30 January, 2009

Far After Gold, by Jen Black. Book review

Edition reviewed: Quaestor2000, 2009. ISBN 978-1-906836-03-0. 186 pages.

Disclaimer: Far After Gold is published by Quaestor2000, who are also publishing my novel Paths of Exile. However, I read and reviewed Far After Gold before Quaestor2000 expressed interest in Paths of Exile.

Set in 10th-century Scotland, Far After Gold is a historical romance charting the relationship between Emer, a Hebridean chieftain’s daughter kidnapped by Viking* pirates, and Flane, the handsome young Viking warrior who buys her as a slave. All the characters are fictional, though I suspect that Skuli, chief of Flane’s village, may be the eponymous founder of Ullapool.

Emer is a chieftain’s daughter from the tiny island of Pabaigh in the Scottish Hebrides. Her life changes for ever when she is kidnapped by Viking raiders and sold as a slave in the Norse town of Dublin. Her buyer, a handsome and carefree young Norse warrior named Flane Ketilsson, takes her back to his home at Skuli’s Steading on the north-west coast of Scotland, intending to keep Emer as his concubine when he marries Skuli’s daughter Katla. However, Emer and Katla both have other ideas, and Flane finds his life becoming increasingly complicated. Emer refuses to sleep with him until he marries her, Katla wants to get rid of Emer altogether, and another warrior in the settlement wants Emer for himself. The ensuing conflict threatens Emer’s life and finally forces Flane to make a choice between love and power.

Far After Gold is an enjoyable read, with all the elements one would expect from a romance. The hero is handsome and has a tender side, both the rival women are beautiful, and the reader is left in no doubt whatsoever about the two leads’ physical attraction to one another. While the relationship between Emer and Flane is the main focus of the story, the novel is also rich in historical detail. The title is a quotation from a Swedish runic inscription set up by a mother in memory of her sons, “they fared like men, far after gold”, and Flane quotes some of the cheerfully pragmatic Norse proverbs from the poem Havamal. As well as everyday life in a Norse chieftain’s hall, including the bathing facilities (I’m afraid the myth of the unwashed hairy Viking is just that, a myth), the novel also brings Norse customs to life through Emer’s eyes. Emer is unfamiliar with Norse ways, and some of the customs are startling, even shocking, to her, such as the acceptance of single combat (the holmgangr) as a method of settling arguments and the businesslike nature of a Norse wedding ceremony. As she grows closer to Flane she has to learn about the society that shaped him, and her discovery that there is more to Norse society than mindless violence is shared with the reader. One aspect I liked is that the novel doesn’t make a great fuss about religious differences, even though Emer is Christian and Flane is not. This tolerance, on the pagan Norse side at least, is reflected in some archaeological artefacts, such as the jeweller’s mould from tenth-century Denmark that was designed to cast a Thor’s hammer amulet side by side with Christian cross pendants.

Flane is an attractive character, cheerful and humorous. He comes over as just a little bit immature at the start of the novel, wanting to have his cake and eat it, acting on impulse without much regard for the consequences, and unwilling to make a difficult decision until he is forced into it. He seems genuinely baffled that Emer doesn’t fall into his bed at the first opportunity, and his willingness to wait for her to do so rather than force her seems to be due in about equal parts to a belief in his own irresistible attractiveness and a desire for a quiet life. In some ways Emer and her rival for Flane’s affections, the chieftain’s daughter Katla, are the stronger characters. Katla in particular is familiar from the Icelandic sagas, an outspoken woman at least as determined as the men around her. Emer is a mixture of sweet and sharp, na├»ve and sarcastic, and displays considerable courage. Whether a Norse warrior would really have put up with quite so much defiant back-chat from a girl he bought in a slave market is perhaps a moot point, but Flane admits to a friend that Emer intrigues him, and maybe that is explanation enough.

The novel is written in straightforward modern prose, with no expletives that I noticed. As one would expect in a romance there are a number of explicit sex scenes, but they don’t overwhelm the rest of the story. The character names are authentic as far as I can tell, always something I look for in historical fiction. I recognised most of the Norse names, Emer is an Irish name (wife of the hero Cuchulainn in Irish legend), and Katla is the name of a volcano in Iceland, highly appropriate for the tempestuous chieftain’s daughter. Landscape descriptions were sufficiently clear for me to work out most of the locations in the story, though I would have liked a map to confirm whether I was right!

Warm historical romance with all the classic features, in the unusual setting of tenth-century Norse Scotland.

More information on Jen Black's blog.

*’Viking’ and ‘Norse’ are sometimes used interchangeably to refer to the people of Scandinavia (modern Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland) in the eighth to eleventh centuries. I prefer to use ‘Norse’ to refer to people of Scandinavian origin, and ‘Viking’ to refer specifically to those who were engaged in raiding and piracy.

29 January, 2009

Bernard Cornwell, "Bookclub", Radio 4 on Sunday 1 February

Bernard Cornwell's novel The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century Britain against the background of the wars between Alfred the Great and the Danes, is the subject of February's Bookclub on BBC Radio 4.

The programme will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 1 February at 1600 GMT, and repeated on Thursday 5 February at 1600 GMT. If you're outside the UK you can listen to the programme live on the BBC website, or on the Listen Again page or the BBC iPlayer (look under 'B' for Bookclub in the alphebtical listings) for 7 days after broadcast.

More information on the Bookclub web page.

Bookclub is a monthly half-hour programme presented by James Naughtie. Each month a well-known book is selected for reading and the author is invited along to answer questions from the presenter and members of the audience.

27 January, 2009

January recipe: steak and kidney pudding

In Britain, puddings aren’t always sweet, and although ‘pudding’ can be a synonym for ‘dessert’, it isn’t always. Steak and kidney pudding is a case in point. It’s a essentially a deep pie made with suet pastry and filled with chopped steak, kidney and onions in a thick gravy, cooked by steaming (or boiling) instead of by baking. The result is filling, warming, and somehow very reassuring in cold weather. It’s closely related to Bedfordshire Clangers, but it’s made in a deep basin instead of a roll and it doesn’t include fruit.

The cooking method derives from the custom of cooking a dish by tying it in a cloth and suspending it from the handle of a cauldron bubbling over the fire, which was an efficient way of cooking a solid object before the oven was invented or in households without an oven. Sweet puddings would have been cooked this way too, which is no doubt the origin of the modern steamed sponge puddings and Christmas pudding. And very probably the origin of the fruit in Bedfordshire Clangers, which by combining fruit and meat echoes some of the cooking habits of the Middle Ages. Mince pies originally contained meat as well as fruit. The separation between sweet and savoury is comparatively recent, only a century or so old.

Here’s my recipe:

Steak and kidney pudding

Suet pastry
5 oz (approx 125 g) self-raising flour
2.5 oz (approx 60 g) shredded suet

8 oz (approx 250 g) shin beef or stewing steak
1 lamb kidney
Half an onion
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) plain flour
Approx 0.5 pint (approx 250 ml) stock
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried mixed herbs

Grease a pudding basin.
Mix the self-raising flour and suet in a bowl. Add sufficient cold water to form a soft but not sticky dough. If it is too sticky, add more flour. (If you know how to make dumplings, this is exactly the same).
Roll out on a floured work surface to a circle big enough to fit the pudding basin.
Cut approximately a quarter segment out of the circle. Line the pudding basin with the three-quarter part of the circle, damp the cut edges and seal them together. It’s very forgiving pastry, so mould it and push it around until it lines the basin. Any holes can be patched by damping the edges and pressing extra bits of pastry in to fill them. (If you have your own preferred method of lining a deep pudding basin, go ahead and use it. I’ve found the three-quarter circle works for me, as it folds into an approximate cone roughly the right shape for the basin).

Chop the steak into approximately 1” (approx 2 cm) cubes and chop the kidney into pieces about half that size.
Peel and chop the onion.
Fry the meat and onion in lard or cooking oil until the meat is browned.
Stir in the flour.
Pour in the stock, and bring to the boil to thicken. You can replace part or all of the stock with red wine or beer if you like.
Add the herbs, season to taste with salt and black pepper.
Pour the filling mixture into the lined pudding basin.
Add more stock (or wine or beer) if necessary. The liquid should almost cover the meat and onions.
Roll out the quarter-circle of pastry to a circle big enough to make a lid. Dampen the edges and seal the lid to the edges of the lining pastry.
Cover the pudding basin with tinfoil. If the pudding lid is near the top of the basin, put a pleat in the tinfoil so the pudding can expand. If the pudding lid is well down below the edge of the basin, you don’t need to pleat the tinfoil.
Steam for 2.5 to 3 hours, making sure the water in the pan never boils dry.

Serve with carrots, Brussels sprouts, cabbage or other vegetables of your choice.

I make this quantity for two people and with vegetables it makes a complete meal.

22 January, 2009

The Sixth Wife, by Suzannah Dunn. Book review

Edition reviewed: Harper Perennial 2007. ISBN: 978-0-00-722972-7. 298 pages.

Set in 1547–1548, The Sixth Wife is narrated by Catherine Duchess of Suffolk and covers the period after the death of Henry VIII, when his widow (the sixth and last wife) Katherine Parr married Thomas Seymour. All the main characters are historical figures, but the love triangle that forms the central premise of the novel is fictional.

Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk (“Cathy”) is the closest friend of Katherine Parr (“Kate”), sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII. Within months of Henry’s death, Kate marries the handsome and dashing Thomas Seymour, her old love. Outspoken and forthright, Cathy cannot understand what Kate sees in Thomas and is suspicious of his motives. But on a visit to help Kate with her first pregnancy, Cathy succumbs to Thomas Seymour’s allure, and soon a net of lies and betrayals threatens them all.

In her afterword titled Tudorspeak, Suzannah Dunn says “I don’t do historical fiction”. Having read The Sixth Wife, I would concur with that. This is not just because of the aggressively modern prose style, although I did find that somewhat distracting. It’s because I felt the story could have taken place at any time. The names attached to the three people in the love triangle happen to be historical figures, but the novel is driven mainly by the emotional turmoil resulting from an extramarital affair, and the emotions involved (lust, guilt at betraying a friend, fear of discovery, etc) apply just as readily now as in the sixteenth century. Possibly more so now, since religious guilt and the fear of sin don’t come into the novel much, and I would have expected them to play at least some significant role in any story from the sixteenth century, no matter how “modern” or “forward-thinking” the protagonist is supposed to be. Some of the narrative seemed overtly feminist in tone, such as the comment about women having made progress or suffered setbacks, and talk of women being “sold” as wards or wives. Furthermore, the author is candid in her epilogue (the equivalent of an Author’s Note) that the central love triangle is entirely fictional, and the plot twist that accommodates the actual rumours circulating at the time struck me as contrived.

The title is something of a misnomer, as the novel is narrated by Cathy and so only her feelings and thoughts are shown. Cathy speculates on Kate’s thoughts and feelings, and on Thomas’s motivations, but the reader is never shown what anyone else was really thinking or feeling. It’s far more about the Duchess of Suffolk than about Katherine Parr (but I suppose The Sixth Wife was the more obviously marketable title).

Cathy herself is a forthright no-nonsense woman who is not about to be pushed around by anybody, and her racy, gossipy narrative was quite attractive, once I got used to all the modern slang and convinced myself that it wasn’t a Dynasty script. Some of Cathy’s comments are sharply observed, such as the anger she feels when she realises that someone she loves is dying. The emotional toll of infidelity is also well drawn – the guilt of lying to a close friend, the self-delusion of pretending that the cheated wife won’t mind or won’t be hurt, the sense that the illicit affair is somehow not quite real. I found parts of the novel slightly reminiscent of some of Fay Weldon’s short stories. However, Cathy has only limited interest in exploring her own feelings, let alone those of others, and after a while I wanted to hear everyone else’s side of the story. The overall effect reminded me of being buttonholed in a bar by a glamorous but pushy acquaintance whose conversation isn’t quite as sparkling as she thinks it is.

Fictional extramarital love affair with some historical names attached.

Has anyone else read it?

15 January, 2009

Wooden tableware in early England

Early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) settlement sites usually contain only small amounts of pottery. This is a noticeable contrast with Roman-period sites, which seem to yield enough pieces of broken pottery for a Greek wedding.

Most of the Anglo-Saxon pottery that has been found and studied is from cemeteries (Arnold 1997), either cremation urns buried containing the ashes of the deceased or vessels buried along with inhumations and perhaps containing some sort of offering. Domestic pottery is not that common and is usually unexciting and rather lumpen (Pollington 2003). Particularly in the early period (roughly, fifth to mid-seventh century), it tends to be hand-made rather than produced on a potter’s wheel, and often fired rather poorly at a low temperature, and has been rather unkindly described as “…well below the standard to be expected of a first-year pottery class at a high school today” (Dixon 1994). All of which has no doubt contributed to the stereotype of the early English as ignorant barbarians incapable of making civilised tableware.

However, pottery is in some ways not the ideal material for a subsistence farming economy in which villages and even individual families expected to be largely self-sufficient. Not every site would have a deposit of good-quality potting clay, and clay is heavy stuff to transport if it has to be brought in from elsewhere. Firing to obtain a hard finish requires a high temperature, which in turn needs a specialist kiln and a large quantity of fuel, an investment that is best suited to making a large number of pots at once and may not be a sensible use of resources for a small self-sufficient community. Similarly, the number of pots used by a small community may not justify the time required to develop a high level of skill in making and using a potters’ wheel. And although pottery fragments can last almost indefinitely in the soil, a pottery vessel is fragile if dropped – as no doubt we have all discovered to our cost – and the pieces are no use to anyone except future archaeologists.

Wooden vessels offer several advantages over pottery (Pollington 2003). The skills and tools needed to shape wood into a bowl or cup are similar to those needed to shape wood into all the other useful domestic objects required by a farming village. Woodworking doesn’t require building and firing a kiln, and every village would have to have a ready supply of the raw material to hand as it was also needed for building and for fuel. Wooden vessels are less prone to breakage than pottery, and if an item does get damaged or broken beyond repair it can be usefully used as kindling for the fire.

Unfortunately, wood doesn’t survive well on archaeological sites, partly because it can so easily be re-used as fuel at the time and partly because wood, being organic, decays naturally in the soil. Sometimes the only indications of the presence of a wooden vessel are metal clips or staples used for repair or decoration. Wooden artefacts themselves tend to be found mainly on waterlogged sites where the absence of oxygen (anaerobic conditions) prevents or inhibits decay. A few examples illustrate the wealth of organic material that has probably been lost from other sites.

  • A group of part-finished lathe-turned wooden bowls was found in a workshop at Feddersen Wierde, a waterlogged settlement site on the North Sea coast of Germany, north of the mouth of the River Weser (site abandoned during the fifth century AD) (Cole and Cole 1989). If you believe in the migration theory, you can imagine the wood-turner who owned the workshop moving with his skills across the sea and starting a new life somewhere in eastern or southern England….

  • The Sutton Hoo ship burial (Mound 1) contained eight turned walnut wooden cups with decorative silver collars, and six turned wooden bottles made of maplewood (Leahy 2003). The reconstruction of one of the bottles shown in Pollington (2003) is a handsome vessel with a copper-alloy collar and decorative panels. Perhaps it functioned something like a modern decanter? The bottles were about 14 cm diameter and 14-16 cm high, and Leahy comments that turning them would have called for great skill (Leahy 2003).

Whoever was buried in Sutton Hoo Mound 1 (most probably Raedwald, King of the East Angles in the early seventh century), he was clearly an extremely wealthy and important person with access to expensive luxury goods. Given that he had turned wooden cups and bottles in his grave, perhaps ready to put on a magnificent feast in the afterlife, I think that’s a fair indication that wooden tableware could be just as high-status as the exotic imported silver dishes found in the same burial.

Wooden tableware didn’t go out of use when mass-produced wheel-thrown pottery reappeared in quantity in Britain after the eighth century. The Norse at Jorvik in the ninth and tenth centuries made large quantities of turned wooden tableware, as demonstrated by finds of workshop debris in the waterlogged deposits at the Coppergate (“Street of the cup makers”) site. Wooden vessels were the normal tableware of the period. Perhaps because wood was cheaper and more durable than pottery, perhaps because it was traditional, or perhaps simply because people liked it. A well-made wooden bowl or cup is a pleasing object, as shown by the bowl in the photograph (which was made on a modern power lathe). Even nowadays items such as wooden salad bowls and fruit bowls are still fashionable, and any cook will tell you that a wooden spoon is an indispensable kitchen utensil.

Wooden bowls in early England would have been turned using a pole lathe (Dixon 1994, Leahy 2003), making a perfectly concentric circular item as accurately and quickly as a modern power lathe (See the video on Robin Wood’s site if you don’t believe me). More on this ingenious machine in another post.

Arnold CJ. An archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Routledge, 1997. ISBN 978-0415-156-356. Extracts available on Google Books.
Cole, B, Cole J. People of the wetlands. Bogs, bodies and lake dwellers. Thames and Hudson, 1989. ISBN 0-500-02112-0.
Dixon PH. The Reading lathe. Cross Publishing, 1994. ISBN 1-873295-65-0.
Leahy K. Anglo-Saxon crafts. Tempus Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-7524-2904-3.
Pollington S. The mead-hall. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003. ISBN 1-898281-30-0.

11 January, 2009

Winter walk

A friendly robin hoping for crumbs (yes, of course we obliged).

Snow lingering on the path. The gorse is still in flower, even in the middle of winter. There's a country saying, "When gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion."

We weren't the only creatures using the path. Pheasant tracks in the snow.

Frozen pool in a reedbed.

Hoar frost on sage plant. (For really impressive pictures of hoar frost, see Gabriele's Winter Wonderland post)

05 January, 2009

Men of Bronze, by Scott Oden. Book review

Edition reviewed: Bantam, 2006. ISBN 978-0-553-81791-1. 476 pages.

Men of Bronze is a military adventure set against the background of the Persian invasion of Egypt in 526 BC. I recognised the two Pharaohs in the story, the Persian king, the Persian commander Darius (later to be Darius the Great) and the Greek mercenary Phanes of Halicarnassus as historical figures, and the author’s note says the Egyptian priest Ujahorresnet is historical. I think all the others are fictional, although this is a period of history I know very little about so don’t quote me on that.

The power of Egypt has dwindled since the glory days of the god-kings, and now the Egyptian army relies on foreign mercenaries (“Men of Bronze”) for much of its strength. Bedouin desert raiders menace the eastern frontier, and beyond the desert the empire of Persia looks on Egypt’s wealth with hungry eyes. When Hasdrabal Barca, a Phoenician mercenary general in charge of the eastern frontier, intercepts a secret Persian message, he realises that another key mercenary commander, the Greek general Phanes of Halicarnassus, has defected to Persia. The ensuing conflict pits these two, the most able of the mercenary commanders, against each other in a brutal struggle. With Egypt’s survival at stake, Barca will find his military skill tested as never before – and when he encounters the beautiful freed slave woman Jauharah he will have to face the guilt of a crime that has scarred his soul for twenty years.

To describe Men of Bronze as “action-packed” would be an understatement. Battle, assassination, skirmish, street fight and riot follow each other with scarcely time for the characters – or the reader – to pause for breath. The hand-to-hand combat scenes in particular are frequent, vivid, detailed and full of blood and guts. The central character, Hasdrabal Barca, is shown as an awesomely efficient killing machine, capable of despatching six trained Greek assassins single-handed. I wasn’t keeping score of the total body count, but it was a lot. Readers who like graphic blow-by-blow combat descriptions will probably find much to enjoy; readers who dislike violence should steer clear.

The tone and style of the novel have something of a flavour of heroic fantasy. On his blog, the author has expressed his admiration for RE Howard (for example, this entry), the creator of Conan the Barbarian, and I can recognise some of that influence in Men of Bronze. Characters are larger than life, make dramatic declamatory speeches, and engage in struggles to the death in which no compromise is possible. Hasdrabal Barca reminded me of Conan, and some of Conan’s successors in fiction, with his near-superhuman martial ability, devotion to his code of honour and apparently effortless ability to inspire men to fight and die for him. That said, I found Barca more interesting than many a fictional warrior superhero. He bears the guilt of a crime of passion committed many years ago, and the rage and self-loathing resulting from that act provide the wellspring of his fighting prowess while at the same time cutting him off from human feeling. When he meets Jauharah, a freed Arabian slave woman, the growing attraction between them awakes in Barca a wish to learn to love and trust again, but he fears the possible consequences.

Barca dominates the novel, and the other characters play supporting roles. Barca’s adversary, the Greek mercenary Phanes, is also his polar opposite, a man with no honour who is obsessed only with his own glory. If Barca personifies honour, Phanes personifies hubris (in its modern meaning). Jauharah, coming to terms with freedom for the first time in her life, is an attractive character, and I also liked the merchant-turned-warrior Callisthenes (although I admit to being surprised that he could apparently turn from a plump rabbit of a man to an expert killer in a matter of a few months).

I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of the novel, as I know almost nothing about Egypt or the Persian Invasion. What I can say is that the setting and descriptions felt authentic within the context of the story. Egypt is a pale shadow of its former power, and its priests and rulers are surrounded by reproachful monuments to past glories. The multiplicity of gods, and the Egyptian obsession with death – sometimes at the expense of life – are well drawn. Despite the epic flavour of the novel, the war isn’t shown as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Because Egypt is the country being invaded, and because it’s the country we see most of and the side the hero Barca is fighting for, there’s a tendency for the reader to identify with Egypt. But Egypt has its share of corrupt officials, fools and cowards, and Persia has at least one thoroughly honourable commander.

The battle between Egypt and Persia that forms the climax of the novel is worthy of an epic, as armies clash and men die in mud and blood. I could practically hear the Hollywood soundtrack thundering in my ears. And the poignant ending felt exactly right.

Two useful, if rather small, maps at the front are invaluable for understanding the geography. There is an extensive glossary of terms at the back explaining everything from gods to troop types, although I found I could work out most of the unfamiliar words and phrases from context and rarely needed to refer to it.

Epic military adventure, political double-dealing and a touch of romance, set against a convincing background of collapsing empire.

Has anyone else read it?

01 January, 2009

New Year

Holly berries. I couldn’t let the whole Christmas and New Year season pass without a picture of holly, could I?

Ivy berries. Not as pretty as holly, but invaluable if you’re a hungry bird in late winter

Winter tree

Seedheads of wild clematis (Clematis vitalba), otherwise known as Old Man’s Beard

Chestnut buds, as fat and brown and sticky as Christmas dates.

Best wishes for the New Year to all of you.