Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: review (Page 2 of 3)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The film is never as good as the book

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

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

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

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

How could they possibly go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) The voice overs

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

A blank screen and a narrating voice were lazy television.

2) The flash backs

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

Give the girl a chance to act, I say!

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

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

 

Leap the Wild Water – how I caved into Twitter spam

Confession: I have a love hate relationship with Twitter. On the one hand, I get to read great articles and have chats with interesting people from around the world. On the other, I have to scroll through miles of spam. Why on earth authors think promoting their book involves repeatedly Tweeting its merits is beyond my comprehension. From the outset, I made a silent pact never to respond to these Tweets. Or to any others that consistently jammed up my newsfeed. But…have you ever noticed never is a dangerous word. Once declared, the words, 'Oh, well, just this once,’ do begin a battle in your head.

One of the things I do on Twitter is search for people with common interests. One of my perennial hash tags is #historicalfiction. While scrolling through this feed, I noticed one book, Leap the wild water, by Jenny Lloyd clogging up my feed. I also noticed it was getting consistently good reviews. Now Lloyd is a Welsh name and, in case you haven’t noticed, I have a mild (cough) interest in all things Welsh. When I realised this was a historical novel, set in Wales, written by a Welsh author my resolve began to cave. I clicked over to Amazon, found the novel was set in the nineteenth century, my particular era of interest, and thought damn: I’m going to have to buy this book.

I did and, thanks to Amazon’s ‘one click’ buying process Leap the Wild Water was downloaded before I had a chance to re-think my decision.

Now, here’s the thing about caving in – you must be magnanimous in your defeat. I read Leap the Wild Water in one weekend. I enjoyed it so much, I asked the Historical Novel Society whether I could write a review for the Indie section of their website. As it turns out, they were interested, so interested, that Indie reviews editor Helen Hollick shortlisted the review on her blog. Meanwhile, I contacted Jenny Lloyd, told her about my extensive blog readership (even bigger cough) and asked whether she would like to do an interview. Turns out, she not only wrote a great first novel, but she is also a nice person. I am pleased therefore, to present you an interview with Jenny Lloyd:

Thanks Jenny for taking the time to answer my questions.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for inviting me.

I notice you have an interest in family history. Is Leap the Wild Water a family story? If yes, what came first, the intention to write a novel or family history research?

The intention to write a novel had been with me since childhood but it was finding this story during my family history research which inspired Leap the Wild Water.

How long did the novel take you to write?

Following the research, writing the first draft to publication took over four years. It took that long because I suffered two bereavements shortly after finishing the first draft which rendered me incapable of writing for a year. When I went back to it, I cut the first fifty pages and rewrote them. I then redrafted the rest of the book.

Did you begin with two alternating voices or did that come later? How did the process of drafting and redrafting unfold?

In the first draft, I just let the character’s voices pour out on the page. Initially, the book was written in two parts; the first part was from Megan’s POV, the second part was written from her brother’s POV, with their individual stories converging at the end. I took a risk in writing each character in the first person because it meant their individual voices had to be very strong but both viewpoints were integral to the story.

I played around with the narrative structure for ages until it made my head spin. I don’t know how others do it, but I found it impossible to make major changes without typing off the entire manuscript. I laid out all the individual chapters on the floor and rearranged them into a pattern which I felt gave the narrative and plot more power and suspense. In making these changes, I then needed to alter the beginning and ending of each chapter so the whole blended together seamlessly.

In retrospect, and with the benefit of all I learned during the writing process of that first novel, I realise that I made my task all the harder by not making decisions about the structure before beginning to write. The writing of the sequel (coming soon) has been infinitely easier in that respect because the outline of the story structure was in my head before I began. Having said that, it is the characters, and the choices they make, which ultimately drive the narrative and they constantly throw up surprises.

Are you part of a writing group?

I’m not part of a writing group. I’m a self-taught writer and most of what I’ve learned about writing has been through reading. I read the very best in the genre, and read the worst, and all the ones in between. My advice to anyone wanting to improve their writing skills is to read, read, and then read more until you have absorbed the rules of good writing and what makes the difference between good and bad writing.

When researching a historical novel you have to know so much more historical detail than what finally appears in the finished product. Was there anything you'd love to have shoehorned into the narrative but simply couldn't find a place for?

When I first began researching my family history it was with no idea that it would lead to the writing of a novel. The discoveries I made during that time led me to want to learn all that I could about how my ancestors had lived and survived. I researched every aspect of their lives; what they wore and ate; how they travelled around such rugged terrain; their daily tasks; their religion and superstitions; and the inequalities and constraints women were subject to. I amassed a large collection of books on every aspect of Welsh life in the past.

There was so much more I would have liked to include but I was wary of how much of the background stuff I weaved into the story. I felt that to include too much would have got in the way of the story and altered its pace. For me, the main purpose of all that research was so that I was able to vividly imagine the lives of my characters. When I think of the novel now, it seems more like recalling personal memory than recalling a work of fiction that I have written. I feel like I have lived in that time and place.

Your descriptions of the Welsh countryside are so evocative. Can you tell me where you live? What aspects of the landscape inspired your writing? Are they real places? Would you consider writing something set outside of Wales?

I was born in mid-Wales and have lived here for most of my life. The wild, open mountains are the most special places in the world to me. I’ve been keeping journals of my walks for many years. In them, I have recorded the wildflowers I find, and also descriptions of the weather and the landscape, along with some poetry. I never thought of them as an aid to novel writing until I began Leap the Wild Water. I then realised that I had a wealth of descriptive detail which had been written with immediacy and detail that I would never have attained if recalling from memory alone.

Though the landscapes in Leap the Wild Water were mostly imaginary, they were certainly inspired by the area where my ancestors lived. The Welsh landscape and the difficulties my ancestors went through have been my inspiration. For those reasons, I can’t imagine writing a novel set outside Wales, but you never know.

Is this your first work of fiction? Did you seek traditional publication? What are the advantages of Indie publishing?

Leap the Wild Water was the first full length novel I’d written. It was so long in the research and writing that when I felt I’d made it the best it could be, I was impatient for it to be published. I’d heard of so many people trying and failing to get published in the traditional way that I chose not to go down that route. The downside of indie publishing is that the author, however good their work, never gets to see their novels on the shelves of mainstream bookstores. The best thing about being an indie author is that the novel I published is exactly as I wrote it; nobody else has come along and changed it in any way, which seems to be what happens to traditionally published authors.

You can buy the book on Amazon but before you do why not check out the review on the HNS site.

 

The battle for the eBook: why publishers need libraries

Imagine this scenario:

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

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

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

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

Yes, I thought it would be popular.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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