SONG AT DAWN - Jean Gill
Song at Dawn by Jean Gill is a fabulous historical novel.
It is the story of Estela, a gifted young musician, who is swept up into the retinue of one my favourite historical characters of all time: Aliénor (Eleanor) of Aquitaine. Then the Queen of France, the cultured Aliénor takes Estela on a visit to the court of Ermengarde, Viscomtesse of Narbonne, where the natural talent of the beautiful girl is tutored by the dashing Knight and troubadour, Dragonetz.
Rich in historical detail, this novel brings alive the political intrigue, culture and harsh reality of court life in the twelfth century. Despite their scheming and their obvious rivalry, I loved the characters of Ermengarde and Aliénor. Two of the most powerful women in European history, they shared a common passion and jointly promoted the ideal of ‘Courtly Love’, while surrounded on all sides by would-be assassins, misogynistic churchmen, jealous noblemen and the problems caused by unwanted, inept husbands.
Weaving through this ambitious novel is the wonderful and tender love story of the mysterious Estela and the ambitious Dragonetz. Determined to thwart the bigoted clergy in both their business monopoly over paper, and in their in their plots to cleanse France of Jews and Muslims, Dragonetz is a complex and wily adversary as well as a brave, loyal and attractive lover; a hero for our own time.
I found the politics and the large cast of unfamiliar, foreign names a little confusing at first, but my perseverance was well-rewarded and I thoroughly enjoyed Song at Dawn. This is an intelligent and entertaining historical novel which vividly brings alive the mediaeval era and major characters of the time.
THE ISLAND - Victoria Hislop
The main problem with being a writer yourself, is that these days, whenever I pick up a book, I find myself being hypercritical of my fellow scribblers.
Take The Island by Victoria Hislop, for example. I became intrigued by this book when I realised that it was listed on the sub-genre of reference books/genealogy on amazon. This is where I am hoping to place my new genealogy book this summer, and I couldn’t help wondering why a fiction novel was loitering in the reference section?
As this book has also been an amazon chart topper and a Richard & Judy Summer Read, I could only assume that this was a piece of savvy marketing by her publishers. I needed to read it to find out.
My first reaction to The Island was disappointment. Hislop breaks every rule of fiction writing in the first chapter. The novel begins with a massive info-dump relating to the background lives of Alexis and her boyfriend (a character we barely meet and are not encouraged to like) and Hislop head-hops from the point of view of one character, to another, which such alarming frequency that I became dizzy and confused about whose story we were actually reading.
However, I was immediately struck with the excellent quality of her imagery:
Spinalonga. She played with the word, rolling it around her tongue like an olive stone….
…He was as leather-faced as any Cretan fisherman who had spent decades on storm-tossed seas….if wrinkles were like the rings of an oak tree and could be used to measure age, a rough calculation would leave him little short of eighty.
Once The Island was past the banal introduction and the bland modern characters, Hislop introduced us to the tragic lives of the leper, Eleni, and her devastated husband and daughters. Now, I was enthralled.
At this point, I realised that the The Island had succeeded in doing what I need good literature to do - which is to take me somewhere in history, society or geography where I have not been before. Prior to reading this book, I didn’t know that leprosy still rampaged around Europe in the mid- twentieth century, just before the start of mass tourism and the package holiday.
I found this novel fascinating and deeply moving. I was touched by the bravery of Eleni and Maria and their cheerful acceptance of their lot; I was even able to feel pity for the selfish Anna. Thanks to the author's skill with description I could visualise the leper colony, Spinalonga, and I remained hooked as Hislop took us on a journey, beneath the blazing, Cretan sun, along the quayside and through Dante’s tunnel into the world of the deformed and the ‘unclean.’ For three decades, Hislop led us through its twisted, crumbling, Turkish and Venetian streets. A world only ever imagined in the nightmares of the mainlanders, came alive with compassion, bravery, sacrifice and humanity at the hands of this very clever writer.
A great summer read.
Charity fund-raiser and Book Signing
I have two fabulous local events coming up in the next fortnight and would like to invite folks to join me.
Firstly, I will be the guest speaker at a fund-raising event at the Holistics Cancer Care Centre at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough on Friday 13th July 6.30 -8pm.
The Holistics Cancer Care Centre is a wonderful resource and treatment centre for the people of Teesside and deserves our support. Cancer sufferers and partners can access a range of treatments, ranging from acupuncture to aromatherapy massage to help relieve their stress and help them sleep.
At the event I will be explaining how genealogical research helped us uncover the story of our skeleton in the closet and then turn his sorry tale of Regency injustice into a novel, Catching the Eagle.
Please telephone 01642 854839 for tickets for what I hope will be an enjoyable evening. The cost is £10 and includes refreshments. All proceeds will go directly to the Holistics Cancer Care Centre.
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The following day, I have been invited back to the lovely Guisborough Bookshop to do a book signing of the paperback edition of my novel, Catching the Eagle.
I am really looking forward to this event and hope that you can join me.
Book Signing @
The Guisborough Bookshop
4, Chaloner Street,
11am - 1 pm