Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: book review (Page 1 of 3)

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.

The House with Old Furniture by Helen Lewis

I haven’t read a book set in Wales for a while. But my hiraeth is running deep at the moment (time to plan my next trip) and when Helen Lewis’ House with Old Furniture dropped into my inbox, it had my name written all over it. Not an historical novel, The House with Old Furniture, nonetheless fuses the past with the present, and has the mystical, otherworldly elements I so enjoy in a novel.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of Evie and her son Finn, The House with Old Furniture opens with these words:

“I don’t want to leave. I am being ripped from the rock I cling to. A whirlpool of change drags me down, pulling me into the very bottom of its vortex.

“I want to stay. I need to stay, clinging to all the memories made here, ensuring they remain sharp and deeply etched. Because if I go who will say – remind people even – that this is where we had our first row, over there in the corner of the garden is where the snowman you built stood for two weeks, and round that corner where the tarmac cracks you came off your bike, you still had the scar ten years later, that little  white smile on your kneecap.”

Evie is being forced to leave her home in London – the home where her dead son Jesse lived and died – in order to start life anew in West Wales. A move that has been planned and executed by her husband Andrew. You can see the sense of this decision, despite Evie’s anguish, and hope that despite her reluctance, that the move will prove to be cathartic. Because it is evident from the outset that Evie is not moving on. But as soon as they arrive in Wales, the ghosts arrive – ghosts that both Evie and Finn can see – and you begin to realise there is more to Evie’s grief than meets the eye. That there is a dark underbelly to Andrew’s actions that is not initially apparent.

The House with Old Furniture is a chilling novel. I found myself wondering where Lewis’ inspiration came from. “I wanted to write something that looked at madness,’ she explained; “exploring what one person might see as crazy when the other sees the same thing as normal. I think I’ve produced something along those lines. I hadn’t expected the ghosts to turn up!”

The ghosts are unusual. They are not ghoulish or intangible or the least bit frightening but real historical characters breaking through time and interacting with the present. They have their own story which illuminates the contemporary tale that Lewis is unfolding. I asked whether she set out to write an historical piece.

“No I didn’t! If you asked me to write an historical piece I would run screaming to the hills, all that research that needs to be done. But The House with Old Furniture just wrote itself that way. And actually, because the historical parts are in small sections throughout, I didn’t find the research so daunting. I did have to keep a detailed timeline though, making sure all the dates and ages were feasible.”

Finn’s naive voice was the triumph of the novel. I asked Lewis how she came to include him. “When I started writing The House with Old Furniture it was from Evie’s perspective but I quickly realised that without Finn’s presence the story would be very two dimensional. He is my favourite character and I actually think it is Finn who tells the tale.”

I have to agree with Lewis’ analysis. Through Finn’s naive eyes, we begin to see the truth about Evie, to get a sense that things haven’t been right in this family for quite awhile.

“She so doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get any-fuckin-thing, not computers, not me, not moving’ not Dad – most of all not me. It was all OK before – well almost, I mean she got drunk, got all loud and lairy, then woke up messy sometimes, but now … now Dad’s the invisible man and she’s … she’s rubbish. Like yesterday, she was makin’ tea and spilt the peas everywhere – and that’s her, bits of Mum everywhere. She sat there in a mess, not movin’ not even cryin’ – might’ve been another of her blackouts, an’ I thought, I don’t care! Get up and be my mum again! It’s not just Jesse that’s gone, he’s taken them all with him. Left me here alone, where everyone mopes about because we’re all too sad to do stuff anymore.”

There is a darkness to this family’s history, a darkness that we quickly realise will not be erased by a simple move to the country. But although, Evie’s mental health is fragile, the chilling depth of her insanity is not initially apparent. Nor are the dynamics of power, coercion and abuse that have contributed to her demise. As the story unfolds and the pieces start falling into place, we glimpse a situation that is both timelessly haunting and frighteningly modern. I asked Lewis whether her next novel will tackle similar issue. She assures me it will not be as chilling as The House with Old Furniture. “Having spent five years with some dark and difficult characters I wanted to create some people with a bit of humour. I think it is beginning to take shape, they certainly make me laugh anyway!”

I will certainly be looking out for the next instalment by this talented new author. Meanwhile, I fear it will be some time before I can exorcise the ghosts The House with Old Furniture has awakened in me.

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.

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar – a tender loss of innocence

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

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

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

Voice

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

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

Prose

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

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

Characterization

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

Dialogue

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

‘What are rules?’ Tull asked.

‘The things people may and may not do.’

‘Oh yes. We have that too. A tendi.’

‘I did not know.’

‘We don’t eat some birds.’

‘Why not? Is the taste bad?

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

‘Which animals?’

‘I don’t remember.’

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

‘Take what?’

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel

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. 

 

Ghostbird – and interview with Carol Lovekin

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. 🙂

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

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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