Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

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Pattern of Shadows – Judith Barrow

Having just recovered from an upper respiratory tract infection, you will imagine my horror when I found my husband had returned from a work trip, carrying another version of the sniffly, snotty, headachey and generally laid-low versions of the virus. We are now both sitting in front of the fire like a pair of old crones having had to cancel a swather of eagerly anticipated events. The only consolation in this whole gloomy picture (apart from re-watching Poldark episodes) is that I get to read and read and read some more. To aid my recovery, I decided to indulge myself in a couple more titles from Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press.

Judith Barrow’s, Pattern of Shadows, is set in the North of England during World War Two. It tells the story of Mary Howarth, the sensible hard working daughter of Bill and Winnifred Howarth, who is nursing sister in Granville, a nearby prisoner of war camp. Mary’s eldest brother, Tom, is in prison while her other brother, Patrick, is forced to work in the mines. Her younger sister, Ellen, simply wants to have a good time with her American G.I. boyfriend, Al. When Frank Shuttleworth, an embittered returned soldier, enters their lives, the family’s patterns are set to change. Though, none of them can forsee the trail of events that will unfold. Or anticipate how new, forbidden, relationships will test to their loyalties.

As my parents were both children in the UK during the Blitz, I grew up on stories of World War Two Britain. But only during the last few years – thanks to Foyle’s War, Peter Ho Davies, The Welsh girl, and a prevalence of Italian ice cream shops in South Wales, have I come to realise how many prisoner of war camps there were in Britain during this time. Pattern of Shadows, explores what it would have been like to work in such a camp, deftly handling themes of prejudice towards prisoners, conscientious objectors, and others who were at odds with the political mood of the day. Written primarily from Mary Howarth’s third person point of view, the descriptions of working class daily life are detailed and realistic. Her attitudes towards Frank Shuttleworth and her father are consistent with the times. Though, as a modern woman, I wanted to shout no, don’t put up with it! Go to the police! on more than one occassion.

The novel occasionally shifts viewpoint and, at times, these shifts aren’t seamless. I found myself having to re-read sections. There was also a tendency to use flash back when a straight linear narrative may have created more dramatic tension. But these are merely quibbles. The story worked well despite them.

I thought the novel had finished at the end of chapter seventy seven. I was surprised to find, I had four more chapters left to read. These jumped ahead to 1950 and my first thought was that they belonged in the sequel. However, that was not the author’s decision. She, no doubt, has a different tale to tell in Changing Patterns. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.


We that are left – an interview with Juliet Greenwood

Those who know me, won’t be surprised to hear me confess I have a slight (cough) interest in Wales. The landscape fills me with a sense of rightness, the language enchants me, Wales’ history both saddens and inspires me. When I get a chance to read Welsh historical novels by Welsh authors set in Wales, my enthusiasm knows no bounds. This is how I came across Gwasg Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press and, in this instance the novels of Juliet Greenwood.

Those who follow my every blogged word will know I reviewed Greenwood’s, Eden’s Garden, a few weeks ago. If I were to set you a quiz, I hope you would remember it is set in both North Wales and Cornwall and that it was tactile enough to make me feel I had visited both places. Well, guess what, I’ve read Greenwood’s second book, set primarily in Cornwall, with just touch of North Wales, and despite being a World War One book, and handling a host of grim issues, it somehow managed to be hopeful, inspiring and even enjoyable. I decide a review wasn’t enough for this one. I’d see if the author would answer a few questions. Greenwood was gracious enough to agree. Before we proceed. Let me give you the cover blurb for We that are left:

Elin lives a luxurious but lonely life at Hiram Hall. Her husband Hugo loves her but he has never recovered from the Boer War. Now another war threatens to destroy everything she knows. With Hugo at the front, and her cousin Alice and friend Mouse working for the war effort, Elin has to learn to run the estate in Cornwall, growing much needed food, sharing her mother’s recipes and making new friends – and enemies. But when Mouse is in danger, Elin must face up to the horrors in France herself.

And when the Great War is finally over, Elin’s battles prove to have only just begun.

We that are left, has won Waterstones Wales Book of the Month, Wales Independent Bookshops Book of the Month and Wales National Museums Book of the Month, March 2014

See, I’m not the only one excited.

I asked Greenwood how she came to write a World War One novel. She confessed the idea had come to her while researching Eden’s Garden, parts of which were set at the end of the Victorian era. She had studied the war poets and read novels set in that era, but realised she knew very little about the experience of the women. In the end it was just a small paragraph about a women who discovered her own skills as manager and businesswoman, that jumped out at her.

“My strongest feeling from the very start was that I wanted to see the experience of the war through the eyes of one woman. Part of that was that I didn’t want the story to be the horrors of the trenches and the battlefields. I felt that focussing on such visceral horror would overwhelm the civilian’s experience that I wanted to tell, and effects of war on the men who survived.”

As the blurb indicated, We that are left tells the story of Elin a naive young woman with a blind acceptance of her less than ideal marriage who grows into a young woman with ideas of her own and a destiny of her choosing. Her voice is innocent, almost child like, in the beginning of the story, and somehow matures without loosing a sense of her being the same person. Greenwood said she took ages to find Elin’s voice. Though she knew from the outset that the novel needed to be written in the first person. I asked her how her own life lessons had a bearing on Elin’s journey.

“I didn’t realise it when I was writing the book, but I definitely drew on my own experience of being a naïve and idealist teenager, and the knocks and experience that have made me grow along the way. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when women were still not seen as capable of achieving much beyond marriage and a family. That image was just as insidiously corrosive as the size zero one today. Like many women of my generation, Germaine Greer’s ‘The Female Eunuch’ was a bombshell that put into words many of frustrations I had assumed was just me being a failure, and finally gave me permission to be what I wanted to be, sending me on a rollercoaster of a ride towards becoming my own woman. The experience of Elin’s generation is not really that far away!”

We that are left is a war book that somehow remains light without skirting around the major issues. From reading Greenwood’s blogs on the Novelistas site I gathered this is something of a personal philosophy. I asked Greenwood to explore this philosophy with me.

“I think sometimes books are only seen as ‘serious’ and worth reading if they are full of horror and doom and gloom, as if it’s the author’s solemn duty to educate the reader, and the reader’s humble duty to listen and learn and be dragged kicking and screaming to face the terminal tragedy of existence. And women, of course, are only capable of writing (and reading) the fluffy bunny version of life known as ‘domestic’. Sigh…

“…Reading might be the only few minutes in a day – maybe even in a week – when the reader is not juggling grown up children going through a divorce along with parents growing frailer and frightened, and maybe also caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s.”

Greenwood maintains her readers doesn’t need educating in the big issues of life. They are living them. That doesn’t mean she insults them by only writing about ‘fluffy bunnies.’

“I think women are the great survivors, who make a life whatever the circumstances, and that should be celebrated rather than seeing them as passive victims of circumstance. I’ve also found that it’s when facing the most difficult circumstances that you not only learn just how vile a small minority of human beings can be, but also the strength, empathy and supportiveness of the vast majority. And it’s also when you learn the most about yourself and become more understanding of others’ experiences.”

Finally, apart from my slight (cough) interest in Wales, I love to hear about the writing journeys of other authors. I wanted to know whether Greenwood was a first draft, no holds barred person. Or one who plots carefully not commiting a word to the page until she has it all worked out. I also wanted to know about the re- drafting process (here, is where you hear my own deep sigh).

“I find this a fascinating process. As my alter ego, Heather Pardoe, I write serials for magazines. There the story is set out and agreed, and I then write it instalment by instalment with little room for manoeuvre. When it comes to writing a novel, I usually have an idea of a setting, and I know the beginning and have an idea for the end, and generally have a focus for the story. I start with a sort of family tree of the interconnecting main characters linked around the setting. So I end up with a piece of paper with circles with names inside them, and with lines connecting one to the other. I usually can’t read any of it by the end, but I know where it is in my mind. I then draw up a rough timeline just to make sure mothers aren’t younger than their daughters and that sort of thing.

“I usually write the very first paragraph by hand, just to get going, then type straight onto the computer. I start off knowing exactly where I’m going. Then by the third paragraph I realise I need a new character to have a conversation with the heroine – who then has a family and a story of their own. And after that a whole host of characters muscle in from somewhere in the ether, and I’m off on a rollercoaster ride of discovery. For the first draft I tend to just go with the flow. I don’t revise. Characters change name, age, and even sex. I just keep going until I have the story. Mouse in We That Are Left was originally a male pilot. After two sentences I realised that was just a cliché and we all know where that one’s going. As I stomped off to walk my dog in frustration, Mouse appeared, out of the blue, and the story took on a whole new dimension.

“I finding it is the redrafting, once I’ve got the story down and know where it is going and who the characters are, that is the exhilarating stage where it all starts to come alive. I draft and re-draft, until I no longer know if the reader will make any sense of it at all. That’s where an editor comes in. Having the first outside view is terrifying, but also inspiring. I don’t always go with her suggestions, but I know in my guts when she is right, and I often find a solution that neither of us have come up with. It’s like having a mediator between you and the reader. It’s almost impossible for a writer to see the story from the outside. Having those bits points pointed out always inspires me to dig deep find a solution.”

What more is there to say, apart from adding a short, about the author blurb:

Juliet lives in a traditional Welsh quarryman’s cottage between Anglesey and the mountains of Snowdonia. As a child, Juliet always had her nose in a book. She wrote her first novel (an epic inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff and set in Saxon times) at the age of ten. After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet worked in a variety of jobs to support her writing, before finally fulfilling her ambition to become a published author.


You can buy a hard copy of the her books through Honno. Or an eBook in all the usual places. Greenwood can be found on all the main social media channels. She blogs on the Novelistas site and at: julietgreenwoodauthor.wordpress.com


Eden’s Garden – by Juliet Greenwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flint – a blood red tale by Margaret Redfern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2105

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


The Storyteller’s granddaughter – a truly Pentecostal novel

My second holiday read was The storyteller's granddaughter by Margaret Redfern. What? Two books in four days? I read fast. I would have read a third book but The Storyteller's granddaughter is a work of fierce beauty. Parts of it required re-reading – multiple times.

Published by Honno the Welsh women's press (well, sue me, I have an interest in Welsh publishers too) and reviewed by the Historical Novel Society, The storyteller's granddaughter breaks all the rules of a 'popular' novel. It starts with an obscure prologue like first chapter, follows with the history of a tribe, swaps viewpoints more times than is usual, and uses Turkish and Welsh words without a great deal of translation, so that, at times, you are dizzied by its shifts. Yet, it works.

On so many levels, it works.

The story starts, late summer, in fourteenth century Anatolia, and follows the journey of a cobbled together group of traders lead by the enigmatic Welshman Dafydd ap Rhickett. Into this group comes a Yürük girl disguised as a boy who is seeking her lost English grandfather. The Welshman recognises the girl, he has seen her in the Yürük camp but, for reason of his own, he agrees to keep her secret. Through illness, intrigue, attack and disaster, the group races to catch the Venetian fleet sailing from Attaleia. Enroute, they come under the spell of the Yürük girl. For all harbour secrets, the biggest of which is being carried by the enigmatic Welshman himself.

The beauty of the novel comes from Redfern's use of language which is rich and poetic. Also from the intermingling of Sufi mysticism and western thought. Each character carries pain, each one is haunted by their secrets, yet in this community of many tongues and faiths, they journey towards peace and resolution. Could the story truly have happened? Possibly not. But there is enough beauty in the telling to make one yearn for belief. Indeed, Redfern gives us a multifarious vision of how a life of faith may be lived.

Great wrong was done by your father, and by the monks who would not listen to you. There are more ways of serving God than that of life in a monastery. That is what Nene used to say. Each to his own. Find gladness in your living. That is what she said. It is in gladness that you worship and honour the life God gave you and for which you are intended.

I'll admit, I ordered this book because I have an interest in Honno, an independent cooperative press that exists to get best of Welsh women's writing into print. You cannot submit to them unless you are Welsh, have lived in Wales, or have a significant connection to Wales. I sometimes lie awake at night, wondering whether having a Welsh mother, multiple holiday visits, speaking and teaching Cymraeg, and being related to the late Welsh historical novelist John James would be enough. These are questions I may put to the test when I stay at Stiwdio Maelor next year. Meanwhile, one thing is certain. To be picked up by Honno you need to be an exceptional writer.


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