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!)

 

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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!

 

Review – 1066, What Fates Impose

This book, by G. K. Holloway, tells the story of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. After a grisly account of the death of King William in 1087, it returns to the beginning, to 1045 and the marriage of King Edward (later called The Confessor). After many years of Danish rule, England has a king from the house of Wessex, but is Edward the right man for the job? His mother is Norman, he has spent most of his life in exile in France. It is on his wedding night that he makes the fateful decision not to provide an heir.

His wife is Edith, daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Godwin and his sons are the most powerful family in the country; they are feared and hated by other Earls and the King himself. They try to wield power fairly, for the most part. Years pass and Godwin, together with his sons are unjustly exiled but return, more powerful than before.

The lack of an heir to the throne creates unrest, as various factions jockey for position. Someone suggests to William, Duke of Normandy that he has a claim, however remote. He likes the idea and from that moment England’s fate is sealed.

This is a long book, well over 400 pages, and the author knows his subject. He has obviously done a lot of research, explaining the politics of the day as well as including vivid descriptions of everyday life. The reader soon learn of the differences between life in England and France. The reader is forced to stand by, knowing what is to come, but unable, like the participants themselves, to do anything to prevent it.

Personally, I would have liked slightly less detail. A little judicial editing would have slimmed down the book and given the characters room to breath. For example we don’t really know why King Edward behaves as he does. Does he really believe “God will provide” or does he want to destroy England? Perhaps he is just inept – he was, after all, the son of Æthelred the Unready.

William of Normandy knows exactly what he wants. He tells us towards the end of the book, on the morning of the battle:
it’s a question of will. You simply decide what you want and then you grasp it with all your determination. You do not flinch; you do not allow yourself to be distracted. You disregard criticism, you dispose of enemies and discard those who call themselves your friend but simply get in your way.” And he believes God is on his side.

Other characters  are less sharply drawn. Even Harold Godwinsson is unable to prevent William forcing him to take the vow that causes him such problems.

But perhaps this is intentional. It heightens the sense of the inevitable, that nothing can stop what the fates impose – the downfall of England and the horrors which will follow under Norman rule.

Although long, the book is easy to read and if you are interested in the history of what lead up to the Battle of Hastings, you couldn’t find a better account.

 

Note: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Digging at #Lindisfarne – a beginners guide

Last year I came across plans for an archaeological excavation on Lindisfarne, to find the remains of the original Anglo-Saxon monastery; a crowd funded project run by DigVentures.

I have been interested in archaeology for a long time – watching it on TV, reading about it and attending talks at  Rugby Archaeological Society. I have always wanted to “have a go” but had accepted I was too inexperienced, too old and lacked the time to take on another new hobby.

But this was one of those unusual digs that was looking at the Anglo-Saxon period. I studied the website – there were various options. I could become a Digital Digger – In other words, I could sit at home and keep up to date with what happened, day by day with information; videos, some live, everything other than actually being there on the ground. I would also be listed in the report and I picked the option to receive a special team t-shirt.

I enjoyed the event, it became “my” excavation.

When, later, their (our) discovery of a rare Anglo-Saxon namestone was featured on the BBC TV series, Digging For Britain, I was hooked. When it was announced that the team would be returning to Lindisfarne, I wondered. Could I actually go? Could I take part in the dig? Again there were various options – the whole dig, a week, a weekend, a single day. I settled for a single day – if I made a fool of myself, it wouldn’t matter. I checked tide timetables (see below) and accommodation (at the Blue Bell Inn in Belford, where we had stayed on our visit last year.) and in a rush of enthusiasm, we booked – two people to dig on Sunday 23rd July 2017. This is about that day.

By the time we drove up to Northumbria on the Friday, we knew the weather was not going to be good. On Saturday we spent some time in Berwick. We got halfway round the walls before it started raining, so not quite a washout. Then early Sunday morning we headed for Holy Island. We had been asked to report at 9.00 am. The causeway was open by that time. We had to leave by 1.05 pm or stay until 7.30 pm. We had paid for our day, we would be there for the day. It stayed dry(ish) until we reached the car park.

Causeway to Lindisfarne, but where is the island?

Pilgrim’s route back to the mainland.

When we got to the Site Hut (the village Reading Room) well before 9.00 we were already wet. We found a notice on the door saying work would not begin until 9.30. There were already people waiting, so we joined them. Gradually more arrived.  Finally the room, it was not very big, was full of about 20 people and two dogs, all damp.

Site Hut in Lindisfarne village

Someone eventually arrived who knew what was going on, and after some discussion, most people left for the dig site, leaving four newbies, us, another one day digger and someone who had met the organisers in the pub. We were given the introductory talk, filled in forms (including next of kin – how dangerous was this archaeology?), and had our photos taken (to distinguish us from the skeletons in the trench?). Finally, trowels in hand we were marched, through the village, to the actual excavation.

Approaching the excavation.

Health and Safety talk – basically, watch where you put your feet!

One of the two skeletons already found. The other is under the plastic sheet!

We stood in the rain for a talk on health and safety – keep away from the edges, don’t slip over etc. We were given a look at one of the two skeletons that have been found. Both have now been raised and will be on their way to Durham University for further study. Apart from these complete skeletons there were pieces of bone scattered all over the site. This was probably the monk’s cemetery and the upper level had been disturbed by later ploughing, or levelling for the Norman monastery, whose ruins loomed over our trench.

We were told to find a shovel and bucket – I found a shovel, but all the buckets were being used and at last we were led into the other half of the trench.  We were shown where to dig and left to get on with it. I tried to find somewhere to kneel – there was a pile of rocks in the way, and there were no kneelers left either, but I had a plastic bag with me, so I used that, together with the gardening gloves we had been told to bring. Later I realised that I should have worn the gloves – they keep your hands comparatively clean. Have you ever tried to use a mobile phone to take photos with muddy hands? I’m surprised it still works!

Trenches of the four “beginners” Mine at the top with plastic bag and red trowel. “Bone” below next trowel.

So what was it like? Actually digging on an archaeological site? Well, imagine kneeling on a hard rough surface, bones and rocks sticking out of the ground all around. You are focused on the small patch of ground in front of you. You must scrape away the top centimetre of this soil. When you have scrapped enough soil, you shovel it up, twist round and dump it in the bucket behind you (oh, someone must have found one!). All this in the pouring rain. I seemed to be faced with a solid mass of sticky soil – a few feet away others seemed to have better soil, but mine stuck to the trowel, it had to be scraped off, onto the shovel, then into the bucket. What if I missed something important, or more worrying, what if I did find something? We only had about an hour of this before things were called off because of the weather, but I enjoyed every minute – apart from the rain running down my neck.

So did I find anything? My Better Half kneeling beside me (with the better soil, or was it just his technique?) found a lump of something shiny. It looked like glass to start with, but it caused some interest – it got listed as a small find. It was entered into the computer system there and then, numbered, and put in a small plastic bag of its own. There were a few problems writing the number on the bag in the rain, but it is now in the database (the find is registered to me, because only my name was in the system!) You can find the details here, number 54 “Black unidentifiable shiny object maybe production waste”. That is the wonderful thing about DigVenture digs – everything is recorded immediately and put online, for anyone to look at.

He also found a bone starting to appear in his area. What did I find? A stone, that turned out to be “just a stone” and was chucked in the bucket, and an earthworm, alive. I didn’t think I needed to report that.

There was a break at about 11 and I went up on the Hough to take some pictures, but the rain was coming down even heavier. By the time I got back, the dig had been abandoned for the day.

 

Heavy rain – discussion  on whether to abandon excavation!

We all trooped back to the Site Hut. There was fiddle playing and birthday cake – we were not sure whose birthday it was, but we sang happy birthday and accepted a piece of cake – it was very good. There was a lot of waiting around and discussions as to who would go and who stay. If anyone wanted to leave the island, they had to go before the causeway flooded at 1.05. A lot of the “regulars” disappeared, but we were determined to stay. We were sent off to find some lunch, but we had a walk around the village – for some reason the rain had stopped!

When we returned, we were offered some work, washing finds. “Bone or stone?” we were asked. We picked bone, it sounded more interesting. So we were settled at the table with a washing up bowl of water, a pot of wooden skewers and toothpicks (for removing soil) and toothbrushes (for cleaning). We were given a finds tray (which gardeners would recognise as a seed tray) containing a mixture of soil and small pieces of bone. This kept us busy for hours (BH found a tooth – well what else are tooth brushes for?). I liked the pieces of skull – flat both sides and no awkward corners, but most of what we cleaned could have been anything. We enjoyed it so much, that when we had finished the box, we asked for more, but bigger. We did longer bits of bone and vertebrae etc. We hung on for a while past 5.00 when we were due to leave – just to finish that box. It was wet and messy, but surprisingly restful.

Washing Finds in the Reading Room.

We helped to pack things away, but then had to say goodbye. There were over two hours to kill before we could leave, so we decided to return to our car to change out of our boots. We had planned to find somewhere for a drink, but the rain was too heavy – we couldn’t face any more. We had water and “emergency rations” in the car, so stayed there. I had my Kindle and read for a while (Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert – I do like to coordinate my books with my activities!) plus a recording of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture “Can These Bones Live?” which seems an appropriate way to end this post; writing and bones.

Rain through car windscreen.

We made our way back to our hotel, in time for dinner. It had been an exhausting day, but one I shall never forget. Thank you DigVentures for having us.

Will I do it again? I’ll let you know when I’ve dried out!

Review – Killer of Kings

I enjoy writing reviews of Matthew Harffy’s books. It is such an easy job with writing this good.

Killer of Kings is the fourth book in the Bernicia Chronicles series and Beobrand, recovered from his injuries, is on the road again. This time he is travelling to East Anglia. King Oswald has asked him to accompany a group of monks taking a present to King Sigeberht. They come across a village in flames. Beobrand tries to help, but he is outside his own king’s lands and is forced to leave. He rescues one girl, but already he suffers the guilt of leaving innocent people to die.

Reaching East Anglia they find the king has retired to a monastery and his relative Ecgric is king. Neither of them seem interested in defending their land from attack from King Penda’s Mercia and Beobrand realises he has been sent to support the East Anglian army.

The armies meet in a long and bloody battle. Beobrand narrowly escapes, but without his men and his horse. With an old friend he travels to Kent, meeting relatives for the first time since he left for Bernicia. In previous books one phrase has recurred – his mother’s dying words “You are not your father’s son”. Beobrand discovers the truth, but it is even worse than he suspected.

On the journey home he attempts to fulfil his vow to kill the man who defiled and killed his wife. Nothing goes as planned.

Meanwhile, back at Ubbanford, Reaghan worries, surrounded by  people who hate or despise her, what will happen to her if Beobrand doesn’t return?

Like the previous books, this volume is filled with blood and guts. The reader can have fun counting the different synonyms for blood, although I sometimes find it annoying.

Beobrand is developing as a character. He worries that he is unable to deal with the memories of the death he deals his enemies. The only way he seems to find peace is by more killing, but even revenge cannot sooth his soul. He feels the loss of his hearth companions deeply, they died because of him, he should not have survived. With the loss of his horse as well, I am starting to wonder if his mind can survive this sort of pressure. Where can the author take his character next? It will be interesting to find out.

I started reading the book one evening, I could have finished that night, but I forced myself to stop. I had things to do the next day, but I wanted to prolong the enjoyment. After all, I’ll have to wait many months to read the next instalment, to find out if Beobrand can find peace.

Definitely another five stars.

Book Review – Dunstan

In the year 937, King Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, readies himself to throw a great spear into the north. His dream of a kingdom of all England will stand or fall on one field and the passage of a single day.

At his side is Dunstan of Glastonbury, full of ambition and wit, perhaps enough to damn his soul. His talents will take him from the villages of Wessex to the royal court, to the hills of Rome – from exile to exaltation.

When I noticed this book, by Conn Iggulden, was to be published on 4th May, I was worried. I have written a book and am looking for a publisher. It starts in 937, Dunstan appears in it, although he is not the main character. How would it affect my own book? I had to check out the opposition.

As you can see from the blurb, the book is about Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester and London, ultimately Archbishop of Canterbury – and Saint. He lived through the period when England moved from a collection of minor kingdoms to the country it is today. Some might say this process began with Alfred and completed by his grandson, Æthelstan. Dunstan played his part by reforming the church.

It takes a strong man to do this and the Dunstan we see in this book was certainly strong. I was reminded of the Thomas Cromwell we have met in the books by Hilary Mantel. Both are men from the lower orders. Both achieve high position by their own intelligence and hard work. Both are unpleasant characters who tell their own stories. Mantel’s Cromwell, however nasty, is understandable, even, at times, sympathetic, that is the genius of her books. In this book Dunstan is just plain nasty.

It starts, not in 937, but three years earlier, as the thirteen year old Dunstan is taken to Glastonbury by his elderly father. At the same time his younger brother Wulfric also enters the monastery, but far from looking after him, Dunstan despises his brother. Why? Because he thinks he is weak and Dunstan considers anyone weaker than him is there to be used. Despite Wulfric’s later business success, which mystifies Dunstan, he must drop everything to do his brother’s bidding.

Dunstan rises. He tells us it is because he is lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but we are left to imagine the things he does not mention. The book covers his life and the reigns of seven kings. Dunstan is not interested in battles or even politics, just in how much money he can raise to complete his projects, the Abbey at Glastonbury and Canterbury Cathedral, which he believes will be his legacy. He was an interesting man, with a great interest in science and engineering, never happier than when working in his forge. It should make him more human, but he is too arrogant of his abilities. Everyone is there to serve him. One sentence sums up his attitude: “I have always forgiven my enemies, but only when they have been punished.”

As every hero needs a flaw to make him human;  a monster needs a spark of humanity to gain the reader’s sympathy. The Dunstan revealed in the book has none.

I should rejoice that a ray of light has been shone upon this period. The late tenth century has been comparatively neglected, perhaps because of the lack of major battles, and Dunstan’s is a story that has been waiting to be told. I have read a lot of books set in the Anglo-Saxon period. Most, good or bad, give a flavour of life at that time, this one doesn’t. It could almost have been set in any period.

The author prides himself on the depth of his research; the first person he thanks is his researcher. So why are there so many errors? At one point someone arrived in a pony and trap – yes, there were horses and various types of cart but the expression suggests something other than this period. Elsewhere, someone is searching the crowded streets of Winchester for a girl. He cannot spot her bonnet. Bonnet? Is this a time slip novel and Jane Austin has found her way into the tenth century? Later someone, still in Winchester, looked “up the high street to the cathedral spire in the distance, dominating the city.” Winchester does not have a spire today and, I must admit, I had to look it up, doesn’t appear to ever had one.

I was particularly interested in one event – the death of King Edmund. It forms an important part in my own book. It is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

A.D. 946. This year King Edmund died, on St. Augustine’s mass
day. That was widely known, how he ended his days: — that Leof
stabbed him at Pucklechurch.

There are not many exact dates, or even places, for events that can be identified during this period. St Augustine’s day is 26th May and Pucklechurch is easily found. So why, in this book, does this important event take place on All Hallows Eve (31st October) and at Winchester? There seems to be no reason to change it. Dunstan then says that Eadred was crowned in May 946 (it was August 16th, that year). If such facts, that can easily be checked, are incorrect, how can we trust the rest of the story?

I suppose the ordinary reader will not care about these details. It covers most of the events of St Dunstan’s life. It gives plausible explanations for the “miracles” performed by him. It has the usual replacement of personal names by more “understandable” versions, although I was a bit distracted by “Beatrice” – apparently a version was around at the time, but, to me, it sounds anachronistic. Apart from the errors, it is well written. At 480 pages I finished it in two days.

Two days when I could have been writing. I managed just over 4k words this week before I switched to reading about Dunstan.

Am I being unfair, because it doesn’t fit with “my” version of the period? I hope not, but I was glad Byrhtnoth wasn’t mentioned in this book – favourably or otherwise. I’m sure that if I didn’t know the period, I would have liked the book. I remember reading and enjoying the author’s Emperor series about Julius Caesar and then reading several of the Conqueror series. I didn’t read them all, I’m not sure why, perhaps I wasn’t interested enough in Genghis Khan etc.

If you want an interesting read about a neglected historical figure, buy the book. If you know anything about Anglo-Saxon history avoid it.

Description – Embellishment or Info-Dump?

How much description do you add to your story?

Do you go into lyrical descriptions of the world surrounding your characters: that fantastic sunset, every detail of that market scene, the name of every bird that sings in the forest as your hero passes on his horse, or every blow in the battle and every drop of blood that falls?

Or is it  ‘Just the facts, ma’am’?

I have been catching up on some reading. I have read two books, both long, both include a lot of description, but with very different results. Both are set in the Anglo-Saxon period.

The first is “Under Lynden Church” by Lindsay Jacob. I am not sure where I first noticed it, but it was £2.64 on Kindle and looked interesting.

It is partly set in modern times. An archaeologist finds a grave, deep below a village church, not far from Cambridge. It is connected, in a way not immediately apparent, to events in the ninth century. It is the time of the Danish invasion, but King Alfred is barely mentioned. This is East Anglia. King Edmund (later St Edmund) is dead. The last of the Wuffingas fights against the Danes, as well as the neighbouring King of Mercia.

Most of the action is set in Ely and the fens, as is some of my book. It had all the signs of being interesting. None of the characters appear to be real people but that is what writers of historical fiction do (all fiction for that matter). They take a situation that might have happened and work it into a story. Nothing wrong with that. This story was good, I wanted to enjoy it, but…

It was hard going, I seemed to be reading it very slowly – it was on my Kindle and the percentage counter never seemed to move. That was when I realised it was 545 pages. I struggled on. There is a lot of description of people struggling through the fens – I felt I was with them every step of the way. I soon wondered if I should give up, but a book has to be exceptionally bad for me to give up. I would go halfway then decide whether to finish it. At that point I was interested enough to carry on and eventually finished it.

I was disappointed, because it could have been so much better. The author had found a good plot, she had obviously done a lot of research, but it was if she had then decided that was it and published everything, in the rough order of the plot, dropping in the “modern” part of the story at random. With a good editor it would have been half the length and a decent read.

For example, the archaeologist meets someone in a pub and there are several pages of the man’s family history, from birth, through school, various jobs, his relationship with his wife, her affair with another man and how they now enjoy sitting at home watching television. It’s not even revealed by conversation and is completely unnecessary.

On the other hand, characters are neglected, ignored for long periods of time, then reappear. Sometimes they have changed, with no explanation of why. Others remain the same throughout, never evolving from their first appearance to the end. I remember a scene of people returning from a battle. A woman is upset, her lover has died. It stopped me in my tracks – her lover? I scrolled back a couple of pages (yes, just a couple) She had arrived at the camp. They must have met because he was there, but there was no mention of a meeting, much less becoming lovers. Why waste page after interminable page of tramping through mud and then throw away such character development. If you want to keep reading, want to find out what happens to the characters, you need to know them.

The characters were too alike. The men were all weak, downtrodden, miserable – apart from the nasty bullies. The women were all heroic – the main character (Emma?) leads the army. Is she the woman in the coffin? Perhaps not, because there are other woman just as worthy. I lost track of all the coffins and burials at the end.Was it the end, I wasn’t sure, and by that time I just didn’t care.

After that, I had to read something else. as you need a glass of water after a large, slightly dry sandwich, all bread and little filling.

Recently I was in the local library. I went there to do some local history research, looking up someone in a directory. To get to the local studies area you have to pass lots of books (they still have a few despite the effort nowadays to fill libraries with computer screens!). I saw a couple of interesting books and checked them out.

This was how I used to read – go to the library – take out as many books as I could – read them – return them – take out more. I sometimes wonder how many books I’ve read over the years, whole series when I found one and liked it. Attracted by a title, not many had attractive covers when I was young, not in the adult section anyway.

The book I took this time was one I had seen mentioned, a review in the paper? A blog or website? Somewhere I had noticed it. This was another Anglo-Saxon book, but set much earlier, in the seventh century, in Northumbria. A popular time and place. The book was “Hild” by Nicola Griffith. It was also long, 640 pages in the Kindle version and costing £6.99. The library book was 625 words and of course, free.

Hild is the story of St Hilda of Whitby. Her early life, from the age of three to… I’m not sure of a her age at the end, late teens? Long before she became a nun and abbess.

Hild was the niece of King Edwin. Her mother brings her up as a seer, she becomes adviser to the king, but it is a precarious position. What will happen to her if she fails to tell him what will happen? There is nothing supernatural about this. An intelligent girl, she trains herself to watch everything and everyone. She roams the countryside, watching the animals, learning about plants, witnessing the weather. As part of the court she watches people, what they think, how they react, how to behave and how to influence them.

The royal court moves regularly. She learns about the different places and watches as they change. Over the years religion changes. Paulinus comes to the north with King Edwin’s new wife. He is determined to convert the pagans to Christianity – his brand of Christianity. He hates the Celtic monks and tries to destroy them. All the time Hild watches, judging, is this new religion good or bad? How will it affect the Kingdom?

Apart from politics, Hild works with the other royal women, in the weaving shed and dairy. With her mother and the queen she helps to set up trading links, both within the north but further afield.

She grows tall, she trains as a warrior, she carries a seax. People fear her because they do not understand her. Her fear is losing the people she loves. She fights to protect them – sometimes violently.

There is much description, but nowhere is it superfluous. The reader stands at Hild’s shoulder, learning with her. The places and countryside, the details of everyday life, what women do, and men. I learned so much of life at that time. I think I will have to buy a copy, just for reference.

But as well as useful, the descriptions are beautiful, like poetry. It was a long book, but I didn’t want it to end.

So, two books. One has taught me how not to write, the other an inspiration to aspire to.

Better get writing again.