Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: historical novels society (Page 2 of 3)

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. 



 

Call to Juno – the culmination of a new publishing journey

Having reviewed Elisabeth Storrs‘ first two novels, The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice, I was thrilled at the prospect of reading an advance copy of Call to Juno. A postal error saw my hard copy of the title being sent to Wales where I am no longer residing (sob). When Storrs offered to send me a second, digital copy I asked if she would also answer a few questions for my blog.

Set in 396 BC, with the Etruscan city of Veii surrounded by Roman armies, Call to Juno, continues the story of Caecelia, a Roman treaty bride who defied the gods by choosing an Etruscan nobleman, over her family and heritage. As Caecilia’s royal husband Vel Mastarna seeks an alliance that will break the siege of Veii, Caecelia and her household are trapped within the city walls, facing hunger and disease. Meanwhile, Vel’s treacherous brother, Artile, seeks to undermine Veii’s hopes of military success by luring their goddess Uni to the Roman cause.

Call to Juno is an impeccably researched, page-turner that richly imagines the ancient world, weaving the actions of the gods and the multiple viewpoints of its characters into a seamless narrative. The personalities of its characters are flawed and unforgettable. Themes such as sexuality, unrequited love, fate and choosing your own destiny are handled with depth and and sensitivity. Its battle depictions are awe spine tingling and its religious ceremonies tactile. The conclusion Storrs gives us is at once devastating and hopeful. Call to Juno is a must read for anyone with an interest in the ancient world – indeed for anyone looking for a good historical read.

call-to-juno-by-elisabeth-storrs

In keeping with the ancient setting of her novels, Storrs publishing journey has also taken on a mythic quality. Beginning life as a traditionally published novel, The Wedding Shroud was released at the time of the Borders’ collapse. Storrs’ watched helpless as her publisher, Pier 9, an imprint of Murdoch Books was engulfed by the digital revolution. When the opportunity came to reclaim her author rights, she jumped at the chance, setting in motion a process that would see her three books picked up by Amazon’s Lake Union. I asked Storrs to tell me about her publishing journey.

The Wedding Shroud, the first book in the saga, took ten years to research and write (I rewrote it three times!) I approached agents instead of publishers because I believed I had a better chance of avoiding the slush pile. […] I soon learned that it was incumbent on an author to do most of the publicity for their books themselves as publishers channel the majority of their marketing budget into best sellers rather than their mid lists. I knew The Wedding Shroud was a ‘slow burner’ so when the opportunity came to reclaim the rights after the Pier 9 imprint folded, I jumped at the chance.

As a person who also used up double figures to write and re-write her first novel, I found Storrs’ journey encouraging. I asked how the Indie publishing experience differed from the traditional publishing model.

I finished The Golden Dice within eighteen months and published it and The Wedding Shroud across all retail platforms in both digital and paperback editions. It was the best decision I could have taken as I suddenly was able to reach historical fiction fans across the world. I also realised that I had to adopt the attitude that I was running a business which required me to produce high quality books that were professionally edited and proof read. I hired the same freelance editor who worked on The Wedding Shroud for Pier 9, and then an US editor to ‘Americanize’ my prose as this catered to the ease of reading of my largest audience. I also retained a professional graphic designer to produce my covers. Marketing the books also required me to understand the strategies behind bargain promotions, social media campaigns and subscription emails. For those who are interested in self-publishing, I recommend joining the Alliance of Independent Authors to access wonderful resources to assist you on this path.

tales-of-ancient-rome-books-by-elisabeth-storrs

Storrs’ hunch paid off. her ‘slow burner’ gained over two hundred reviews on Amazon which attracted the attention of the commissioning editor at Lake Union, the historical fiction imprint of Amazon Publishing. It was a dream come true! Stores signed a three book deal to re-release the first two books and write Call to Juno. I asked Storrs how the experience of working with Lake Union differed from he other two publishing models she she had experienced.

The Lake Union team have been delightful. They are courteous, respectful, professional and very enthusiastic. Additionally, they understand the value of bargain promotions which achieve visibility in the digital world. This makes a huge difference compared to the prevailing belief of traditional publishers who eschew such marketing. Thanks to Lake Union, my Tales of Ancient Rome saga is reaching an even larger audience than I could ever have anticipated 6 years after The Wedding Shroud was first published. And now audio editions are being produced as well.

With a string of successes under her belt, I’d say Storrs is definitely on a winning streak. I asked her to tell me about her next project.

I am taking a break from Rome and Etruria for a while. I have always been fascinated by the story of Trojan gold which was smuggled from Turkey to Germany by the archaeologist and gold seeker, Heinrich Schliemann. The treasure was subsequently stolen during the Battle of Berlin by the Russians. I will be delving into the dark world of Nazi archaeology and the quest by both Hitler and Stalin to loot millions of pieces of art throughout Europe during the war.

***

elisabeth-storrsElisabeth Storrs has long had a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. Elisabeth lives with her husband and two sons in Sydney, Australia, and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer and corporate governance consultant. She is one of the founders of the Historical Novel Society Australasia, and a former Deputy Chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Feel free to connect with her through her website or Triclinium blog. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter @elisabethstorrs, Bookbub  and Pinterest. Subscribe to her monthly Inspiration newsletter for inspirational interviews and insights into history  – both trivia and the serious stuff! You’ll receive a free 80 page short story, Dying for Rome: Lucretia’s Tale.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Blog sixteen o Gymru – the pleasures and pitfalls of reviewing

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

Or is it a pitfall?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Announcing the 2015 Reader Survey …. by M. K. Tod

Writers and readers – a symbiotic relationship. Ideas spark writers to create stories and build worlds and characters for readers’ consumption. Readers add imagination and thought along with their backgrounds and attitudes to interpret those stories, deriving meaning and enjoyment in the process. A story is incomplete without both writer and reader.


What do readers want? What constitutes a compelling story? How do men and women differ in their preferences? Where do readers find recommendations? What are their attitudes to pricing or their favourite reading blogs? These and other questions have been the subject of two previousreader surveys.

 

ANNOUNCING A 2015 READER SURVEYdesigned to solicit further input on reading habits, historical fiction preferences, favourite authors and, for the first time, favourite historical fiction. THE SURVEY WILL BE OPEN UNTIL MAY 14.

Highlights from previous surveys:

HISTORICAL FICTION IS MAINSTREAM: Less than 2% of participants said they rarely or never read historical fiction.

GENDER MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Women and men differ significantly in their reading habits and preferences and their views of historical fiction.

AGE MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Those under 30 have different preferences for genre and time period 
and have different patterns of consumption and acquisition.

SOCIAL MEDIA IS HAVING A BIG IMPACTON READING: Social media and online sites play an increasingly significant role for those choosing, purchasing, and talking about fiction.

BOOK BLOGS ARE VERY POPULAR: 1,473 participants listed one, two or three favourite blogs.

GEOGRAPHY: Responses to questions such as the use of online tools for recommendations and purchasing and preferred setting for historical fiction varied by geography.

PRICING: Sadly, readers are pushing for low prices. For example, 60% want e-books at $5.99 or less and 66% want paperbacks at $10.99 or less.

ONLINE BOOK CLUBS ARE GAINING POPULARITY: 21% belong to online clubs while 15% belong to clubs meeting in a physical location

VOLUME OF BOOKS READ MAKES A DIFFERENCE: for example, high volume readers have different expectations for book reviews, a higher interest in tracking their books, and higher usage of online tools and social media to augment their reading experience.


If you are a reader or a writer, please take the survey and share the link [https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/GXRD9B7] withfriends and family and on your favourite social media. Robust participation across age groups, countries, and other demographics will make this year’s survey even more significant. Those who take the survey will be able to sign up to receive a summary report when it becomes available.


M. K. Tod

The inaugural HNSA conference – a subjective summary

I am not a duck-to-water conference goer – all those people, managing allergies, no time to read, or write, or even exercise. But when the date of inaugural Historical Novels Society of Australasia conference was announced, I booked a place without hesitation. I have been a member of the Historical Novels Society for years, have reviewed and written for their publications, chatted with members electronically, watched with envy as the U.S. and the UK members attended conferences. The event had my name written all over it.

Though, I do admit to grappling with a hurdy hurdy of emotions.

In the past, literary conferences were easy. I am a librarian. I am paid to read, review, and recommend books. However, in recent years, the situation has become more complex. The more I write, the closer I get to having a finished manuscript, the tension builds inside me. I listen to author’s talk about their writing process, wondering whether I can be as articulate. I hear publishers discussing other people’s work and find myself holding their comments up to a mirror in my head. All weekend, I swung like a pendulum between awe and inspiration. I came home, exhausted, philosophical and still trying-to-be-determined.

Here is a totally subjective summary of my impressions:

  • Entering a room filled with people most of whom you don’t know is never easy
  • I was glad I went with a friend
  • Especially when I realised how people in the room many had PhDs
  • And published novels
  • It felt great to be part of an inaugural event
  • My heart sunk when I heard how many words some authors write per day
  • And when they talked about dreams and mysterious voices guiding them
  • Some brave writers submitted the first 750 words of their novel for a public reading and assessment
  • It was gruelling – yes, gruelling and I wasn’t even one of them
  • I heard an industry professional say don’t bother submitting until you’ve written about thirteen novels
  • I heard some writers talk about struggling to find inspiration
  • I appreciated their honesty, the way they demystified the process
  • I listened to publishers talk about the influence of Big W
  • I knew publishing was driven by dollars
  • Still, it was a shock to the librarian inside me
  • I heard about new publishing models – a flux in the industry
  • I noticed agents and publishers are now accepting unsolicited manuscripts
  • I wondered how much Indie Publishing and small presses are driving these changes
  • I hope those changes will be lasting
  • The vibe from Panterra Press was so positive
  • I hope they and others will continue to grow and innovate
  • That I can get my manuscript the requisite standard
  • Although…thirteen novels? She said thirteen!
  • I might be dead by then
  • I reminded myself I won an international prize with my first ever short story
  • That I have had other work published
  • That my recent manuscript assessment was largely positive
  • I found myself itching to get home and continue with my revisions
  • Though, it’s gonna take time to banish the spectre of thirteen unpublished novels
  • And the marketing power of Big W

 

The Wild Wood – a review

It started with an email from NetGalley, informing me that Posie Graeme-Evans Australia’s ‘most beloved’ storyteller had a new book coming out. Australia’s most beloved storyteller? I’d never read one of Graham-Evan’s books (or watched McLeod’s Daughters). Did this make me Australia’s least loving reader?

Parts of the book were historical NetGalley informed me. This piqued my interest. I needed to review a book for AWW. Also, Graeme-Evans would be a speaker at the forthcoming HNSA conference.

I applied for a reviewing copy of Wild Wood.

Now here’s the thing about receiving a reviewing copy of a forthcoming title. You have to read it. Even if it’s tosh and you feel like throwing it in the bin, you have to read it. Then when you’re finished you have to write a review – an honest, hand-on-your heart opinion of the author’s work.

Those are the rules.

But, wait, there’s more to the situation (I am now removing my librarian’s hat and placing the hours-at-the-keyboard-wannabe-writer hat). Writing a novel is hard – hours of research, multiple re-writes, numerous oh-my-God-I’m-having-a-nervous-breakdown moments. It is the sedentary version of running a marathon. The last thing an author needs is a nobody reviewer pointing out her novel’s deficiencies online.

What a dilemma. How does Australia’s least loving reader give a hand-on-the-heart opinion of a work she knows an author has sweated blood over?

Watch. I’m going to apply myself to the task.

Wild Wood by Posie Graeme-Evans

Jesse Marley, a young Australian tourist, arrives in England six weeks prior to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. She has an envelope in her bag containing her birth certificate. Not the falsified document she’s grown up with – her real birth certificate – showing her birthplace on the Scottish Borders, and her biological mother’s name: Eva Green.

Jesse is determined to find her mother even if she has to call every Green in the phone book.

When Jesse is hit by a motorcycle and suffers a head injury, it would seem her family reunion plans are being thwarted. However, she can’t explain the presence of a mysterious veiled woman in a modern London hospital, or the fact that she is drawing detailed pictures of Hundredfield a fourteenth century castle on the Scottish Borders. Her neurologist Doctor Rory Brandon, recognises the drawings of Hundredfield, his childhood home. His medical training suggests that Jesse’s head injury has made her a savant. But as Jesse’s drawings become more detailed and her hypnotherapy sessions take on a mysterious tone he wonders whether an unknown force from the past is guiding them.

Running parallel to Jesse’s 1981, pre-wedding narrative is that of Bayard, a fourteenth century Norman warrior. Returning to Hundredfield after an injury sustained during a border conflict, Bayard and his brother Maugris find much has changed. Their eldest brother Godefroi has fathered an illegitimate child, by Margretta, daughter of the castle’s reeve. This has caused fear and resentment among the castle servants. A fear and resentment compounded by Godefrois’s choice of wife, the beautiful and mysterious Lady Flore. Flore neither eats nor sleeps. She appears to hold a strange influence over the brutal Godefroi.

This causes many to suspect he is bewitched.

Bayard’s segments of the novel are written in a first-person, past tense point-of-view. In him, Graeme-Evans has achieved the ultimate, a man of his time – violent, superstitious, subservient to his younger brothers, yet authorative with his underlings. Bayard is also tender and vulnerable. His insights concerning the Lady Flore and Margretta the servant girl are poignant, his battle prowess well-drawn and his first person voice evocative.

I could have stayed in his head for hours.

‘That cold summer bled into a wet autumn and, with the sun hidden behind the clouds, the harvest failed again in the border country. By October, a murrain appeared among the cows and the sheep began to founder, their feet rotting in mire that never dried. As the year turned dark, just before the blood month, nights became cold too early and famine stalked the people for they had no store’s of food.’

The modern day sections of the novel are not so stong.

But, wait, here is where the hand-on-heart part of the review comes in. I’ve read a number of these time-slip type novels – Kate Morton, Kate Mosse, Anna Romer – and I invariably prefer the historical sections of the story. Even though, the person in the present is the protagonist, it is always the story from the past that stays with me long after I have closed the novel’s final page. You could therefore call the following observations biased. Though, in this case, I do believe they go beyond personal taste.

In Wild Wood, Jesse is the novel’s protagonist. The 1981 segments are written in an omniscient, third person, present tense point-of-view. As a consequence, we slip into a number of different heads – Jesse’s, Rory’s, Alicia’s, Mack’s Helen’s, Jesse’s adoptive mother…and others. Sometimes, this head-swapping feels appropriate. At other times it breaks the reader’s connection with Jesse. Graeme-Evans also tends to use descriptive action to mark her dialogue. At times, this made the narrative feel almost script-ish, to me.

‘The dining room in The Hunt is crowded, the tables shoved close together to handle the rush.

Rory survey’s the room. He says uneasily, “I forgot about the tourists. Summer rush.”

Swollen-eyed Jesse’s dismayed by the sight of so many people.

From behind the bar a voice calls out, “Who let you in?”

I have read other reviews of Wild Wood. They take an opposing view to mine – declaring the omniscient present-tense viewpoint immediate, vivid and compelling.

You will therefore have to read the book and decide for yourself.

Wild Wood is a compelling read, despite my reservations. Graeme-Evan’s symbolic use of an ancient legend at the heart of the narrative is artful, her descriptions of the castle’s ancient artefacts tactile and considering the novel’s themes, with present day hindsight, the novel’s setting in the lead up to Charles and Diana’s wedding is eerie.

Does this make Posie Graeme-Evans Australia’s most beloved storyteller? Or am I truly Australia’s least loving reader? The jury is still out on that one. But I will be putting Graeme-Evan’s name on my authors-to-look-out-for-in-future list. I will also reserve Wild Wood for a number of my house-bound library clients. By whom, I anticipate her books will be much loved.

 

 

Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2105

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

 

A writer’s sick leave

You know something is wrong by eleven o’clock Tuesday morning. You are tired….so tired. Why are you so tired? You are finding it difficult to concentrate. You plough on until lunch time, after which you fall into bed. You sleep. Deep. You wake to the inner toll of an alarm bell. You don’t usually sleep in the afternoon – your head aches. You can’t face your manuscript revisions. Small decisions are beyond you. Your husband finds you huddled on the couch in your track pants.

‘What’s wrong?’ He asks.

‘I’m sick.’

‘What about tomorrow night? Should I cancel?’

‘No. I’ll be better by then.’

You open up iBooks. You have an article to write for late early December. This means you have a long To Be Read pile. You flip from writer to reader and start While Beauty Slept.

Being sick is not too bad…as long as you have a good book to read in bed.

Next day finds you feeling no better. You cancel your dinner engagement. You finish reading the first novel (yes, you read fast). You draft a list of questions. You start re-reading Bitter Greens. A mistake. It’s too good. In a fevered flash of horror you realise are wasting your time as a writer. You’ll never be that good. You take two Panadol to ease the pain.

It doesn’t help.

Fortunately, you have a library job. You are needed, like…you have to go to work tomorrow. You have two urgent housebound groups to select for. This is a bad. You generally select a couple of weeks ahead. But some weeks, despite your best efforts you find yourself working close to the wire. This is one of them.

You have to ring in sick.

A third day on the couch. You draft out your second list of questions. You read some interviews. Make notes. Send query emails. Start reading a third novel, The Hand of Fire, by a Judith Starkston. Any guesses what the article is on? You’re sick. But your mind churns. This is called a writer’s sick leave.

Friday morning, you set the alarm. It shrills. Your head pounds. But you have to work. If not, you will have to phone each volunteer and every housebound client, re-schedule the deliveries, be under even more pressure the following week.

You drag yourself out of bed. Toss down cold and flue tablets. Drink copious amounts of coffee. Front up to work, moaning and sweating. You drag yourself through the day, get the selections done. Manange to be polite and helpful on desk. You drive home in a shudder of aching muscles and tumble into bed.

***

Sick Girl – photo courtesy of Culturalweekly.com

 

 

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