Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: review (Page 2 of 3)

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.

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.

 

Ghostbird – and interview with Carol Lovekin

I generally read books set in the past. I don’t mind those set half in the present and half in the past. Though my preference is definitely for the former. If I do read books set in the present they generally have a quirky, mystical element to them. Or are set in Wales. Which is how I found myself ordering a copy of Ghostbird. It popped up on my Facebook feed. I have to admit the cover intrigued me. As did the recommendation at the bottom:

‘Charming, quirky, magical.’ Joanne Harris.

I flipped over to the Honno site and read the blurb.

Nothing hurts like not knowing who you are. Nobody will tell Cadi anything about her father and her sister. Her mother Violet believes she can only cope with the past by never talking about it. Lili, Cadi’s aunt, is stuck in the middle, bound by a promise she shouldn’t have made. But this summer, Cadi is determined to find out the truth.

In a world of hauntings and magic, in a village where it rains throughout August, as Cadi starts on her search the secrets and the ghosts begin to wake up. None of the Hopkins women will be able to escape them.

Okay, so this was starting to sound like my kind of book. The magical quirky, present day hauntedness was happening in Wales. I ordered a copy. The book didn’t disappoint. It had rain and damp and overgrown gardens and village gossips, resonance with the mythical character Blodeuwedd, Welsh words, fierce original characters, a compelling story and clear, evocative prose. When I turned the final page, I flipped over to Google (as you do) and typed in the author’s name. Carol Lovekin had a blog and she sounded interesting. I shot her an email asking whether she would be willing to answer a few questions for my blog. She agreed.

I had been intrigued while reading Ghostbird to find that much of the viewpoint was carried by a fourteen-year-old girl. I wondered whether Lovekin, had ever thought she was writing for teens. Or indeed whether she had the market in mind when she was writing at all. Here is what she had to say to me:

At no point did I ever imagine myself writing YA. The truth is I’ve always been a bit snobbish about the genre. I’ve learned not to be, but it doesn’t mean I ever planned for Ghostbird to be marketed as a teen novel. And although the possibility of ‘cross-over’ was mentioned, to my publishers’ credit, they haven’t tried. If a young audience does read and enjoy my book, I’m delighted! I don’t mind who reads it.  It was always a novel for adults though. Cadi found me – I’m still unsure why. I have always had easy relationships with young women and girls; I like their fierceness and their courage. And I have strong granddaughters who continue to inspire me.

While reading Lovekin’s blog, I noticed that she didn’t initially realise that she was writing a ghost story. I asked her at what point she realised she was and how the realisation changed her approach. Also what aspects of the novel changed in the re-drafting process?

In the beginning, although I imagined the story with a ghost – Cadi’s baby sister – I wrote her only in brief vignettes. The initial idea was that the myth would be a whispered soundtrack. Once my editor read the complete draft she made it clear the ghost needed a bigger voice. I went away and wrote the ghost’s story in isolation. It was genuinely exciting and once it was done – and slotted into the main narrative – I realized, yes, I’m writing a ghost story! The notion pleased me hugely because I have ‘issues’ with genre and have never really been able to place my work outside of the ubiquitous ‘magical realism’ label. I don’t mind magical realism, I love it – I do get tired of it being appropriated by fantasy writers. Magical realism has very little in common with fantasy. Many things changed during the redrafting of the book, not least the title. And relationships between some of the characters changed too.

The book has a great connection to the landscape and also some very realistic spells and incantations. I wanted to know where they came from. Whether they were a product or research, or Lovekin’s own spirituality?

Ah… The ‘witch’ question! Everyone wants to know ‘where it all comes from’ and some people mistakenly assume I’m a pagan. I’m not – or if I am, it’s like my relationship with ‘fashionable’ and quite accidental! I am an eco-feminist and yes, I have decades of practice behind me. I know my ‘craft’ so to speak; therefore no research was needed with regard to Lili and her ‘powers.

Photograph: Janey Stevens

 

A committed feminist, Lovekin’s characters have an uneasy relationship with the story of Blodeuwedd. Here is what Lovekin had to say about her own relationship with the text:

When I first read The Mabinogion I was struck by the notion that to be turned into a bird could be considered a curse. Initially and purely as an exercise in reclaiming her for feminism, I rewrote Blodeuwedd’s story from her point of view; made her angry and potentially vengeful. I gave Blodeuwedd her voice if you like. Years later, she was still there, haunting me and one day I quite literally woke up and I had Cadi. Fully formed and in complete agreement with me that Blodeuwedd deserved a better fate.

I asked Lovekin how she balanced her love of Welsh mythology against the perceived misogyny in the Mabiniogi?

I don’t address or try to make sense of the misogyny in mythology and legend; or in fairy tales for that matter. I have always enjoyed picking them apart and as I’ve already mentioned, reclaiming them. ‘

When it was first published in 1992, I read Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and I found myself enchanted. She presented me with a whole new way of looking at myth and fairytale which chimed perfectly with my feminism. Goddess is a metaphor for me – the perfect metaphor for the Land and I do believe that once the divine feminine power was diminished, humanity was the loser.

Finally I asked how writing the next book was going.

I’m finding it interesting and a little daunting. There is an expectation – there’s bound to be: people read and like a book and want more. Hopefully they will be happy with more of the same because I’m writing another ghost story. (I have to get it past my editor first of course!) I hope my perspective remains the same: the writing is what matters. It’s the cake so to speak and ‘being published’ is the icing. It’s always about the creative process – with maybe a bit more urgency this time? If writing ever became unenjoyable, I would stop.

I, for one hope she doesn’t stop. I am already looking forward to her next charming, quirky, magical, eco-feminist ghost story set in Wales. But I think Lovekin’s philosophy is the takeaway for me. The creatve process is what matters. Being published is merely the icing on the cake. It is the point I bring myself back to every time I sit down to write. 🙂

The Anchoress – by Robyn Cadwallader

The author’s name first attracted me to this book. Surely she was a Welsh woman? On investigation, however, I found the her to be an Australian. Oh well, dim ots, that made the book a possibility for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. Everyone was talking about it – a debut novel, such an interesting topic, so richly imagined. I confess to an interest in medieval monasticism. I have no illusions about my suitability for such a life. But something about the silence and the simple rhythms calls to me. I put my name down on the library reservation list and prepared to wait my turn.

The book when it arrived had a visual appeal. An interesting prologue illustrated the reason for the swallow depicted on the cover. Using the metaphor of a jongleur, the Swallow, who had fallen when learning to tumble and broken his nose with his own knee, Sarah, the Anchoress says

“Here [In my cell], like Swallow, I was body without a body. Even inside the thick walls of my cell I felt I could see the sky all around me, blue and clear, and I thought I had what I wanted

“I didn’t know then that I had landed on hard ground and broken my bones with my own body.”

Having watched her mother and sister suffer in childbirth, Sarah, daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant, has always sought a life apart. Having secured a wealthy patron she is nailed into her Anchorhold on Faiths’ Day, 6th October, 1255. Her purpose being to pray for her patron and the people of the village in which she has been enclosed. Sarah has her rule to guide her and two maids from the village to care for her physical needs. Father Peter, a wise elderly priest from the local priory, is her confessor. But Father Peter’s health is failing and when he is replaced by a younger more physically able priest, his gentle counsel is withdrawn.

I had been told in hushed tones that this book was set entirely within the few square feet of Anchorhold. This didn’t impress me overly. With memories and flashback an author can inhabit a number of different worlds. This potential was not wasted on Cadwallader. Through Sarah’s viewpoint we get a strong sense of the surrounding village, her past life, and the threat posed by her one time suitor and now patron, Sir Thomas.

Cadwallader also uses the third person viewpoint of Father Ranaulf, Sarah’s replacement confessor. Through him we see the corruptions and the preoccupations of the medieval monastic life. We learn how women were viewed by the church in this era (not pretty reading).

Cadwallader’s initial impetus for writing this novel grew out of her PhD research into the life of St Margaret of Antioch, a virgin who was raped and tormented by the man she refused to marry. When Father Ranaulf is commissioned to write St Margaret’s story for Sarah, he sees it as a chance to instruct her. But as the events of her life unfold and as Ranulf is drawn into the secrets surrounding the other women who have lived in the Anchorhold, the story becomes a powerful metaphor for male power and injustice.

The Anchoress is a literary novel full of subtle imagery and hidden meaning. Despite it’s exposure of corruption and injustice, it is also a book about faith and about making small but powerful shifts in order to survive. By the end of the book both Sarah and Father Ranaulf have changed. Their eventual actions may not satifsfy the sensibilities of a modern reader – why the hell is she still shut away from the world? – but they are true to the era and the prevailing belief system and therefore satisfy on a different level.

 

Changing Patterns by Judith Barrow

Changing Patterns picks up the lives of the Howarth family in 1950, soon after the events with which Barrow concluded her earlier book Pattern of Shadows. We are allowed a brief moment of happiness before a single tragic event upsets the whole balance and the family are thrown into chaos. Old secrets return to threaten the fragile post war peace the Howarth family have found.

The story moves along at a locomotive pace leaving the reader with a breathless, page turning desire to see what happens next. I resisted the urge to flick ahead and, as I was tucked up in bed with a virus, I let myself indulge in a serious reading binge.

At the core of the novel’s plot is the Shuttleworth family. As George Shuttleworth takes up his brother Frank’s twisted mantle the Howarth family’s decisions in relation to the war and the people they have come to love are once again threatened.

Throughout Changing Patterns, Barrow tackles issues of post war prejudice. She also continues to explore the dymnamics of marriage and family. I particularly enjoyed the imperfections inherent in each marriage as well as the petty annoyances between sisters and friends. As each character grew, faced challenges and made peace with their situation, Barrow somehow made her characters real. My only disappointment on turning the final page was that I wouldn’t get to spend anymore time with this wonderfully, flawed family.

As mentioned in my earlier blog, I am still not convinced the final four chapters in Pattern of Shadows belonged in the first book. I would love to have seen them in real time at the beginning of this sequel. However, having seen this possibility, and the fact that the two novels work well despite the chapter placements, has taught me a valuable lesson. There is more than one way to tell a tale. In the end, as long as the story works, the author has made the right decision.

 

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.

 

 

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?

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

 

Learning from Locke

Monday night I went to the movies. I don’t do this often – what with work, Welsh classes, church, Parish Council, Google Hangouts, catching up with mum, interstate Skype chats, and a parade of family anniversaries, I don’t have time.

This week was different. Andrew and I had planned to visit mum. She was out of flue quarantine (yes, this happens in aged care facilities) and we had set aside Monday evening. When she rang to say she wasn’t up to company, we found ourselves with free time on our hands. I proposed the movies. Unusual for me. I’m generally a stay-home-in-your-pyjamas kind of girl. But I’d been feeling tired and over-serious since getting back from overseas. I needed to escape and re-fuel. A movie would be perfect. But which one?

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Andrew said. ‘We’ll choose when we arrive.’

Standing in the half price Monday queue, we narrowed our choices down to two movies. Boyhood a hundred and sixty four minute long, coming of age story, filmed over the course of ten years. Or Locke a shorter, British drama starring Tom Hardy. I favoured Locke.

‘It’ll be risky,’ Andrew said. ‘It’s just a bloke sitting in his car.’

It didn’t sound promising. I had to admit. But it was a British film (whatever that means in the current context) and at only an hour and fifteen minutes in length, Locke was a significantly shorter risk, than Boyhood, which sounded like watching the grass grow.

We bought tickets for Locke. It opened with a character called Ivan Locke sitting in his car. It ended with the same character, Ivan Locke, sitting in the same car. In between were scenes in which Locke drove and talked on his car phone. That’s it. The whole film. Just Locke in his car. Talking. Weeping. Blowing his nose. Driving. Talking some more.

It was riveting.

I repeat, riveting, and, although it was supposed to be a break from work, I gained a number of valuable, writerly insights from the experience.

.

1) your voice doesn’t have to be perfect

Thirty seconds into the opening scene, I nudged Andrew.

‘Psst,’ I said, ‘he’s doing a Welsh accent.’

Note. I didn’t say the lead actor is Welsh. Hardy isn’t. But, in Locke, he had a damn good crack at a Welsh accent. Curiously, this wasn’t scripted. It was Hardy’s innovation. In Wales on line he had this to say about the decision:

“It’s just that, in my mind, the men that come from Wales have a certain gravitas and integrity…. There’s a durability and toughness to them, an inner strength that’s very calming – and the same goes for the Welsh accent…. There’s a softness and soothing quality to it which Ivan need to have. He had to sound like Richard Burton, like he could put out fires with his voice.”

The voice wasn’t perfect (Hardy is the first to admit this). At times, he sounded almost subcontinental. But the accent created an effect. For the duration of that journey, we were in the car with him.

2) good dialogue is everything

Apart from, Hardy’s acting and some evocative night filming of English motorways, dialogue made up the entire movie. We never saw the faces of the people Locke talked too. Only their names, as entered in his car phone directory. Yet these intricately arranged snippets of conversation revealed his values, his loves, his anger, his passions, his motivations and the crisis he was driving towards.

3) some things are beyond the artist’s control

There is a saying in writing circles: if there is a gun on the mantelpiece in the first scene of your story, it had better be in someone’s hand at the climax. Nothing is superfluous. Every detail communicates something. And right from the outset, I couldn’t help noticing, Locke had a helluva cold. He snuffled his way through phone conversations. I can’t tell you how many times he blew his nose. Yet, this seemed to have no direct bearing on the story. This puzzled me. Until I learned that filming took place over five nights with Hardy sitting in the car which was being driven down the motorway on the back of a flat bed truck. There was a degree of improvisation to the situation. The phone calls were coming live from a hotel room. And Hardy had a cold. Here’s how he described the situation to out.com:

“That’s always the way, isn’t it? You have to do something at the last minute and you get ill… I actually really did have a cold. That’s also why Ivan has the handkerchief in his sleeve. There’s nothing like trying to hold a sneeze in when you’re having a very important business conversation—but of course, no one can see you doing that. No one knows where you are when you’re on the phone…unless you’re in a bathroom and there’s an echo. Then someone knows. But I was trying to create that juxtaposition of reality. Here I am, trying to have this very important conversation, and someone’s asking, ‘Are you listening?’ I am listening, I’m just trying to stop snot from flying out of my face.”

Voice, dialogue, perfect timing, and improvistaion. Sound familiar? These are the elements of good writing. In Locke they came together for an hour and fifteen minutes of real, raw, powerfully-understated drama. The effect – not only energising, but inspiring and also, strangely comforting. I may still be an apprentice when it comes to voice and dialogue, but I’ve experienced the strange mix of adrenaline and lack of control that carries creativity forward. I’m also prone to developing colds at just the wrong moment. It may not be much. But it means I’m on the right track. For now that will be enough to go on with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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