Tuesday 28 April 2015

This hearth, nettles conceal it

Well, blog – long time, no see.
     It’s certainly been a heck of a while since I last posted here. But, the Nest isn’t empty yet! In fact, I’m hoping that there’ll be a new clutch of eggs in it soon, which might actually hatch into blog posts eventually.
     Reasons for my disappearance have been several, chief among them being the fact that I began writing a new version of the novel I started on my MA course, as well sharing the coordinating and editing of the course anthology, as co-editor. Now, that eventful journey is drawing to a close. Our books have been printed, and have gone their ways. And, I’m pleased to say, we have a wonderful website to showcase our writers’ work. Here it is.

Readers of this blog might be interested to know that we have several historical novelists amongst us, and very good they are too. My own novel-in-progress, focusing on the life of the Dark Age king Urien Rheged can, of course, also be read there. Ahem. Or there’s a direct link here, if you prefer.

The novel is yet to be finished. There’s very definitely more work to do. But now I have a little more time, I do hope to inject some life back into the blog. At the very least, I’d like to post some new book reviews and, if you’re really unlucky, you might even get a meandering or two on the subject of the Dark Ages. So, watch this space!

Again, to those of you who continue to visit – I really appreciate it. Thank you. 

Monday 23 December 2013

Interrupted Service

Yesterday I realised, to my great dismay, that it’s been five months since I last updated this blog. It’s never been a busy place in that regard but, just in case anybody was wondering if I’d abandoned ship, I thought I’d post a word or two of explanation. In September I started an MA in Creative Writing, which is immensely rewarding; but the workload proved to be more than I’d anticipated and, coupled with teething problems regarding my WIP (which I’m glad to say are now no more) and one or two non-course issues, I’ve not been able to keep up with the book reviews, or indeed any of the other posts that I’d planned. I certainly don’t want the Nest to fall into disrepair, but at this point I’m still not sure how much time I’ll have to devote to it come the new year – however, I’m keeping my fingers crossed. To those readers who have dropped by in the past, and those that still do, thank you for visiting - and a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year to you all!

Friday 26 July 2013

Bride of the Spear - Kathleen Herbert

(Currently OOP. My edition: Corgi, 1989, 304 pages, ISBN 0552133310)

Two generations have come and gone since Arthur brought the tribes of Britain together, and the unity he created has long since been shattered. In the battle-scarred land of Lothian, Princess Taniu, haunted by obscure memories and the brutality and lust rampant in her father’s court, finds solace in the old tales of heroism and the dictates of a wandering holy man. When the king of Cumbria sends his envoys over the hills to ask for the princess as a bride for his son, her father King Loth is more than happy to use her to form an advantageous new alliance. But Taniu has given her heart to a young Cumbrian huntsman named Owain, and her body to the Christian faith. Determined to remain pure, she refuses to surrender herself. Yet some choices have already been made for her, far in her past, bringing in their train deceit, murder and heartbreak; and the chance to move beyond all three.

Bride of the Spear, originally titled Lady of the Fountain, was first published – in an edited form – by a small press, before being taken up by Bodley Head in 1988. Based on events in the ‘Life of St. Kentigern’, it forms the first in a trilogy set in Britain during the 6th and 7th centuries – the Celtic Heroic Age. The novel evokes the world of warlords, saints and heroes with skill, and a great deal of accuracy. Barring a few pertinent explanations, Herbert has written a novel which treats the attitudes and trappings of the past so holistically that the history is simply there to be absorbed by the reader, making for a smooth and engrossing read. The plotting is tight, making something gripping and credible out of the fragments of hagiography. Herbert’s prose is limpid and energetic, subtly humorous in places. She approaches the violence of the times, and the poverty of the lower classes, with frankness, but also restraint; and one of the things I like a lot about the novel is the way she conjures something beyond the stereotypically grim Dark Age world, giving us a place muddy, miserable and dangerous, but also holding colour, beauty and human warmth.

Many of the characters, including Taniu and Owain, are historical figures, with whom Herbert’s fictional men and women easily mingle. One of the great strengths of the novel is its characterisation, which is refreshingly down-to-earth. Taniu, courageous, compassionate, but at first blind to the danger of her rigid principles, is a believable 6th century princess; caught up in the machinations of both men and women of power, but far from passive, she is easy to empathise with as we see her learn the truth about herself and her beliefs. Owain, too, is a compelling character who has a great deal to learn about who he is. A convincingly flawed man whose innate nobility and passion are tempered by cold detachment and actions that may strike us as reprehensible, the fact that Herbert neither excuses nor judges him allows us to take him and his values on his own terms, understand the way he sees the world, and appreciate the way his is blindsided by his own body. Other viewpoints weave in and out of those of the two protagonists, adding depth to the plot and its secondary characters, all of whom, even the antagonists, are well-rounded with believable motives and emotions.

Novels that have a place for the natural world always score highly with me, and this is one of those. Drawn with clear, assured strokes – Kathleen Herbert was a keen walker with a good knowledge of the areas she describes – the landscape is an integral part of the novel, almost a character, as powerful and ever-present as the pagan ways with which it’s saturated.

At its heart the novel is, of course, a story of love, and both the best and the worst moments of that journey are well shown, in particular the mix of tenderness and sexual tension between the protagonists; and the bickering that arises from belonging to two rival kingdoms!

A comprehensive map at the front of the book shows all of the locations in the novel, and there is also a list of place names with their modern equivalents, and a list of characters. 

Bride of the Spear is currently being prepared for republication by Cumbria-based company Trifolium Books. Visit their blog for more information, including pictures of the new cover.

Friday 17 May 2013

Honour and the Sword - A.L. Berridge

(Penguin, 2011, 544 pages, ISBN 9780141043739)

It’s the summer of 1636, and the bloody Thirty Years War spills into Picardy as the Spanish armies begin their latest campaign against France. In their path lies the village of Dax-en-roi, whose Seigneur, the Chevalier de Roland, makes a valiant stand against the invaders, but to no avail. Only one person escapes the destruction of the de Roland home. Twelve-year-old André de Roland refuses to leave his parents unavenged and his people subject to a brutal occupation. He is only a boy, and many question what he can do. But André is driven by a sense of justice stronger than doubt. He will defend his honour and his people – to the end.

This is the first novel featuring André de Roland. Somewhat unusually, the story excludes his point of view almost entirely and comprises instead of multiple first person narratives by those close to him. I knew about this before I read the novel and was intrigued to see how well it worked; the answer is, very effectively. We’re made aware at the start that these narratives are part of a series of accounts collected in 1669 by the Abbé Fleuriot, who is composing the history of André’s life. Because of this the heading of each section with the narrator’s name never felt intrusive, as it has in some novels I’ve read. Although these headings are useful, it’s almost always possible to tell who’s speaking without them – I’ve remarked before on the author’s skill at creating distinct narrative voices, and that skill, that ability to draw out numerous different strands of register, is apparent again here. The novel has something of a British flavour despite being set in France, but that never bothered me, and the characters themselves are universal in their appeal. Each and every one of them feels real, not least André, even though we only ever see him through others’ eyes. This is one of the great strengths of the multiple first person narratives, in fact: we get to see both André and his companions from many viewpoints, viewpoints that don’t always agree; and that goes toward creating complex, rounded characters whose relationships to each other aren’t always what they seem, even to the narrators themselves. A.L. Berridge is very good at showing the sense of loyalty and the deep friendships that form within a tight-knit group under threat. And it was refreshing to be reminded that good and bad existed on both sides.

The book rattles along at a fine pace as André and his friends nag away at the Spanish armies, meaning it’s difficult to put down.  The choice of narrators at any particular moment added a great deal of tension, since not everyone is in the know about what’s going on, and as with the characterisation, the changing narratives allow different perspectives on events that throw them into relief and give greater depth to the plot. Although about war, this isn't a grim book, and the action, lightness of touch in the narration, and frequent surfacing of humour means it's a lively read.  

I didn’t really know anything much about the Thirty Years War before I started this novel, but I finished it with a much greater awareness of the people, places and events involved. These are woven well into the fabric of the story, often without explanation since the characters, of course, are familiar with them; but the accounts given to the Abbé are framed by notes and observations by their ‘translator’, Edward Morton, which allows everything to be set in context and explained with ease. I had to go and look up some of the terminology regarding weapons and warfare – in particular fencing, for which A.L Berridge’s passion is evident – but this didn’t disrupt my reading, and the author helpfully provides a lot of background information on her website. A map at the front of the book shows Dax-en-roi and the surrounding area.

Powerful story of friendship and honour set during the Thirty Years War.

Monday 15 April 2013

The Liebster Blog Award

A big thank you to Carla Nayland for giving The Bard’s Nest the Liebster (German for ‘favourite’) Blog Award!  

The rules of the Liebster Award are:

     Thank your Liebster Blog Award presenter on your blog and link back to the blogger who presented this award to you.
     Answer the 11 questions from the nominator, list 11 random facts about yourself and create 11 questions for your nominees.
     Present the Liebster Blog Award to 11 blogs of 200 followers or less who you feel deserve to be noticed and leave a comment on their blog letting them know they have been chosen.
     Copy and Paste the blog award on your blog

Here are my answers to Carla’s questions:

What's your favourite novel and what do you love about it?
-I generally find it hard to pick favourites of this sort, but I'll make an exception in this case: Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff, for the sheer power of the storytelling and the depth of emotion she conveys.  

Do you have any pet peeves in historical fiction?
-Excessive gadzookery. Historical inaccuracies that could have been easily prevented by checking in a book or, more recently, by just Googling phrases like 'did they have cucumbers in early medieval Britain?'    

What are you most proud of?
-In terms of something I've done? Probably the novel I finished a few years ago. (Now I just need to finish revising it...)

Your favourite and least favourite people in history?  (As few or as many as you like!)
-I do have a soft spot for Sir John Harington, Queen Elizabeth I's favourite godson, best known for inventing a flushing toilet (you can read more about him in my blog post here). I also like Henry IV of France for the fact that he seems to have been a capable ruler genuinely interested in the welfare of even his poorer subjects.
-Least favourite: A few too many to list…

The country, city or other place you'd most like to visit?
-There are a lot, so just picking one at random: Germany.

Which five people would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
-Dumnorix (1st century BC anti-Roman Gaul); Cartimandua (1st century AD queen of the Brigantes); Vortigern (by tradition early medieval usurper and tyrant extraordinaire); Taliesin (6th century British bard) and Myrddin (the original Merlin, lived sometime in the 6th century). All shadowy figures – some viewed less positively than others – whose lives and times I’d like to know more about.

Facebook or Twitter or neither?

What's one of your goals for the future?
-To actually write the novel I'm currently researching...

What's your favourite season?
-I like all the seasons, as long as the weather isn't horrendous!

Dogs or cats or neither?
-Dogs, no contest. 

What's your favourite hobby?
-Writing, researching for writing, and reading fiction. Weaving and drawing. And walking in the countryside.

11 blogs I enjoy and think are well worth a visit:

I know several of these have already been nominated at least once; please feel free to take part as you choose and do as much or as little as you’d like.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

The Shining Company - Rosemary Sutcliff

(Currently OOP. My edition: Bodley Head, 1990, 260 pages, ISBN: 0370314670)

It has been many years since Arthur, Britain’s famous warrior-king, drove the Anglo-Saxon invaders back from the lands of the Britons. Now the tide is beginning to turn once again, and Mynyddog, king of Gododdin, summons young princes from throughout the British tribes in a bid to forge a crack fighting force which could crush the Anglo-Saxon advance forever. Prosper, second son of a petty chieftain of Gwynedd, has longed to travel to the foreign lands of merchants' tales; but his call to adventure comes from much closer to home. Summoned by the Gwynedd prince Gorthyn, Prosper travels north alongside him to share in the training, the feasting, the drawing together of a brotherhood of warriors who will ride to meet the Anglo-Saxons at Catraeth. They are the Companions – the Shining Company.

Rosemary Sutcliff took her inspiration for the novel from a northern British poem, ‘Y Gododdin’, composed by the bard Aneirin some time in the 6th or 7th century. This tells of the titular tribe’s attack on Catraeth, whilst also eulogising the warriors involved. Many of those men named in the poem appear in the novel, but Prosper, along with his family and close friends, is fictional.

At the novel’s beginning, Prosper is still a boy with some growing to do. Honest, possessed of a sense of justice and given to bursts of compassion, nevertheless he can also be self-absorbed and bordering on arrogant where his inferiors are concerned. I sometimes found him hard to like, but the truth is that as well as being about the conflict between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons, The Shining Company is about a boy maturing into a young man, gaining new perspectives and a deeper understanding of love, friendship, hatred; and, of course, war. This is a novel which doesn’t just show us a campaign and the warband fighting it, but takes a long, hard look at everything that goes into both, from the bonds and petty rivalries that grow during training, to the devastation of losing one’s companions in battle. Sutcliff has never been a writer to glorify war, but this novel stands out for me both for its vivid images, which manage to be raw yet not brutal, and its unflinching depiction of the acute mental distress, the anger, bewilderment and loneliness, felt by those warriors who have survived when their friends haven’t.

Like other Sutcliff novels I’ve read, The Shining Company elicits a profound sense of the past, not only in drawing the reader back to Prosper’s time, but in showing that Prosper, too, is aware of what has gone before. Carvings in an old Roman fort made by men long dead, which Prosper adds too; a boundary stone that, like those before him, he touches as he passes by; the myths and legends of pagan forebears – all these bring out a continuity, a sense of shared humanity, which throws the characters and events of the novel into relief. I’m not especially keen on the writing style Sutcliff uses here, which seems a little more old-fashioned than in some of her other novels and is inclined to produce a slightly stilted tone, but it does help to convey the stretch of time between narrator and reader, while at the same time remaining comprehensible. The prose seemed sparser than in some of the other novels by Sutcliff which I’ve read recently, but still had her characteristic touch, that limpid, immediate imagery which makes her characters and their surroundings both beautifully and hauntingly real.

A map at the front of the book places the relevant tribes within Britain and shows the major locations which appear in the novel, whilst an Author’s Note at the end gives the background to the story. 

Poignant tale of friendship and loss amid the conflicts of early medieval Britain.

Monday 28 January 2013

The Somnambulist - Essie Fox

(Orion, 2011, 446 pages, ISBN: 9781409121190)

It’s 1881, and seventeen-year-old Phoebe Turner, living in London’s East End, seems destined to remain an unwilling helpmate to her widowed mother Maud, a religious militant on a quest to save the souls of the corrupt. Phoebe is more drawn to her beautiful aunt Cissy, once a singer in the music halls, and the woman portrayed in the famous Millais painting 'The Somnambulist'. But Cissy’s life isn’t ‘all music and light’ as Phoebe believes. When tragedy strikes the family, Phoebe must become companion to the wife of enigmatic Nathaniel Samuels if she is to save her home. Shut away in Dinwood Court, deep in the Herefordshire countryside, she begins to uncover secrets about Cissy’s past that will change her life irrevocably.

This is a novel with a distinctly Gothic feel, shot through with lies, love, sex, death and madness. Dinwood Court is a house haunted by shadows of both past and present, a perfect setting for several of the darker – and more audacious – elements of the story. Unlike some of the original Victorian tales, however, Essie Fox provides a balance to this, grounding the novel through her portrayal of late 19th century London and all its realities: music halls, docks, department stores and filthy back street shops; prostitutes, performers and proselytisers. I particularly enjoyed the sections involving the music halls, in which their vibrancy and vivacity came across brilliantly, especially in the characters of Cissy’s friends. All of the major characters are fictional, although there are appearances by the music hall director John Wilton and several of his acts, and some characters are based on real figures such as P.T. Barnum.

The novel is told largely by Phoebe, an engaging protagonist and a convincing Victorian girl, neither too self-effacing nor too modern in her outlook. Her first person narrative means that the reader is often lulled into sharing her prejudices and misinterpretations, and as a result has the opportunity to share in the way she grows in insight during the course of the novel. Her narration is interspersed with short sections in the third person focusing on Nathaniel Samuels. I wasn’t expecting this and wondered how well it would work overall, but the transitions were seamless and the technique really added to the novel, fleshing out Samuels’ character and providing backstory that complemented Phoebe’s narration, often adding to the suspense.     

The narrative occasionally winds back on itself as Phoebe arrives at a certain point and only afterwards relates how she got there – I found this a little disconcerting at first, but soon got used to it. The prose itself is reminiscent of a Victorian style, with precise descriptions and long sentences that repay close attention. All the senses come into play in this novel, creating a rich world, and one which the author isn’t afraid to tell us is sometimes really rather foul. This goes for the prejudices of the time as well, with extensive anti-Jewish sentiment being an important aspect of the novel. Ultimately, like the painting of the title, the novel presents both light and dark, danger and security, fear and self-belief; and the journey through them all is a satisfying one.

The book also contains questions for reading groups, extensive historical notes discussing features such as the music halls and contemporary attitudes to Jews, and an interview with the author. 

Compelling Gothic tale of love, loss, sin and redemption set in 1880s England.