Review – A Gathering of Ghosts

One thing that the Historical Novel Society Conference got right this year was the Goody Bags.

Yes, there was no special branded bag to show off – someone said there had been a delay, so we had plain cotton bags, mine was purple. It contained the usual collection of advertising leaflets, specially printed first chapters/short stories, book marks and cards, a bottle of water and a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer.

It also contained a book; a full length 500+ page book and what is more, it was a book I wanted to read! A proof copy of Karen Maitland’s latest novel, A Gathering of Ghosts. When I got home, I ignored all the editing I planned to do and sat down to enjoy it. Since it is published today, 6th September, and I haven’t posted a review here for a while, I decided to write one. (The editing can wait a bit longer!)

Karen’s books are different from anything written by anyone else. They are usually set in a specific place, a long way away in time and place, away from the big picture of historical fiction, but at a local level they say everything about what is happening in the wider world.

A Gathering of Ghosts is set on Dartmoor, or Dertemora as the locals call it, a slightly different place with a character of its own. The year is 1316. Europe is in the grip of famine, caused by months of wet weather. Crops have failed, animals die and there is no avoiding the wind and rain.

The Priory of St Mary contains a group of women, Sisters of the Order of the Knights of St John. Under their Prioress, Johanne they are surviving better than most, from the donations to the Holy Well. But the local people consider the well, sacred to the old Goddess Brigid, belongs to them. On the moor, starving men mine for tin and no-one can stop them.

It is not long since the Knights Templar were destroyed. The Hospitallers benefitted from their fall, but are wary of suffering the same fate. Brother Nicholas arrives at the Priory. He knows that women cannot be trusted to run their own affairs; the sisters must be removed. At the same time a blind boy appears at the Priory. Is he a devil or an innocent requiring protection?

The scene is set for confrontation as women fight for freedom from the domination of men; the Sisters for their independence, the villagers for their sacred well and the old religion, and the starving women of the tinners from slavery.

And as the rain falls, the land itself stirs.

As I expected, it was a dark and fascinating book, full of history and legend – giant dogs roam the hills! There is magic, or is that just in the minds of those who expect to see it? There are extensive Historical Notes that explain many of the myths and stories the author has used.

One of the best books this author has written. I would have bought it myself, if I hadn’t been lucky enough to receive this free uncorrected proof copy.

Hardback £20.99

Ebook £9.49

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With Aethelflaed in Tamworth

I have never been to Tamworth before. I don’t know why, it’s only about 30 miles away, straight up Watling Street. Perhaps because I’ve never had a reason to go. This weekend, there was a very good reason, it was Aethelfest. This was a celebration of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who died in the town 1100 years ago, in 918.

I’m not sure why a town would celebrate the death of a famous visitor – not exactly good publicity. Although it can happen (Maldon, 991?).

So who was Aethelflaed? For anyone who has missed all the publicity, she was the daughter (and eldest child) of Alfred the Great and like him, she fought the Danes, driving them out of Mercia. She was not a Queen, because her husband, Aethelred (no, not that one!) was not a King. Who he was is a mystery and one of the subjects that was covered at the event, organised by Tamworth Literary Festival – Aethelflaed and Women’s Worlds: Reconstructing Early Women’s Voices.

Statue of Aethelflaed and the young King Athelstan by Tamworth Castle

I had seen this advertised some time before and had been attracted by the fact that two very good authors were taking part, both of whom have written about “my” period. Since it was held only a few days after my birthday, I knew I had to go.

I allowed plenty of time for the journey, and arrived an hour early, finding a car park right next to the venue. Plenty of time to have a look round the town. There were plenty of boards so I learned something of the history of the town and ended up at the castle. unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit but wandered round the Castle Grounds where there was an Anglo-Saxon encampment and the display of a colourful Aetheflaed mosaic.

Aethelfest Mosaic

Entrance to Tamworth Castle and floral Anglo-Saxon warrior

The Castle was Norman but Tamworth was important long before, as the capital of Mercia, home of King Penda and King Offa. It was sacked by the Danes in 874 and rebuilt  and fortified by Aethelflaed in 913. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring but I had to get back for the main attraction.

After an introduction by Dr Sara Read, the speaker was Annie Whitehead. Annie has written several books, one, “Alvar the Kingmaker”, actually includes a character I have written about – although from a vastly different viewpoint. Today she was talking about Aethelflaed, whose life she has written about in “To be a Queen”. She told us about Aethelflaed and how little information there is actually is about her. Was it because she was a successful woman in a man’s would, or was it for political reasons? The Kings of Wessex were eager to take over Mercia and when Aethelflaed died, leaving only a daughter to succeed her, she was quickly “rescued” by Aethflaed’s brother, King Edward and never seen again.

Annie has cleverly taken what is known and woven it into a plausible story, interpreting the facts to fit what might be what happened. I recommend her latest book “Cometh the Hour” about King Penda, an interesting view of a king who is usually the antagonist in other books set in this earlier, 7th century, period. It provides an explanation of the burial of the Staffordshire Hoard. Annie also has a non-fiction book coming out in September, “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom“. I look forward to reading it.

The second speaker was treading on dangerous ground. Marianne Whiting is a Viking – or perhaps I should say a writer about Vikings. Born in Sweden, she was captured by a local while on a course at Birmingham University and has been held hostage ever since. She explained how the Vikings were not (just) the rapists and pillagers we know and love, but traders, merchants and innocent settlers. She described the difficulties of writing about writing in a time when beliefs and customs were very different from today. Should she leave out descriptions of animal sacrifice that might shock the modern reader? She doesn’t and her books, the Shieldmaiden Viking Trilogy are all the better for it. We are immersed in ordinary farming life of settlers in the English Lake District. Sigrid Kveldulfsdaughter is a shieldmaiden. She fights for her land, her family and her honour. Politics intervene, her uncle is Eirik Haraldson (Bloodaxe) sometime King of Jorvik over the period of the books. I had read the first two, “Shieldmaiden” and “To Save a Kingdom” and was particularly interested to buy the third “Honour is All” as it deals with the same period, and some of the same characters, that I am struggling with. I have read and finished it (which is why I didn’t write this blog yesterday) and it was everything I wished for, with a wonderful ending.

The third and final speaker was Dr Jennifer Evans talking about medical treatment of medieval women.  Her speciality is the Early Modern Period but she spoke to us about a little known woman called Trotula said to have been the first female professor of medicine in eleventh- or twelfth-century Salerno, who wrote a textbook on women’s medicine. This was a very amusing talk about some of the “cures” for various ailments, mostly of women but sometimes men. The main method of administration was by fumigation, which meant that the doctor didn’t need to look at or touch the woman at all.

The speakers were followed by questions and then a buffet lunch. There was plenty of time to chat and buy books.

Viking and Saxon in harmony. Marianne Whiting and Annie Whitehead signing books.

It was an entertaining and educational  event. I wish I had made more of an effort to investigate more of the whole Aethelfest experience, but it was just too hot. I retired to my air conditioned car and returned home, to read my books in the garden. Thanks to the authors for giving up their time and the Tamworth Literary Festival for organising it and of course Tamworth Borough Council for organising Aethelfest

Back to Ancient Greece

I have recently been watching Troy: Fall of a City, the BBC series showing on Saturday evenings, based on Homer’s Iliad  It has had mixed reviews and after a couple of episodes I nearly gave up, for the usual BBC problem of lack of light and lack of audible speech. By the time everyone emerged into daylight, I was at a loss as to who was who. I had to search my memory for the main characters, others were lost to me for the rest of the series – yes, I stuck it out.

I think my love of Ancient Greece comes from reading the books of Mary Renault – including The King must Die and The Bull from the Sea. For a long time it was my subject of choice – too many books to remember now, and probably many more than those set in the Anglo-Saxon period! I preferred The Odyssey to The Iliad. I think you do when you’re young, all those adventures with monsters and magic, and a happy ending. The Iliad was more complicated, with its theme of men killing each other for honour and revenge. I could never remember who killed who and in what order.

If I was to understand the series, I needed help. Did I have anything on my Kindle that was relevant. I must admit I buy books on special offer that I think I might read when I’m in the mood. The first I found was The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which I see I purchased in December 2017. (Not that long ago, I must have bought it after watching The Handmaid’s Tale.) This was part of a series retelling of  Greek myths. Penelope was the wife of Odysseus, who waited 20 years for her husband to return. In this version of the story Odysseus doesn’t come out well. Was he bewitched by beautiful goddesses or just delayed in a bar somewhere, and does it really matter? Penelope is still in Hades, a very boring place, where she meets people she used to know – Helen is still surrounded by admiring men. Penelope tells her story from her own point of view. She is interrupted by a chorus; the twelve maids killed on the return of Odysseus commentate on the story and on their hard lives. This is in the form of verse in different narrative styles. The book is clever, entertaining and thought provoking.

The second book I read was The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Purchased in 2015). This is the story of Achilles, told by Patroclus, his friend. Patroclus the son of a minor king, admits that he has nothing in his favour. He is not good looking, he has no talent for sport or fighting, and he is not too bright. He is ignored and despised. When he accidentally kills anther boy, he is exiled, to the court of King Peleus. He joins a group of boys, united in their admiration of the king’s son, Achilles. Achilles is everything Patroclus is not; handsome, talented at everything. His mother is a sea nymph, Thetis and he is destined to become a mythical hero. He spends much time alone, he fights alone because no one can compare to him. It is an interesting portrait. Achilles knows he is the best, it is a fact and he has no need to boast of it. He could be unlikable, but he is so innocent, everyone loves him. One day he notices Patroclus and makes him his only companion, to the disgust of everyone. They grow up together, study in the mountains with Chiron. (There is a beautiful description of the fear of meeting a centaur for the first time.) They fall in love.

When the call to Troy comes, Achilles refuses to go, but his mother insists this is the only way for him to become immortal. She hates Patroclus, suspicious his love tarnishes the glory of her son. Achilles sets sail for Troy and Patroclus with him. In this version, Achilles is the only Greek with fair hair, an interesting twist in the controversial casting of Achilles in the TV version.

There was one thing that worried me as I got further into the book. It is written in the first person in the voice of Patroclus. He is the perfect narrator, always there but never noticed. How would the author cope with his death which, of course comes before that of Achilles? She succeeds, wonderfully, in an imaginative and emotional way.

I am glad that the showing of the not entirely successful television series, drove me to reading these amazing books. The second explained something that I had never understood before; why Achilles behaved the way he did and how magnificent it was.

I also realised how similar the Anglo-Saxon period was to Ancient Greece.

The sense of the gods and how they controlled a man’s life.

The hierarchy of gods and men and how you must obey your superior, in all things.

Finally the strength of a man’s oath, and the dishonour he must experience if he breaks it.

Honour is everything.

Review – The Daughter of Time

I’ve had a bit of a Tudor binge over Christmas. It started when I saw the ebook of A Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey on special offer. This is a book that I had heard of, but never got round to reading. It has been mentioned several times in class. In fact, last term we did an exercise based on it – exploring what we could find out about a face in an unknown, historical portrait.

That is what the book is about. A policeman, stuck in hospital with nothing to do, is brought a pile of portraits by a friend. She knows that he prides himself on identifying whether a person is guilty or not, just by looking at their face. He becomes fascinated by one particular face – he decides this man is not a criminal, more probably a judge or a soldier. He is shocked to find out that this is the portrait of Richard III, reviled killer of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

He shows the picture to other people. Everyone sees something different, depending on their own experience. For example, the doctor sees illness – “Poliomyelitis” and a nurse “Liver”. The Matron says “It is the most desperately unhappy face that I have ever encountered.” The only person who sees evil is someone who recognises the man.

The policeman, Alan Grant, decides to find out more. He wants to solve a crime, five hundred years old.

The advantages, for the plot, is that this book was written in 1951. For a start, no one would be bored in hospital, with television, internet etc, so it would never get started. In this case, he must wait, for a member of staff to bring in a book on history, then another. He finds books disagree, nothing satisfies him that the “case” has been properly solved. He needs to look at original sources. The friend  who brought the pictures finds someone to work for him; a young American doing research in the British Library. He follows the policeman’s instructions, moving from contemporary historical accounts, back to original documents. All this takes time. The focus of the book remains the policeman, never moving from the hospital room. Of course there are no mobile phones, he must wait, patiently, until his assistant visits with information and is then sent for more.

Finally the policeman comes to a conclusion – a conclusion that runs against all accepted wisdom. The American assistant, astounded at the new interpretation, prepares to write a book that will make him famous and show his father he is not worthless. Then there is a final twist – which I won’t reveal in case someone hasn’t read it.

Although written and set in the 1950s, it does not seem old-fashioned. That, I suppose, is why it is a classic. It never moves beyond those four walls of the hospital room but covers relationships from modern times back into the past. It explores the meaning of history and how it is interpreted by historians  for their own ends. And of course it is a proper detective story, with a satisfying ending – whatever your views on the “truth”.

A perfect example of how to write.

I then moved on, from the sublime to, well, The White Princess – both book and TV series. But I’ll save that for another time.

As for my own writing, I started the year well, with 2,340 words on New Years Day. Since then, I’ve only done another 989. I intended to do more yesterday, but needed to look up a fact. I couldn’t find it and ended up sorting out all my writing paperwork, class notes, homework, letters from publishers etc. At least I achieved something, if not what I wanted!

Review – The Anglo-Saxon Fenland

Your protagonist must have a home.

A home to leave to go adventuring, or a home to return to. Perhaps he has no home, but is searching for it or it is forever lost to him. It is part of his background story. Even if you never describe it, you should know where it is, or was.

When I started writing about Byrhtnoth, I tried to find out where he came from. There seemed to be no information. There are suggestions that his ancestors were from Mercia. Politically he was linked to Athelstan, Aeldorman of East Anglia. There was another person of the same name, living around the same time, he was Bishop of Ely from 970 to 996. Byrhtnoth was a patron of Ely Abbey, giving it many villages, mostly in that area. He was buried at Ely after his death at the Battle of Maldon.

It seems reasonable to assume that his original home was in the area. I pored over maps and selected a particular village, on the edge of the Fens (The fenland is that mysterious area around the Wash, on the junction of the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Lincolnshire.) At the time we were travelling regularly along the A14. One day we made a diversion and drove through the village; we looked at the church, walked a bit. It would do as a base on which to build Byrhtnoth’s village. My made up village probably bears no resemblance to the original, it has changed due to the vagaries of plot. I have never managed to find a name for it, it is just “The Village”.

Earlier this year a book was published, The Anglo-Saxon Fenland by Susan Oosthuizen (details here) and I thought I’d better read it. What if I found I had written some detail that was incorrect? I don’t think I have, but I now have lots of facts to sprinkle lightly into the descriptions.

The book first poses the question: “When did the Anglo-Saxons arrive in the fenland?” The area was extensively farmed in the Roman period; what happened when thy left? Did the native Britons abandon the area, leave an empty space into which the Anglo-Saxons moved. The answer seems to be no. A detailed study of place names suggests that locals and invaders (if such they were) mingled, continuing to farm the area. If the area had been abandoned, the landscape would have changed, dry land would have appeared and trees. It is an area that looks empty, but in fact it has been carefully managed, probably for millennia.

I learnt about the different soils and how the height of water affects the grasses and other plants. It is a rich area, but only if eternal vigilance is maintained. Everyone had to work together. Many of the grazing animals, cattle in one area, sheep in another were regularly moved, to make use of type and height of grass. Areas were left to regrow, pregnant beasts and young got the best grass in spring etc. The important thing was, that all this was done in common. Everyone would have to get together to agree what was to be done when. Groups of vills (parish, manor etc.) were bound together, all utilising the same fen; the next group, another fen, which might be quite a distance away. So, everybody, lord, peasant, anyone who owned land in a particular area, had a say in what was done – democracy of a sort.

There is a lot more in the book; about the way the water was directed to where it was needed. That flooding was important. If the land didn’t flood it reduced the amount of rich silt, to grow the grass. Only lack of flooding caused a problem.

I could go on, the book was fascinating. I learned a lot. I hope it will improve my writing – I certainly need to find out more about dairy farming in the tenth century. There must be another reference book about that somewhere. Too late to put it on my Christmas list?

I found it difficult to write this week, I kept being called away to go and buy a tree, make decisions about decorations, when to buy a turkey, etc.

I put my blinkers on and manged 6,294 words this week – I was surprised. I don’t expect I’ll do much in the next week, perhaps the week after!

I have planned some special blog posts over Christmas, so keep a lookout for them.

Happy Christmas and wes þú hál  if I don’t see you before.

Review – The Briton and the Dane

“Gwyneth walked towards the formidable Keep, nodding to the guards patrolling the wall-walk once she reached the top of the tower. She breathed in the sea air, admiring the beauty of the land as the sun disappeared below the horizon, mesmerized by the rich and colorful hues of the darkening sky. She was comforted by the melodious sound of breaking waves crashing against the rocky cliffs, which was a calming respite from the throes of a violent world.”

This is the start of  “The Briton and the Dane” by Mary Ann Bernal. I downloaded this book some time ago (June 2015, Amazon tells me.) I got 18% into the book, before giving up – it was so bad. Looking for something to review this week, I decided to give it another try. After all, Amazon’s reviews for this book average 9.5 stars. The reviewers rave over it. Was I missing something?

I pressed on to about 50% – My opinion hasn’t changed.

Let’s return to Gwyneth in her castle. Not a bad start, a bit dramatic, but you need to hook the reader. She sees a wounded stranger, wandering the beach. She rescues him, patches him up and “the sight of his bulging muscles caused her heart to beat faster” and she instantly falls in love with him. A bit quick but this is Historical Romance. Actually I would have liked a picture of the bulging muscles on the cover – it would have helped to relieve the tedium!

We meet Gwyneth’s family: her father Lord Richard, her brothers David and Stephen. Gwyneth does not know that her father has arranged a marriage to another man, she runs away, etc. There are other characters all in love with or married to the wrong man. There are political complications. The language is a type of cod medieval that I last heard in (very) old films. A phrase picked at random, during a fight to the death:

“Lord, please spare David,” Gwyneth silently prayed, “and end this fight before blood is spent!” (In fact, typing it out, I’m not sure what this means!)

None of this would necessarily put me off, except for one thing – Remember? I am writing a series of posts on the subject of Anglo-Saxons and (in this case Romance). This book is set in the reign of King Alfred. The bulging muscles belong to a Dane called Eric, but you would never have guessed from the other names, that they are Anglo-Saxon. These Norman names would not appear in England for more than two hundred years.

It is set shortly after King Guthrum’s defeat by Alfred and his conversion to Christianity. Lord Richard is the Lord of Wareham. Now I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to Wareham, I might well have passed through it on holidays in the area, but I am pretty sure there are was no Anglo-Saxon castle (with keep) on the cliffs there. In fact, there are no cliffs, rocky or otherwise. A quick check on Wikipedia would tell you that:

“The town is built on a strategic dry point between the River Frome and the River Piddle at the head of the Wareham Channel of Poole Harbour. The Frome Valley runs through an area of unresistant sand, clay and gravel rocks, and much of its valley has wide flood plains and marsh land. At its estuary the river has formed the wide shallow ria of Poole Harbour. Wareham is built on a low dry island between the marshy river plains.”

Yes, King Alfred built earth ramparts round the town and it was occupied by the Danes in 976. But sorry, no “formidable fortress sitting atop the rocky cliff”. There were no stone castles until the Normans built them 200 years later. Just a few ruined walls left by the Romans.

For me this book failed on every level. The plot is difficult to follow – people tell each other what is happening, repeatedly and there are unexpected flashbacks to explain what happened in the past. The setting was wrong and there was absolutely no sense that these characters were living in the ninth century.

As for Gwyneth and Eric, I have no wish to find out if they live happily ever after. I assume they do as the series continues for two more books, with what looks like a spin-off, plus a time slip novel. There are many, much better, books out there to read instead.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this, I wrote 6,541 words last week (with this post that means I’m over my weekly target of 7k!)

 

Review – Northman

“843 AD. A Viking raid on an Anglo-Saxon village in England sets into motion a train of events that results, 1200 years later, in the release of an eternal evil into the lives of two unsuspecting and damaged people: archaeologist Kate and ‘B’ movie film director, Michael.” 

Sounds a bit like last week’s blog post? It’s not, but there is a link. Having written a review of a book combining Anglo-Saxon and humour, why not continue the “Anglo-Saxon and …” theme? I decided on Horror – I fancied a bit of gore. I don’t know where I came across this book, Northman, by J D Hughes. It might have popped up in one of Amazon’s lists of recommended books. The description continues:
Then, their descent into absolute terror begins. Ultimate conflict. Ultimate sacrifice. But more is at stake than their lives, or their love. Are you ready for terror? Come on in. Thorkild is waiting for you.” – sounds good!

By coincidence, the story concerns a ninth century Viking in a burial mound, a female archaeologist and a male film maker, but it couldn’t be more different. It starts with the Viking Thorkild, sailing up the Trent for a bit of rape and pillage. This is particularly graphic violence, as is the revenge taken by the villagers – a mixture of British and Saxon.

The book turns to a series of mysterious events. A second world war German plane drops a bomb that doesn’t explode, until, years later, a tractor hits it. Planes inexplicably crash. A poacher apparently kills himself.

Kate, the archaeologist, who has arrived to investigate the Viking remains scattered by the explosion, is attacked. She is found by Michael, who has just finished a film. They are attracted to each other, but reject their feelings. They are both grieving for previous partners, dead or just estranged.  It was at this point I nearly gave up – the characters seemed unsympathetic, almost wooden and there was too much background detail. I wanted to get onto with what I thought was the story – the usual reincarnation of the historic characters/ghosts in modern people and the fight to destroy/lay to rest the dead Viking. (As told in several of the novels by Barbara Erskine and many others.) This is similar, but much more.

Kate and Michael meet again, unexpectedly, in Madrid, but are drawn back to England. Other characters appear, a Spanish translator, Kate’s elderly archaeologist boss, an RAF accident investigator. A flask of radioactive material heading for recycling splits on a ferry at Dover, causing multiple deaths. A museum attendant in Chicago is skinned alive and a woman in Madrid is decapitated. What is the connection?

Gradually everything comes together in a climax, or several climaxes. Things change depending on the point of view. This is what makes the whole book so terrifying. You think you understand the plot, but something happens and you are knocked backwards. The action jumps from place to place, from person to person and from the past to present and back again. The random acts of violence catch you unawares, the long expositions on men and women and the differences between them start to make sense, perhaps.

There is a lot of description, particularly of dark woods, of darkness in general, but even in the heat of Madrid, there is something uneasy in the brightly lit modern hotel.

It is the ideal horror book – enough plot to keep the brain busy, and that hint of menace to keep you looking over your shoulder.

I’m not going to give away the plot, but by the end, everything has changed, in unexpected ways. Only one person knows the truth, though – and the white horses!

The ebook, published in 2014 is only £1.49 and there is a more recent paperback for £10.99.

Mr Hughes has written another, similar book “And Soon the Song.” I have already purchased it. He has also written short stories details on his blog

So, where shall I go next in my “Anglo-Saxon and …” series? Romance perhaps? One of those books with a well muscled man on the front?

Or something else? Suggestions welcome, only please make it something short – I only managed to write 5,500 words last week.

And I really must get on with some Christmas shopping!