Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: book review (Page 1 of 2)

Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact – a review of Alison Goodman’s latest book

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Confession, I don’t generally read paranormal fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a bit of era-appropriate mysticism within well-researched historical novel. But not a complete cosmic struggle that has no basis in reality. However, having enjoyed enjoyed Alison Goodman’s first paranormal Regency adventure novel, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club, I decided to dip my toe in the alternate genre-pool for a second time. I wasn’t disappointed. Why? I will list my reasons below. But first, let me set the scene.

Having come into her full Reclaimer powers, on the eve of her presentation ball, in a most scandalous manner, Lady Helen Wrexhall has been banished from her family and forced to take up residence in the fashionable seaside resort of Brighton. Under the pretext of a restorative holiday, Lady Helen is in fact being trained to fight dangerous energy-wielding Deceivers under the auspices of the Dark Days Club. But the Dark Days Club is riven by tensions. The most alarming being the violent and erratic behaviour of Lady Helen’s Reclaimer mentor Lord Carlston. When Lady Helen is given a secret commission by Mr Pike of the Home Office, she is unsure whether her actions will pull the afflicted Lord Carlston back from the brink, or lead to his complete destruction.

Enticing? Indeed! Here are some reasons to take the plunge:

Historical authenticity

Despite its paranormal elements, the Regency setting of Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact and, indeed its predecessor, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club,  are impeccably researched. The  voice is third-person narrative voice is well pitched, the Regency manners exquisite, and the description of the clothes tactile. You can almost hear the rustle of the women’s dresses. Despite the fact that, Lady Helen has supernatural abilities that take her into most unladylike situations, she never  loses her Regency sensibilities. Here is a section from when she meets Mr Pike from the Home Office:

No bow from Mr Pike. Not even an acknowledgement of her arrival. She knew this game: her uncle used to ignore people when they came into the room too. A way to assert his authority.

She crossed to the damask armchair set opposite its matching sofa and noted a portable mahogany writing box on the low marble table, with trimmed pen, inkwell and sand pot laid out. Mr Pike had come prepared but for what?

‘Geoffrey,’ she said over her shoulder to the footman. ‘Tea please.’

‘No,’ Pike said. ‘No tea. I do not want interruptions.’

Helen paused in taking her seat. The man was a boor. ‘As you wish. No tea, Geoffrey. You may go.’

The footman bowed and withdrew, closing the door. At the corner of her eye, Helen saw Mr Hammond take up a position beside her chair — an unmistakable declaration. The lines were drawn.

Skilful Weaving of Fact and Fiction

Far from being divorced from history, the deaths, scandals, and political tensions attributed to the Deceivers are linked to real events, such as the rise of Napoleon, Luddite demonstrations, the notorious Ratcliffe Highway Murders, and even unexplained violence associated with real members of the nobilty —such as the Comte and Comtess ‘dAntraigues. Although, I did not for a minute believe these forces actually existed, the skilful interweaving of fact and fiction enabled me to suspend disbelief for the duration of the novel.

Non-cliche paranormal elements

I’m not big paranormal reader, as stated, but, I’ve read enough to have a fairly good idea of the tropes — an encroaching darkness, the rise of a redeemer with special powers, cursed artefacts, forbidden bonds, mentors, secret initiation ceremonies, special training…I could go on. Goodman’s talent is to render these tropes in tactile and non-cliched forms. To take a string of pearls, for instance, and to bring them to life as she did in her Eon/Eona duo-logy. Or craft an enchanted knife with curved glass blade and ivory handle made by Josiah Wedgwood.

URST (that’s unrequited sexual tension in writers speak).

Take two handsome, well dressed upper-class men, one with a dark troubled past and a dead wife, whom he is accused of murdering, the other kind, protective and determined to save Lady Helen from the fate of the aforementioned wife, and you have a situation. Add in supernatural powers, a forbidden bond and the constraints of well-bred Regency society and you have dynamite. Having lit the fuse, Goodman lets it sizzle towards an agonizing conclusion, which left this reader crying no! no! no! As a consequence, I will now be hanging out for the next instalment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar – a tender loss of innocence

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

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

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

Voice

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

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

Prose

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

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

Characterization

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

Dialogue

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

‘What are rules?’ Tull asked.

‘The things people may and may not do.’

‘Oh yes. We have that too. A tendi.’

‘I did not know.’

‘We don’t eat some birds.’

‘Why not? Is the taste bad?

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

‘Which animals?’

‘I don’t remember.’

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

‘Take what?’

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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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?

 

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Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel

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One of the things about claiming your Welshness late in life is that there is so much to learn. You accept the fact. You have missed out on a whole lifetime of knowledge – about flora, fauna, history, language, social customs. You know you can never fully belong, those formative experiences are lost, forever. Yet, for some perverse reason, it still comes as a shock, to realise there are things about Wales you simply never knew. In this instance, I am talking about artists, or specifically one artist. Gwen John. You would think  having lived in an artist’s residence for seven months, I’d be all over the topic. But I’m not. At least, I wasn’t, until I read Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel. 

Girl in Profile is primarily told from a shifting first person female point-of-view, but it also has some short male epistolary segments. The overall effect – quirky and humorous, with an adventurous use of metaphor and simile that gives the reader a kind of head spinning, like wow, like this is amazing type sensation.

The opening viewpoint character is Gwen John, a Welsh artist who was born in 1876. Having lost her mother at an early age, Gwen John moved from Haverfordwest to Tenby, where she was raised by her two aunts, who were strict Salvationists. In 1895, she began to study art at Slade School of Art, the only school in the U.K. that then allowed female students. She won the Melville Prize for figure composition in her fourth year. In 1903, Gwen John travelled to France and shortly afterwards began modelling for the much older sculptuor Auguste Rodin. She became his lover (as you do) her passion for him continuing unabated for ten years. Unfortunately, Rodin’s passion abated far sooner (as it often does). The novel opens with Gwen John pining for Rodin.

Gwen John’s viewpoint is juxtaposed against the modern day viewpoints of Elizabeth, an elderly woman, suffering dementia, who lives in a care home in Tenby, largely ignored by her distinguished children, and who is writing letters to an American prisoner on death row. Here is how Elizabeth describes her self. 

“Constrained in every decade I’ve been. Stoned in my teens; pregnant and insecure in my twenties; husband, two children and a springer spaniel in my thirties; midlife crisis in my forties; age-defying creams and faradic machines in my fifties; and now in my sixties losing my marbles.”

The third viewpoint character is Moth, a mother of two young children Roan and Dove who was Miss Carmarthen at twenty two and devoted to her children. Though, she is considering having an affair with her son’s art teacher Adam:

“He’s wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, same as me. No visible tattoos. He’s not the kind of guy to have a tattoo. Drew’s (her husband) got “Moth” on his chest and “Roan” and “Dove” on either wrist. Looks plain dirty if you ask me, and imagine when you’re old. I drew the line, with a full stop at piercings. We’re his heart and arms, he says. Load of crap. It’s just his tribalistic, sadomasochistic, look-at-me way of displaying us. Branding. Establishing ownership rights. If you name it, you.”

Girl in Profile is a literary novel, rather than a feel good book. But that doesn’t mean is it depressing. The novel explores the complexity of women’s choices – the ones who follow their passions and the ones who subsume them for the the love of their family. The poignant letters from the man on death row give us a sense of the life cycle – you’re born, you live you die. They also illustrate Elizabeth’s sense of pointlessness as her control is taken away by her institutionalisation and the disease that is eating away at her brain. 

I read each segment of the novel, unsure how the author was going to bring the story together. Then, I had this kind of ‘oh, wow’ lightbulb moment and found myself wanting to read the whole thing over. So, if you want a book to make you think, or a story to make your head spin, or a writer in whose audacious use of language makes you blink and marvel and chuckle, then head on over to Honno, the Welsh women’s press, and buy Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel. 

 

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Ghostbird – and interview with Carol Lovekin

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I generally read books set in the past. I don’t mind those set half in the present and half in the past. Though my preference is definitely for the former. If I do read books set in the present they generally have a quirky, mystical element to them. Or are set in Wales. Which is how I found myself ordering a copy of Ghostbird. It popped up on my Facebook feed. I have to admit the cover intrigued me. As did the recommendation at the bottom:

‘Charming, quirky, magical.’ Joanne Harris.

I flipped over to the Honno site and read the blurb.

Nothing hurts like not knowing who you are. Nobody will tell Cadi anything about her father and her sister. Her mother Violet believes she can only cope with the past by never talking about it. Lili, Cadi’s aunt, is stuck in the middle, bound by a promise she shouldn’t have made. But this summer, Cadi is determined to find out the truth.

In a world of hauntings and magic, in a village where it rains throughout August, as Cadi starts on her search the secrets and the ghosts begin to wake up. None of the Hopkins women will be able to escape them.

Okay, so this was starting to sound like my kind of book. The magical quirky, present day hauntedness was happening in Wales. I ordered a copy. The book didn’t disappoint. It had rain and damp and overgrown gardens and village gossips, resonance with the mythical character Blodeuwedd, Welsh words, fierce original characters, a compelling story and clear, evocative prose. When I turned the final page, I flipped over to Google (as you do) and typed in the author’s name. Carol Lovekin had a blog and she sounded interesting. I shot her an email asking whether she would be willing to answer a few questions for my blog. She agreed.

I had been intrigued while reading Ghostbird to find that much of the viewpoint was carried by a fourteen-year-old girl. I wondered whether Lovekin, had ever thought she was writing for teens. Or indeed whether she had the market in mind when she was writing at all. Here is what she had to say to me:

At no point did I ever imagine myself writing YA. The truth is I’ve always been a bit snobbish about the genre. I’ve learned not to be, but it doesn’t mean I ever planned for Ghostbird to be marketed as a teen novel. And although the possibility of ‘cross-over’ was mentioned, to my publishers’ credit, they haven’t tried. If a young audience does read and enjoy my book, I’m delighted! I don’t mind who reads it.  It was always a novel for adults though. Cadi found me – I’m still unsure why. I have always had easy relationships with young women and girls; I like their fierceness and their courage. And I have strong granddaughters who continue to inspire me.

While reading Lovekin’s blog, I noticed that she didn’t initially realise that she was writing a ghost story. I asked her at what point she realised she was and how the realisation changed her approach. Also what aspects of the novel changed in the re-drafting process?

In the beginning, although I imagined the story with a ghost – Cadi’s baby sister – I wrote her only in brief vignettes. The initial idea was that the myth would be a whispered soundtrack. Once my editor read the complete draft she made it clear the ghost needed a bigger voice. I went away and wrote the ghost’s story in isolation. It was genuinely exciting and once it was done – and slotted into the main narrative – I realized, yes, I’m writing a ghost story! The notion pleased me hugely because I have ‘issues’ with genre and have never really been able to place my work outside of the ubiquitous ‘magical realism’ label. I don’t mind magical realism, I love it – I do get tired of it being appropriated by fantasy writers. Magical realism has very little in common with fantasy. Many things changed during the redrafting of the book, not least the title. And relationships between some of the characters changed too.

The book has a great connection to the landscape and also some very realistic spells and incantations. I wanted to know where they came from. Whether they were a product or research, or Lovekin’s own spirituality?

Ah… The ‘witch’ question! Everyone wants to know ‘where it all comes from’ and some people mistakenly assume I’m a pagan. I’m not – or if I am, it’s like my relationship with ‘fashionable’ and quite accidental! I am an eco-feminist and yes, I have decades of practice behind me. I know my ‘craft’ so to speak; therefore no research was needed with regard to Lili and her ‘powers.

Photograph: Janey Stevens

 

A committed feminist, Lovekin’s characters have an uneasy relationship with the story of Blodeuwedd. Here is what Lovekin had to say about her own relationship with the text:

When I first read The Mabinogion I was struck by the notion that to be turned into a bird could be considered a curse. Initially and purely as an exercise in reclaiming her for feminism, I rewrote Blodeuwedd’s story from her point of view; made her angry and potentially vengeful. I gave Blodeuwedd her voice if you like. Years later, she was still there, haunting me and one day I quite literally woke up and I had Cadi. Fully formed and in complete agreement with me that Blodeuwedd deserved a better fate.

I asked Lovekin how she balanced her love of Welsh mythology against the perceived misogyny in the Mabiniogi?

I don’t address or try to make sense of the misogyny in mythology and legend; or in fairy tales for that matter. I have always enjoyed picking them apart and as I’ve already mentioned, reclaiming them. ‘

When it was first published in 1992, I read Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and I found myself enchanted. She presented me with a whole new way of looking at myth and fairytale which chimed perfectly with my feminism. Goddess is a metaphor for me – the perfect metaphor for the Land and I do believe that once the divine feminine power was diminished, humanity was the loser.

Finally I asked how writing the next book was going.

I’m finding it interesting and a little daunting. There is an expectation – there’s bound to be: people read and like a book and want more. Hopefully they will be happy with more of the same because I’m writing another ghost story. (I have to get it past my editor first of course!) I hope my perspective remains the same: the writing is what matters. It’s the cake so to speak and ‘being published’ is the icing. It’s always about the creative process – with maybe a bit more urgency this time? If writing ever became unenjoyable, I would stop.

I, for one hope she doesn’t stop. I am already looking forward to her next charming, quirky, magical, eco-feminist ghost story set in Wales. But I think Lovekin’s philosophy is the takeaway for me. The creatve process is what matters. Being published is merely the icing on the cake. It is the point I bring myself back to every time I sit down to write. 🙂

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Blog twenty-seven o Gymru – completing the Howarth family circle

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I have blogged about Judith Barrow's books Pattern of Shadows and Changing Patterns in earlier posts. Imagine my pleasure therefore on visiting the Honno office in Aberystwyth to be given a reviewing copy of Barrow's latest book Living in the Shadows. Commencing during the Second World War, the first two novels told the story of the marvellously flawed Howarth family as they navigated the social and emotional landscape of wartime and post war Britain. This third book, set in 1969 and therefore not strictly an historical novel, is primarily told from the viewpoints of the original Howarth childrens' offspring, Victoria, Richard, William, Jacqueline and Linda. It brings the events put into motion during Pattern of Shadows to a shattering conclusion.

The setting of the story alternates between Ashford, a suburb on the edge of Manchester, and the fictitious (as far as I can tell) village of Llanroth in North Wales. Here are some of the things I liked about Living in the Shadows.

  • Meeting the same characters some eighteen years down the track
  • The way the old mill features in each of the novels
  • Getting a sense of how the war continued to shape people's lives in an ongoing sense
  • Especially in relation to people of German heritage living in post war Britian
  • An attempt to map changing perceptions in relation to gender roles and sexuality
  • Ditto the various reactions to rape and domestic violence
  • The detailed descriptions of sixties clothing and fashions (particularly Victoria's)

It is not an easy task for an author to skip some eighteen years and to pick up the story through thirteen (by my count) different points-of-view, about half of which are completely new, and to tell a story that follows a host of characters simultaneously and, at times, in different locations. Let alone to somehow make it work as a coherent whole. To meet this challenge, Barrow uses detailed chapter headings, giving us viewpoint characters' names, their location, day, date, and at times even the part of the day in which the action is set. She also employs the technique of introducing the character on a particular day and time and then telling what has happened in between by using flashback. Ordinarily, this would detract from the dramatic tension of the story as the reader already knows the character survived/coped/remained undetected (whatever the issue at stake) before the event actually happened. But with the enormous cast of viewpoints, storylines and locations, it is difficult to see how Barrow could have done it any other way. Although I hadn't read the earlier books for some time, I was able to easily identify the main characters and their back-stories without having to refer to the earlier installaments. Which means the story somehow worked in its own right. However, on another level, prior knowledge definitely made the book more satisfying to read. I would therefore recommend tackling this novel as part of a series, not as a single instalment.

In each of these novels, Barrow ends with her main characters living in Wales or heading back to Wales. A fact that I am acutely aware of as I approach my own return to Australia. Some of her Welsh characters use Welsh words though, I didn't get a clear sense of whether they spoke the language. Perhaps, this is an accurate depiction of being raised by parents from dros y ffin. Whether they did speak Welsh is, of course, irrelevant to the average reader and probably has no place in the story. But as I have a slight (cough) interest in the Welsh language, I wouldn't have minded knowing. Maybe Barrow will consider slipping me this piece of information? You know, just on the sly. 😉 I have absolutely no doubt that she knows the answer and could furnish me with a host of other background details about her characters. Perhaps, whilst she is at it, she could also reassure me that this will not be the last we hear of the Howarth family.

 

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Blog sixteen o Gymru – the pleasures and pitfalls of reviewing

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A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Margaret Redfern’s novel, The heart remembers. In my review, I may have mentioned that I didn’t like the cover. This may have caused a squeeze of horror in the breasts of those who had produced the book. They may just have written, wanting to know what, exactly, I didn’t like about the cover. I might have mentioned that I’d seen the advanced publicity for the book and preferred the earlier image of a ship. At which point, the author may also dropped me a line, telling me why the advanced publicity cover was no good – historically inaccurate (shows how much I know). By this stage, I was kind of wishing I’d never mentioned the cover. But…that is one of the pitfalls of reviewing.

Or is it a pitfall?

I’d been contacted by the author of three books I had enjoyed immensely and, after agreeing never to talk about the cover again, I’d had the pleasure of discussing aspects of The heart remembers, with the author herself. I seized the opportunity and asked Margaret Redfern whether she would be willing to answer a few questions for my blog. I had, of course, already Googled her. I knew that she came from Yorkshire, originally. I also knew that she’d spent time living in Turkey, Lincolnshire and Wales. My first question was whether she considered herself Welsh.

Now in case you are thinking I’ve developed right wing, ultra-nationalistic tendencies, this questions had nothing to do with genealogy or citizenship and everything to do with Honno (her publisher’s) submissions policy. Gwasg Honno is an independent, cooperative press, established to raise the profile of Welsh women writers. To submit to Honno, you need to be Welsh or have strong links to Wales. I was curious to know which category Redfern belonged to. Here is how she answered the question.

“My connection to Wales was either happenstance or synchronicity – take your pick […] One of my nieces was working in Pembroke Dock and was homesick for Yorkshire. She is also my goddaughter. I went down to see her, I think 1999 – certainly Wales had just beaten England in the (then) Five Nations. It was around Easter, icy cold and snow of Tenby beach. I got out of the train, walked down to the beach, looked out over Carmarthen Bay, Goscar Rock and across to Worm’s Head, and was smitten. My niece went back to Yorkshire. A year later, I removed myself to Wales.”

The inspiration behind Redfern’s first book, Flint, came about through a similar process of synchronicity. She had left a very difficult job situation in Lincolnshire – and was working at Coleg Sir Benfro and had begun immersing herself in Wales’ history and culture.

“I was roaming around North Wales, poking around the castles and I was standing on the banks of the Dee reading the CADW booklet on Flint Castle. Remember I said I had run away from Lincolnshire to Wales? Well, there was a paragraph that sent shockwaves through my whole body. ‘300 men from the Lincolnshire Fens had been marched from Lincolnshire to Flint to join another 900 fossatores to start digging the footings and moat of the first of Edward 1’s concentric castles. Lincolnshire was stalking me!”

These days, Redfern describes herself as Welsh by adoption, her ‘passport’ written by the writer Nigel Jenkins who declared her ‘New Welsh’ the term Gwyn ‘Alf’ Williams coined for those Sais who embrace Welsh culture and history. She was an awarded honours for MA in creative writing is from Trinity St David’s University. The first five chapters of Flint, written as part of her MA dissertation, were picked up by Honno and “the rest is history. Welsh history.”

For me, one of the most profound aspects of Redfern’s writing, is her universalist spiritual themes. She has somehow managed to write three novels that celebrate both the Islamic and Christian faiths without being preachy, prescriptive or sentimental. I asked her about the time she spent living in Turkey.

“I first went to Turkey in 1971. It was my first teaching post at private girl’s ‘lise’ (as in French lycée) in Adana, about twenty miles from Tarsus, of Paul fame, the ‘citizen of no mean city.’ We drove there, my first husband and me, in an A35 van stuffed full with belongings, setting out two weeks after I had passed my driving test. A terrifying experience, and hugely exciting, travelling across Europe into Turkey and through it, down to Adana in the far south. It was a far different Turkey from today’s tourist resorts: few private cars but huge TIR trucks and oxen-pulled carts and sheep herded through the centre of Ankara and terrible roads. I loved it. […] We took the girls to Konya for the Mevlana festival in early December, one year sleeping on the floor of a school room because there was ‘no room at the inn’. It was a very moving experience, nothing like the tourist attraction it has become, nor the clamouring pilgrimage of devout Muslims. Then, it was more a private experience, and a bit of a Road to Damascus for me. The words quoted in The storyteller’s granddaughter are very well known to Sufi Muslims: gel gel yenigel…come, come, come again, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.”

As a writer I am always interested in people’s writing process. Flint was Redfern’s first novel but it was not, infact, the beginning of her writing career. As a child she was a fan of the TV series: Voyage to the bottom of the sea.

I was so in love with the series, Admiral Horatio Nelson and Captain Lee Crane that I transcribed every episode into story form. I was probably about twelve or thirteen. I illustrated the stories with any clipping I got hold of, usually from the Radio Times – the programme details, rare stills…”

She went on to write romantic fiction for IPC magazines and later for Bella. After moving to Wales, she started following in the footsteps of nineteenth century Pembrokeshire gentleman whose Tour through Pembrokeshire was published in 1810. Her resulting articles were published in Pembrokeshire Life over the next six years. Flint, as I have already mentioned, was started as part of an MA in creative writing. I asked Redfern whether she was a plot-from-the-beginning writer and also how the whole writing and editing process works out for her.

“It is not possible to have than an idea of a character to begin with, in a long story. […] It’s like meeting someone for the first time. It takes time to get to know them, their complexities, their reactions…other writers say this, also that when what you write is not ‘in character’, it’s almost as if the character is there jogging your elbow and saying, ‘You can’t make me do that!’ It also makes it impossible to have a definite plot. There must be the idea of a start and finish but, as the characters develop, so they edge the narrative into new directions. To be honest, so does the research. Another little nugget, and another, and another, and suddenly there’s a whole new world view. As for editing! I cannot, try as I might, write a first rough draft and then edit. I have to revise and revise so that some days are spent on redrafting with hardly any new writing. Together with research, both chair-bound and out-and-about exploring, it all takes far too long. Sometimes I obsessively search for some tiny detail for hours – days – and it amounts to a few words in the text. I’ve said before that, contrary to advice, I use a camera to record scenes, weather, settings, information, and often use this instead of written notes – which I also make. So tips for emerging writers? Recognise the demands of different genre […] and never be without that notebook and pen/pencil but beyond that do what works for you.”

 

Some gems there for the writerly among us. “Do what works for you.” Is probably the key element – not only for novel writing, but for life in general. Though, I can certainly relate to Redfern’s inability to write a completely unedited first draft and, of course, the allure of historical research.

Maragaret Redfern’s three books: Flint, The storyteller’s granddaughter, and The heart rememebrs are all available through Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press. I cannot recommend them highly enough and, with Christmas coming up, they would be the perfect gift for any lover or Welsh history or, indeed, literary historical fiction in general.

 

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Blog twelve o Gymru – don’t judge a book by its cover.

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When a reviewing copy of The heart remembers arrived at Stiwdio Maelor, I ripped open the postal package, saw the cover – burnt orange and black with a group of modern, trail-rider type horsemen – and thought there must have been a mistake. The story was mean to be set in the fourteenth century Europe, wasn’t it?

I checked the author’s name: Margaret Redfern. The subtitle promised an incredible adventure across fourteenth century Venice, Ypres and Wales. So what had happened? I opened the cover, saw the familiar mediaeval frieze across the first chapter heading. I began to read. Found familiar beloved characters, Redfern’s poetic prose, a tactile evocation of setting. I thought, the first thing I will write in my review is: don’t judge this book by its cover.

Right. Having established that important detail, let’s move onto the review.

Late autumn, 1336, Welsh trader, Dai ap Heddwyn ap Rickert, and his band of travellers approach a fog bound Venezia, in a cargo ship ship under the command of the ruthless and ambitious Marco Trevior. The journey from Attaleia has not been without tension. Even so, the group of travellers are not prepared for the vicious quarrel awaiting them on the quayside. Or the violent train of events this quarrel will set in motion – events that will see them scattered from Attaleia to the English Fens, and across the Welsh Marches to the Mawddach in North Wales.

In keeping with Flint and The storyteller’s granddaughter, The heart remembers celebrates the universal nature of faith and humanity in a way that makes you want to start believing all over again.

‘We are a family now. Not through blood but through love and pain and struggle.’ Mehmi looked down at the cradled tanbur, his long lashes casting little shadows onto his sharp cheekbones. ‘I shall sing songs of this time, of the terror and storm of sea, and of how we escaped, each one helping his brother, whether Christian or Muslim.’

Throughout the narrative, Redfern shifts viewpoint with dizzying regularity. This could be disconcerting if you were looking for a recognisable main character with a clearly defined story arc. But if you bear in mind that ‘the group’ is protagonist in this story you will not be disappointed. For although, Dai, the picaresque leader of the group does not change greatly, his companions do. Their actions force a final decision on him that is quite out of character. This leads to a climax that is both devastating and ultimately satisfying.

The heart remembers is a beautiful book – a celebration of life and faith and all that is good in humanity. It is a fitting sequel to The Storyteller’s granddaughter and the narrative Redfern so beautifully set in motion in Flint. And although Will the Wordsmith’s tale comes a full circle, I wonder whether the author may not be finished with this rich Welsh story seam. It may simply be wishful thinking but I fancy she may have hinted at a continuation of this family’s story towards the end of the novel:

‘There’ll come a day,’ he said, ‘when there’ll be a man to lead us. A man of courage and honour. When that day comes – and come it will – all who long to be free from tyrants, all the little men and women of this country will rise with him, and follow him.’

I for one hope that is a hint and that Redfern is up to her elbows in research as I write this blog. But whatever the case, we can look forward to future novels that celebrate goodness and human brotherhood in singing prose as The heart remembers does so beautifully. This book is worth reading, despite its modern trail riders and burnt orange and black cover. In fact, if you haven’t already done so why not start at the beginning of the series. Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press has a number of its titles on sale this month.

If you are in a Australia and reading this, Honno is having a massive Amazon Australia Spring sale.


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The Anchoress – by Robyn Cadwallader

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The author’s name first attracted me to this book. Surely she was a Welsh woman? On investigation, however, I found the her to be an Australian. Oh well, dim ots, that made the book a possibility for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. Everyone was talking about it – a debut novel, such an interesting topic, so richly imagined. I confess to an interest in medieval monasticism. I have no illusions about my suitability for such a life. But something about the silence and the simple rhythms calls to me. I put my name down on the library reservation list and prepared to wait my turn.

The book when it arrived had a visual appeal. An interesting prologue illustrated the reason for the swallow depicted on the cover. Using the metaphor of a jongleur, the Swallow, who had fallen when learning to tumble and broken his nose with his own knee, Sarah, the Anchoress says

“Here [In my cell], like Swallow, I was body without a body. Even inside the thick walls of my cell I felt I could see the sky all around me, blue and clear, and I thought I had what I wanted

“I didn’t know then that I had landed on hard ground and broken my bones with my own body.”

Having watched her mother and sister suffer in childbirth, Sarah, daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant, has always sought a life apart. Having secured a wealthy patron she is nailed into her Anchorhold on Faiths’ Day, 6th October, 1255. Her purpose being to pray for her patron and the people of the village in which she has been enclosed. Sarah has her rule to guide her and two maids from the village to care for her physical needs. Father Peter, a wise elderly priest from the local priory, is her confessor. But Father Peter’s health is failing and when he is replaced by a younger more physically able priest, his gentle counsel is withdrawn.

I had been told in hushed tones that this book was set entirely within the few square feet of Anchorhold. This didn’t impress me overly. With memories and flashback an author can inhabit a number of different worlds. This potential was not wasted on Cadwallader. Through Sarah’s viewpoint we get a strong sense of the surrounding village, her past life, and the threat posed by her one time suitor and now patron, Sir Thomas.

Cadwallader also uses the third person viewpoint of Father Ranaulf, Sarah’s replacement confessor. Through him we see the corruptions and the preoccupations of the medieval monastic life. We learn how women were viewed by the church in this era (not pretty reading).

Cadwallader’s initial impetus for writing this novel grew out of her PhD research into the life of St Margaret of Antioch, a virgin who was raped and tormented by the man she refused to marry. When Father Ranaulf is commissioned to write St Margaret’s story for Sarah, he sees it as a chance to instruct her. But as the events of her life unfold and as Ranulf is drawn into the secrets surrounding the other women who have lived in the Anchorhold, the story becomes a powerful metaphor for male power and injustice.

The Anchoress is a literary novel full of subtle imagery and hidden meaning. Despite it’s exposure of corruption and injustice, it is also a book about faith and about making small but powerful shifts in order to survive. By the end of the book both Sarah and Father Ranaulf have changed. Their eventual actions may not satifsfy the sensibilities of a modern reader – why the hell is she still shut away from the world? – but they are true to the era and the prevailing belief system and therefore satisfy on a different level.

 

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Changing Patterns by Judith Barrow

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Changing Patterns picks up the lives of the Howarth family in 1950, soon after the events with which Barrow concluded her earlier book Pattern of Shadows. We are allowed a brief moment of happiness before a single tragic event upsets the whole balance and the family are thrown into chaos. Old secrets return to threaten the fragile post war peace the Howarth family have found.

The story moves along at a locomotive pace leaving the reader with a breathless, page turning desire to see what happens next. I resisted the urge to flick ahead and, as I was tucked up in bed with a virus, I let myself indulge in a serious reading binge.

At the core of the novel’s plot is the Shuttleworth family. As George Shuttleworth takes up his brother Frank’s twisted mantle the Howarth family’s decisions in relation to the war and the people they have come to love are once again threatened.

Throughout Changing Patterns, Barrow tackles issues of post war prejudice. She also continues to explore the dymnamics of marriage and family. I particularly enjoyed the imperfections inherent in each marriage as well as the petty annoyances between sisters and friends. As each character grew, faced challenges and made peace with their situation, Barrow somehow made her characters real. My only disappointment on turning the final page was that I wouldn’t get to spend anymore time with this wonderfully, flawed family.

As mentioned in my earlier blog, I am still not convinced the final four chapters in Pattern of Shadows belonged in the first book. I would love to have seen them in real time at the beginning of this sequel. However, having seen this possibility, and the fact that the two novels work well despite the chapter placements, has taught me a valuable lesson. There is more than one way to tell a tale. In the end, as long as the story works, the author has made the right decision.

 

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