Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: books (Page 2 of 2)

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.

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?


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


Cymru connections – an interview with David Lloyd

What draws a person back to Wales? This is a question I often ask myself as I sit with my Welsh class, on Tuesday evenings, or when I talk with other far flung language learners on the Saysomethinginwelsh forum. What are we doing here, though many of us were born far from Wales? What is it about the western-most corner of the British mainland that calls to us? How has this connection shaped us? In what ways do we express that sense of dual identity?

This week, I put these questions to the American born writer David Lloyd. David and his wife, artist Kim Waale, are soon to do a residency at Stwidio Maelor, which is owned by my friend Veronica Calarco, and as I hope to spend time at the stiwdio next year, I have a growing interest in all things Maelor.

Writer, poet, literary critic, academic, David Lloyd is the director of Creative Writing at Le Moyne College. His poetry has been widely published in the U.S. and in Welsh publications such as Poetry Wales, Planet, New Welsh Review, Lampeter Review and through the Welsh presses Parthia and Gwasg Carreg Gwlach. His recent novel, Over the Line, was published by Syracuse University Press.

Born in America to Welsh speaking parents, David studied at Aberystwyth University in the early 1970’s, and returned to the university on a Watson Fellowship, later in the same decade. In 2001 he spent five months at Bangor University, on a Fullbright Fellowship. As an American citizen and a person with an obvious connection to Wales, I asked David about the influence of his Welsh heritage:

“Welshness is deeply embedded in my identity. It’s in the way I interact with the world and how I understand who I am. My interest in being a writer derived in part from hearing my father’s sermons each Sunday, which were beautifully constructed and delivered with passion. Perhaps my sister Margaret, also a poet, was similarly influenced. At some point in the 1950s my father stopped giving weekly sermons in Welsh and English, to only giving them in English – a result of the declining number of Welsh speakers. But throughout his life he was regularly called on to give Welsh-language talks or sermons. My brother Richard is a musician and composer, and his musical sense must derive to a great extent from the Welsh music we heard and sang during our childhood. I know I absorbed the rhythms of the Welsh language and of English as spoken by a north Walian (my father, from Corris) and a south Walian (my mother, from Pontrhydyfen).”

As the child of Welsh speaking parents it may surprise you to learn that David was not raised speaking the language, a situation he ascribes to a general feeling during the 1950’s that children of immigrants should Americanize.

“Even with this change in the primary language of our home, we all could speak some Welsh. Prayers before Sunday dinner were in Welsh; certain family routines were announced only in Welsh: bore da, mae’n bwyd yn barod, nos da, cysgwch yn dda. My brother closest in age to me were always cariad to our mother. On family vacations we sang Welsh-language hymns and folksongs in the car to pass the time. I remember an elderly parishioner, Mae Ellis, who insisted we exchange a bit of Welsh every Sunday, even if only Sut wyt ti? Di iawn, diolch yn fawr. Then she wiped any smudge off my face with a damp handkerchief pulled from her sleeve.”

David’s father died young, in his fifties but, in her later years, his mother came to regret not having raised her children as Welsh speakers. An omission David and his sister Margaret sought to rectify in the year 2000, returning to Aberystwyth for Cwrs Haf, an annual, month long intensive language school, which is, incidentally, the same course (different year) on which I met Veronica. David had this to say about the Summer School experience.

“It was fantastic, really – at the end we could carry on conversations in Welsh quite well – and on returning to the States for the first time I could speak with some fluency with my mother. She lived until 97 – the last native Welsh speaker in central New York.”

As a British born Australian of Welsh descent, I am always intrigued by other people’s experience of dual identity. I asked David what it means to be both Welsh and American.

“The immigrant experience – including the experience of children of immigrants – necessarily involves a degree of loss: of family, of community, of culture, of language. But it does bring compensations. I consider myself lucky to have two cultural streams flowing into my life. I love listening to live blues at the Dinosaur bar in Syracuse as much as I love hearing poets read at the Imperial Hotel in Merthyr Tyfil. (Mike Jenkins runs a reading series there.) I love camping in the Adirondack national park not far from where I live in New York State, but one of the great pleasures of my life is taking long walks in Wales with my family, searching out burial chambers, standing stones, and stone circles. I’m fascinated by American popular culture, but can’t read enough about Llywelyn ap Gruffydd or Owain Glyn Dŵr. The modern poets who mean the most to me are American William Carlos Williams, Irishman Seamus Heaney, and Welshman R. S. Thomas. A description of my second book of poetry, The Gospel According to Frank (New American Press), might best display this cultural mash-up: the poems merge the public persona of Frank Sinatra with heroic figures drawn from Wales (The Mabinogi), Ireland (the Tain Bo Cuainge), and the Old and New Testaments.

“My most recent Welsh-related writing project is a series of stories set in the Welsh immigrant community in which I grew up, during the 1960s. The book, titled The Moving of the Water, is almost finished, and I’ve been publishing the stories. You can find two in on-line journals: “Home” in the Spring 2014 issue of the Welsh journal Lampeter Review and “The Key” in the 2013 issue of the US journal Stone Canoe.

In November of this year, David will be staying at Stwdio Maelor, in Corris, which happens to be his father’s home village. I asked what he hoped to achieve during his residency.

“My aim is to explore the part of Wales that my father knew well as a child – and then see what ways that experience feeds into my creative work. I’m back to writing poetry after having just published a novel, Over the Line, so I’m planning on drafting new poems at Stiwdio Maelor.”

No doubt, David will meet up with old friends and commune with those no longer present. Let’s also hope he also finds opportunities to speak the hen iaith too.

Photo: David Lloyd (center) with Welsh poets Nigel Jenkins (far left), Menna Elfyn (seated), Iwan Llwyd (far right).


Stiwdio Maelor in Corris has been set up to provide studios for local artists and to provide a retreat for artists from the UK and other parts of the world to take time out of their normal lives and visit a stunning area in North Wales. There are five studios available for rent to local artists and astudio/bedroom space available for visiting artists. The fees have been kept as low as possible so that all artists can take advantage of this project.


Library lessons – a true story

It was ordinary Friday afternoon in the library service, mum’s and kids, retired couples, a full complement of the regular unfortunates, me busy reserving items, trouble shooting computer problems, helping people download eBooks, finding the latest travel guide. As I said, business as usual, until the lady with the green shopping bag sat down at my desk.

There was nothing distinct about the woman, on first impressions. She was lower middle-aged, had honey brown hair, wore gold hoop earrings. She could have been any one of the women that access our library service. Though, I noticed, as she sat down, that she was a little dishevelled, breathless. As if approaching the information desk had taken some effort.

‘I’ve got these books.’

I nodded, summoning a smile, wondering, if I was about to assess another pile of not-so-useful donations.

‘I’ve had to move,’ she paused, tears welling. ‘A number of times.’

A tear spilled onto her cheek. She dashed it away with the back of her hand. Another followed. And another. She raised a hand to her face. I’m thinking someone has died. It has to be a death, surely? By now her shoulders were also quivering. With a sinking heart, I realised, I was going to have to take the donations, even if they were useless.

I waited. Not knowing how to respond. I mean, this situation wasn’t covered in library training. It wouldn’t be professional to grasp her hand. Or go round the desk and give her a hug. Infact, it would probably freak the poor woman out. Eventually, she drew a shaky breath. Upending the bag, she tipped a pile of children’s books onto my desk.

‘They’re overdue.’ She said. ‘And the fine…I can’t pay.’

A fine? Not what I expected. I’ve had people lie about library fines, make excuses, slip the books back on the shelf, the occasional flare of anger, hissed threats. But this was grief, and heartfelt, and something about it unnerved me. I searched the woman’s face. Seeing worry lines. Sorrow in her tear-glazed eyes. And something else. What was it? ‘Do you have a library card?’

‘Yes, my daughters.’ She handed it over.

I opened up her daughter’s membership record. The fines weren’t small. But I’ve seen worse. I returned the books – Hairy Maclary, Dogger, John Brown, Rose and the midnight cat, Where the wild things are, The Gruffalo, and others – a catalogue of innocence. They were all accounted for. I smiled, going into official librarian mode. ‘Let’s start by updating your address.’

‘No.’ A flicker of fear. ‘I can’t tell you where I live.’

Fear? That was the other emotion. What was going on here? I studied the membership record, looking for inspiration, knowing I should be going through the spiel about getting books back on time being the woman’s responsibility, that having a correct address was part of our process, reminding her that we’d explained all this when she signed up as her daughter’s guarantor. Guarantor? I flicked into the family details tab. Hang on a sec, woman wasn’t the guarantor. ‘There’s a man’s name on your daughter’s record.’

‘Her father.’

‘He joined her?’

‘He came, that day. Made me use his name. But we don’t see him anymore.’

Right, the woman had moved a number of times, she was scared to give me her address, her husband made her use his name. I’m starting to get a prickles-down-the-spine feeling. ‘Technically,’ I said, choosing my next words with care, ‘you are not responsible for these charges.’

‘He’d say it was my fault. I had to keep track of them.’

‘Your name isn’t on the record. Or your address. You have no legal obligation.’

Pressing her lips together, she shook her head. ‘He won’t pay. Ever.’

‘He’ll get a notice, if you leave the charges on his card. Asking him to clear them. But…that won’t be good for you, is that what you’re saying?

‘Yes.’ She said. ‘He would pursue me.’


I’m not going to tell you how the interview ended. That is between me, God and the library system. But, no-one – man, woman, or child – should have to live with that kind of fear. By the time the woman left the library, she wasn’t the only one fighting back tears.


The film is never as good as the book

Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing favourite books adapted for the screen. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Call the Midwife, Sherlock Holmes, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Famous Five, Pollyanna, Little Women, Heidi, Black Beauty, the list goes on… As a life long book lover, I have to confess a screen adaptation rarely exceeds my reading experience. This doesn’t worry me. I take cinema on its own terms. As long as a movie or TV series draws me into its world, I can overlook alterations to plot, dialogue and characters. I am rarely disappointed.

Starz TV’s Outlander series is proving a different experience.

Based on the epic, historical, time travel novel of Diana Gabaldon, Outlander tells the story of Claire Randal, a World War Two army nurse with a passion for botany, her husband Frank an academic with an interest in genealogy, and Jamie Fraser an injured eighteenth century Scotsman, who Claire treats medically after being drawn backwards through time. Outlander is the first in a series of eight novels. I have read them all. The first three books, multiple times. I looked forward to seeing them televised.

Created by Ronald D Moore and produced by Left Bank Pictures, the series showed great promise. It was being filmed in Scotland, tick, with great attention to period detail and costume, double tick, and they would be working in conjunction with the author Diana Gabaldon, tick, tick, tick.

How could they possibly go wrong?

I have an answer to that question, based on my vast experience writing for film and television (exactly zero hours) and I’m going to enlighten you, if you are patient. But first, let’s start with the positives.

Scenery: Stunning. Almost as beautiful as Wales. I can give you no higher praise.

Rain: Frequent. I give them ten out of ten for honesty. You don’t get that kind of green without precipitation.

Filth: Another bonus point. Life is portrayed as muddy and grubby.

Language: It’s a pleasure to hear the Scots accents. I’m glad they didn’t anglicise the dialogue (though it may have aided comprehension). Fortunately, there are subtitles, for the faint hearted and those for whom Scots English isn’t a first language (though, I am refusing to use them). Why? There is a fair bit of Gaelic spoken in the first three episodes of the series. But my subtitles do not provide a translation, only the words – speaking other language. Another language! If you are going to translate the Scots, why not the Gaelic? Or is a minority language not worth the effort (sorry, a slight negative amongst the positives).

Supporting characters: Perfect. Colum, Dougal, Geillis, Laoghaire, Mrs Fitz, Black Jack Randal. All well cast and acted with conviction.

Jamie Fraser: What can I say? Jamie Fraser is a god – tender, brave, witty, strong, handsome and intelligent. No one could have portrayed his character to perfection. No one. But I have to say Sam Heughan is giving us a fair run for our money. In fact, he’s probably as good as it gets.

Claire Randal: Ah! Now here is where we get to the pointy end of the stick. Claire is nothing like I imagined. In the book she is matter of fact, humorous, professional, compassionate, and guarded when necessary. Her voice is one of the triumphs of the first novel. By contrast, Catriona Balfe gives us a Claire who is sultry, a little vague and, at times, petulant. So far I have seen little of Claire’s humour or strength.

I don’t think it’s entirely Balfe’s fault.

So, we come to the enlightenment. Sit up straight Ronald D. Moore and Left Bank Productions. Or better still why not hire me? Come one. I wouldn’t have noticed the costumes, the scenery, the horses, the accents, the glass goblets, the constant change of Claire’s outfits, the rain, the architecture, the children’s buck teeth, or the plants in the gardens, if I had been engrossed in the story. I wasn’t. Not once. In my opinion, there are two reasons for this.

1) The voice overs

These were fine to begin with. By episode three, they are getting tiresome. Every time I hear Claire’s narrating voice I am jerked out of the story. When she goes through the stones, for example, a moment in which film had a distinct advantage over prose, Claire didn’t have to explain how she felt. You could have shown us, with sound and images, by making us feel giddy and sick and, heaven forbid, by letting Balfe act.

A blank screen and a narrating voice were lazy television.

2) The flash backs

I don’t mind a flash back. Well handled it can add depth to the narrative. The film Saving Mr Banks used this technique effectively (aside from the small matter of an Australian country town looking like something out of Little House on the Prairie). Each flash back to Travers’ childhood, showed the viewer things they needed to know. Parts of her family history she would never have shared with Walt Disney. There are times in Outlander when flashbacks are also used to good effect. The scene from World War Two, where Claire kisses Frank goodbye from the train, is a prime example. It adds depth to Claire’s character and show us the strength of their relationship. Not so, the flash back scene in which Jamie tells Claire of his first meeting with Black Jack Randal. True, the event is in his past. Undoubtably it scarred him. But this was meant to be a poignant moment between Jamie and Claire. He was telling her something he would not have shared with others. But we don’t get to see the tension played out between them. Balfe’s role is reduced to a benign response at the end of a bodice ripping scene. A shame.

Give the girl a chance to act, I say!

As you can see the positives outweigh the negatives. As a consequence I will continue watching the series (I’ve paid for it) and, if the blogosphere is any indication, Claire’s character strengthens in the fourth episode. I hope so. Because I enjoyed the books. I’d hate Outlander to be the only screen adaptation in which I am truly disappointed.

Oh, and PS. I’m pretty sure Claire is saying Gwyllyn’s name wrong. 🙂


An Easter without offspring

Biskit's 'Great Escape' is becoming a regular part of our holiday routine. At some point during the bag filling, gate opening and car loading, he works out we are going away. He slinks about with his tail between his legs waiting for a chance. Our journey always starts with Andrew announcing. 'Your dog's gone, Liz.'

To which I reply. 'Well I'm not going on holidays until we've found him.'

We always end up leaving late.

I'm not complaining. I like the way new rituals replace old ones and, as this would be the first Easter Andrew and I have spent alone, since Jack was born in 1985, it was comforting for Biskit to set the ball rolling on an otherwise untrodden course. We had no chocolate, this Easter. An absence of noisy debate. And warmth – seeing as I have given up camping. We were not huddled around a campfire. It was bliss. And odd. Here's my wrap-up of events.


We stayed in Queenscliff, a seaside town at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. It was hard not to think about my novel as its narrative finishes shortly after a ship bearing it's fictitious characters enters Port Phillip Heads. I enjoyed seeing the fine mist over the morning sea, the low lying, sandy peninsulas, pincered around the bay like a crab. You'd be excused for thinking I'd engineered the location to suit my mood. The truth is budget and availability dictated our choice. Andrew says I have an uncanny knack for finding accomodation that is not quite good enough to be expensive and not dreadful enough to be miserable. The general result being a quaintly eccentric kind of bungalow with clean but not too modern facilities. This one happened to be in Queenscliff. Among the features holding this particular cottage back from its five star rating being the owner's possession of a dynamo label maker and the amateur art work adorning its walls. After realising the paintings were all done by the owner, I said to Andrew. 'That's it. If my novel doesn't get published we are buying a cottage, calling it a B&B and pasting excerpts all over the wall. Then some poor dab will be forced to read my work.'

Exercise – of mind and body

A strange feature of our child free lives is that Andrew and I are both pursuing an intentional level of fitness. Andrew's being far in excess of mine. This week he:

  • Rode to Lorne and back twice (180km)
  • Ran a marathon (as you do)
  • Went on a couple of 10km runs

I, in turn:

  • Did two 8.5 km runs with small intervals of walking.
  • A 40km return bike ride to Ocean Grove
  • An 11km walk
  • And an afternoon cycle from Sorrento to the end of Point Nepean and back.

I did far less exercise than Andrew but I can assure you I ached and complained the most. What more can I say? Some patterns are set in cement. While Andrew was competing in his individual man iron-man contest, I did some late-night, lazy-pyjama-morning bouts of reading. Here's my list:

  • The secret life of bees (magical and uplifting)
  • The kite runner (stark and strangely grounded)
  • The Welsh language: a history (riveting – no, I'm not joking. I couldn't put it down)
  • Aspects of the novel (a bit dull – I started this book ages ago and vowed not to let it defeat me)
  • To kill a mocking bird (I read this in school – it's way funnier and wiser than I remembered)

Outings and Purchases

It wouldn't be a holiday without outings and purchases

I went to the National Wool Museum in Geelong (while Andrew trawled the junk shops). This marked an intentional beginning to the research phase of my next novel. Through, I'd been to the museum before and, in truth, I started the research an age ago. This time, I am almost at a point where I can keep going forward. Most of the information at the wool museum referred to an era later than my mine. But sometimes, seeing the way an industry has developed helps you to know what wasn't in place in the beginning.

We caught the ferry from Queenscliff to Sorrento and cycled to the end of the peninsula. I had forgotten about the extensive fortifications built at the end of Point Nepean. Either Melbourne was in grave danger at some point in history or we had an inflated view of our importance in the overall scheme of things. I suspect the latter, as many men in uniform were involved. And that, in case you missed it, is my ANZAC reflection.

I bought a new pair of jeans (size twelve, slim fit, and yes, I'm boasting), two novels for my nephew's birthdays (which were back in January), and some Australiana type gifts for our trip to the UK in July (no, I'm not excited).


Now being a story teller I like to bring things back to full circle. You can therefore imagine my delight when I came across a fluffy white dog on my final afternoon jog. He had long silky ears like Biskit's and the same off-white colour with a hint of rust showing through his recently clipped coat. I saw his owner standing at the base of a hill hollering. The dog stopped, looked back over his shoulder and, with a cheeky white flick of his tail, scampered along the path, leaving his owner no choice but to lumber along in pursuit. I laughed. I'd played this game before. Only, today, I wouldn't be on the losing side. I waited for the dog to stop, cock his leg and glance back over his shoulder. Before he had a chance to resume his miscievious dance, I scooped him up. He didn't resist. He'd played this game multiple times too. With a resigned doggy sigh, he settled under my arm in a Biskit sized shape and permitted me to jog him back to his owner.

'Thanks.' She bent double puffing. 'I don't know why he does it.'

'Me either,' I said, passing the dog over. 'But I've got one just like him, back in Melbourne. He thinks it's a game to run away.'


Life in Limbo – while my novel is being assessed

So, the first fortnight was a novelty. I sent my manuscript off to readers. Wrote a review. Re-drafted a short story. Attended a Pitch Perfect session at Writers Victoria. Updated my novel's synopsis. Tried to come up with a stunning hook line. Failed. Multiple times. First drafted a query letter and then…sat twiddling my thumbs. Oh, I know, I'm supposed to write something else. Something new. And I will…next week. But I also need to wind down because I've been pushing myself pretty hard and, once I receive feedback, it's going to start over again. With this in mind, I have called the last two weeks down time.

Down time! So, what have I been up to?

Well, I've done a heap of errands – been to the optometrist and the audiologist, had the dog clipped, booked a dental appointment, taken my mum to buy a fridge, considered new heating options for the house, started making flash cards for next term's Welsh classes and…. What, cleaning, did I hear you say? No, that would involve a personality change. But, I have to say, if this silence goes on too long weird things may start happening.

In the meantime, I've been having fun. What kind of fun? Well, I'm a librarian so, let me tell you, it's been pretty wild. I've been:

  • Reading Kate Mosse's, Citadel
  • Catching up with some out-east friends
  • Having dinner with my lovely daughter
  • Browsing social media
  • Reading a heap of blogs
  • Creating a couple of new Pinterest boards
  • I also started planning our thirtieth wedding anniversary holiday.

Here's how the itinerary is looking so far:

Week one: South Wales with my cousin while Andrew flies around Europe doing the day job

Weekend one: meet our Australian, British migrant friends in North Wales

Week two: a week in London with Andrew working and me staying in his ritzy hotel (yes, I know. Someone has to do it). I'll visit family during this week and, of course, soak up the London atmosphere.

Week three: a holiday in the Cotswolds. We have booked a quaint cottage and made enquiries about bike hire. We intend to spend our time pedalling between pubs, ploughman's lunches and picturesque villages.

Week four: Andrew will head back to work while I attend a Saysomethinginwelsh bootcamp in Tresaith. During this time using the English language will be banned as a random group of Welsh learners seek to exist purely in Cymraeg. It could be a quiet week but I doubt it. Something tells me there will be heaps of silly mistakes, red faces and shared laughter.

Week five: join Andrew for a week in Paris.

Aside from this, my limbo weeks haven't been without feedback. My youngest son, an avid historical fiction reader and one of my assessors sent me a lovely text:

Hello Miss Doubtful. Just started reading your book. First observation. You can write.

Let me tell you all those months carrying him, all those hours in labour, all those nights without sleep, all that post-natal depression, all those winters dosing him up with ventolin we're cancelled out in that one tiny SMS moment.

Two other readers have also finished the manuscript and are staunchly claiming it wasn't boring. One of them, my dear friend Denis who writes fiction, teaches literature and is an all round confidence booster is going to walk me through his recommendations over the weekend. Then, it's simply a matter of finishing Citadel, reading my new book on the history of the Welsh language and…waiting for the other readers to get back to me. I can't beg. That would be unprofessional. But…I do hope it will be soon. Otherwise, I might be might be forced do something radical like Spring cleaning.

Nah, only joking. I have a short story to write and a couple of interviews to complete.


Ten things I learned in the library service

1) People don't read signs. Our reservation shelves are right near the reference desk. If I had a dollar for every time I've had to point them out I'd be a rich woman.

2) Recently returned items are always the hardest to find. Personally, I believe it is the spirit of the books in rebellion. All that freedom. All that silent communication. Now they are being put back on the shelf. Call me fanciful but I would hide too.

3) If you want good customer service you need to be a nice customer. I had one swearing and abusive borrower who used to ring up in an effort to get extra Home Library Service deliveries. I never complied. Yet, for a grateful quavery voiced old lady, I've been known to bend over backwards.

4) If you want to get out of paying a lost book fine don't say you lost the book while you were on holiday in Paris. I've never been to Paris I'm, therefore, unlikely to wave your charges on compassionate grounds.

5) It is never appropriate to discuss your ear wax with strangers (or possibly even your best friend). One elderly gentleman on realising I wore hearing aids decided I that I would sympathise with his ear wax problems, given in weekly installments. I took to hiding in the stacks when he was around.

6) You are never too old to let your tummy muscles go. One old woman in her eighty sixth year came in for a book on stomach crunches. 'I've started getting a pot belly,' she confided in a whisper. I thought, if she can do crunches, then maybe I should be working on my abs too.

7) Follow your convictions to the end. An elderly Christian Science borrower moved interstate so that she could be in a nursing home that complied with a Christian Science medical practices. I may not share her convictions but I found her faithfulness inspiring.

8) Live life in a blaze of colour. One of our borrowers was a lifelong polio sufferer used to ride to the library on an electric scooter. After a nasty accident, she became housebound. One day, I had to deliver her books. When I stepped over the threshold of her council subsidised home I could only gasp. 'Oh what a beautiful room.' It wasn't beautiful in a 'Vogue Living' sense. She'd packed that room with all manner of gaudy, glittery and garish objects. The effect was stunning, like walking into a fairy grotto. It woke the inner child in me.

9) Some parents have too much time on their hands. Do I need to say anymore?

10) Some people have difficult lives. Every time I see people talking to their phantom selves, or cleaning the library tables with their socks, or putting a cardigan over their head so that the enemy can't read their emails, I'm reminded, some people have difficult lives.

I'm glad the public library service is there for them.


The battle for the eBook: why publishers need libraries

Imagine this scenario:

A busy public library service. Smiling librarian. A middle aged woman woman holding a swag of newspaper clippings. She approaches the information desk: I would like to reserve some books please.'

'Yes, certainly. What shall we start with?'

The woman purses her lips, flicking through her wad of clippings. 'Tim Winton's Eyrie, please?'

The librarian types 'winton' and 'eyrie' into the system. Waits. Scans the screen. 'There are a hundred and thirty five reservations on that title.'

Yes, I thought it would be popular.'

'We've got twenty eight copies. So, it's not as bleak as it sounds.'

What about the eBook? I've just bought an iPad.'

The librarian pauses. Her smile falters. 'We have an eBook collection. But, unfortunately, we aren't allowed to purchase Winton's eBooks for our collection.

Why ever not? He's an Australian author.'

'Yes, but his publisher won't cooperate with libraries.'

Oh, that's a shame. Well put me down on the list please.'

The librarian completes the reservation. The woman makes her next request. She has four or five, on any given week. Sometimes, she comes in with her book club list. After making reservations, she browses the shelves, choosing from an eclectic mix of literary fiction and popular best sellers. She is the fiction writer's bread and butter. The educated, middle aged female reader. She is poised, ready to take on the new eBook frontier but as the librarian correctly pointed out, some publishers will not give libraries access to their eBooks titles – despite their willingness to pay, protect the author's digital rights, and loan the eBooks out to one member at a time.

This is not a new battle. It's as old as public lending. Yet in the rapidly shifting digital environment publishers are floundering and, for some reason, many have a bee in their bonnets about libraries. This is not critical to authors at the moment. As with cassettes, CDs and now downloadable audio books, libraries will continue to buy in a range of formats. But in the foreseeable future authors will begin to suffer. Indeed, even now, I know some authors who have been published exclusively in a digital format. Without their publisher's permission libraries cannot include their eBooks in their collections.

Maybe that's fair? I hear some of you say. Authors deserve to get paid for their work. If people can borrow books, they won't buy them.

That's true to a point. But I'm here to tell you a different side of the story. As a librarian and an author who has publication aspirations, I'm going to tell you why I would want my eBook available in every public library collection in Australia.

  • Libraries buy books. Take the twenty eight copies of Eyrie in the middle aged woman's library service, add in other popular, and not so popular, titles, multiply this by every public library service in Australia and you are talking about some solid buying power.
  • Libraries promote new authors. It is the librarian's job to read new books and promote the works of new and emerging authors – especially local ones.
  • Libraries hold reader related events. This includes author talks (which authors get paid for) along with in-house book talks in which library staff review and make reader recommendations. This is called free publicity.
  • Libraries produce book blogs and write reviews. Most librarians are bookophiles in their private lives. A browser reading a review on Goodreads does not care whether the reviewer borrowed or purchased the title, only how many stars it has been awarded.
  • Librarians often get asked 'what's a good book.' It is therir job to match readers with titles. To this end they read reviews, searching for hidden jewels, and also to keep abreast of what is trending. If a new author can't be in their collection they can't recommend their works to readers.
  • Libraries sell books. Not literally, granted. But book lovers do buy books. What do you think they buy their friends for gifts? And how do they become book lovers in the first place? Or try out new authors? If not at their local library service?
  • Libraries believe in equity of access. This means anyone in Australia should be able to access digital information. This includes the works of popular Australian authors – including those published exclusively in a digital format. To undermine equity of access is to undermine the foundations of our democracy.

So, those are a my reasons. Maybe you can think of others? Connor Tomas O'Brien makes some interesting observations in his article: A very quiet battle: librarians, publishers and the pirate bay. For if the middle-aged, educated female reader is the publisher's dream buyer her children are their nightmare. As the battle is waged over digital rights and equity of access, the kids are picking up their titles free on Pirate Bay. And that's a disaster for libraries, publishers and writers.


Learning how to age

What is the home library service?

Home library service is a service to housebound residents of the City of Boroondara. Although many of our clients are elderly, people may be housebound for a number of reasons – during a difficult pregnancy, after surgery, due to a long term debilitating illness. Some can no longer drive. They face increased periods of time alone. Their relatives struggle to cope with the changes in their situation. We therefore bring the library service to home to them.


How many people have signed up for the service? And how many people do you deliver to?

We currently have two hundred and thirty five Home Library Service members spread across our five library branches. Each one receives an initial library assessment in which we talk about their reading tastes, favourite authors, genres, and their interests in general. We also discuss the materials they may like to receive – large print books, regular print books, DVDs, CDs, magazines, talking books. The librarian then makes up a profile and selects items for the client on the basis of this profile. The client’s items are then delivered by a team of volunteers. Some residents order only two or three items per month. Others receive two or three bulging bags full. But no matter how big the delivery, for many it is a lifeline. The deliverer need only be running half an hour late for us to start receiving anxious phone calls:

‘Hello, dear, this is Mrs. Bloggs. I haven’t received my books yet.’


The volunteers take a couple of hours to do their deliveries. We couldn’t do without them. They are a vital link in our chain. They chat with clients, jotting down feedback in information notebooks and feeding it back to us. Many develop friendships. We recently lost one of our clients to another library service. She’d moved into an aged care facility outside of the City of Boroondara. It was a huge move and I hated having to explain that we could no longer deliver to her. She took the news with good grace and we talked about how she might access another library service. Though during the course of our conversation, I sensed that her grief was as much about losing our service as about losing contact with her volunteer. I asked if she’d like me to pass on her new phone number to the deliverer.

‘Oh yes,’ the words came out with a woosh. ‘I miss her, you know. She’s been delivering for ever so long.’

When I passed on her details to the volunteer there was no question of just phoning. She said she would visit. I have no doubt she did – and is still visiting. She too had come value the friendship.

How long have you been working as a home library service librarian?

I have been working in HLS for about three years. Prior to that I worked in youth services. A bit of a drastic change, you might say. But not so very drastic. Librarian’s are passionate about getting the right information to the right client in the best and most efficient manner. As public librarians our clients information needs take a very human face. Whether it is a child doing a school project, his mother learning English, or a person living out the last days of a terminal illness, our job doesn’t change – we listen, respond, and try to give people the materials they need.

Who benefits from this service?

The obvious answer is the housebound clients. But I think we can fling our net wider than that. The volunteers clearly benefit as do the family members of the clients. We also serve the many excellent aged care facilities located in the City of Boroondara. In addition to our housebound clients, we make up small library collections for these institutions and with the help of other non-home library, library staff (workplace volunteers, I think you would call them) we change these collections monthly, delivering around 1670 items across forty one institutions.

What do you enjoy most about being a home library service librarian?

Choosing books. It is like giving people a Christmas present. sometimes, you come across a title and think: Ah…that would be perfect for Mrs Kaphoops! Added to which, this generation of elderly are a polite, community minded group. As they grow older and frailer, they also, in many cases, become grateful for the smaller things. We get letters and phone calls, from time to time. Or simply a message scribbled by the volunteer in our communication books.

‘Doris said to tell you she really liked this months books.’

I have a have a lady on my list who is somewhere up close to a hundred years in age. Every month she gets some fiction and a book on water colour painting. Others try new authors and new genres. I have just had my first elderly clients pick up iPads. They are old and frail. Some are young and dying. But they are all still learning, that’s what impresses me. As I watch people’s attitudes, I think I am learning how to age.

With the arrival of e-books and an increasingly digital-minded generation, where do you see the future of home library services? (A bit off topic, perhaps, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts 😉 )


The arrival of the eBook, promises great scope for housebound people. In a social networking sense and in terms of the materials they can access. Many of my clients need large print. But not all books come out in this format. Some say: “I need a large print book that is not too heavy.” This of course is a problem. Large print means more pages. Paper is heavy. Their choices are limited.

Potentially, when our eBook collections are big enough, a person with an eReader will be able to access a huge range of titles – that never go out of print. They will be able to change the font to suit their eye sight. Choose an eReader to suit their dexterity and strength. What does that mean for my job? I’m not really sure. Maybe I’ll be running online book discussion groups? Loading up items for those who are too frail to do so? Or using my knowledge to make recommendations? Recently, I had my first email from one of my new iPad users. I was able to respond quickly and write to her about her choices. I think this kind of ongoing conversation is important. It helps me do my job and breaks down the client’s sense of helplessness.


Last week, for the first time, we also held a technology try out event for Seniors Week. Seniors could come with their own device and learn to download our eBooks or eAudio talking books. Or alternately, if they are thinking of making the leap, they could play around with some of the library’s devices. It was great fun. People actually came – and requested more such events in the future. This supplements our already existing Computer Savvy Seniors program, in which senior volunteers teach basic computing skills to older members of the community.

Of course, not all clients are pleasant. I’ve had suicide threats (no, the books weren’t late) and intoxicated clients, even a threat of legal suit. But that just makes the job more interesting. And despite those odd occurrences – in the Home Library Service I know I am definitely making a difference.

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