This Proud And Savage Land

Normally I write about the books I have read once a month. However, after writing about this one, I felt it deserved an entry of its own; partly because of its length, but also because of the impact it had on me.

In the 1960s Alexander Cordell wrote three books which became known as "The Mortymer Trilogy". I read these many years ago, at the suggestion of my mother. I had read "How Green Was My Valley" and she suggested what she believed to be a better recounting of life in Wales. She maintained that these books were closer to reality, based on the tales handed down in her family. I read and enjoyed them - and might read them again, now I have them on my Kindle. The paperbacks seem to have vanished in the intervening years, unfortunately. Actually, I had forgotten about them until just recently. A month or so ago I became interested in my family history. I found some research Mum had done, although not the family trees I carefully compiled as a teenager - still hunting for those.

I had always believed/assumed that my ancestors in the 19th century were coalminers. However, some of my research led to their job titles, as recorded in the census records of the time. My great-grandfather was listed in the 1871 census as a "tinman", at the age of 22. More I have yet to find out about him; with a name of David Bowen, it's not exactly uncommon. However, he and his wife had 12 children, so he must have survived for a while.

The story I have so far uncovered of my great-great-grandfather is possibly more illustrative of life in the eastern valleys of South Wales. His name was John Bowen. In the 1851 census he is listed as being 10 years old and his occupation is given as "drawing iron works". He was still a child, not even high school age! At that time he lived with his grandfather and had a brother, James, aged 13, who was a "catcher iron works" In the 1871 census John appears as a "puddler". I haven't been able to find out any more so far, though I have identified four children.

Clearly my family didn't work down the mines (although some did in later generations). Instead they worked in the iron industry, which was well established in Wales in the 19th century. I don't know for sure, but my family lived in Nantyglo, so I assume they worked at the Nantyglo ironworks.

Having discovered this, it reminded me of the Cordell books, so I went in search of them. I came across this book: "This Proud and Savage Land", written in the 1980s, as a prequel to the trilogy, so I settled down to read it. Cordell captures beautifully the cadence of the Welsh accent, and the idiom, in his writing. I heard the text in my head in a distinct Welsh accent, but it's an accent I am very familiar with. It's not an easy book to read, though. I guess it could be described as a Welsh "Grapes of Wrath". There's not much joy in the tale: it tells of the beginnings of the feud between the Mortimer family (wealthy, owners of ironworks, in league with the English) and the Mortymer family, which sprung from a bastard line. I found it both fascinating and heart-breaking, as I imagined my ancestors living in the abject poverty that is depicted, completely dependent on the good graces of the (English of course) masters at the ironworks. People starved, they froze to death. If they were lucky, they could afford to share a room in a worker's cottage, possibly upgrading to a whole cottage, depending on their job. Houses like that are still around in Wales: terraces, now extended and with indoor bathrooms, two rooms upstairs and two down. My Nan grew up in such a house, one of twelve children. As soon as you were old enough, out to work you went, or into service for the women, as there was a queue for your space in the bed. My Mum recalls top-and-tailing when she lived there during the second world war.

Immigration was an issue, too. Lots of ironworkers came from the north and a lot of Irish people had come over, to escape the famine, only to starve or freeze, homeless, in the Welsh valleys.

I found the book really drew my attention to the contrasts between then and now. Our concept of poverty is certainly relative, which is a good thing! And yet, there are vast swathes of people on the move at the moment, trying to escape famine, war, maltreatment; all the things I found myself thinking "how horrible" about when reading this book, set almost 200 years ago. A sobering thought that makes me wonder just how much humanity has progressed, if at all. We don't seem to in terms of basic compassion - and I include myself in that. Complacent in my relatively luxurious lifestyle.

Aside from the emotive aspect of this book, it also serves as a decent chronicle of social history. This and the later books document the birth of trade unionism in the UK, including the Rebecca Riots of the mid-1800s. Not the kind that calls people out on strike for yet more money, but the kind that wanted the workers to have enough money to eat, and for the lives of its members not to be worthless. Iron-making was a hazardous occupation, but health and safety barely even existed at the time. Life was cheap, always someone to take the place of a dead worker. The Welsh ironworkers were little more than slaves. The works owners ran the local shops and put prices up whenever they felt like it. They got rid of workers on a whim, reduced pay if orders fell and, yet, managed to get rich themselves.

All in all, this was a book I gained a lot from reading, even if it was difficult for me to read at times, but that is because I feel a personal connection to it. It is probably of limited interest to other readers, but it had a powerful impact on me and made me reflect on some of my views of the world - no bad thing.

September Books

The Unbroken Line of the Moon by Joanna Hildebrandt

Started 1 September
Finished 11 September

Another translation, and a good one. I enjoyed this and am likely to keep an eye out for subsequent stories in the series. It is quite clear that there will be more, as the novel ends in such a way as to leave the reader in no doubt. That's not to say it was an unsatisfactory ending; far from it, but there is more to come.

The story centres around Sigrid, a woman living in Scandinavia in the Viking era. She is actually a legendary queen of Sweden (Svea) - Sigrid the Haughty. She is mentioned in some sagas, but there seems to be debate about whether she was a real figure, or possibly an amalgamation of several women from that era. Sigrid is married off to King Erik of Sweden, to secure the future of her tribe; however, she falls for another man prior to her wedding, presenting doubt as to the paternity of her offspring. Sigrid is in constant danger and the story follows her determination to survive.

The novel pulls no punches and certainly doesn't present a romanticised view of 10th-century Sweden. There is plenty of graphic description of battles, of rape and brutality. That said, the story is told in a very matter-of-fact way, so these events aren't in any way glorified, nor do they seem gratuitous. Rather, they come across as a simple recounting of life as it was. The story started a little slowly, but it was worth staying with. There are some mystical elements, centred around the practises of the old religion and the struggle between belief in the old Nordic gods and Christianity plays a significant part in the tale.

Tier One by Brian Andrews & Jeffrey Wilson
Started 12 September
Finished 19 September

Back to thrillers, although this is a military-based one, rather than a police procedural. It tells the story of an elite ops team and their leader. I believe it may be the first of many, and I might consider reading more of them. The story was well paced and kept me reading. I'll admit these aren't generally my preferred genre, but this was interesting, as the story didn't go where I expected. I read the Kindle version, so didn't realise that there was a glossary at the end, which would have helped my understanding a little, as the novel was rather acronym-heavy at times.

The Cross-Country Quilters by Jennifer Chiaverini
Started 20 September
Finished 23 September

Chronologically this is the third of the Elm Creek Quilt novels written, although not the third I have read. The novels are about quilters, and most are set around a quilting camp in America. Yes, the stories are quaint, and possibly slightly unrealistic, with their tales of women who find companionship through quilting. No gritty dramas here, just gentle depiction of life. To me, they represent an element of escapism, as well as something familiar to me. I don't go on quilting camps - from what I know, I suspect quilting is more popular in the US than here, although I have done some. I do recognise that friendship which grows when a group of people gather with a shared interest. Some of my closest friends where I live are ones I have met through joining a craft group.

This tale highlights a group who meet at the quilting camp, make friends, and decide to create a collaborative quilt. They each have issues to deal with in their lives and agree to start their quilt blocks only once they have taken steps to deal with their problems. The individual stories are woven together well and the ladies meet up the following year to finish the quilt. As with most of these books, it's a gentle, undemanding read, but well written.

Hooray for the humble cotton bud

After last week's visit to my craft group I found three huge bites across my upper back, just out of reach for a person with slightly-frozen shoulders, such as me.

I blame the carpet cleaning that had taken place. Whenever that happened in an office I worked in, I always got bitten by some recently-homeless critter. I never usually get bitten.

So I pondered my problem for a (short) while and to the rescue came the humble cotton bud. It afforded me that little extra bit of reach, so, loaded with ointment, it was pressed into use.

One of those household items I rarely use, but so very handy when needed. Another use has been softening pencil shading on art work. What are they officially for? I've never been sure.

August Books

Eggs or Anarchy by William Sitwell

Started 1 August
Finished 13 August

This is the story of Frederick Marquis, Lord Woolton who ran the Ministry of Food in the UK during the Second World War. I happened to hear the author interviewed on the radio and was intrigued. I am of an age such that my parents lived through the war, my mother as an evacuee (to family, luckily) in South Wales, my father staying at home in west London. My generation, however, can barely imagine the privations of the wartime years.
Woolton was a businessman who was asked to run the Ministry of Food, overseeing the feeding of the UK - no mean task for a country which, at that time, was a massive net importer of food. Woolton had a background in social work and he had seen first hand some of the deprivation and malnutrition that existed in poorer parts of England. He has also run a successful retail business, so was perhaps well placed for the task. He was determined that the whole country would be fed a nutritionally balanced diet, at a reasonable price, so that, at the end of the war, the population as a whole would be healthier than they had been before it started. The book brought to life his frustration with bureaucracy and set out the scale of Woolton's achievement. It was well written, an enjoyable and educational read.

Summerchester Secrets by Hazel Elizabeth Allen

Started 14 August
Finished 18 August

This book won some independent romance prize. Yes, I know, not my normal genre, but I fancied something a little different for once. Something gentle and relaxing, which is exactly what I got. Pleasant, believable characters, pleasant setting and a believable little story. Not much variation on the boy-meets-girl theme, but the secrets of the title came into play. A happy ending, of course, but that made a pleasant change from the death and destruction in some of the thrillers I usually read. I enjoyed it for what it was; an undemanding read, but a pleasant tale nonetheless.

Rage by Zygmunt Miloszewski

Started 19 August
Finished 31 August

Translated from the original Polish, this read well in English,so credit to the translator for that. To start with, I wasn't sure I would continue with the novel, as it seemed a bit slow to develop. This is the last in a series of books about the same character, a state prosecutor, but the only one in English. That didn't matter too much, fortunately. Much in the vein of Henning Mankell, the local environment, particularly the weather, was very much a part of the story and the atmosphere was set well.
Overall I enjoyed the story, the more so as it developed. It had a few surprises, which unravelled gradually. I read a lot of thrillers, but didn't have any sense of thriler-fatigue here. If more of this author's work is translated, I would read it.

July Books

Changers by Matt Gemmell
Started 1 July
Finished 7 July

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The writing is excellent, nothing superfluous, yet everything vividly depicted. I have read some of Matt's other writing and enjoyed it, so I expected to enjoy this, but it was even better than I had anticipated. The final section, in particular, really came to life in my mind. Generally when I read a book, I just read the words, but in this one I could really see events unfold in my mind - very cinematic. I don't like books with unnecessary pages of description and that isn't the case here; the writing hits exactly the right balance for me. No spoilers though - read it for yourself.
I felt the sense of unease early in the book, as the situation developed, until about a third of the way through, when I really did stop in my tracks. It's rare that a novel can produce such an OMG moment for me, but this one did . It really drew me in and kept me reading. I look forward to subsequent Kestrel adventures.

War Brides by Helen Bryan
Started 8 July
Finished 29 July

The opening starts in the present, then goes back to the 1930s, just pre-war. Setting the scene, I'm sure, but it felt a little rushed. Boy-next-door is friends with "worthy" daughter of local vicar. Boy-next-door goes off to the navy, comes back, proposes to worthy girl, goes to the US, is seduced by local scarlet woman, who is hiding a secret, and they return home, to the shock of the jilted "worthy". It all seems very rushed, without much character development. The story does develop nicely, into a tale of life during WW2 in Sussex. The characters are interesting enough, although the depiction of the Londoner felt a little patronising. Dropped aitches everywhere in the text. No reference to rural Sussex accents, of course. I imagine there was a working-class/middle-class divide here.
One of the ladies works in intelligence and she discovers the secrets of the people in the Big House. At that point the story seems to stop rather abruptly and we are back in 1995, where the ladies are reunited, bar one. We find out what has happened to all of them in the intervening years, and it turns out the ladies have gathered to exact revenge by murdering someone; or rather, imprisoning him in a blocked smugglers passage under a gravestone. Yes, it turns out he was a traitor, and responsible for the death of their friend, but they managed this in the middle of the celebration of the re-opening of the church, in a village full of people and television cameras. Oh and one of them recovers some memories after traumatic amnesia: she recalls the apparently failed attempt to rescue her sisters from France, plus the fact that she had a baby who died. The final chapter reveals to the reader that the sisters had been rescued, unknown to any of the ladies, including the older sister. I think it was meant to be a poignant ending but it all felt a bit glib and trite.
Overall I enjoyed the book, but it wasn't particularly well written, nor was it well paced.

Athelstan by Tom Holland
Started 29 July
Finished 31 July

This wasn't a long book at all, but it was interesting. I knew virtually nothing about King Athelstan, yet it turns out he was possibly the first King of all England, rather than King of part of it, like King Alfred was.
Tom Holland makes history accessible and interesting. I am still part of the way through another of his books, about Persia. I took a break, not because it was dull, but because there was so much information about an area so unfamiliar to me.

June Books

Time Heals No Wounds by Hendrik Falkenberg

Started 21 May
Finished 10 June
Kindle First for May

This book was ok. I didn't guess who the perpetrator was, so that was good. The characters were portrayed well enough and the story was interesting; it just didn't grab me really. It didn't have me wanting to turn the page (or tap the screen) as much as I had hoped. There was a thread running through the book, about a kidnapped/imprisoned young lady which I found jarring. It turned out to be relevant, but I found it confusing and a little disconcerting. I noticed a couple of places where the translation seemed a bit off, too; it didn't pick up the English idiom particularly well on occasion.

Cold (A Joe Tiplady Thriller 1) by John Sweeney

Started 11 June
Finished 14 June
Kindle First for June

This was an excellent read. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as evidenced by the fact it only took me four days to read. It's not often that I really can't put a book down nowadays, but this was one of those occasions. All the various story threads were deftly woven together. I tend not to like novels which tell different stories at the same time; often I feel it breaks up the rhythm of the overall narrative, but that isn't the case here at all. Each thread was important and, although there was a clear "hero", the side stories were just as interesting, their characters well written.

I'll admit, I wasn't sure about the main protagonist to start with. He seems to be a bit of an anti-hero, someone who used to be an IRA member. However, some of his back story is filled in during the course of the book and this makes him more human. The way this is done is subtle; it follows as part of the flow of the novel. It may be that there are areas where the plot is slightly fanciful, but I didn't feel the need to pick holes in it; I simply enjoyed seeing events unfold. I wouldn't know what is, or isnt realistic when it comes to espionage and secrets.

The Double Life of Mistress Kit Kavanagh by Marina Fiorato

Started 15 June
Finished 30 June

I have read several of Marina Fiorato's other novels, with "The Glassblower of Murano" being my favourite. This novel, it turns out, is based on a true story; a woman who fought with the Duke of Marlborough in the early 18th century.
The first part of the book deals with her search for her husband, her life in the army and her growing bond with her Captain. The second part deals with her time as a spy and the last part brings these two threads together, with a dollop of treachery and the culmination of the love story. All in all a good mix, but then I expect nothing less from Fiorato.
The book seemed a little slow to get going, but that could be purely by contrast with the previous book I read. Once I settled in to the story, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Would I read other books by this author? Well, yes, I already have. She is a fixture on my list of authors to look out for. I enjoy her writing style: straightforward storytelling, with strong female protagonists, a dash of romance, but not too much.

May books (plus a bit of music)

Still Waters (Sandhamn murders 1) by Viveca Sten
Started 1 May
Finished 21 May

Enjoyed this. It felt like an unhurried read, but quite absorbing. The characters were nicely drawn, the plot was interesting and kept me guessing until just before the reveal. I will read more by this author.

Only one book, but I did go away and spend time with real people.

To compensate, here's a link to some music I bought, by a young British musician. I enjoyed it very much. It's still the CD in my car player.

Tom Wright

April Books

Only two books in April, although in my defence I have been very busy at work and the first book was a long one!

11.22.63 by Stephen King

Started 29 March Finished 13 April

I enjoyed this. Possibly, as a non-American and someone born after that date, the subject hasn't intrigued me as much as it might some people. However, the story was enjoyable and I quite probably know more about the Kennedy assassination than I did. I lost focus in the middle part of the book; I think I got a little bored with the tale of stalking Oswald. The story with Sadie was nicely written and the contrast between attitudes and morals in the 60's and now was fascinating. How things have changed in my lifetime. I did feel that the ending of the book was a little rushed. I think I would have liked less detail in the pursuit of Oswald and more in the changed future.

Blood Defense by Marcia Clark

Started 14 April Finished 30 April
Kindle First for April

For me, this book didn't really get going until about two-thirds of the way through. Then it became interesting, although at the end there were some revelations that left a slightly unpleasant taste behind. They also felt a bit tacked-on. On the whole I enjoyed the book, but I'm not sure this is a novelist I'd choose again.

Summertime on the Feeder


Popped downstairs to make a brew and spied my first goldfinch of the season on the nyjer seed feeder.
After the earlier hail/snowstorm, it was a very cheering sight.


Yesterday some jeans I ordered online from Marks and Spencer arrived. They are two more pairs in exactly the same style as I have bought previously. Online shopping means I can get the "long" leg length, which is rarely available in stores. I expected to have to shorten them a little, as my current pair had to be turned up an inch or so. However, of the new pairs, one was exactly the right length, the other only marginally long - not enough to make it worth getting out needle and thread.

This kind of inconsistency never used to happen in M&S. I guess its our punishment for expecting cheap clothing: absolutely no quality control whatsoever. I think I would prefer things to go back to the way they were, although I have yet to find any manufacturer who makes blouses with sleeves as long as my arms. I recently bought a white blouse, as I need one for choir concerts. I chose one that fitted nicely, but the sleeves were too short. They are also so tight that it's not possible to turn them back, so I will have to convert the blouse to being short-sleeved, if I can. I know I'm fairly tall, but most sleeves are short by more than I am taller than average. Whilst I can make clothes, jeans (or tailored trousers in general) and blouses are beyond both my skill-set and available spare time.