Where The Gulls Fall Silent, by Lelita Baldock: A Review

In a Cornish coastal village in the 19th century, the sea is both a source of livelihood and a source of fear, the ever-present power that can give or take. When the fish are abundant, life, although laborious,  is good; when they are few, life is hard. Superstition is never abandoned in a community so tied to the rhythms and vagaries of nature.

Kerensa and her mother live, physically and socially, at the edge of the village, never quite part of the community. The reasons for this slowly unfold in this beautifully described novel, revealed both as understood through a child’s eyes and then, as she grows to maturity, through a deeper comprehension. Not all is what Kerensa has thought, nor is it as one-sided as she believed. As she matures, she overcomes both the village’s concerns and her own sense of not belonging, finding love and acceptance – only to have the tides of time and change threaten the village and their way of life.

Image by Prawny from Pixabay 

Author Lelita Baldock’s writing is evocative of place and time, the details of life in fishing village brought into being by a deft hand and an eye for what matters: the sound of the sea, the smells of fish and blood and sweat, the rock of a small boat on the waves. Where the Gulls Fall Silent has no events of national importance, no battles with sword or guns, but the story told is one of both defeat and victory on a small scale, a human scale; social history revealed through the lives of ordinary men and women. Men and women who both dream and are pragmatic; who have strict precepts for living but also a deep capacity for forgiveness; who can ride the peaks and troughs of a life tied to the sea and the land.

Where the Gulls Fall Silent is not a romanticized view of life in a fishing village: life is hard, death always close, moments of peace and security rare and fleeting. A difficult life, one that leaves its mark on people, as Kerensa learns – but one not easy to leave behind. The beating of waves can merge permanently with the beating of a heart, the sea always calling.

If I had any quibble with Where the Gulls Fall Silent, it was in its last few chapters, which are perhaps an unnecessary epilogue to the true story. Leaving the future after a certain point to the reader’s imagination would have been my preference, but regardless, the book is one that will stay with me for some time.

Recommended. No star rating, because I don’t give stars in most cases. Wondering why? My reasoning is here.

Inspiration and Memory

Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay 

I had an aunt (well, my father’s first cousin, but as she was of his generation we called her aunt) who lived a life that seemed to me both exotic and exciting. Born an estate-worker’s daughter on a large rural farming and shooting estate in Norfolk, England, her mother died in a death pact with her lover when my aunt (I’ll call her Polly) was very small. Her father remarried, and sent the girls (Polly and her older sister) away to a boarding school which was a female equivalent of Dotheboys Hall, from what I can tell. Perhaps his new wife didn’t want them around. Perhaps he wondered if they were his at all.  But away they went.

But my family was and is full of strong women, so as soon as she could, my grandmother rescued Polly from the boarding school and basically employed her as an au pair, helping take care of my father and his sister while my grandmother cared for her dying father. (Older sister had left by then, found employment, soon married and disappeared from the family.)  And probably because of connections through the family who owned this large estate, Polly found herself taken on by a very wealthy industrialist’s family as a nursemaid, and then by another as a companion/secretary….and somewhere along the way she met a very eligible, well-placed Danish man and married him. Just as World War II broke out.

He and she were part of the Danish resistance: he spoke fluent and impeccable German and had connections in Germany, so he was thought to be a collaborator. She was his English wife, and beautiful, and ferried gun parts and more around Copenhagen strapped under her skirt. When dementia was taking its toll on her mind in her last years, she’d tell these stories over and over again: how she learned to take the guns apart and put them back together again in the dark; about flirting with German officers while carrying false documents, remembering the danger.

They survived, the war ended. The business he worked for flourished, and when they came to North America (via Cunard steamers – she hated flying) to mix business and pleasure, hobnobbing with the Kennedys at Hyannis Port (she didn’t like Jack), they took time to visit her cousins – my family, and that of my actual aunt in Alabama. Then her husband died, suddenly, and she was left well off and well connected.

She took herself of on an around the world cruise, had an affair, thoroughly enjoyed herself. For the next twenty-five years or so she travelled, entertained, mixed with people who were the equals of that family who owned the big estate in Norfolk. And then age and dementia took its toll. She died at 95, well taken care of in a private nursing home in England.

Why am I thinking about her?  Because today I introduced a new character to my work-in-progress, my MC Eudekia’s grandmother. And when she says to her granddaughter ‘My dear, how lovely to see you,’ and offers her cheek for a kiss, I heard that—unexpectedly—in  Polly’s voice. And I thought what a perfect inspiration for this character, who is ambitious for this granddaughter of hers, who knows the power of sexuality and how to use it, who won’t listen to those who say that the man Eudekia loves is socially beyond her grasp.

I’ve written before how my mother’s and my aunts’ service during WWII inspired the first book of the Empire series, Empire’s Daughter. This inspiration is a bit more direct.  I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out; how many of those stories find their way into a book set in a fictional world 1500 years earlier.

Hag of the Hills, by J.T.T. Ryder: A Review

Complex and detailed. Hag of the Hills is a hero’s journey with a difference. In the second century BCE, Brennus of Skye is a warrior’s son who isn’t allowed to be a warrior, until invasion changes that fate. But his journey to heroic status spirals around the geology and mythology of his island. His forward momentum is inexorable, driven by the words of a local deity and his own conviction that he must honour both his oaths and the visions granted to him – but with many mistakes, fears, denials and reversals.

Hag of the Hills is not a conventional Celtic-based fantasy book. I’d hesitate to call it fantasy, rather than a form of magic realism. The Sidhe are a real part of Brennus’s world, whether is it is the Cailleach or giants or the shape-shifter who speaks in words later attributed to the bard Taliesin. But they are not earthly beings, as often in fantasy, but remain other-worldly, real but inhabiting a different realm to which Brennus is given occasional access.  

Ethnobotanist Wade Davis has written:

 “The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist in interpreting what they experience through the lens of a single cultural paradigm, their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel, it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.” 

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in The Modern World

And this is what J.T.T. Ryder, an archaeologist specializing in Iron Age northern European cultures, has attempted to show us: that rich and complex topography experienced through a different cultural paradigm. Is it successful?  In my opinion, yes, for the most part.

Brennus’s world is one in which Cuchulainn walks in memory and stories are told of war-elephants crossing the Alps; where men leave Skye to fight in Thrace, where the stone tools found in caves are left by the Sidhe and the bronze sword in a barrow belongs to an ancestor: a world both intensely rooted in its geography and conscious of a wider world beyond, known through trade and commerce in soldiers and slaves. This duality is echoed in others: as well as the Sidhe and the everyday world, there are few shades of grey in Brennus’s world: he is either an oath-keeper or an oath-breaker, a free man or a slave, a warrior or a coward.

Whether purposely or not, this sense of duality is echoed in Ryder’s prose, which frequently changes tenses within a paragraph, creating for this reader a feeling of dislocation. Jarring at first, as the novel progressed I found it added to the veracity of Brennus’s experiences. Unconventional to 21st century prose, perhaps, but echoing the blending of past and present that Brennus’s cultural paradigms encompass. Time is a construct not experienced by all cultures in the same way.

(What was less effective for me was the use of modern words and terms, which took me out of the immersive and different world I was experiencing and returned me to ours. ‘Fetal position’ is one example.)

We are used to epic hero’s journeys, from Odysseus onward. Brennus’s is not epic; it is extremely local, both in geography and psychologically. Much of what he works towards may make readers uncomfortable: honour, revenge, a glorious death – and while there is near-constant action, the real journey is in Brennus’s mind – not a comfortable or familiar place to be, but one I found worth experiencing.

Siege

by Alistair Tosh
Edge of Empire: Book I

Edge of Empire – and the edge of my seat. I had the privilege of reading Siege during its development, and I loved every page – and that’s saying something, because books that focus on battles don’t usually hold my interest. Yet this one did, because of the humanity of the characters that are involved in the fighting.  Here’s its author, to tell us more about the history behind this spectacular debut novel.

 
The ancient battle of Burnswark
A guest post by Alistair Tosh


 Walter Baxter. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Burnswark Iron Age hillfort, near Lockerbie in the southwest of Scotland, is a unique site.

In part because of its isolated location and suitability only as pastureland, the archaeology below its turf has remained largely intact. It is a beautiful place, overlooking the silver waters of the Solway Firth and the fells of the English Lake District beyond and the heather-covered mountain of Criffel dominating the Scottish side.

It is a changeable location. When standing on its distinct flat-top summit, one moment you can be in brilliant sunshine with a cooling breeze, enjoying the 360 degree views. The next instant a hard wind blows in off the Irish Sea, cloudcover lowers, shrouding all before you. It is then that the hill takes on a more forbidding character.

I visited it many times in my childhood, often cycling there with friends during the long summer holidays. I saw the mounds of the Three Brethren, that my school history teacher told me had been platforms for Roman ballistas. But it was not until I started research for my first book ‘Siege’ that I truly began to understand the site and the ferocious battle that had taken place on its ramparts between the legions and the local tribe. 

The hill is held in a vice-like grip by two siege forts. The one to the north is unusually elongated, clearly designed to prevent the escape of the defenders as final defeat beckoned. To the south the true siege fort, or more accurately assault fort, lies hard against the hill’s base, only a mere 130 metres from the hillfort’s main entrances. Three huge gateways, ten men wide, cut through its deep north facing ditches to enable rapid deployment of troops.

The three ballista platforms sit to the fore of each of the gateways. Fist sized, carved stone balls have been found on the hillforts summit. This ammunition was not designed to shatter walls, but rather to shatter bodies. Metal detectors identified and aided recovery of hundreds of lead sling ‘bullets’, lemon shaped and heavy. Under test conditions it was established that they had roughly the same kinetic energy as a modern handgun.

A second and unique type of sling ball was uncovered. This one was smaller and capable of being slung in groups of 3 or 4, like an early form of grapeshot. But what was most startling was the 5mm holes drilled in its side. When ‘fired’ it emitted a sound like an angry wasp. You can imagine the racket that a barrage of these, shot by experts, would make. Certainly an early form of psychological warfare akin to the terrifying effect inspired by the screaming of diving Ju-87 Stukas during the Blitzkrieg in early World War II.

Additionally multiple arrowheads were located, of the type used by the renowned archers of the Hamian auxiliary regiments, from modern day Syria. This topped off by the finding of several scorpion bolts. A century of a legion had one or two allocated to them and  when fired by practised hands were both accurate and devastating, especially on unarmoured bodies.

It is hard not to pity the warriors of the local tribe, possibly the Novantae, who had gathered on its summit. Exposed and forced to take cover, faces pressed into the earth as they were assailed by wave after wave of thousands of missiles, their screams of fear and agony filling the air, accompanied by the sound of a swarm of angry wasps.

Finally, when the Roman commander, possibly the veteran Quintus Lollius Urbicus fresh from the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judea, was satisfied, he would have sent in his legions, through the three 10-man wide gates, in testudo formation. In the battle’s aftermath, it is hard to imagine there were any survivors left for the slave markets.

                                                                         
 
 Alistair grew up in the Dumfriesshire countryside for most of his childhood. A region of southern Scotland filled with ancient place names such as Thorthorwald and Caerlaverock. But it was his visits as a boy to the site of Burnswark hill and hearing the tale of the Roman siege of the Iron Age fort that fired his love of Roman and Dark Ages history. From there the kernel of the stories for the Edge of Empire took root.

On leaving school he began a 35-year communications career. Firstly with the Royal Navy, that included covert riverine and seaborne operations during the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, before moving into the corporate world. Military life is unique, and Alistair aims to reflect an authentic view of that experience and its language in his stories. When not writing or spending time with family, Alistair, his wife Jenny and Hurley the cockerpoo love to walk in the hills of both the UK and Andalucia.

Why I Don’t Write Actual Historical Fiction

In my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, the last third of its story overlaps with about a quarter of my third book, Empire’s Exile.  In Exile, we see this section through the eyes of the narrator, Lena, and the characters of the soldier Druisius and the Empress Eudekia are peripheral (although very important) to the story.

But Empress & Soldier is told through the alternating viewpoints of Eudekia and Druisius, and so we are seeing the same events through different eyes – and discovering some those events can have very different motivations and interpretations. That’s not the problem: I enjoy exploring the ‘what ifs’ of different perspectives. But everything that happens in this section of Empress & Soldier must fit the chronology of events in Exile. Actions must occur within a framework that is set. Just like a real historical novelist, I can’t change what has already happened.

For me, working within this constraint is a huge challenge. It’s not how my brain works. I’m used to saying ‘oh, look, I really like how The Battle of Maldon is described, so I’ll borrow that but change its outcome.’  Now I can’t even change a conversation, a dinner served, a walk through the city. At the same time, these things are now background events, most happening off-page. My focus is on what Druisius and Eudekia are thinking, doing, feeling, learning—from and alongside the actions and events that already exist.

Which is, of course, what writers of real historical fiction deal with, in every story—and the more recent the history, the more records of events, the more constraints there are. I am not sure I could do this for an entire book, let alone more than one!

This is how I’m handling it: by a detailed analysis of each chapter (and each scene) in Exile that is reflected in Empress & Soldier.  This is an exacting and layered process that is very different from the creativity of writing, and is remarkably tiring.  But it must be done, and once it is, my mind will switch back to writing mode—and another challenge: how much of Lena’s story do I retell? (Enough for a new reader to understand what’s going on. Not too much, or I risk boring a returning reader. A fine balance.)

I occasionally consider writing a novel based firmly in historical fact. To save my temper, my hair, my liver—and perhaps my marriage— I don’t think I will.

Lady, In Waiting, by Karen Heenan: A release day review.

Robin Lewis – a man who can handle the intrigue and diplomacy of the Tudor courts but prefers his books to people, is skilled enough with words to weave a web with them to save his life but can’t express his feelings, and is no one’s idea of either graceful or handsome – is by far my favourite fictional character from all the books I’ve read in the last few years. Robin is also a man for whom marriage is an unlikely union, especially in middle age, solitary and set in his ways.

But marry he has, to Margaery Preston, an unconventional young woman of intelligence and learning, at her proposal. A marriage of convenience, a compromise that allows Winterset, Margaery’s family estate in Yorkshire, to return to her while allowing Robin, who has rented it for some years, to continue to live there among his books and the isolation he craves.

Written in Heenan’s impeccable prose, Lady, in Waiting is told through Margaery’s eyes – and what a narrator she is!  Robin, many years older than his bride, has one idea of what this marriage should be: in name only. Margaery has another: she wants to be Robin’s wife in all ways. But this is far from the only tension between them: Robin is called back to the court to work for Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary, William Cecil, and Margaery is to be one of her women, a chamberer, spending her days in the queen’s presence to do her – or her ladies-in-waiting’s – bidding. Neither should speak to the other of what they learn, but which vow takes precedence: the oath to the Queen, or the bonds of marriage?

Margaery’s doubts and fears, her determination, her joys, and her sometimes wry sense of humour: ‘my virginity lingered like a bad cough’ as she grows into both her roles make for compelling reading. As she comes to both understand and love the complex man she has married, she comes to understand herself, as well. As the years progress, Margaery’s life is not always easy. Trauma, loss and grief shape her life as certainly as love and politics, and growth and acceptance are sometimes very hard. Heenan neither glosses over this nor over-dramatizes it, but expresses Margaery’s reactions in a sensitive, realistic way.

The personal story  of Margaery and Robin’s marriage provides the window through which we see the politics of the day: Elizabeth’s possible (or impossible) marriage options ; the unwise, dangerous secret marriage of another Tudor descendent; the implications of Mary, Queen of Scots’ marriage to Lord Darnley. These were important decisions, choices made that had repercussions both personal and political.  The combination of the story that Margaery tells of her marriage and private life, contrasted with these acts on a larger stage, sets the story fully in its time, without robbing it of its intimacy and universality. Highly recommended.

Purchase link: http://Books2read.com/tudorlady

FebruarySheWrote Review Roundup 1

Historical Fiction Reviews (Feb 1 – 12)

A round up of the reviews I’ve reposted for the social media promotion #FebruarySheWrote, highlighting women writers. I’ve focused on historical fiction authors for this month (primarily), and these are all reviews I’ve written, either for this website, or for Discovering Diamonds.

The War In Our Hearts: WWI fiction. ‘The depiction of {Jamie’s} troubled, doubting soul and the courage and resilience of Aveline are the centrepieces of this debut novel’

Discerning Grace: 19th C High Seas adventure. ‘an admirable debut novel, and a beguiling blend of historical fiction and women’s fiction.’

Summer Warrior: 12th C Scotland. ‘both entertaining and informative; a book to be enjoyed.’

Dear Comrade Novak: 20th C Romania. ‘one of the most devastatingly honest and brutal books I have ever read, yet I could not put it down. ‘

The Unseen/The Jealous: ‘mystics and mysteries in 10th-century Baghdad’

A Wider World: Tudor.  ‘prose as close to perfect as it comes, and settings and history thoroughly researched but conveyed with a light touch,’

On Restless Pinions

Imagine, if you will, a child at a table, pen in hand. He, or possibly she, is learning to write a legible hand. But not on paper: on a thin sheet of wood, with ink made from carbon and gum Arabic and a pen with a metal nib.  One side of this sheet has been used, a letter begun and discarded, but the other side is fine for a child to use for practice.

Outside, the soldiers and officers of a Roman fort are going about their business. There are patrols to ride, to keep an eye on the Brittunculi, the soldiers’ derogatory nickname for the native inhabitants. Drills to practice, swords and armour to clean, cooking to be done, board games or dice to be played.

Would the child prefer to be out watching the soldiers drill on the practice field? Or perhaps hang around the stables, breathing in the scent of horse?  No such luck: not when you are the child of an officer. Restless or not, your education comes first.

So you write. Perhaps you are copying, perhaps you are writing from dictation. But here, in this northern fort at the edge of Empire, in the year 100, you are writing a line from Virgil:  interea pauidam uolitans pinnata perurbem (Aeneid 9:473). A line we know, can still read, can still write today. (On restless pinions to the trembling town had voiceful Rumour hied…)1

Fájl:Philo mediev.jpg
 Cours de philosophy du Paris; Grande Chroniques de France.  Public Domain

This fragment from Virgil, copied nearly two thousand years ago, is tablet 118 of the Vindolanda letters. From this brief glance into the (probable) life of a child, perhaps one of the children of the Prefect Flavius Cerialis, I have extrapolated: my characters Perras and Cillian use the ‘classics’ in this way as they teach; the children of my books, of the right rank, learn to write a fine hand, and know the words of my world’s equivalent of Virgil and others. Even at a northern fort at the edge of an Empire that never, quite, existed.

Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome, by L J Trafford: A Review

Many long years ago, I took courses from a Scottish Studies professor who, hands down, was the most entertaining lecturer I ever had. He combined serious scholarship with stories – sometimes scurrilous – that made us howl with laughter. L J Trafford’s Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome fits that model: solid research told in an accessible manner, and it too had me howling with laughter in places.

Divided into sixteen chapters covering everything from ideals of beauty, the sex lives of Emperors, and what constitutes good sex (from the point of view of a Roman male), this is all presented in a fairly light-handed manner. While Trafford does acknowledge that Roman morals and behaviour cannot always be judged by 21st century standards, she also does not shy away from pointing out the inequalities and lack of choice for many Romans, especially those who were enslaved.

I was pleased to see that women’s sexuality was not ignored, as it often is in books on this subject. The information (opinion) still comes from men, who were doing most of the writing at the time, and much of it is as eyebrow-raising as men’s thoughts on women’s sexuality often are…but then we have Ovid, who wrote that mutual pleasure was the goal of sex, and that women’s orgasms were important and desirable. I learned more about women’s sexuality in ancient Rome than any other topic, and for that alone the book was worth reading.

Trafford also shows how some things never change. The sex lives of prominent people, including (maybe particularly) the emperors and their wives, were topics of discussion, and the reputation of many an emperor was dragged in the dirt by the poets, satirists and orators of the day. What we would now view as homophobic slurs were common insults, but this isn’t how the Romans saw it. The gender of your sexual partner was (almost) irrelevant; what position you took – the active or passive partner – was. The passive role was unmanly, and Roman men could not be unmanly. Some of the insults remain the same to this day.

I read Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome as a novelist, judging it for its usefulness in world-building. It is full of tidbits that, judiciously adapted, would certainly add to the verisimilitude of historical fiction set in ancient Rome. That along the way I was entertained, educated, but also made to think reflects Trafford’s grasp of her subject as well as her skill as a writer. Highly recommended.

Spotlight on: The Sins of the Father, by Annie Whitehead

The Sins of the Father: Tales of the Iclingas Book 2 by [Annie Whitehead]

The Sins of the Father is out today, September 15th!                                        

Here’s the author to tell us a little about this long-awaited sequel to Cometh the Hour.

The Sins of the Father is the follow-up to my novel Cometh the Hour, about Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia, his struggles to achieve and maintain independence from the aggressive kingdom of Northumbria, and his quest to avenge his kin, especially his womenfolk.

Now, his sons have come of age, as have the children of Penda’s nemesis in Northumbria. All of them are affected by their fathers’ antipathy. The new novel tells the stories of the members of this next generation, and how they try either to emulate their fathers, or plough their own paths, and how this leads to tension and, ultimately, war.

Matters have been complicated by the fact that some of these children have married into the other family, thus blurring the lines of loyalty.

From this tangled web Ethelred, the youngest of Penda’s children, a boy when all the major battles of the first book occurred, feels he has less investment in the feud, but this leads to massive guilt on his part that he might let his kin down by his lack of ambition. He sees his warrior brother wearing their father’s mantle, feels cold in that large shadow, and all he really wants to do is live quietly with his Welsh love.

Fate intervenes when, just as in his father’s day, the womenfolk of Mercia must be avenged. Now Ethelred’s task is to end the feud, once and for all. Can he honour his father’s memory yet keep his conscience clear, and find his way back to his Welsh love?

What few have realised is that wars are not always fought by men on the battlefield, and the daughter of the Northumbrian king has been given a deadly task of her own. Will she become the murderer that her father and brother wish her to be, or can she turn away from her heritage? For all involved, the stakes are high and even victory demands a heavy price.

Available from Amazon