Book Review – Sorrow Hill

Today I am taking a look at Beowulf. Not the television series that has been aired recently – I quickly gave up noting the errors and accepted it as a fantasy, using some of the names from the original poem. Although since the original was a story loosely based on historical figures, I suppose any interpretation is valid.

I have found that it is uncomfortable to review books set in my own period, so this time I have gone back to the sixth century.

Sorrow Hill, coverSorrow Hill is the first book in the Sword of Woden series by C R May. I soon started getting echoes of my own book. Take a hero from a famous Anglo-Saxon poem, whose name begins with B and imagine his early life from about the age of 6 or 7 until he becomes a man. I must confess that reading this book almost made me want to put down my pen (or shut down the computer) and give up.

It is difficult to believe that this is the first novel by this author. From the first scene when a young boy climbs a tall tree to catch an eagle chick, it is a beautifully written account of life in the early sixth century. Beowulf is the grandson of the king and shortly after his adventure with the eagle, and a meeting with an old, one-eyed man in the forest (it takes him some time to realise exactly who that was!) he visits the Royal Court. He is sent to be fostered by his uncle, Hygelac. The Kingdom of the Geats is at peace under King Hrethel, but there are hints that all is not well in the rest of the world. Nations are on the move and attention is turning to the rich lands of Britain across the sea – I liked the brief mention, that King Arthur is getting old.

Beowulf grows up within a happy family and trains to become a warrior. This first half of the book could become boring, dealing as it does with the events of daily life. However the perfect combination of character development, the gentle drip of historical information and the lyrical description of the countryside of southern Sweden make it an easy and interesting read.

The only fly in the ointment is another uncle, Hythcyn. Beowulf cannot understand why he is not as friendly and supportive as the rest of the family. After Beowulf is accepted as a full warrior, (a strange and disturbing ceremony), everything changes. King Hrethel is dead, an accident or murder? Hythcyn is now king. Should Beowulf support him or act on his suspicions? The kingdom starts to fall apart and the neighbouring Swedes invade and Beowulf is sent to hold them back. To find out what happens, you will have to read the book, but the scenes of battle are excellent.

The book includes occasional touches of the supernatural, but not as much to make it unbelievable.

I had a slight problem with the names, distinguishing Hygelac from Hythcyn etc, but there is a running joke about the number of people called Harald.

This is the first of four books in the Sword of Woden series and I have already bought the second, Wraecca. I look forward to finding out what happens to Beowulf and how the author deals with turning a legend into a story of living, breathing people. (And monsters?)

The End is Nigh

In know this seems like a silly question, but how do you know when you’ve come to the end of your book?

I know there are writers out there who plan everything down to the last detail; an elegant narrative arc, what happens in each chapter and, probably, the final sentence. I understand it involves index cards and post-it notes – lots of post-it notes, in carefully chosen colours. They probably have notebooks as well which they carry everywhere and leave beside the bed at night, to catch every waking thought.

I’ve tried it – I have a lovely collection of blank notebooks and my post-it notes record only illegible phone messages.

I started my book by accident. It emerged from a writing exercise and continued at random. If my protagonist goes on a journey, do I have him leave, then arrive at his destination in the next paragraph? Let’s have him meet someone on the journey, just to add a bit of excitement. I end up with a visit to Anglo-Saxon London, an orgy and a character who may appear in a future book.

I thought I had an ending, but was encouraged to carry on.

Recently I knew I was getting towards the end. I had a big scene, violent and emotional, that I had been mulling over for some time. Could I transfer it onto the page? I managed to get something down. Only another scene and then something to tie up the loose ends. I wasn’t quite sure about the final words, but I was sure something would emerge as I wrote.

Last week was end of term at the writing class. We had to bring something to read out. I took my “big scene”. I didn’t read  out the whole scene, time was short, but quoted in passing the last few lines. Someone asked if that was the end. I said it was the end of that chapter, but there was more before the end of the book.

Afterwards this conversation nagged at me. Suddenly I realised that they were right – that was the end of the book!

The extra scenes, that I was about to write, would be the perfect start for the next book.

So there I was, the book was finished and I hadn’t even realised. I sit here now, preparing to start editing. I’m sure a lot will change. I will discover my sparkling prose is not as wonderful as I thought and my “darlings” will be bloodily massacred. Does that orgy scene progress the plot or is it only self-indulgence? As they say – Watch this Space!

And those final words? (With names removed to protect the innocent plot)

“You should have killed him.”

“I know. But he used to be our friend.”

A Change of Genre

I have already mentioned the writing class that I attend and how the exercises we do inspire my writing. Today I want to talk about some of our recent successes.

We are a very much a mixed group, male and female, young and old. Anyone can join and new people arrive. Some stay, others move on.
We also cover a whole range of writing genres. Sometimes this can cause problems.

In a recent exercise we were asked to write a scene set at the seaside. There were jokes about Anglo-Saxons going to the seaside. I ignored them.
In fact I have written a scene in my book of a group of teenage boys, sitting round a fire on a beach, drinking cider. Can’t get more modern seaside than that!
No donkeys or sticks of rock, and the fire is a burning Viking ship, but…

Between us we cover everything from children’s picture books to steam punk, teenage vampires and futuristic YA action stories. There are stories about school reunions and family sagas involving wills. We even have a Glaswegian who writes hilarious short stories that always include a Tory politician suffering some indignity.

Dragon Child




Our tutor/leader/torturer is Gill. She writes children’s fiction

For details see here. She has more books out soon.







Another in the group is David, He is our medical expert – we all run our (fictional) injuries past him.

He writes Victorian Railway Mysteries.

His first book is out later this month. For more information go to his website.



Sunset Cottage


Finally, we have our star of the moment, Bella. She’s a Romantic Novelist and her first book  ‘It Started At Sunset Cottage’ was published last year.

It has been quite a success – it was even sold in Tesco! Her next novel is out later this year.

Visit her website to find out more.

She was recently short listed for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award. The awards ceremony is on Monday – we all wish her the best of luck.


Perhaps one day all of us will be there – not the Romantic Novel Award, probably, but our genre equivalent.

Book Review – Alvar the Kingmaker

Writers often say you shouldn’t read other writer’s books about “your” period, as it will influence your own writing. Perhaps I’m not a proper writer yet, but when this book came out, I had to read it.

I had already bought the first book by Annie Whitehead, “To Be A Queen” about Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred the Great, but haven’t yet got around to reading it. My list of books to read gets longer as every day passes.

Alvar the Kingmaker, coverThis book though, “Alvar the Kingmaker”, was about people I am writing about. Alvar, or Elfhere as I know him (Ælfhere as he should be), was Ealdorman (or Earl) of Mercia. He was a contemporary of “my” Byrhtnoth. I was interested to find out how Byrhtnoth was seen by another writer. To my disappointment (or perhaps relief) Byrhtnoth wasn’t mentioned at all. Perhaps he was not needed to tell this story.

The author has made an interesting decision about names, using more modern alternatives, nicknames or titles.  I can understand why. If you are new to the Anglo-Saxon period, names can get a bit confusing. For example the Half-king and his sons, Elwood, Brandon and Thetford are easier to keep track of than Æthelstan, Æthelwold, Æthelwine, and Ælfwold (another son Æthelsige is omitted from the story!). If you already know the names, it becomes more complicated. Not that I’m familiar with these names, but I might be if I get to a second book about Byrhtnoth – I’ve only got to the year 946 so far. It’s something I’ll have to think about.

The book starts in 956, at the coronation of King Edwy, called Fairchild. Alvar is awarded his earldom by the king, but changes his allegiance to Edwy’s brother, Edgar. This betrayal, as he sees it, changes Alvar’s life forever. He will serve his country, whoever is King, for the rest of his life.

Alvar is so busy defending Mercia that he can never find the time to marry, or perhaps it is because he loves two different women. Both are unavailable to him. One is powerful, dark and sexy, the other provincial, fair and shy. Will he ever find happiness with either of them?

Alvar was a powerful man, politically and militarily, but in this book he is rarely seen doing anything. The book shows him arriving home from some fight in the North or Wales, or having to rush off to deal with a crisis. The King never listens to him and most of the time Alver is outmanoeuvred by (Saint) Dunstan and other churchmen. Probably this is true historically, but it doesn’t make for an exciting read.

If you want a well written, well researched book about life in the second half of the 10th century, this is the book for you. I learned a lot from reading it.

I’m afraid I prefer something with a bit more action. Something that keeps you up in the early hours, turning the pages, to find out what happens.

Finally: I noticed one minor error. At one point Alvar is returning from the Vale of York to his home.
” The route would eventually take them down the old Foss Way, bearing south until Alvar could link up with another great road cut by the Romans, following Watling Street to the west to get back to his own house in Gloucestershire.”
I usually take the Foss Way south to the Cotswolds – if Alvar went north on Watling Street, he was taking a (very) long way home!