Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: review (Page 1 of 4)

Fools, Mortals and New Years Resolutions

In the dying days of 2017, I found myself on the BBQ forum (yes, it does actually exist). See, my brother had a new Weber and I noticed his grill looked healthier than mine. In fact, mine was, let’s not beat about the bush, getting rather decrepit and rusty. I Googled “what to do with a rusty Weber grill” and the wondrous wisdom of the BBQ forum opened up to me. To my surprise, I wasn’t the only one with a rust problem (and here was me thinking I was slovenly). And it seemed the Weber-gods cared. The oberwhelming consensus of the forum being to contact Weber, immediately.

I did (who was I to question the wisdom of the BBQ forum).

They responded (like the Weber-gods answered me). On supplying the relevant details, I was informed that a brand new grill was wending it’s way to my home. There were conditions. (There always are with gods). I must scrub my existing Weber kettle, replaced the drip tray, and promise henceforth to clean with more care.

I will. I solemnly swear. I will henceforth brush, wash and refrain from putting cold water on the hot grill ever again.

Happy New Year, by the way, that is the closest your will get to a New Years resolution from me.

Actually, that is not strictly true. I started 2018 by deleting the Facebook app from my iPad and phone. This was not a New Years resolution as I had declared my intention to do so for the duration of our week’s holiday in Port Fairy sometime early in December. However, I followed up on my intention, and survived the experience (yes, I’ve stopped shaking, thanks for asking). I am therefore counting it as a 2018 milestone.

The remainder of our holiday can be summed up in three words: reading, riding and running.

The running was primarily Andrew’s effort. 10 km per day – apart from the day on which he ran a marathon. I did my best with a nightly half-hour jog around the block. But I didn’t take my bike to Port Fairy. So, I couldn’t contribute on the riding front. But don’t go calling me a slouch! I pretty much read a marathon. My stated aim being to read for pure pleasure – nothing I would feel obliged to blog about or review (though of course I am doing so). Bernard Cornwell was my author of choice. A third person, omniscient novel about the battle of Agincourt, to get me started

I like reading Cornwell. He does battles like you wouldn’t believe. I have no desire to emulate him (that was part of the holiday appeal), and hope never to have to write an in-depth battle scene. But apart from being a great story, Azincourt taught me heaps about archery and humour and character. Next up, I read Fools and Mortals a novel written from the first person viewpoint of Shakespeare’s younger brother Richard. Not only was it a great tale full of humour, pithy multi-valent dialogue, and sharp characterization, it was also a great insight into the art of story telling. Consider this quote:

“And my brother, usually so reticent, had been sparked by the line. Had we seen his lordship’s clock in Somerset House, he asked and none of us had. He had described it to us, a marvelous invention of dials and wheels, of cogs and chains, which drove a pointer round a dial painted with numbers to tell the time. To make the clock work, he had said it was necessary to pull a weight upwards, and then the weight, released slowly descended to drive the intricate mechanism behind the clock’s face. ‘A Play is like that,’ he had said.

Will Kemp had laughed. ‘My arse it is Will!’

‘Truly!’ My brother had said, his right hand stroking Nell’s hair.

‘And how, my demented poet,’ Will Kemp had demanded, ‘is a play like a clock?’

‘Because we spend the first part of a play pulling the weight upwards,’ my brother had said. ‘We set the scene, we make confusion, we tangle our characters’ lives, we suggest treason, or establish enmity, and then we let the weight go, and the whole thing untangles. The pointer moves around the dial. And that, my friends, is the play.’”

Cornwell’s stories are like his lordship’s clock, structured to perfection. I was so engrossed, so non-social-media minded, so not thinking about my own work, that suddenly, quite unbidden the four layers of conflict I’d been trying to define in my current work-in-progress, fell into place, just like that. The sound not unlike the bing of a microwave clock.

Sometimes, you just have to relax and let the subconscious do the work.

After, Fools and Mortals, I needed an emotional break – too many new characters, too many unknown endings. I decided to re-visit some old Cornwell favourites – the Lazender family novels. Originally written in conjunction with Susannah Kells, the pseudonym for Cornwell’s wife, Judy, these books are a great deal more girlie than his usual offerings. Great big omniscient historical conspiracy novels with a poignant romantic thread. I hadn’t read them for years (since the library deleted them). But we live in the era of iBooks, so it took me no time to download them.

As well as re-acquainting myself with beloved characters, I found myself applying the clock analogy to the novels’ structures, marveling at the way the second half mirrored and answered the the first, like perfectly, in Cornwell’s confident lyrical storytelling tone. As I revelled in the structure (yes, this is considered a fun), I skipped back and forth between story elements, choosing their location by page number, based on where I thought they should sit in the story structure. Perfect. They were all in the right place, yet so unpredictably fresh. I read and re-read parts of Fallen Angels, multiple times.

Now I’m back home in Coburg. I have run (modestly) and started the New Year with a reading for pleasure marathon. Now it’s time to get stuck into the real work of 2018.

Tan y tro nesaf!

The Chicken Soup Murder – an interview with Maria Donovan

I came across Maria Donovan’s debut novel while hanging around on an amazing supportive, wound licking and all around fabulous Facebook Group where readers, writers and bloggers share their milestones, tell stories, seek reviews and exchange bookish information. Under a post about my newly released The Tides Between, Maria wrote: ‘Your book sounds fascinating.’

‘Thanks,’ I wrote back. ‘I’m terrible at asking this question but…would you like a reviewing copy?’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Would you like one of my book?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘of course! Was there any other possible response? Though, for all I knew, her book was a seven-hundred page tome on the joys of knitting with dog’s hair.

Turns out, Maria’s book was a novel (phew) called The Chicken Soup Murder and, quite frankly, I don’t mind a bit of cosy crime. I settled down for a good read. I wasn’t disappointed. The Chicken Soup Murder is the most surprisingly, whimsical, laugh-aloud, yet deeply affecting, family, come cosy crime novel, I’ve read in ages. Here’s how it begins:

‘The day before the murder George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.

Break time: he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic?’

After the first chapter, I expected the narrative to switch to an adult viewpoint. It didn’t – though The Chicken Soup Murder is certainly not a children’s story. It paints a poignant picture of three households affected by a health tragedy and then by a second sudden unexpected death. Young Michael is convinced the latter is suspicious. But his Nan won’t listen because, running beneath the possibility of a murder next door is a family secret which she refuses talk about – a secret which can be traced back to that little country to the west of England of which I’m rather fond. Published by Seren Books The Chicken Soup Murder is a startlingly original debut – so startling I’ve asked Maria Donovan to answer a few questions for my blog.

You’ve written poetry and plays and loads of short stories and now this amazing novel, can you tell how/why you began to write?

I began scribbling young and by the time I was eight had decided I wanted no other career than to be a writer. Since I did not want to go into journalism I just had to get on with it by myself. Life did a bit too much getting in the way and I only made writing the focus of my energies when I was in my thirties. It feels like it’s the only thing I really ought to be doing, other than trying to act with kindness. I’m competent enough at some other things to have been waylaid by alternative careers including nursing, gardening, being a magician’s assistant, and teaching. Thing is that I feel scratchy and unhappy if I haven’t been writing. So now I just think it’s a must.

So in my thirties I faced up to my own ambition, rather worried that I would find out I wasn’t much good after all. Looking back that’s one of the things that was stopping me. Until I tested myself I could carry on with the dream that I’d do it ‘one day’.

I don’t have too much trouble having ideas and making a start. What I’ve had to learn to do is finish something and make it as good as possible and then move on to the next project. Getting my first computer made a huge difference to the way I was able to organise my writing and keep going until it reached a finished state. Before that I was just swamped by paper and ‘alternative versions’. My publishing history shows I was more comfortable at first with short stories and flash fiction. But now I’ve completed a novel (having had a few half-baked attempts), I find I’ve developed a taste for the longer form.

What was the catalyst for The Chicken Soup Murder?

The title comes directly from an incident in which my husband’s dodgy DIY nearly killed me while I was making chicken soup. Like the character in my story, I laughed it off, but it set me thinking about a crime novel and I promised him I’d come up with something with that title one day. I had no idea what that would be and years passed. Things became much more complicated because my husband died of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos in 2010. I abandoned the novel I was writing before and while he was ill – and had to find something new. The idea of writing a novel dedicated to Mike, which has his warmth and humour appealed to me. The novel also has its realistic and serious side: how different people cope or don’t cope with living in a state of grief.

Did you always intend it to be written from the viewpoint of a teenage boy?

Yes. After Mike died, I wrote various short stories from the point of view of a grieving woman of about my age and I knew I needed to create some distance from my own perspective. An eleven year old boy seemed far enough!

If yes, why? If no, how did you arrive at Michael’s voice?

I needed to create a completely new perspective and to see everything I had experienced in terms of grieving as if it was all new. It really helped me to seal the story into that one channel of the boy’s experience – though he observes and reveals more than he understands and his own sense of what the adults around him are going through grows over the course of the novel. As for the voice, he just seemed to speak in my mind. I did transfer myself back to my eleven-year-old self: I still feel close to that inner child! I also listened – a lot – to girls and boys of that age and how they speak in the 21st century. Michael has been a good deal in the company of adults too – I make that clear – and has picked up all kinds of things from listening to his nan and her friend Irma, the cricket commentary and Nan’s beloved BBC Radio 4. I did have one go at writing the novel in the third person but Michael was quite insistent that I should restrict myself to his point of view without any means of knowing more than he could know. In the end I just couldn’t escape him: he was a voice in my mind and I just wrote it down.

Tell me about your Welsh connections? Your adventures with the language?

I went to University in South Wales and heard and saw Welsh there for the first time properly. I thought it fascinating and felt a lot more comfortable once I knew how to pronounce the words. Some of my good friends in Wales speak Welsh as their first language, and the University did offer Welsh courses, but I was so busy teaching (after graduating I did an MPhil in Writing and taught creative writing there for nine years) that my progress was patchy at best. When I moved back to Dorset I started to feel a sense of homesickness for Wales and its people and culture. In the last year I have practised nearly every day and at last begin to feel I am making some progress. I have now made friends here in West Dorset with other people who for various reasons regret missing out on knowing or speaking Welsh and are trying to put that right. Some are fluent and some are stumbling beginners but we’re helping each other.

And another curious thing happened. As I moved back to my native Dorset and learned more about the marks of ancient settlement in the landscape I thought about my ancestors who might have lived here a couple of thousand years ago and I longed to know how they might have spoken. I reasoned that this would originally have been a language common with the one that developed into Welsh. It would have been changed somewhat by the coming of the Romans and then obliterated by the Anglo-Saxons who demoted the value of the culture and language of the indigenous people until it all but disappeared except in Wales and to some extent in Cornwall. It’s an odd but satisfying feeling that I’m regaining something that has been lost – even though I know that the language would have changed a great deal over time. It is starting to feel natural and part of me. Which is very exciting! When I saw you were also learning, that felt like a great connection between us – as well as being novelists and writers.

What are you writing now?

While my debut novel was going through its pre-publication hoops I kept on writing short stories and flash fiction and was composting some ideas for a new novel, about a woman who goes missing. It’s partly set in the south of the Netherlands (I also speak Dutch and feel I can bear witness to the culture in a way that will seem satisfying) and partly in the UK.

When I met the famous writer Fay Weldon, who gave me such a lovely endorsement for The Chicken Soup Murder, she pointed out that if I were able to call it a psychological thriller this would help sales more than the label literary novel. Her wise words gave me a great way to approach the material I was working on for the new book: working title The Miller’s Wife. I thought, if I see it as a novel of psychological suspense from the start, I will know exactly what to call it when someone asks! It follows a search for someone who is perhaps missing, perhaps dead, perhaps murdered. There’s also an underlying theme of how people fall through the cracks and into homelessness. Once again, I hope to employ humour and pace – I need to maintain my own interest in order to be able to keep going to the end!

More about Maria Donovan and where to buy The Chicken Soup Murder can be found on Maria’s blog.

The Cabin Sessions – an interview with dark fiction writer Isobel Blackthorn

Set in a fictional Australian setting akin to that found in Melbourne’s Dandenong Mountains, this deeply atmospheric novel starts with an astrological omen of death. As Adam crosses the river guitar in hand a storm is brewing one that could see him trapped in The Cabin for hours. Struggling against a rising sense of panic he continues his journey to The Cabin Music Session unwilling to let his mentor Benny Muir down. But bad news awaits him and as the story unfolds it is not the worst his fateful Christmas Eve will hold.

Told from the third person viewpoints of Adam and Philip, the town’s plumber, the evening is mapped out in slow eerie detail that at once manages to evoke Burton’s fanatical cult history while also acting as a harbinger of the disaster to come. In between the two male viewpoints, is the delicate first-person voice of Eva, the breath holder, whose recollections shed an unsettling light on the characters in The Cabin.

The Cabin Sessions is a delicately balanced psychological novel, its horror not so much in the events of the evening (as shocking as they are) but in the sinister histories and disturbed mental states of its characters. I don’t normally ready such dark fiction but found myself gripped in horrified fascination by Blackthorn’s subtle storytelling and accomplished prose. This is a must read for all who like to be profoundly disturbed by their reading. Or for others, like me, who are simply keen to see the best of what this genre can hold.

What was the catalyst for this story?

There were several catalysts, but initially the idea was to set a novel in an open mic. Back in 2011 I was attending an open mic hosted by my then partner, Scottish troubadour Alex Legg. Every week we’d travel up the mountain to Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges. I’d help him set up and pack away at the end of what was usually a very long night. Alex was a superb songwriter and musician keen to support other artists in the area and they all came up to play. I watched, listened and absorbed the ins and outs of what made an open mic. The sorts of musicians who went. The setting seemed compelling and I had Alex to hand to provide me with all the technical details. A plot emerged and Alex helped me craft some characters. They are all exaggerated to the point of the grotesque and the humorous but together they represent the array of musicians who attend a regular open mic.

I was about four chapters in when Alex and I split up. I was devastated. I lost inspiration for the story. Two years later, in December 2014, Alex suddenly passed away. It came as a shock to everyone. I had moved interstate by then and had put the past behind me, but it came flooding back. He came flooding back. He was right there with me, in my living room. I couldn’t look at his photos and I couldn’t listen to his songs, especially the one he wrote for me. But a strange thing happened. I’d written a short story based on his life in Australia. It is called ‘All Because of You’, named after a title of one of Alex’s songs. The character in the story is Benny Muir, who is really Alex, and it is written in Scottish dialect. Sitting alone feeling Alex’s presence, it came to me in a flash what I needed to do with The Cabin Sessions to make it work. I made use of Benny Muir.

You call The Cabin Sessions dark fiction, rather than horror. What is the difference?

Some would say they are one and the same. With horror the keynote is dread. Horror often involves the supernatural or paranormal. Vampires and ghosts. Then there’s horror that revolts as much as horrifies, such as splatterpunk or slasher horror, which speak for themselves. There are other forms of terror and revulsion. Creature horror, for example, giant insects or alien predators. There’s no end to it and the human appetite for horror is boundless.

Dark fiction is more likely to veer in the direction of the disturbing. The themes are dark and often psychological. That is not to say that scenes of horror are not present. The dark fiction label serves to distinguish, in my mind at least, between stories that might be more akin to thrillers or literary fiction, and those that sit squarely in horror, such as the aforementioned slasher and splatterpunk styles.

What made The Cabin Sessions fit into horror was the emergence of a minor character, Eva Stone, who hijacked the narrative and, in a strange way, me as well. She isn’t at the open mic. She writes a diary and what she has to say about the town of Burton is chilling and adds psychological complexity. The novel sets out to disturb and revolt. In my mind was the issue of whose side do you take and who do you believe? The Cabin Sessions has Gothic elements, the cabin in the woods trope, the dark and stormy night, even the Blood Moon. In a sense the novel plays at the edges of horror.

What draws you to write dark fiction?

I have so far lived 55 years on this planet and right from birth I entered a situation that was horror and torture and there was no escaping it. I have experienced more than my share of domestic violence, and psychological and sexual abuse and have studied, so to speak, perpetrators at close range. I know what it feels like to be trapped. I know what it feels like to live with the illusion that things are okay when they are not, and what that ends up doing to your mind and your body. People can put on a smiling face and be toxic to the point of being lethal, even without raising a fist.

Dark fiction allows me to explore such themes in depth and with raw realism. I can be graphic if I want to. Dark fiction confronts the reader with themes they would rather not think about. I like to explore what lurks beneath the facade. I also like to stretch things to the absurd. Horror shades into comedy very easily; there is such a fine line between the two. It is the comedy aspect, the stretching to the absurd that appeals to me most.

I come out of the British dark comedy/horror bag. One of my favourite films is ‘Sightseers’ directed by Ben Wheatley, concerning a couple who go on a caravan holiday that turns out to be a murder spree. I like the ordinariness of the settings and the characters, the matter-of-fact way they go about what they do and justify it to themselves. The whole mad and horrific unfolding triggered by someone failing to pick up a piece of rubbish.

Why do you think people should read dark fiction?

I read a lot of novels these days as I write book reviews. There is fiction out there for every taste and every type of reader. There are straight ahead feel-good books. Stories that take the reader into realms of fantasy and science fictional realities. There are those that delve into history, serving to educate or enlighten. There are page turners, books that are light and race along to the finish line. Novels that pull on the emotions. Romance tugs at the heart, crime has us puzzling as armchair sleuths, thrillers have us on the edge of our seats. Horror readers love to be scared or shocked or confronted by the macabre. All the genres and the books in them serve a purpose.

Literary fiction sets out to stimulate deep questioning and to enlighten in a fashion that is far more complex and challenging. Quite a lot of literary fiction is dark. Toni Morrison’s Beloved springs to mind.

While the horror genre exists to entertain in its own unique fashion, dark fiction, if the hair split is permissible, has that literary element that invites reflection of the questioning mind. It challenges as much as instils dread or revulsion. By dwelling in the dark places, we come to understand motives otherwise obscured. We wrestle with morality. Better to expose than repress, in my view. It is denial that twists and distorts. Bring the darkness into the full light of day and something sensible can be done with it.

We can too easily exist in a false reality where everything is fresh milk and roses in full bloom. Dark fiction is the counter-balance to all that is sunny and warm. We all have darkness in us, we all have shadowy realms.

Milk sours. Roses wither and rot.

I’ve heard you say this is a mirror book to A Perfect Square. Can you tell me how? Why?

I wrote The Cabin Sessions and A Perfect Square at the same time, in the space of two years. I also chose to write both in a very old-school dense and strong style. I don’t always write like that. I was in a very lonely and difficult phase of my life, I’d returned to a place I should never have gone back to, and I was carrying a lot of hurt. I had to sell up and move again to put distance between myself and that phase of my life.  I think both stories emerged out of all that hurt I was feeling, but not in any direct way. More that I buried myself in both novels to shut out the world around me.  I call it my crab shell phase.

Yet buried deep in both novels are elements of my own history. A Perfect Square leans more towards the occult, and in some senses it is a lighter book, but it is a dark mystery, and that darkness unfolds slowly. I think of the two novels as my dark twins.

I am working on two horror/thriller novels. Another set of twins! They are both fast paced and great fun to write. One is almost finished, the other well on the way.  I shall say no more about them. Don’t want to spoil the surprise!

Buying links to Isobel Blackthorn’s books can be found on her website. 

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?

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