Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: historical novel (Page 2 of 5)

Another first time event – chairing an author panel

At the beginning of March, I sat on my first ever author panel. Mid-March, I did my first ‘real’ author talk. On April 9, I will chair my first panel. After which, I’m going to flee the country.

I won’t be idle in the U.K., of course. I have three days in London (for research). Followed by a week of Mam-gu duty with my son and his family (pushing swings, rocking my new baby grandson and playing trains with his older brother). After which, I will spend a Welsh-language-only week in Caernarfon with members of the SSiW community. Then I will be busy researching my next novel. But prior to all that fun, I have this one final author event to look forward to.

So far, I’ve read the three designated historical novels for young readers (yes, I’m putting my YA librarian’s hat back on), perused the websites of the participating authors, read the bios provided and have slept with Gabrielle Ryan’s helpful notes on how-to-prepare-for-an-author-panel under my pillow. It’s time to write up a riveting list of questions. However, I don’t know about you? But I never know what I think until I have written about it. Which gives me a perfect excuse to tell you about the three participating authors and their books.

Lizzie and Margaret Rose – by Pamela Rushby

Lizzie and Margaret Rose tells the story of ten-year old London girl who is orphaned by an enemy air raid and evacuated to the safety of her aunt’s family in Australia. As Margaret Rose makes the perilous sea journey to Townsville, her cousin Lizzie has mixed feelings about the imminent arrival of her cousin, especially one as needy as Margaret Rose. As Lizzie faces the displacement of sharing her life with a stranger and war makes its mark on the communities of northern Queensland, Margaret Rose wonders whether she will ever feel safe again. In the end, both girls must learn how to adjust and belong.

Lizzie and Margaret Rose begins with a prologue and is subsequently told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Lizzie and Margret Rose. Lizzie’s pique is drawn in a way that does not make her unlikeable. Margaret Rose’s character evokes sympathy without her being too perfect. The experience of war in northern Australia is portrayed with an age appropriate realism that is not too terrifying. The result—a heartwarming book, handling a difficult topic, that is perfectly pitched to its primary school aged readership. This is hardly surprising. Pamela Rushby is the author of over two hundred books for children. I am very much looking forward to meeting her on April 9th.

Within these walls – by Robyn Bavati

Miri and her family live in Warsaw. Her father, a hard working tailor, speaks Polish well enough for the family to live outside of the Jewish quarter. Their innocent lives are made up of food, family, riding bikes and coloured pencils. But when the Nazi’s invade Miri’s family are forced to move into a tiny apartment in the Warsaw ghetto. Group-by-group people are rounded up and secreted away to work camps. As starvation, desperation and separation tear this family asunder, Miri must find the will to survive. Even though, at times it would be easier to give up and die.

As part of the Melbourne Jewish community, Bavati felt a personal connection to the Holocaust, even though her ancestors had left for England long before WWII began. But Within these Walls is her first foray into historical fiction. Bavati was commissioned by Scholastic Australia to write a book about Jewish children in the Second World War. Told in Miri’s first person voice, the novel gives a realistic portrayal of the ugly, desperate reality of Nazi occupation and, although the subject is grim and most of Miri’s family are obliterated, she manages to enthuse the novel with a sense of hope and belonging. This novel will make a great springboard for classroom discussions about the evils of mindless prejudice.

That Stranger Next Door – by Goldie Alexander

The Stranger Next Door tells the story of Ruth, a 1950’s teenager who has won a scholarship to a private college and longs to study medicine at university rather than conform to her family’s expecatations that she will marry a nice Jewish boy and raise a family. In Eva, a mysterious Russian woman who has recently moved into their apartment block, Ruth finds a perfect alibi for her liaisons with the Catholic school boy, Patrick O’Sullivan. But Ruth’s father was once a member of the communist party and Patrick’s father is working for the anti-communist, B A Santamaria. As Ruth tests family boundaries in the strained political atmosphere of 1950’s Australia, even the helpful Eva is not who she seems.

Told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Ruth and Eva, The Stranger Next Door is essentially a coming-of-age tale in which the political tensions of 1950’s Australia form an interesting backdrop to Ruth’s rebellion against the expectations of her family. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how the two strands connected but the links became clear eventually making the ending of the novel quiet satisfying. I was intrigued to imagine how much of the author’s own journey was tied up in Ruth’s experience and will look forward to asking Goldie Alexander how much the novel reflected her own coming-of-age in Melbourne’s 1950’s Jewish community.

So, those are my three designated novels. Thanks for listening to my thoughts. If you want to hear more from these authors and their work, why not join us at the Mail Exchange Hotel on the 9th of April.

Bookings are essential.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr – a review of Gideon Brough’s recent publication

I am not an historian. I’m an historical fiction writer. There is a difference. For although I’m pretty pedantic about getting details right, I am primarily driven by narrative. Which is fortunate, because in researching, my current project, a novel from the viewpoint of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s wife, there is precious little historical detail to go on. We know she was born, Margaret Hanmer, that her father was David Hanmer, Justice of the King’s Bench under Richard II. She married Owain Glyn Dŵr at some point, gave birth to an unspecified number of children and as a consequence of her husband’s revolt, died in the Tower of London. If she had not married Owain Glyn Dŵr, she’d probably have died in peaceful old age. Her name lost forever to history. However, she did marry Glyn Dŵr. The decision (most likely that of her parents) had an undeniable impact on her life. Therefore, to novelise Margaret, I must begin with the man himself.

Until recently, the most comprehensive work on Owain Glyn Dŵr was The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr by R. R. Davies. Now, I am not an historian, remember. I’m attuned to narrative and, no matter how erudite and comprehensive and well researched I found Davies work, I couldn’t help noticing his narrative had holes. Which is why I’ve been hanging out for the publication of The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr by Gideon Brough.

I’d listened to a podcast by Dr. Brough and noticed he had a slightly different take on the outbreak of the Glyn Dŵr’s revolt. One that promised a more credible version of events. As it turned out, the book had a great deal to offer, on a number of levels. But let’s start with the outbreak.

By general consensus, Owain Glyn Dŵr was the son of a disinherited Welsh princely house, after the death of both parents he became a state ward, he studied at the Inns of Court in London, held lands in Cynllaith, Merioneth and Cardiganshire, married the daughter of a minor Anglo-welsh landowner and took part in a number of English military campaigns. After which, in 1388, he disappeared from the historical record. We next hear of him in September 1400 when he lead a cavalry raid against a number of English boroughs. Although, it can not be fully substantiated, the general consensus is that the raid was sparked by a border dispute with his neighbour Reginald Grey and that, prior to setting out on the above raid, Glyn Dŵr  was declared Prince of Wales.

In narrative terms, there a is a huge leap between a young man who appeared to be living a conventional, upper-class life and the same man declaring himself Prince of Wales. In an attempt to leap this chasm, Davies had his own go at storytelling — theorising that Glyn Dŵr rebelled in September 1400 because he had not been knighted on a military campaign in 1387. He had allegedly gone home from that campaign, sulked for ten years and finally decided that the remedy was to declare himself Prince of Wales. Then a year later when, it looked the Prince of Wales thing wasn’t going to fly, he tried to negotiate his way out of the situation. Apart from the fact that this is a singularly unattractive narrative, there is also no evidence for the sulky, failed-knight theory. As far as I can’t tell, only three Welsh men had been knighted between the conquest of Wales and 1388. Three in over a hundred years. None of them Welsh barons, like Glyn Dŵr, who were descendants of the Welsh princes and the natural leaders of their people. So, why would Glyn Dŵr have expected it?

So what does Brough make of the outbreak? For a start, he questions the veracity of Glyn Dŵr starting a national revolt in September 1400. This makes sense to me, seeing as the primary evidence we have for this claim comes from two hysterical English legal proceedings in which Glyn Dŵr was said to be:

Plotting, conspiring, and intending the death and disinheriting of the said lord king and the everlasting extinction of the crown and regality of himself and of all his successors, the kings of England; the death of Henry, Prince of Wales, the first born son of our said king, of all the magnates and nobles of England; and also the death destruction and everlasting distinction of the whole English language.

If Glyn Dŵr truly did set out to do all those things he was a Froot Loop. End of story. Presuming he wasn’t (and most evidence points to him being well-educated, sensible and amenable), then it is not unreasonable to assume that he may not have been declared Prince of Wales in September 1400 either. In support of this theory, Brough points out that Glyn Dŵr did not style himself as Prince of Wales in the early letters he wrote to leaders in Scotland and Ireland, or in the letter he wrote to Henry Dwn in 1403. During Glyn Dŵr’s parleys with crown officials in late 1401, it appears the reinstatement of his lands was all he sought. The theory being that, through the aforementioned border dispute with his neighbour, Glyn Dŵr had been unjustly dispossessed of his inheritance and, having failed to remedy the situation by legal means, had been forced into rebellion.

In addition to the above, Brough argues that Glyn Dŵr wasn’t the first to arms in 1400, that there were a number of other unrelated uprisings occurring in the region at the time. However, as the harsh response to the revolt pushed the disaffected Welsh into further rebellion and Glyn Dŵr’s parleying failed to bear fruit, he had no choice but to take on the national cause. At which point the disparate Welsh groups coalesced under his leadership.

Now, that, is narrative I can work with.

In addition to this original thinking on the outbreak of the revolt, The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr has a number of additional strengths. Far too many to discuss in full on this blog. However, one of the ways in which it stands out from earlier works, is the way in which it sets the revolt in the context of the Hundred Years War. Davies and before him, J. E. Lloyd, made little of this connection. However, Glyn Dŵr’s alliance with France, the subsequent treaties, declarations, military aid and even the eventual failure of the revolt are all inextricably linked to the long running conflict between England and France and indeed the schism within Christendom. Even the stand off between the Welsh/French and English armies outside Worcester cannot be adequately explained unless you take the regional tensions into account. In light of these manoeuvrings, Brough’s theory of what actually happened at Worcester and the possible ensuing treaty are a refreshing addition to the previously vague analysis of this part of the revolt. As is his description of the diplomatic manoeuvring that paved the way for an eventual English military victory.

A final strength, and perhaps one I am ill-equipped to judge in any measurable sense, is the book’s authority on military matters. I’ve read a number of books on Welsh soldiers and English military campaigns in relation to this era. They all made sense in a dry, academic, yes-I-suppose-that’s-what-happened kind of way. However, when reading The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr I had a sense of the author’s authority. Whether it was discussing how many boroughs could realistically have been attacked in September 1400, how fast troops could be moved, the explanation of what terms like ‘a thousand lances’ actually meant, evidence of troop movements on the landscape, prisoner exchanges, negotiations, parleys, the assaults on castles, the muster letters sent out in 1403, even the analysis of Owain’s letters to France, Scotland and Ireland show evidence of a trained military mind. This is not an element of the book that can be endorsed definitively by one as non-military minded as myself. But it made me sit up and notice.

So what am I left with? A woman who married a man who was unjustly treated by the government of his day and became the leader of a national rebellion. How did she feel about that rebellion? What contribution did she make to his efforts? How did she respond to the loss of her home, her lands and, eventually her liberty? No one knows the answers to those questions, at least not in a way that can be historically verified. The novelist’s job is to fill in the gaps in a way that is true to the human heart and hopefully also the era in which the story is set. At least now I have a portrait of Glyn Dŵr I can work with.

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.

 

Why did I ever leave it so long? A review of the Rowland Sinclair mysteries

I can’t believe I took so long to start reading Sulari Gentil’s Rowland Sinclair series. I’d heard Gentil speak at the 2015 HNSA conference, had listened to readers sing her praises and had loaned the books out to every one of my crime-reading, housebound library clients, without ever having read them. But December arrived and, with my husband away, my mum terminally ill, and me sitting on the exciting but not yet signed news of a publishing contract, I needed a distraction. I downloaded the first book, A few right thinking men, on impulse. Within minutes of meeting, Rowland Sinclair, the wealthy, self-effacing, piercing blue-eyed, Sydney based, artist and his bohemian friends, I was hooked.

There is something almost Whimsyesque about Rowland Sinclair. Possibly it’s the impeccable tailoring of his suits, or era he lives in, or the gentility of old money, maybe the unrequited love interest? The Australian sleuth, is every bit as captivating as Lord Peter Whimsey. The feel of the novel as authentic as if it had indeed been written in Dorothy Sayers’ day. If Rowland is Whimsyesque, his three friends – Clyde, Edna, and Milt, are somewhat Blytonesque. In saying that, I’m not implying that Rowland’s circle of friends are childlike. However, I do not believe there was ever a Famous Five adventure in which all four cousins did not participate. As Rowland’s friends sit on the end of his bed, drinking beverages that only occasionally involve cocoa, they make false assumptions, take wrong turns, get caught in cliff hanging situations and solve mysteries in settings as divergent as Germany, Paris, London and Sydney. They are, at once, a well crafted complimentary group and complex individual characters. It is though the group’s eyes that we get a fuller image of Rowland Sinclair.

However excellent Gentill’s characterisation, to me, the wow factor of this series lies in its historical detail. Set between the wars and succinctly chronicling the rise of fascism amid the widespread fear of communism, each mystery is interwoven with real 1930s historical events. Chapters begin with a series of newspaper snippets. Participating in each self-contained mystery are historical figures such as Norman Lindsay, H.G. Wells, Eva Braun, Eric Campbell, Charles Kingsford Smith, Somerset Maugham, Albert Göring and Unity Mitford, just to name a few. The skilful interweaving of the characters with the fictitious plot lines lifts the Rowland Sinclair  books above being just-another-crime-series, and gives the reader a seemingly behind-the-scenes glimpse at historic events.

The final feather in this series’ cap is its subtle humour. There is a delicious sense of tongue in cheek throughout the series’ pages. For example, on page 128 of A few right thinking men, after struggling to paint an accurate portrait, of triple-chinned, buck toothed, squint eyed Lady McKenzie that was also pleasing to the eye, Clyde, presents the finished work to his friends.

“Lady Mckenzie is finished, at last,” he announced. “I’m taking her to be framed with the most lavish gold leaf frame known to man.”

“So let’s see her.”

Clyde swivelled the canvas round. For a moment there was silence as they gazed at the dreaded portrait. Rowland broke it first.

“Clyde, old boy, you’re brilliant!” He applauded.

Clyde had depicted Lady Mckenzie accurately, but she was no longer the focus. The foreground was now dominated by a poodle with large beseeching eyes which, by distraction, softened its owner’s severe and unwelcome features.

“My friend, you have painted Medusa without turning us all to stone,” waxed Milton.”

The classical allusion was lost on Clyde, but he gathered it was a statement of approval nonetheless. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier,” he grinned. “She loves that mutt.”

“She’ll be happy with it, Clyde,” said Edna. “It’s such a cute dog.”

“It’s a vicious smelly beast, actually,” Clyde replied, “but its a lot prettier than the good lady.”

The former is smile worthy. But it is not the end of the poodle joke. On page 162, Rowland’s sister-in-law, Kate, is trying to set him up with Lucy Bennett, a suitable young woman from his own social class with whom she hopes he will settle down and forget his bohemian lifestyle. In an effort to draw Rowland into the scheme, a naive Kate suggests he paint Lucy. Flicking through Rowland’s notebook, Lucy quickly becomes alarmed at the suggestion.

“No, I really couldn’t,” she said. “I just couldn’t.” She pushed the notebook back across the table towards Rowland.

Kate looked at her friend, dismayed. Wilfred appeared distinctly disgruntled. Rowland’s lips hinted a smile, but he tried to seem politely disappointed. He slipped his notebook back into his pocket. He knew Lucy had found the pencil studies he’d done of Edna for the nude he’d given his uncle. He was relieved. There was nothing interesting about Lucy Bennett; nothing worth capturing on canvas. As far as he knew, she didn’t even own a poodle.

There are seven books in this series, so far. I read them all in quick succession, during which time, I found myself glancing over my shoulder, fearing dead bodies, ghosts, would be assassins, Hitler’s brownshirts, Moseley’s fascists, and members of the Australian New Guard to attack me. Thankfully, they were too busy beating up Rowland Sinclair. So, I headed over to his Facebook fan page and left this message.

To which the author kindly replied:

 

 

Getting back on the horse – the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

Confession: I failed. In 2015, I jauntily signed up for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I committed to writing four reviews of historical novels by Australian women – four measly reviews! I only wrote three. To be fair, I went to Wales mid 2015 and, although it was possible to keep reading Aussie books, it made more sense to be reading local ones – particularly of the Welsh language variety. I read my first non-learners, Welsh language novel during my seven months in Wales and my first non-learner’s adult biography as well as a host of magazines, articles and shorter language learner novels. In effect, 2015 became a year of living, speaking and reading in Welsh. That final elusive fourth review never materialised.

What about 2016? Well, I blinked and missed it. I’m not sure how. But somewhere amidst the arriving, adjusting, trying to pick up the pieces, I realised it wasn’t possible to just carry on as before. I spent the year re-calibrating my priorities. So, I failed, fell of the horse. Or maybe I jumped off into an alternative language and cultural field? The mode of descent is not important. Only the fact that I am now ready to get back on the horse. That’s what you do when you fall off, isn’t it? You get back on.

The impetus for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge started late in 2011 when after reading a blog about the gender imbalance in the reviewing of books written by women Elizabeth Lhuede, an Australian poet, academic and romance writer, was forced to examine the gender imbalance in her own reading choices. The outcome,  the Australian Women Writers Challenge – a blog dedicated to the reviewing of books by Aussie women.

In 2017, I plan to review at least four books by Australian women in the historical fiction category. This is not many titles (yes, I have commitment issues). But I have an article on coming-of-age novels to read for. And I’m still trying  to read some books in Welsh. And I do like to read books written further afield. But, despite this, I fully expect to read more than four historical novels by Australian women as the Melbourne, Historical Novels Society of Australasia conference will take place in 2017. From my experience as a librarian, I know that you engage better with the conference if you are familiar with the authors’ works. My first review will be of an historical crime series. But I’m not going to talk about it now as it deserves a post all of its own. I’m simply asking you to watch this space.

Thanks #aww2017 for letting me get back on the horse.

Eureka! She’s signed a publishing contract

So, you decided to write a novel – an historical novel. The first piece of fiction you have written since a dreadful short story in year eleven. You have an idea of a time period. You begin to research. But actually you have no idea what you are doing. You just write. You get some early encouragement. Get shortlisted for awards. Win a short story prize. You keep on writing. You have a full, redrafted manuscript before you realise that the whole damned publishing industry is market driven — the manuscript you’ve written won’t fit neatly on the bookshop shelves.

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You should have known this. You are a librarian. You are used to putting books in categories. But the truth hits home at the Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference as you listen to a grim publishing panel rip your colleagues’ work apart. They tell you most Australian book sales take place in Kmart or Big. There is a big demand for rural romance, why not try your hand at that?

You realise your manuscript is going to be hard to pitch — an historical coming-of-age about fairy tales and facing the truth. With both adult and young adult viewpoint characters. Like, what were you thinking? You sink to the bottom of a dark pond. You drive your room mate crazy with your OMG why-didn’t-I-realize script.

You attend MWF — a session on publishing perspectives. You are told colouring books are artificially inflating print book sales. That mainstream publishers can’t take a risk. They have to make money. This is the era of the small press. Hadn’t Black Rock, White City, just won the Miles Franklin Award?  A small press! You remember the only smiling face on the HNSA panel was a publisher from an independent press.

You Google the Small Press Network, start sending out query letters. You also attend a Literary Speed Dating Event at Writers’ Victoria. You get quick responses from the small presses – far quicker than you get from the established publishers. They’re working smarter, electronically. You get loads of encouragement. Rejections too. You start a new project. That’s what you do, isn’t it? Move onto the next book. You consider self-publishing. Remember how much you suck at administration. Still you are waiting. A few, independent publishers have asked for your full manuscript. You notice that opening your email makes your tummy ache. You consider staying in bed. Forever. You think maybe you’re not cut out for this.

Then an email from Odyssey Books arrives. The opening line says:

“Thank you for sending us “The Tides Between”.

You brace. Think the word “Unfortunately” is going to come next.

“It’s an original concept with a great voice and well-developed characters. We love it and would like to publish it.”

Publish? You blink, shake your head. Read again more slowly. Publish! A mercury shot of realization. You leap out of bed, calling your husband’s name. He’s not in his office. You turn, this way, that. Search the garden, the shed, his bike rack. Gone. He’s gone. You are shaking, crying, running in circles. You think frenetic is a good description. You send a text to your husband, ring your mum, tell your writing buddies, put the news on the family Viber group, answer responses. Then you sit, letting the news sink in. Your book may not be Kmart or BigW material, neither is it a rural romance. It certainly doesn’t fit neatly on the bookshelf. But someone loved it, enough to publish it. You think this truly is the era of the small press. That Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books has just become your new best friend.

Owain Glyn Dwr’s offspring – and Iolo Morgannwg’s meddling

Researching a novel is like tackling a giant jigsaw puzzle. You start with an image in your mind. In this instance, a woman alone in a prison looking back over her life. But before you can form that image you need to tip the pieces out on the table and begin sorting them – into corners, edges and colours. Or in this instance, historical details, character motivations and story threads. To this end, I have been reading reading books on kings, medieval daily life, women’s roles, soldiers, armour and most recently a book on growing up in the middle ages.

Growing up? I hear you ask. Do you intend to give a blow-by-blow account of your protagonist’s life?

No, but experience tells me you need to know a great deal more about a character than ever appears on the page. Even if I do not fictionalise Marged’s childhood, I need to know what it looked like. Added to which, she raised offspring of her own. According to the nineteenth century antiquarian and genealogist, Jacob Youde William Lloyd, Marged bore Owain Glyn Dwr eleven children. A shattering number for anyone considering writing a novel. I mean, the woman would have spent the whole time, pregnant or giving birth. Which may have been the case for many medieval women. But in story terms, there are only so many times you can show the pacing husband, difficult delivery and lusty newborn infant before people start to yawn. I shared this problem with my Welsh class in the bar of the Celtic Club (yes, there is a price to having me as a tutor).

‘I’m going to have to kill a few children,’ I said’. Eleven is an impossible number.’

‘You can’t do that!’ A circle of shocked faces. ‘You have to be accurate.’

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They were right, of course. That is one of the challenges of writing historical fiction, the balance of crafting a good story against the historical record. Every novelist sets their own parameters. For me (and it seems my Welsh class), it must involve a degree of accuracy.

But eleven children! When were they born? What were their personalities? How did they all live before the revolt? What about afterwards, when their lands were declared forfeit? How did poor Marged stop them from sickening and squabbling while hiding out in the mountains of Snowdonia? (yes, insert the remembered pain of taking four children on family holidays here). In fact, this book was beginning to take on the feel of a vicarious form of post traumatic stress syndrome. But, apart from becoming a mass murderer, I could not see any way out of the situation.

I mentioned this problem (in an electronic form of a hand-wringing) to Gideon Brough, a historian, whose book The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dwr is due for release in December, thinking he may know of of a cave, or safe-house (big enough to house eleven children) or, failing that, evidence of an illness that wiped out half the family. His was answer was in fact, infinitely more satisfying:

Contemporary sources only appear to confirm four children born to Owain and Margaret; Gruffydd, Maredudd, Catrin and Alys. Iolo Goch’s poem says that they came in pairs, the longer list of names you might have read appears to have been invented by Iolo Morgannwg centuries later.

Next Tuesday, after Welsh class, someone asked how my research was going (actually, they may not have asked but, as I said before, there is a price). I told them about the Morgannwg theory.

‘But,’ one brave soul asked, ‘why would Iolo have made that up?’

Indeed, why did Iolo make anything up? He was probably the biggest literary forger in Welsh history, creating a vast body of work, reputedly dating back to the druids. The whole bardic ceremony at the Welsh National Eisteddfod is, in fact, a product of his fecund (always wanted to use that word) imagination. Now, it seemed he’d also foisted an imagined family on Glyn Dwr.

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At this point, I hear a collective howl from all those who claim descent from Glyn Dwr. You are out there, I know you are, Wikitree and Geni.com attest your existence. But do take heart, there are also rumours of multiple illegitimate offspring. So many, in fact, that I wonder poor Owain had time to pull his braise up, let alone lead a national uprising. But for my part, I’m sticking with the four children mentioned in the contemporary record – Gruffudd, Catrin, Alys, and Maredudd -because four is far more manageable in terms of crafting a novel. In fact, I may have even lived that situation.

Historic elections and women’s suffrage – a review of Juliette Greenwood’s The White Camelia

This week we have witnessed an historic election. For the first time, we faced the heady prospect of a woman president of the United States. I am disappointed that day did not dawn, as are many around the globe. But it will. One Day. Nothing is more certain.

One of the more shocking aspects of watching the American election campaign unfold (apart from violence, hatred, racism, misogyny and bigotry becoming normalised) was the Wear White to Vote movement. Seeing the image of a women strutting up to the polling booth in a white pantsuit brought the horrifyingly, recent never-take-it-for-grantedness of women’s franchise home to me. You see, I have never known a world in which I could not vote. In my grandmother’s day (yes, recently as that) these rights would have been denied me. It seems appropriate therefore in the wake of this tumultuous week, that we cast our eyes back to the women who made this breakthrough possible.

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Fortunately, for me this has been easy. I had a copy of Juliette Greenwood’s, The White Camelia, on my reading pile. An historical novel depicting the struggles of the suffrage movement, which is, incidentally, published by Gwasg Honno a Welsh feminist press that seeks to redress the gender imbalance in publishing. An all round excellent reason to part with your hard earned cash.

Set in 1909, The White Camellia tells the story of two women whose lives are linked by, Tressillion, a decaying Cornish estate, their connection through The White Camellia Tearooms and The Suffrage League of Women Artists and Journalists. Both the tearooms and the League are fictitious, Greenwood tells us, but they firmly are based on “the many ladies’ tearooms and suffrage movements that gave women their first taste of independence and allowed them to campaign over decades to improve women’s lives.” And although you may have seen Suffragette you will be shocked by the brutal sexism these women encountered.

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If reading about a book about the suffrage movement, which has been published by a feminist press, is not enough to send you clicking over to your favourite online bookstore, the Cornish setting of this novel may tip the balance (yes, Australia is still caught in Poldark fever). For as well as being a novel about women’s franchise, The White Camellia is also a story of family secrets. Of the successful business woman Sybil, whose links to the Tressillion estates are long and bitter and of, Bea, a younger daughter of Tresillion House, who is being forced by tragedy and economic circumstance into marrying a cousin who has little regard for her. The story is told from their roughly interchanging viewpoints and has a cast of excellent Welsh supporting characters — Madoc, Harri, Olwen, and Gwenllian. As the family story unfolds and the abandoned Tressillion mine whispers the promise of gold, a violent train is set in motion, one that threatens the interconnected lives of the women whose lives have been empowered by The White Camellia Tearooms.

This is an eminently readable book and has the happenstance of being not only historical but so very current. Why not buy a copy, read about the struggle, and then go to bed dreaming about a future in which a woman will be elected president of the United States.

Hwyl am y tro!

 

Library lessons – from the other side of the desk.

My name is Liz, I work as a librarian, and I love libraries. The public ones, due to their underlying principle of equity of access, research libraries due to their wealth of information. In addition to my multiple Aussie public library memberships, I hold Gwynedd and Powys library cards. I am also a member of the National Library of Australia, State Library of Victoria, and the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru (LLGC). 

One of my methods, when reading a secondary resource is to pore over the bibliography and footnotes, identifying further reading materials. A search on Trove made it plain that some of the items I require – like the Denbighshire Historical Society journal – will not be found in Australia. Others, are available through the LLGC website, and are now on my iPad in PDF format. Many of the medieval chronicles, parliamentary proceedings and patent rolls are also available online. But because I am a mildly (cough) obsessive person, I have also registered with the U.K. Data Service in order to acesss the Dyffryn Clwyd court rolls, intermittently presided over by Reginald de Grey, the man whose actions pushed Glyn Dwr into open rebellion. 

Yes, I know, major excitement.

But Liz, I hear you ask, do you need all this detail when much of it is provided in the secondary sources? Possibly not. But I am learning to trust the process. Indeed to revel in it. For my recently completed novel, I spent two afternoons in the Victoria and Albert Reading rooms sifting through nineteenth century theatre play bills. Did any of them make it into the novel? Well, no. But they made the whole damn thing feel pretty real. And when you are trying to connect with an historical character, real is important. Imagine my excitement, when scrolling through a muster roll of medieval soldiers, to see Owain Glyn Dwr listed. To quote Billy Elliot:

‘It was like electricity.’

I experienced a similar frisson of excitement when I found the Bulletin Board of Celtic Studies journal on the state library catalogue, with issues spanning all the way back to 1921. The record said:

Available  Phone 03 8664 7002 to arrange delivery from Offsite Store  YA 913.36 B87

Ten o’clock Monday morning I called the state library. ‘Good Morning, I said. I am phoning to order some journals from offsite storage.’

Silence.

‘Hello? The catalogue said to phone, is this the correct number?’

‘Yes.’ A sigh on the end of the line. 

‘Are you the person I need to talk to?

‘I am, but it will be difficult.’

‘Difficult?’

‘Our process is clunky.’

At this point a younger, less experienced version of myself may have said, ‘Oh, I see, well, sorry to bother you.’

But I am no longer a girl and I work in a library and I have it on good authority that this is not how one is supposed to conduct a reference interview. In fact, I strongly suspected this librarian was being lazy. ‘Would it be easier if I came in and made the request?’

‘No,’ another sigh. ‘What journal are you after?’

I gave him the name of the journal, heard the keyboard clattering, imagined a bald, bespectacled librarian, let’s call him Lionel, peering at the screen. (yes, yes, I know, a stereotype, but some of them are real okay) ‘Yes, it is in our collection.’ Lionel dredged the admission up from the soles of his scuffed, brown lace-up shoes. ‘What issues are you after?’

I pulled up my list, began reeling off years and numbers.

‘Hang on a sec!’ Did I detect a note of smug triumph in Lionel’s voice? ‘You are only allowed six items.’

‘So, you want me to order six items now, cycle into the library tomorrow, then call again the next day and order six more issues, cycle home, then repeate the whole process the following morning?’

A longer silence. To give credit where credit is due, Lionel was starting to register my level of persistence. ‘Leave it with me,’ he said. ‘I’ll make enquiries.’

When Lionel called back a couple of hours later, he told me that he had managed to put in a trolley order. ‘I’m not sure if it will work,’ he added with a signatory puff. ‘But hopefully there will be something on the reserve shelf tomorrow.’

The next morning, I don’t mind admitting, I approached the reservation shelf with a degree of pessimism. I was not surprised to find that there were no journals under my name, only the three additional books I had ordered through the catalogue. However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard borrowers announce that their reservation is not on the shelf, only to find it below, the items under letter of their surname having spilled over onto a lower shelf. I scanned the reservation area, saw four huge cartons, with my name on them. Journal upon journal, some wrapped in plastic due to their infrequent use. Lionel had delivered. Big time. From which I concluded he wasn’t a lazy librarian at all. Though, I strongly suspect the poor fellow has confidence issues. 



 

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