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.

The Medium and The Message

Moby-Dick was the first assigned book I never finished. It was part of our American Literature focus in my last year of high school, back in the day when Canadian high schools were still ignoring Canadian literature. I was, and am, a voracious reader. But I just couldn’t read Moby-Dick. The prose was dense, meandering, sometimes unclear. And yet I kept thinking about it.

Fast-forward about thirty years, and a long-haul flight to New Zealand. Seventeen hours plus. I’d started listening to a lot of books: family circumstances meant I was driving eight hours every second or third weekend, and my job also entailed a lot of driving. Audiobooks helped pass the time. So, I decided to listen to Moby-Dick on that trip to New Zealand and Australia.

And fell in love with a magnificent book, a symphony of language and philosophy, of style and story. Whether it was my tendency to skim-read, or a symptom of my ADHD, or just maturity, I don’t know – but this book I couldn’t read is now one of my favourites: one I needed to hear to appreciate it.

Since then, I have learned that I appreciate almost all 18th and 19th century writers better when I listen rather than read. I wonder sometimes if it was that these books were expected to be read aloud, an on-going evening’s entertainment, or if a slower pace of life (for the privileged few, anyhow) meant reading was perhaps more leisurely. Regardless, when I want George Eliot or Tolstoy or Cervantes, I reach for my phone and earbuds, not a physical book.

Which brings me to the actual subject of this ramble: a reconsideration of a recent review. A book I had difficulty reading: P.L. Stuart’s A Drowned Kingdom. It has, actually, a few things in common with Moby-Dick: a dislikable central character driven by hubris, and long expositions on the reasons for actions, to name a couple.  I read it, wrote a neutral and unstarred review (some of you reading this will know I rarely star reviews, for reasons given here), and moved on. And yet I kept thinking about it.

Then one day I was listening to Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, which is slow, and definitely not cheery (well, it’s Hardy, what do I expect?) and something clicked. I should listen to A Drowned Kingdom (which coincidentally had just come out in audiobook format.) So I did.

And, as with Moby-Dick, I liked it a whole lot more. Listening doesn’t change the arrogant hubris of the MC, Othrun, but that was never an issue for me. I still believe Stuart is brave, both for creating a dislikable main character and for writing in a style somewhat at odds with much modern fantasy writing. But the lack of enjoyment in my first reading of the book wasn’t due to a fault in the writing, but my own limitations in interacting with the prose.

Story is at the heart of what we as writers do, and stories can be told – and absorbed – in many ways: through poetry, through prose, through oral storytelling, through plays, through visual media. Sometimes, as the audience, we need to find the form that is right for us. I’m glad I could for A Drowned Kingdom.

And yes, I’ll be revising the review.

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.

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.

Show, Tell, Hint

Working with one of my editorial clients a few weeks ago, I pointed out to him that he had several dropped story threads in his novel.  “But,” he said, “the entire action takes place over only a few days. Not everything can be resolved in that time.”

My response?  There’s a difference for the reader in leaving a story thread in a place where the reader can speculate about it, and just dropping it.  In one case in my client’s novel, the protagonist had expressed (to himself) his interest a woman he worked with. And that was it. The brief scene was there for a number of reasons, but mostly to show that, regardless of personal grief and a building complex political situation, the protagonist wasn’t entirely wrapped up in those two things. But it went nowhere, leaving the reader unsatisfied.

I made a few suggestions, and in the next draft there were a two more brief scenes of interaction between the two which fit smoothly into the narrative, and leave the reader with the hint that this relationship’s going somewhere. We don’t know it, but we can sense it, and that’s enough. Readers don’t need every thread tied up neatly; in fact, it’s good to leave a few minor open-ended questions for them to speculate about, a technique that helps keep a book in their minds.

In my own work, I have a few of these, the most prominent being a question of what happened to two of my characters. No one really knows, but suggestions are made, the search for them has a role, but in the end, I leave it to the reader to decide whether they’ve survived or not.

There’s another way to use ‘hints’ instead of showing or telling, again to leave questions in the reader’s mind, and that’s to be ambiguous. Not often, but this is the classic ‘is Deckard a replicant or not?’ question from Blade Runner. But the ambiguity doesn’t need to be that central; it can be about a characters’ motivation, or the nuances of a relationship.

Here’s an example from one of my books:

“Cannot we both just be content with what we have, at least for a little while?” I said, straightening. “You are alive, and recovering, and you have Lena, and the baby very soon.”

His hand was still on my arm. “And you, mo duíne gràhadh?”

My beloved man. A sudden restriction in my throat made my voice hoarse. “I have enough,” I managed to say, “being here. With you.”

The first-person narrator here interprets the question ‘And you?’ to mean ‘can you be content?’ – a reasonable response to the first statement he makes to the second character.  But there’s a second interpretation: he has gone on to say ‘you have Lena, and the baby…’  The question ‘And you?’ can also mean: ‘Do I have you, too?’ 

In this case, I know which of these two questions was really being asked (and no, I’m not telling.) But occasionally, I don’t know the answer, or not at the time I write it. And sometimes these ambiguous hints get clarified later in the story, and sometimes they don’t – allowing, again, for speculation.

I believe that for a reader to be fully immersed in a story, there needs to be these unanswered questions that involve them in the world, not just show it to them. What did happen to the Entwives in The Lord of the Rings?  What was it Ada Doom saw in the woodshed? Does Shane ever return?

(By the way, I think Deckard is a replicant. Your thoughts?)

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

Let’s Talk Success – Again

I spent half an hour yesterday consoling? advising? a new indie writer about ‘success’.  They have one book out, another on its way. They’re worried about sales, about marketing, about making a name for themselves. Here’s what I, the ‘seasoned indie author’ told them.

We live in a world where the popular measure of success is celebrity; fifteen minutes of fame and making the big bucks. But the chances that you can make a living from writing novels, and only writing novels, is miniscule. Look around you, I said. In this very bookish town in which we live, we had three nominees for the Governor General’s Award (Canada’s major literary fiction award) this year. All but one have other careers, and the one who doesn’t is a retired professor. In the ‘before days’, when there was an open writing space freely available to all on Monday mornings, I’ve shared table space with yet another Governor General’s Award short-listed author (who also has another career) and an Edgar-nominated mystery author (who also has another career) and a Stephen Leacock award short-listed writer (who also, etc….). I’ve read at literary festivals with some pretty big names, too – and almost all these writers do something else other than write novels: teach, practice law or work in warehouses, are system analysts or build houses.  And these examples, I will note, are all (except two) traditionally published authors.

This doesn’t mean your writing is a hobby. It doesn’t mean it isn’t viable. It doesn’t mean there aren’t a few people who can make a living at it. And maybe you’re one of them.

And maybe you’re not. But if you’re not, you’re in very good company in the literary world. You shouldn’t think less of yourself, or that you’re a failure. I consider myself a successful writer, but the actual profit from my books isn’t a major part of my yearly income.

But:

  • ‘your books got me back into reading’
  • ‘your books are my go-to when I need to escape this world for a while’
  • ‘I dread the day when you stop writing this series’
  • ‘I’m waiting for your new release more than any other book in 2022’

and many other similar expressions of what some people find in my books is my measure of success. If your stories resonate with a few readers; if they bring smiles to their faces or make them ask themselves hard questions; if they read until 3 a.m. because they can’t put them down, or leave the light on to sleep because you terrified them – isn’t that success?

Did the new author take this in? I don’t know. But I hope so. Because they are talented, and have stories to offer to the world that some readers will fall deeply into. I’d hate them to waste their time and energy and talent worrying about only one definition of a successful writer.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

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

Bjørn Larssen’s Storytellers in Audiobook Format

From Tantor Media September 7th.

If you don’t know this marvellous book, here’s my review from its release day in 2019.

Storytellers-cover

Set against Iceland’s harsh but beautiful landscape in the late 19th and  early 20th century, Bjørn Larssen’s debut novel Storytellers explores the multi-generational effect of the evasions, embellishments and outright lies told in a small village. The book begins slowly, almost lyrically, pulling the reader into what seems like situation borrowed from folktale: a reclusive blacksmith, Gunnar, rescues an injured stranger, Sigurd. In exchange for his care, Sigurd offers Gunnar a lot of money, and a story.

But as Sigurd’s story progresses, and the book moves between the past and the present, darker elements begin to appear. Gunnar’s reclusiveness hides his own secrets, and the unresolved stories of his past. As other characters are introduced and their lives interweave, it becomes clear that at the heart of this small village there are things untold, things left out of the stories, purposely re-imagined. Both individual and collective histories – and memories – cannot be trusted.

The book was reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, in both theme and mood. Both books deal with the unreliability of memory; both are largely melancholy books. And perhaps there is allegory in them both, too. Storytellers is a book to be read when there is time for contemplation, maybe of an evening with a glass of wine. It isn’t always the easiest read, but it’s not a book I’m going to forget easily, either.