Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: book review (Page 2 of 3)

Blog sixteen o Gymru – the pleasures and pitfalls of reviewing

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.

 

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

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.


The Anchoress – by Robyn Cadwallader

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.

 

Changing Patterns by Judith Barrow

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.

 

Eden’s Garden – by Juliet Greenwood

Question: when you find a new author. Do you start with their debut novel? Or their most recent publication?

This is a question I asked myself recently when looking at a selection of titles by Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press. I was trying to decided whether to read Juliet Greenwood’s Eden’s Garden. Or her more recent book, We that are left? As I had only recently reviewed a time-slip type novel and was in that groove, I decided on Eden’s Garden, adding Greenwood’s more recent publication to my Easter reading pile.

I’m glad I did. Embroiled in decisions about my mum’s aged-care needs, it’s themes resonated.

Set in present day and late nineteenth century England and Wales, Eden’s Garden tells the story of Carys, a young Welsh woman who turned down marriage to her childhood sweetheart in search of a bigger, more adventurous life in the world beyond Wales. Now in her thirties, Carys has been on adventurous international holidays, established a successful career and dreams of buying a small-holding in the south of England with her long-term partner Joe. She has no desire to return to the Snowdonia Village of her childhood. Or to care for her ageing mother. She certainly doesn’t want to become embroiled in the struggle to save Plas Eden, the ancestral home of her childhood sweetheart, David Meredith. But unbeknownst to Carys, Plas Eden’s gardens hold secrets – past secrets that are drawing Carys towards a new understanding of her Welsh home.

Eden’s garden is a tactile book, filled with lovingly realistic depictions of present day Welsh life

“With the arrival of the waitress, whose first language appeared to be Polish rather than Welsh or English, tea and coffee were ordered ….. At last the tea arrived: tea in a little metal teapot, with a matching pot of hot water and a minuscule jug of milk. The coffee, rather surprisingly, came in the sophistication of its own miniature cafetiere; the effect was rather spoilt by the garish mugs with an assortment of kittens on their sides.”

I have been in that cafe. I’m sure I have. Or at least in one of the dozens like it. These and other descriptions brought the setting vividly to life.

But what about the story? How did that work for me?

Eden’s garden is a story about the present. Carys is the novel’s primary protagonist. Her third person viewpoint is paramount. Surprisingly, for me, who has a distinct preference for the historical, Carys’ story was quite compelling. Her reflections on caring for an ageing parent and the way life goals change and develop rang true to this reader. The parallel nineteenth century tale, fed to us in just the right doses, was also poignant. It powerfully portrayed the vulnerable position of women in a male dominated Victorian society. Plas Eden’s statues were an apt and evocative image around which to revolve the two story lines. As the story progressed I found myself reading faster and faster. I was not disappointed with ending when it came.

If had to make any criticism of this book (I suppose if you are going to write a review you must make an effort) it would be about the beginning. The set-up was quite busy – in terms of viewpoint and characters. I couldn’t work out what Poppy’s character added to the narrative, apart from providing an alternative life choice to Carys’. The later was not necessary. Carys’s position was well enough drawn without her. But with her childhood history, I kept expecting Poppy to come back into the story. She never did. Unless I have missed a hidden link completely? The nineteenth century story set up was spare and evocative. But I would have liked Mr Meredith’s feelings to have been more clearly signposted before we reached the turning point the author gave us (I am being deliberately vague here, so as not to give spoilers).

There, that’s my criticism’s over with. I am brushing the dirt from my fingers.

For those who like a book with two time connected time periods, a well drawn family mystery, vivid and evocative descriptions and anything to do with Wales, this is a wonderful, escape-from-the-world read, that also, unexpectedly, gives much food for thought. I look forward to indulging in Greenwood’s next book over Easter.

 

Flint – a blood red tale by Margaret Redfern

Having stumbled across Honno the Welsh women’s press and and devoured Margaret Redfern’s novel The storyteller’s granddaughter, I set out to find out what else this indpendant small press had published and, more to the point, what other books Redfern had written. To my delight, I learned that Redfern’s earlier book, Flint, had a narrative link to The Storyteller’s granddaughter and was in fact written from the point-of-view of ‘the storyteller’. I say linked, rather than calling Flint a sequel because although acting as a continuum, there is no direct set-up between the first and second books, leaving one with the impression the former was born as a single tale, The storyteller’s granddaughter springing from the ‘what ifs’ at the end of Flint, rather being established in the author’s mind from the outset.

Set in the reign of Edward 1, Flint, is told primarily through the first person point-of-view of eleven year old Will who, along with his brother and a group of men from the Lincolnshire Fens, has been recruited as a fossatore for Edward’s castle building schemes in Wales. We first meet Will, as an old man, remembering an event that occurred four years after the main action of the story. On this day, Will receives a token from his lost brother Ned, a token that convinces him Ned is dead. He invites us to sit down and listen to his tale.

“For four years, I kept a hope. But that day I knew he’d never be back and I’d never see him again. Well, there it is. All washed away, you might say. Can’t do any harm, now, to tell this story.

But where do I start? Wait. I’ll build up the fire. There’ll be frost tonight. And these rooms might be built out of good stone but they’re cold.”

Will’s narrative voices evokes a delightful innocence as the reader is drawn back into his eleven-year-old perspective. This innocence is skillfully seasoned with an age-old wisdom that only life-long reflection can bring. Interspersed throughout Will’s first person, retrospective viewpoint are snatches of flashback written in the third person. Through these flashbacks we see the fabric of a family mystery unfolding. If this sounds complicated, don’t be alarmed. Will is a storyteller. Once you fall under his spell the story carries you along.

In addition to being a family story, Flint is a history of conquest and, as such, makes a sobering read. Edward’s second Welsh war, marked the end of Wales’ independance. Anyone with a love for that small country, cannot fail to be affected by Redfern’s portrayal of Edward’s Norman might. Anyone who has delighted in Wales’ majestic countryside, cannot be unmoved by her descriptions.

“The sun was low in the sky as we came to Chester. It lay behind a bank of cloud, setting the whole sky ablaze.

‘Longshanks’ set fire to all of Wales,’ someone joked.

‘Or soaked it in blood,’ John Thatcher said.

The earth there is red, and the stone; and the walls of Chester were like red in the sky. We all fell silent.”

After I’d finished reading Flint, I re-read The storyteller’s granddaughter. I then read Flint all over again. I was left with an impression of the stories being ‘the same but not the same’ (to quote from the novels).

Each book is a travel tale, set among a group of individuals, each individual good, but not perfect, each one capable of love and also teachery, all caught up in complex historical events. Both Flint and The storyteller’s granddaughter are written from complicated viewpoints, each entirely different in its complexity, each appropriate to its story. At the heart of their sameness are the voices of the main characters – unique, evocative, surprising, yet, still believable. I finished each novel with a sense of having being initiated into the mysteries of life.

My sources tells me, Redfern is currently working on a third book based on the lives of the storyteller and his granddaughter. I look forward to seeing how she completes their journey.

The Railwayman’s Wife – a review

I had never heard of the acclaimed author Ashely Hay, prior to reading The railwayman’s wife. An arresting cover image of a veiled woman above a misty seascape, overlaid with a deep, cranberry title, caught my eye durIng library shelving time. I picked the book up. Not unusual, I often finish shelving with a trolley full of maybes. Would this do for Mrs Jones? I wondered. Or Mrs Smith? I read the blurb on the back cover. A historical novel, Australian author, hmm…the book was ticking a number of boxes. Maybe I should read it first?

Yes, why not? I checked it out on my card and took it home.

The railwayman’s wife is set in Hay’s home town of Thirroul, during the years immediately following World War Two. Having survived the war in this idyllic setting, Anikka Lachlan’s life is shattered by a sudden, unexpected loss. Returning to the Thirroul at this time, is Roy McKinnon, a war poet and one time school teacher, who is struggling to come to terms with beauty after the violence and horror of war. As Roy struggles to find his voice. Anikka struggles to rebuild her life. Both find solace in the railway station’s library.

The novel unfolds through the third person viewpoints of Annika, Roy and Annikka’s husband, Mac. In addition to its shifting point-of-view, the narrative also switches between past and present tenses, giving the whole a dreamy reflective feel, that is in keeping with its themes of grief and loss. Not an easy book to write. Or read. But once into the groove, its clear, shining, cut-glass prose, lift the novel out of the ordinary. The railwayman’s wife is a homage to literature and, as such, is strengthened by references to novels and poetic works. When in the course of the novel, Roy McKinnon, writes a poem, I found myself consumed by writerly envy.

Not only can this woman craft can a good sentence she’s a poet too!

Turns out this wasn’t the case. Hay had a go at writing a poem and couldn’t quite pull it off. She went in search of a poet who was willing to write a bespoke poem and found it in the person of Stephen Edgar. Edgar’s poetry immortalises the voice of Roy McKinnon, giving the novel a delicacy that could not have been achieved through prose alone. I was not surprised to learn that since its 2013 publication, The Railwayman’s Wife has been awarded the Colin Roderick Prize. It also won the People’s Choice Award at the 2014 NSW Premier’s Prize, was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin and Nita B. Kibble awards, and shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Prize.

In addition to writerly envy, I now felt a flush of librarian’s shame.

How had this writer escaped my notice?

As a librarian, I often have people come to the information desk and ask: what’s a ‘good book’? Here’s the catch: one person’s ‘good book’ is another person’s yawn-fest. To what subset of readers would I recommend The railwayman’s wife? It isn’t a plot driven novel. Indeed, there is a section immediately after the set-up where it may have been possible to stop reading. The urgency of the tale picks up once the friendship between Annika and Roy is established. Hay teases her reader with the possibility of a happy ending. Then brings us to a climax that is breathtakingly, shocking. I wouldn’t be recommending it to readers who like a feel-good story. The Railwayman’s wife is literary novel, rich in words, imagery and ideas, suitable for those who like to read prize winners and to members of book groups. It offers the potential for much in-depth discussion.

 

 

Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2105

The statistics compiled in conjunction with Australia’s Stella Prize paints a sobering picture of reviewing patterns in Australia. On average, more books by male authors are reviewed by predominantly male reviewers. Why does this concern me? I am a woman. I write. I am also a librarian. On anecdotal, whom-I-serve-at-the-desk evidence, I encounter more women, than men. These women have longer books lists. They read across a range of genres. Many belong to book groups. But let’s move away from anecdotes.

In my capacity as a Home Library Service Librarian, I select books for housebound members of our community. Of the thirty two housebound individuals serviced through our local branch, five borrowers are men. Twenty seven are women, in case your maths is as bad as mine, that’s eighty five percent. It’s my job to know what is available and to develop and in depth understanding of what my borrowers like to read. One of the ways I do this, is by reading reviews.

So, male or female, what’s the difference? A good review is a good review isn’t it?

Maybe.

Or maybe male reviewers favour books by men? Maybe there are broad gender differences in reading tastes? Maybe, more women read literary fiction than men? Maybe more read romance? Or follow crime series? Maybe, some favour books about relationships? Inner growth over action? Maybe these women want to hear what other women think about the books they are reading?

Enter the Australian Women Writers’ challenge a website established to raise the profile of Australian Women Writers. Elizabeth Lhuede, the site’s founder, realised she was guilty of gender bias in her reading choices. Lhuede read fewer books by women – particularly, Australian women. In 2102, she decided to redress this balance, contacting librarians, booksellers, publishers, book bloggers, authors, teachers and inviting them to examine their reading habits. She asked them to join her in reviewing books by Australian women. By the end of 2012, 1500+ reviews were linked to her blog. In 2103, the number had risen to 1800+ books, reviewed by over two hundred reviewers, only seventeen of whom were men. In 2104, these figures increased.

Now it’s 2015 and I’m jumping on the bandwagon.

  • I am committing to reading four books by Australian women in 2015 and reviewing at least three of them.
  • Four? That’s nothing!
  • I agree.
  • I expect to read more titles but…I have committement issues.
  • Most of these will be historical fiction titles because that’s what I like reading.
  • In addition to the four books by Australian women, I will also read four books by Honno the Welsh Women’s press
  • Why not?
  • I am going to the first ever Historical Novels Society of Australasia conference in March.
  • I’ll be living in Wales for the second half of the year.
  • I’m not saying I won’t read books by men. I mean, McCall Smith might bring out a new title.
  • But basically, I’m going to be exploring books written by women
  • And talking about them
  • So, watch this space

 

The Golden Dice – a book review

TGDBook

I write the occasional review for the Historical Novel Society. In fact, in an email, I was once referred to as ‘our Australian reviewer.’ It sounded rather grand. I recall a swell of pride. In reality, however, the role is quite small. Not many Australian authors want historical novels reviewed. You can imagine my pleasure, therefore, when I received a recent request to review The golden dice.

I had reviewed Elisabeth Storrs’ first novel The wedding shroud a couple of years back. Storrs’ flawed characters were memorable and her period detail rich and evocative. I was keen to read the next instalment in her characters’ journey. I wasn’t disappointed. For anyone interested in this period, The golden dice is a must read.

Here is the review I wrote for the Historical Novel Society:

The golden dice by Elisabeth Storrs

When Caecilia chooses the rugged Etruscan general Vel Mastarna over her allegiance to Rome the outcome is war. Yet, although considered a traitor by her Roman family, Caecilia is not fully accepted by the Etruscans with whom she has made her home. As a consequence, Vel faces summers of heavy warfare. His is also hindered by disloyalty and intrigue amongst his countrymen. Not the least of whom is his brother, the scheming high-priest Artile.

In Rome, the Consular General Camillus is determined to defeat the Etruscans. Within his army are Caecilia’s cousin, Marcus, and Drusus, the young man who once declared his love for her. The young warriors share a deadly desire¾to wreak vengeance on Caecilia and her husband Vel. But all is not right between the friends. Each one nurses secrets¾secrets that could lead to their undoing. And when the young prostitute, Pinna stumbles upon them, the stage is set for blackmail and betrayal.

In The Golden Dice, Elisabeth Storrs takes as back to the richly imagined world she created in the Wedding Shroud.  Once again the historical detail of her novel is staggering. The relationship between Caecilia and Vel Mastarna is also tender and sensitively portrayed. In addition, Storrs gives us two new third-person female viewpoint characters. Pinna, the prostitute, and Semni the flighty young servant. These characters add complexity to the plot¾indeed it is hard to imagine the story without them¾and give us a portrait of women at war. Yet, at times I felt a little less complexity may have served the story better. I wanted more of Caecilia and Vel.

Having said this, I found the novel compelling and enjoyable, even if I did yearn for greater depth of character. I can’t wait to read the next instalment of Caecilia’s and Vel’s story.

Georgiana: woman of flowers

Georgiana: woman of flowers
Libby Hathorn, Hachette, 2008, $17.99 AUD, pb, 298pp, 9780733609169

Georgiana Molloy and her husband, Captain John Molloy, were among the earliest settlers of the remote Augusta region in the colony Western Australia. The novel begins in 1839 at the time of their arrival in Western Australia. It finishes with Georgiana’s untimely death in 1843, following childbirth.

Running parallel to the story of Georgiana and her growing family is a fictitious tale of the poorer, less educated Summerfield family. The narrative is told in a lyrical, omniscient voice that shows the varied hopes and aspirations of each family. The stage is set for a compelling read when we learn that Will Summerfield, and his sister Charlotte, are living in fear of their mother’s second husband the brutal Thomas Summerfield. The lives of the two families are loosely interwoven and there is potential for the story to build to a satisfying climax that it never quite achieves.

Georgiana Molloy was a pious young woman and Libby Hathorn makes a concerted effort to reconcile the evangelistic fervour of Georgiana’s Christian faith with her, otherwise, gentle demeanour. There is reference to a book called Peace in Believing from which Georgiana is said to have derived considerable inspiration. We are not, however, given insight into what aspects of the text particularly affected her. It is therefore difficult to develop any empathy for her convictions.

This is a worthy novel. It portrays the struggles and triumphs of early settlers in Australia and their attitude towards the aboriginal peoples of the region. It also illustrates the significant contribution Georgiana Molloy made to the study of the region’s unique flora. The narrative had a strong biographical feel and would therefore be suitable for young adult readers who enjoy life history, rather than those who want a compelling story.

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