Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: Bernard Cornwell

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!

Wrap up for the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

I am not a book blogger – trust me there are some serious book bloggers out there. However, I do believe in Australian Women Writers and, in January 2017, I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

For those of you who don’t know, the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge was started late in 2011 when, after reading a blog about the gender imbalance in book reviewing, Elizabeth Lhuede, an Australian poet, academic and romance writer, was forced to examine the gender imbalance in her own reading habits. The outcome,  the Australian Women Writers Challenge – a blog dedicated to reviewing of books by Aussie women.

 

In 2017, I committed to reading and reviewing a measly four books by Australian women in the historical fiction category. I could have aimed higher but I have commitment issues. Seriously, I prefer to exceed my goals than reach for the stars and land low with a thump. In the end, I reviewed many more books than anticipated.

I started the year with a review of Lucy Treloar’s magnificent Salt Creek and followed that up with a post about the seven seriously seductive Rowland Sinclair mysteries. So, that was eight historical novels in January. Am I a super-star or what?!

February I read two history books, one of them in Welsh language, just so you know I’m not a slouch.

In March, I read and reviewed three children’s historical novels, in preparation for an HNSA Super Session, as well as Alison Goodman’s sizzling second instalment, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact. Was I on a roll or what?

In April, I read Kim Kelly’s, Paper Daisies, as well as fellow Welsh language tragic, L..M Owen’s time-slip mysteries, Olmec Obituary and Mayan Mendacity.

In May/June, I was lost in Welsh speaking Wales.

Back in Australian, I hit the ground running with a review of Nicole Alexander’s historical novel, An Uncommon Woman.  I followed this up with an interview and review of Theresa Smith’s delightful contemporary novel, Lemongrass Bay. In August, I interviewed L. J. Lyndon, author of The Welsh Linnet, and Rachel Nightingale, author of Harlequin’s Riddle. I also reviewed Kate Forsyth’s, Beauty in Thorns.

In September, I reviewed Carole Lovekin’s Snow Sisters and interviewed Helen Lewis, author of The House with Old Furniture, both published by Gwasg Honno.

In October, I reviewed Bernard Cornwells’ Warlord Chronicles. They were not Australian, Welsh, or written by a woman, but they were magnificent. I had to write about them.

In November, I stepped out of my comfort zone and interviewed, Isobel Blackthorn about her seriously skin-crawling horror novel, The Cabin Sessions. This was followed by and interview with Maria Donovan, author of the delightfully cosy crime with unexpected Welsh elements novel, The Chicken Soup Murder.

In December, I read Wendy J Dunn’s Tudor novel, Falling Pomegranate Seeds, but you’ll have to wait until January to hear about the book as I’ve asked the author to answer a few interview questions.

So, are you keeping up? What’s my tally?

  • I think that is 21 books by Aussie women – 19 of them, historical fiction
  • 3 contemporary novels by Welsh women
  • 3 historical novels by Bernard Cornwell – just because

At this time of the year, it is customary for book bloggers to name their favourite books. Which is tough. Especially as I am not a real a book blogger. However, if pushed, I’d have to say, Goodman gave us the most tortured love triangle, Lovekin gave us the most every-day magical, Lewis the most chilling commentary on contemporary British society, Blackthorn the most seriously disturbing read, and Theresa Smith and Sulari Gentil the most laugh aloud funny while L.J.M Owen and Maria Donovan gave me the most delightfully unexpected Welsh surprises. But sadly, I’m going to be a traitor to my gender, my adopted nation and my Welsh heritage by proclaiming Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles my pick of the year.

Tan y tro nesaf!

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.

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