially, this lead me to believe the novel would essentially be Georgie’s story (though in keeping with Forsyth’s other work there would be interconnecting story lines, which had their own arcs). However, after an opening chapter from the point-of-view of the youthful Georgie, we switch to the viewpoint of Lizzie Siddal, Gabriel Dante Rosetti’s tormented muse, mistress and eventual wife. We have a few intermittent chapters from Georgie’s viewpoint, sketching the growth of her relationship with Edward Burne-Jones from her childhood, to their eventual betrothal and inclusion in the pre-Raphaelite circle. Forsyth then sets up the historic competition for Rossetti’s affections by introducing Jane Burden. As we move through the various viewpoints – Lizzie, Jane, Georgie and eventually Burne-Jones’ daughter Margot, we begin to get a sense that although Georgiana’s life is the over arching beam of novel, Edward Burne-Jones’ celebrated Sleeping Beauty paintings, could not have occurred in isolation. They emerged from a complex web of relationships.

Forsyth takes us deep into the heart of Lizzie’s tragic relationship with Rosetti, Jane Burden’s unfulfilling marriage to William Morris and the resulting jealous insanities, Georgiana’s helpless misery as her own relationship is caught up in the passions of the pre-Raphaelite world and the confusion and disillusionment of a child born to such a world. Forsyth does not shy away from the fact that Lizzie and Jane were poor working class women plucked out obscurity by the artists’ obsessions. Spurned by polite society, they lived at the mercy of their patrons’. Siddal, who gained Ruskin’s patronage, had a chance to make her own way. But her tumultuous relationship Rossetti, ruined her health. Georgie, as a spurned wife, had no recourse in a court of law, no hope of keeping her children, no means of living independently. The subject matter of this novel is not for the faint hearted. At its heart of hearts, it is a deeply feminist novel.

Despite its subject matter Beauty in Thorns never quite becomes bleak – passionate, charged with emotion, insanity, jealousy, and heart break – but never bleak. For this is above all a novel about beauty. Forsyth’s prose gives as a tactile sense of that beauty:

It seemed to Janey that happiness was not a gift she had been given. Everything seemed to weigh on her more heavily than it did the others. Each evening, as she kissed her daughters goodnight, she feared she might not see them again. As if death’s sickle might cut their delicate thread.

As do her descriptions of the artworks themselves:

He was working on a design inspired by the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. A girl in a white night-gown lay on the bed, swirls of roses behind her. A peacock spread its gaudy tail on the far wall. The girl’s golden-red hair rippled out across the pillow On his knees beside her was a knight with long, dark curls, bending to kiss her.

Beneath the drawing were pasted the words in a flowing scroll, written in Tospy’s elegant scrawl. Of a certain prince who delivered a king’s daughter from a sleep of a hundred years, wherein she and all hers had been cast by enchantment.’

The next sketch showed the knight and the awakening maiden hurrying through the castle on their way to the wedding. The knight looked like a young Gabriel, while the glowing haired princess was the image of Lizzie before she grew so sick and sad.

With its magnificent descriptions and turbulent passions, Beauty in Thorns makes a magnificent read – sumptuous, well structured, captivating – the story behind  an iconic set of paintings. It takes the ordinary mire of women’s lives and illuminates them, giving us a sense of the bigger picture in all its tragedy and triumph, which must surely be the purpose of all good art  – and indeed fairy tales.

***

Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between, will be published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. Set in the steerage compartment of a nineteenth century emigrant vessel it is an historical coming-of-age tale about fairy tales and facing the truth.

Interview with Theresa Smith – author of Lemongrass Bay

I first met Theresa Smith through the Australian Women Writers Challenge, an initiative established to re-dress the gender balance in mainstream Australian book reviewing. Theresa joined AWWC in 2016 and answered the call for volunteers later that same year. She now serves as the Historical Fiction Editor and has recently taken on the social media aspect of AWWC, moderating the two Facebook groups – Love Reading Books by Aussie Women and Australian Women Writers Challenge News and Events, as well as handling the AWW Twitter and Pinterest accounts. In between, Theresa works as a secondary school careers advisor and manages a growing family. Oh, and she also writes novels. Like what does Theresa not do?

If she wasn’t such a genuinely nice person, I’d probably have to hate her. 🙂

Theresa’ fifth novel, Lemongrass Bay,  was published in 2017 and, although it is not my genre – like not historical or even vaguely Welsh language and culture related, Theresa is so incredibly generous in her support of other Australian women writers, I decided to check it out. Turns out it is one of those titles that will give Indie Publishing a good name. I enjoyed Lemongrass Bay so much, I asked Theresa to answer a few questions for my blog.

Set in a fictional, North Queensland town, Lemongrass Bay is a multi-viewpoint story that revolves around a fractured friendship group. When reckless photographer, Ethan, is struck by lightning, his relationship with Emma-Louise deepens. However, the news that Emma-Louise’s ex, Jimmy, is coming back to town resurrects past scandals, upsetting Emma-Louise’s fragile sense of equilibrium and undermining her long-term relationship with best friend Rosie. But in the end, the past must be faced, the lines of friendship re-drawn, and nothing is quite as simple as it seems.

Sound intriguing? I asked Theresa about her inspiration for the novel.

I was originally going to set the novel in Darwin, because it was inspired by a news article I read on ABC online about a man being struck by lightning on a Darwin beach and surviving. This idea formed the basis of Lemongrass Bay but I wanted to capture that small-town slice of life atmosphere, and Darwin is too big of a setting for that. While I’ve lived in small towns before, I currently live in Mount Isa and I’m constantly reminded of how very different living in a remote small town is from living in a small town that’s not far from a bigger regional town. Remote living changes the dynamics within a town. This is what I wanted to capture but I needed the town to also be on the water for the plot to work, so I made up Lemongrass Bay. It is inspired by Karumba, a small fishing town in the Gulf of Carpentaria, but only in the sense of location and the minimal facilities available.

I love a novel with a strong sense of place and the small town environment, where everyone knows everyone, is one of the aspects of Lemongrass Bay I most enjoyed (apart from the crocodiles). There are some seriously funny scenes involving the town blog, two man police force and Rhett Butler the fat, re-named cat. The multiple storylines, gave me a sense that I was in fact resident in Lemongrass Bay. I wondered how Theresa developed these storylines, whether she wrote them individually and chopped them up later, or in their finished order:

I am very much a person who writes in the the order that it appears in the book. Even when editing, I struggle to jump all over the place and prefer to edit in the correct order. I have a fear of inconsistency, writing something that doesn’t make sense and then not knowing how to fit it in with the rest. If I write in the order that the finished story will be in then I know I won’t have overlooked everything.

That all sounds reasonable until you fall under the spell of Theresa’s well-placed darts and see how artfully they impact the unfolding story. As one who is stronger on character development than plot, I imagined the nightmares Theresa must have had trying to work out how and when to add each new insight.

I have evolved into a plotter. I wasn’t with my first three novels, but I was with the last two, even more so with Lemongrass Bay. I’ve grown quite fond of scene maps and timelines. In saying this though, my plotting is fairly loose and is more of a guide so I don’t lose track rather than a rigid plan from start to finish. The story still evolves very much as I’m writing it and it’s not unusual for a new character to simply emerge onto the page with no prior warning.

So not a plotter or a ‘pantser’ Theresa’s process falls somewhere in between. I asked how her to classify her work and tell me how, in turn, this matches the books she reads for pleasure (you know, when not managing AWWC’s social media and juggling the multiple activities listed above).

All of my books are similar and I think after much deliberation and feedback I can safely peg them as Women’s fiction. They certainly all contain romantic elements but not enough for them to satisfy romance readers and I’m not into happy endings; realistic conclusions are more my style.

I have fairly broad reading tastes. I enjoy thrillers, crime, romance, women’s fiction, rural fiction, memoirs, classics. My favourite though, is historical fiction and literary. If those two are combined, all the better!

Theresa’s love of reading is certainly reflected in her writing. There is a tactility to Lemongrass Bay and its characters which is funny, poignant, angry and desperate by turns. Their streams of consciousness exude a kind of quirky rightness. The following is one of my favourite descriptive passages, evoking an incredibly strong visual image of the girl in question. I’ll leave it with you as a taster of what Lemongrass Bay has to offer:

She ran then, right out of that reception room located at the back of the church, down the isle past all of the shocked faces who by that time had begun to put two and two together and were most definitely not coming up with five.

She ran down the street, and then down another one, her wedding dress bulky and dragging behind her. She kept on running even as she reached the end of the bitumen and found herself on the sand and tufts of hard spinifex. She continued down the smooth beach, her footprints the only ones marring the sand, not caring at all if the crocodiles were out sunning themselves. As she ran, she tore of her veil and kicked off her shoes, throwing all of it out over the surf.

Every part of her ached: she thought she might have been having a heart attack her chest was so swollen. Or a brain haemorrhage, her head was pounding so viciously. Her stomach cramped, a clutching white hot pain that stole her breath away. Sobs tore through her, the disappointment and humiliation it all too much to catalogue in such a devastating moment. She stood the sun hot on her back, dizziness threatening, her breath coming in short painful gasps. Her legs were wet, the skirt of her dress turning red with the spreading stain that seemed in sync with the increasing pain in her abdomen.

Describing herself as an impatient person, in terms of her writing, Theresa came to Indie publishing after her book was rejected by the major publishers. There is no evidence of that impatience in her finished novel however. Lemongrass Bay is well edited and well-presented, its story well told. It demonstrates what is possible in the brave new world of small press publishing.

For more information visit Theresa Smith Writes or the AWW site.

A review of Nicole Alexander’s An Uncommon Woman

I had never any of read Nicole Alexander’s work, despite that fact I’d heard her speak at the HNSA conference and had seen her books lining the library shelves. But when asked whether I’d like receive a reviewing copy, I readily agreed. I’m not sure why? Maybe just the offer of a free book? I don’t generally read rural romance (like where are the Welsh characters?) and I knew Alexander’s books were set in outback Queensland. The accompanying press release confirmed this knowledge. Adding that her latest novel, An Uncommon Woman, was inspired by Alexander’s own challenges as a grazier in a man’s world. I imagined a tough, fictionalised, version of a Sara-Henderson-like story with “romantic” elements.

As it turns out, I was wrong. On a number of counts.

An Uncommon Woman tells the story of Edwina, the nineteen-year-old daughter of money lender, social climber and small town outsider Hamilton Baker. Edwina works the land alongside her younger brother Aiden. The property is overrun by prickly pear. Edwina has ideas for its improvement but they are met with stony resistance, not only from her father, but also from the less-than-visionary heir to the property, Aiden. The siblings have lived in comparative isolation since their mother’s death years earlier. When the circus comes to the nearby town of Wywanna both are keen to attend. The circus is out of the question, according to Hamilton, who leads a secret double life in town. But his prohibition is met with opposition. As the siblings rebel in their unique ways, a train of events is set in motion from which there can be no easy escape.

So, what did I like about this book?

Characterisation

Edwina’s third person viewpoint is delightful. She is practical, entrepreneurial and yet delightfully naive and feminine. It is not easy setting an ambitious female protagonist in a time when women were not supposed to stand out but Alexander manages to pull it off. Under her careful pen, Edwina’s prank in Wywanna, her reactions to her two would be suitors, her tender memories of her mother, and her driving ambition are all eminently believable.

Hamilton Baker is a singularly unlikable character. At first I couldn’t work out why Alexander insisted on telling half the story from his viewpoint. But as the narrative unfolded, her purpose became clear. Although I can’t say I liked Hamilton by the end of the novel, I liked what Alexander did through him. His alternating viewpoint lifted the story above being a simple romance and gave it a complexity I hadn’t expected.

Relationships

There are “romantic” elements in An Uncommon Woman, from both Edwina and Hamilton’s points-of-view. Through snatches of quirky dialogue, Edwina’s two potential suitors spring to life, as does Gloria, Hamilton’s delightfully strong and no-nonsense mistress. Alexander develops these relationships in a way that emphasises choice and strong character without robbing them of their romance. Here is a segment in which the sheltered Edwina she is forced to cut Will’s hair:

“Keeping equal distance between hair and shirt-collar Edwina did her best to curtail the thoughts that came with each snip of the scissors. Novelty mixed with self-consciousness, as her fingers grazed sun-burnt skin. She cut slowly, and methodically, noticing the twirl of his ear, the thinness of the lobe, the fine ceases on a neck that for some inexplicable reason she wanted to touch, and all the while brown hair fell in clumps onto the towel about Will’s shoulders. She dusted away the thick locks, blowing softly on his neck, watching as the silky tufts fell to the ground.”

Playfulness

The blurb on my copy of the novel concluded with the words:

“And when the night ends in near disaster, this one act of rebellion strikes at the heart of the Bake family. Yet it also offers Edwina the rare chance to prove herself in a man’s world. The question is how far is she prepared to go, and how much is she prepared to risk?”

Blurbs are hideous to write, filled as they are with adjectives and obligatory melodrama. On the basis of the blurb, I expected death or significant impairment to follow the circus incident, with Edwina rising impressively to the occasion (think Sarah Henderson meets Places in the Heart). Yet, the near disaster Alexander gives us involves champagne, circus characters, a slow building scandal, and a missing lion cub whose reappearance at various points in the story give the narrative a playful air. Add to this, identity confusion, boundary disputes, and a mute station-hand, and there is barely room for stereotypes. Even the nasty overseer is not quite as he seems.

Descriptions

I like a novel with a strong sense of place and from it’s opening lines:

“The land was thick with aged trees and prickly pear. The smaller succulents grew in dense clumps, fleshy and spine-covered, while others stretched skyward, tangling with their brethren ten foot into the air so that the way ahead resembled an ancient forest.”

 To its nicely interspersed descriptions:

“Beneath the wooden bridge boys fished for yabbies in the yellow green swirl, a mother hollering at the group to come home and do their chores. The wind gusted hot and dry across the fringes of the town. Grasses bending. The sky a razor’s edge of blue steel.”

There is never any doubt that An Uncommon Woman is set in Queensland where the weather is hot and people’s lives shaped by their hardships. I could almost feel the dust settling on my skin as I turned the book’s pages.

Clearly, I enjoyed this novel. To the point that I will keep an eye out for Alexander’s future works. The only thing lacking was a Welsh character. But, hey, we can’t all have Welsh heritage. 🙂 What Alexander gives us, is a non-stereotypical, historical rural romance which is a quirky, easy read, that defies the blokey white, Aussie-male-battler myth. Which makes it a pretty close second in my opinion.

The Olmec Obituary – a serious case of compulsive reading

Confession: at school I was one of those kids that always ate her lunch at recess time. That’s right, a severe lack of impulse control on the food front. Reading is the same. On Sunday I found myself in need of some serious downtime. I therefore purchased my airline books seven days early. The trouble is I’ve now finished L.J.M Owens’ Olmec Obituary and am already seriously into the Mayan Mendacity. So what am I going to read on my long-haul flight?

Of course, as soon as I pressed purchase I knew I’d have to formulate a new flight reading plan. I am a compulsive reader and can’t do the single chapter a night thing. I never have been able to, even as a child, and, the fact is, these inter-millennial cosy mysteries have been calling out to me for some time. I mean how many other books are there with an Australian librarian main character who has a Welsh speaking grandfather?

The Olmec Obituary is, in fact, the first in a proposed nine book series of inter-millennial mysteries featuring, Dr Elizabeth Pimms, a young archaeologist  with a speciality in palaeogenetics who has left a dig in Egypt, in order to help her family through a financial crisis. Working full time in the National Library of Australia is not part of Elizabeth’s life plan but when an old classmate offers her the chance to do some part-time analysis on some Olmec skeletons she sees away to begin re-claiming her lost career. However, there are strange undercurrents in the South American research team and there is definitely something odd about the Mesoamerican writing on the pieces of ceramic that have been found at the burial site. As Elizabeth begins to analyse the bones, she realises her old classmate’s offer is not as straightforward as it appears.

Woven between Elizabeth’s third person point-of-view is the first person viewpoint of an Olmec woman. This gives the reader an insight into what actually happened to the bones – an insight that generally eludes the palaeogeneticist in real life. There are also italicised dream like sequences that occur in Elizabeth’s phrenic library. The later are compelling but do not make immediate sense. However, as the novel shares its secrets, they become an integral part of Elizabeth’s characterisation. In keeping with all good cosy mysteries there are also multiple family issues to be resolved. Here are some of the things I particularly liked about these books:

  • A librarian main character
  • librarian secondary characters
  • A  Welsh speaking grandfather who uses Welsh language phrases
  • The inter-cultural mix of Elizabeth’s family – Welsh, Chinese, French Berber
  • Learning a little about palaeogenetics
  • Learning a little about the Olmec culture
  • Descriptions of the National Library of Australia – with its LLywelyn and Merionnydd reading rooms (I’m presuming these are real?)
  • Did I mention the Welsh speaking grandfather?
  • And Welsh words
  • And Welsh recipes at the end of the book
  • What about the descriptions of the Pimms family home
  • The quaint tea and book shops
  • And Lake Burley Griffin
  • The above made me want to visit Canberra
  • Which is quite an achievement as I’ve been there a number of times and always been under-whelmed

The Olmec Obituary was Owen’s debut novel and was picked up by Echo Publishing via its crowd-funding page which makes it a kind of dream-come-true in the publishing world. I’m glad I’ve read ahead of schedule. As I said, the books had my name on them. But I am now looking for airline recommendations. I’ve considered starting the Game of Thrones series. But I do need to get some work done in Wales. Added to which, I’ll be switching to Welsh language books for two months. So preferably something historical with only one or two instalments. Come on people, hit me with suggestions?

 

 

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?

Historic elections and women’s suffrage – a review of Juliette Greenwood’s The White Camelia

This week we have witnessed an historic election. For the first time, we faced the heady prospect of a woman president of the United States. I am disappointed that day did not dawn, as are many around the globe. But it will. One Day. Nothing is more certain.

One of the more shocking aspects of watching the American election campaign unfold (apart from violence, hatred, racism, misogyny and bigotry becoming normalised) was the Wear White to Vote movement. Seeing the image of a women strutting up to the polling booth in a white pantsuit brought the horrifyingly, recent never-take-it-for-grantedness of women’s franchise home to me. You see, I have never known a world in which I could not vote. In my grandmother’s day (yes, recently as that) these rights would have been denied me. It seems appropriate therefore in the wake of this tumultuous week, that we cast our eyes back to the women who made this breakthrough possible.

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Fortunately, for me this has been easy. I had a copy of Juliette Greenwood’s, The White Camelia, on my reading pile. An historical novel depicting the struggles of the suffrage movement, which is, incidentally, published by Gwasg Honno a Welsh feminist press that seeks to redress the gender imbalance in publishing. An all round excellent reason to part with your hard earned cash.

Set in 1909, The White Camellia tells the story of two women whose lives are linked by, Tressillion, a decaying Cornish estate, their connection through The White Camellia Tearooms and The Suffrage League of Women Artists and Journalists. Both the tearooms and the League are fictitious, Greenwood tells us, but they firmly are based on “the many ladies’ tearooms and suffrage movements that gave women their first taste of independence and allowed them to campaign over decades to improve women’s lives.” And although you may have seen Suffragette you will be shocked by the brutal sexism these women encountered.

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If reading about a book about the suffrage movement, which has been published by a feminist press, is not enough to send you clicking over to your favourite online bookstore, the Cornish setting of this novel may tip the balance (yes, Australia is still caught in Poldark fever). For as well as being a novel about women’s franchise, The White Camellia is also a story of family secrets. Of the successful business woman Sybil, whose links to the Tressillion estates are long and bitter and of, Bea, a younger daughter of Tresillion House, who is being forced by tragedy and economic circumstance into marrying a cousin who has little regard for her. The story is told from their roughly interchanging viewpoints and has a cast of excellent Welsh supporting characters — Madoc, Harri, Olwen, and Gwenllian. As the family story unfolds and the abandoned Tressillion mine whispers the promise of gold, a violent train is set in motion, one that threatens the interconnected lives of the women whose lives have been empowered by The White Camellia Tearooms.

This is an eminently readable book and has the happenstance of being not only historical but so very current. Why not buy a copy, read about the struggle, and then go to bed dreaming about a future in which a woman will be elected president of the United States.

Hwyl am y tro!

 

Two titles – and some thoughts on small, brave against-the-odds entities

Confession: I have a soft spot for small brave, against-the-odds entities – like Wales and its language, independent book shops and publishers, small, grass-roots residential arts studios in tiny Welsh villages, and public libraries. All (but certainly not the only) institutions that stand against big, popular, well-funded privilege in its multifarious guises. I’ve tried to analyse this tendency over the years. To this day, I cannot decide whether it comes from having a Welsh mother or being raised in Australia where, let’s face it, we tend to back the underdog (as long as they are white and willing to “assimilate”). All I know is that it exists and that this week it has affected my reading list.

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Book one on my list (yes, a two book week) was, Isobel Blackthorn’s, The Drago Tree. Being published by Odyssey Books, a small brave, independent press giving opportunities to emerging writers, would have put this title high my list. But, actually, the content of the story proved the ultimate qualifier. Set on the tiny island of Lanzarote, it tells the story of Ann Salter, a middle aged geologist fleeing her failed marriage, Richard a popular crime novelist plundering the island for his stories, and, Domingo, the indigenous potter whose love for the land goes beyond the shallow financial gains of western tourism. As the three explore the island, aspirations and tensions, undermine their friendship. The result, a reflection on artistic integrity, relationships, and ultimately our responsibility towards the environment.

A brief reading of Lanzarote’s history includes the words conquest, enslavement, piracy, drought and volcanic eruption, the result being an indigenous community struggling with the consequences of a post conquest society. It was not hard for me to draw comparisons with Wales’ history (without the piracy, recent volcanic activity, or levels of enslavement). I found myself wanting to experience the island community Blackthorn so wondrously evoked. Which is a sure sign the story has worked, if you ask me.

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The second book, Some sex and a hill: or how to learn Welsh in 3 easy pints, was written by Aran Jones, and published on Kindle (which flies in the face of everything I have said about small brave and against-the-odds entities). But hey, I’m a walking contradiction, get over it! I’m not sure if it’s polite to call my friend Aran a small, brave, against-the-odds entity. It doesn’t sound right, does it? But his language learning program, Say Something in Welsh, certainly falls into that category. With no government funding and a great deal of love and support from the learner’s community, it is the place all serious wannabe Welsh speakers end up at some point in their journey. It was therefore great to read about Aran’s early learning experiences. The fun part for me, aside from the author’s compelling voice and whacky sense of humour, was that I knew many of the people mentioned in the book (even the man from America who was on his original Wlpan course) and have visited many of the places Aran described. Added to which, the sense of homecoming that learning Welsh fulfilled in Aran, found an echo in me. This is a magical book, about a love affair with a land and its language, that anyone with an interest in Cymru would be sure to enjoy.

So that’s my week. I have also taught a Welsh class, found a translation of Nennius in the State Library of Victoria, written the opening scenes of my new novel (at least they are the opening scenes for the time being), the subject of which was inspired by a conversation with Aran (though, I’m not sure he realises that yet), pedalled my way through two Spin classes, walked the dog, received a confirmation of casual employment from City of Boroondara (the good guys in my employment saga), and nurtured my love for small, brave, against-the-odds entities. I hope the week has been good to you too?

 

Reading in two languages

When I left Wales, I knew my language ability would cease to climb. I’d not lose the ability to speak (albeit haltingly) but the angle of my upward trajectory would be less acute. This was inevitable, I told myself, despite the opportunities I’d carve out for myself. But I would make an effort to read in Welsh regularly. Which is why, when I received a reviewing copy of The Seasoning, by Mannon Stefan Ross, I decided to read, Blasu, the acclaimed Welsh language version first. An odd way of reviewing a book but, hey, why not?

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I struck out boldly. Trying not to look up every unknown word but to glean meaning from the surrounding sentences. I’d done this with Bethan Gwanas’ book, I Botany Bay (yes, a book about a Welsh convict) and Zonia Bowen’s autobiography, Dy bob Di Fydd fy Mhobl i,  as well as the multiple other learner’s titles, I’d read over the years. My preference being to read and enjoy a text, whatever my ability, rather than turn it into a translation exercise.

Blasu/The Seasoning is a story about an elderly woman, Pegi,  who is asked by her adult son to write down her memories. I could see, by flicking through the book, that these would be based around recipes. All well and good but, due to my snail-pace Welsh, it took me a while to realise the novel would be changing viewpoint every chapter, that the memories recorded were not in fact Pegi’s but the memories of others in relation to her. Quite a unique way to tell a story and beautifully rendered but by about the fourth chapter, I realised I was missing some of the nuances. I would enjoy this more, I old myself, if I read chapter-by-chapter, in Welsh and English.

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The ensuing chapters were a delight (this is the official review part of this blog). My mouth watered on reading the recipes and I found seeing the context in which Pegi had come by them poignant. Added to which, the story was set in Llanegryn, a tiny Welsh village not far from Corris, in which local landmarks such as Bird Rock, were familiar to me. As I read, each alternating-chapter, I found the story disturbing, uplifting and shocking by turns. For Blasu/The Seasoning is not a feel good novel. It is a literary novel, tackling the subject of mental illness and memories and how to live with horrifying once-made decisions. A thought provoking book, in any language and, if you do not speak Welsh, Honno’s English language version, Seasoning, is definitely worth obtaining.

However, I must say, as a language exercise the alternating chapter approach was flawed. I found myself leaping into bed more eagerly on the English nights, than the Welsh. In fact, by the time I got to Chocolate Popcorn chapter, I was too caught up in the story to bother. I gave myself over to the English version in full abandon and, although it is a sad, shocking, story, it also contained love and redemption. When I turned the last page, I did not want to let the characters go.

So, what is the moral of the story? If you are a non-Welsh speaker and want to read a thought provoking book set in north-west Wales, The Seasoning is recommended. If you are a Welsh learner and want to read Blasu as a language exercise, go for it, but do not under any circumstances keep a translation in the house. It is far too tempting. Better to save that one-click option until you’ve turned the final page. Then you can honestly say you enjoyed the book twice as much as you’d expected.

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