Saturday, 25 March 2017

A Review of A Sterkarm Tryst by Penny Dolan

Penny Dolan is a wonderful writer whose books include the gripping and beautiful romp, 'A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E'.  So I'm thrilled to have this generous review from her, as she is no slouch in the writing stakes and knows what she is talking about.

 You can read my review of A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E here.



A STERKARM TRYST by Susan Price, reviewed by Penny Dolan

Susan Price’s long-awaited YA novel A STERKARM TRYST has now been published. 
So, because I loved the world of the 16th Century Border Reivers that was brilliantly evoked in the two earlier titles - THE STERKARM HANDSHAKE and A STERKARM KISS - I bought a copy of this third novel, and was not disappointed. 
Earlier events and confrontations are woven lightly into the plot, allowing new readers and re-readers slip easily into this particular storyline. This is science fiction with excellent time-travelling!
The trilogy has an interesting premise: James Windsor, a late 21st Century entrepreneur, intended to use his company’s Time Tube to colonise and exploit the unspoilt lands of the past. 
Windsor thought his men would easily secure such a backward territory - and then they met the Sterkarms. Of all the feuding families in the Debatable Lands, the Sterkarms are the most treacherous: everyone knows that a Sterkarm handshake might promise friendship with the right hand while the left hand carries a blade to slide between your ribs. 
At first, the Sterkarms treat the 21st century intruders with wary respect, deciding these strangers must be Elves. After all, they can appear and disappear, dress in unknown materials, and carry magic pills that take away pain. And from these "Elvenkind" springs the relationship that stands at the heart of the novels.
Andrea Mitchell, a 21st Century anthropologist, finds the love of her life in Per Sterkarm, the family heir, and at the start of THE STERKARM TRYST, she has come through time to her lover again, though uncertain of any welcome.
Known as his "Entraya", his Elf-May, she has a hard task. She has to warn Per and the Sterkarm family that a deadly new enemy has entered their lands. Windsor has time-travelled a group of Sterkarms from an almost parallel time dimension into this one. These are warriors who know this wild landscape as they do, and who fight with matching ferocity and who look just as they do. They will know all the Sterkarm tricks, and Windsor is behind them.
How can Andrea even explain this phenomenon? 
How can a Sterkarm attack another to whom - it seems - they owe loyalty? 
And how, I wondered, can a writer manage two almost-identical casts?
Susan Price does. Carefully, scene by scene, she moves the action forward, resolving what the reader wants resolved, and ending with treachery getting what it deserves. The headings keep the story straight and satisfying in its conclusions.
However, I must say that the plot was not the only thing that made A STERKARM TRYST a compelling experience for me. Within the storytelling, I heard rich echoes of the traditions, superstitions and legends of the Border Ballads, as well as the languages and voices of the region and its past. Humour is there too, within the pages, as well as moments when the differences between the present and the past are suddenly very evident.
Moreover, the dramatic landscape of the book is recognisably that of the Borders, an area of wild uplands and uncertain weather, a place where cattle-raids were then part of the culture, and where hunger was a constant threat.
I enjoyed being within that way of life, following the descriptions of an active community and culture, along with glimpses of cooking methods, housekeeping and textiles, herbal lore, fear and superstition. Captured in the writing too, was the importance of respectful behaviour and right words and acting according to your status: the sense of a time and place where any perceived insult might mean death.
A STERKARM TRYST feels a very physical story. It moves through camps and hovels and crowded stone towers, past the stink of unwashed clothes and the gutting of meat and the hard lives and gory deaths of men and women: this is not a benign or moral fairy-tale. Besides, survival depends on a reputation for cunning and treachery, especially when there are two lots of Sterkarms riding out, as well as Windsor’s thugs and their 21st Century weapons.
Yet, reading the book from the comfort of home - and despite all the violence - it is hard not to admire the warmth and energy and the bonds of family loyalty and protection within the Sterkarm clan. Like Andrea/Entraya, I found the Sterkarms beguiling, and welcomed the many characters that Susan Price has created – Toorkild, Lady Isobel, Sweet Milk, Gobby, Mistress Crosar, Joan Grannam, Davy, Cho and more - each one entirely convincing, for all their faults.
Especially that blue-eyed, fair-haired hero, Per May Sterkarm. And Cuddy. I have to mention them. Read the book and you’ll discover why.
Penny Dolan.
All three titles, including THE STERKARM TRYST, are published by OpenPress in a handsomely-matching set of covers or as e-books. 


Friday, 17 February 2017

Hailing Far Spring...

Valentine's Day is when the birds do choose their make.

Right enough, action in the garden is hotting up. 

Here's my garden, in a picture taken last year.

It is so bleak and grey and cold out there at the moment - except for one bright clump of primroses at the end of the pond which have never stopped flowering. But shoots are coming up everywhere: all over the garden and in pots. I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to them flowering.

The pond we dug out last January has been wonderfully successful in increasing the number of visiting birds. Before we had zero. Now they come winging in every single day. We have our own little colony of sparrows and before, I never appreciated how acrobatic they are. They hover at the feeders while trying to find a place. They chase each other round them. Today I saw a couple doing loop-the-loops around each other in mid-air. They reguarly come down in a mob to drink at the pool's edge and bathe, even on the coldest day.

We've got used to the fact that the birds resent our presence in the garden. If we linger over tasks, they crowd the trees and yell at us. If we persist, they drop down to slightly nearer branches and yell louder. I've come to recognise the peculiar whistling whoop that starlings make and the craak-craak-craak of magpies. The moment we step back inside the house, they come down to the pond and feeders in flocks before we can pull the door shut.

The magpies swagger about, wearing their gangster black-and-white. Until I saw them close up and so often, I never realised what an iridescent shimmer of petrol blue runs over their black feathers.

The starlings come in gangs of five and seven, with wicked beaks like stilettos, and frantically fight to get into small hanging bird tables and squabble with the sparrows over the spaces on the feeders. Or they plummet down and raid the ground-feeder.

There is a tiny wren that we see more and more often as Spring approaches. It drank from the pond today, a tiny little ball on the edge of a slate. It searched the rose bush above the pond and walks
Wren:  Dibyendu Ash, wikimedia
vertically up walls, investigating the slight crevices between bricks. A couple of days ago it was right by the patio doors, pecking away at something invisible and taking no notice of us. Update: I was turning the compost heap yesterday and a bird above me in the tree was calling out repeatedly in a very loud but melodious voice. Thinking it might be the blackbird, I looked up - and it was the wren. I could see it clearly silhouetted against the sky: a tiny round ball with its tail stuck up at right angles. Its voice is about five times bigger than it is.

Woodpigeons, robins, blackbirds, bluetits and dunnocks visit us reguarly. The bluetit, yesterday, perched on the very highest twig of the leafless lilac and turned this way and that, stretching up onto tip-toe, as he shouted and yelled. Another bluetit came to a lower branch and appeared to listen. They whizz back and forth to the feeders like tiny, bright bits of animated enamel.

And this character (below) has dropped in every day for a week. He has a long spring-loaded tail which you can't see in this photo but which constantly twitches up and down as he hops and pecks about the pond and investigates the ground-feeder.

Grey Wagtail: Wikimedia: Glyn Baker
 Thrilled with so much success, I have plans for next year. I've invested in a silver birch and a holly for my 'wood.' And I'm creating a mini-orchard where my shed used to be. I have a cherry, a bardsey apple and a plum tree, all grown in pots. They have leaf-buds and seem to be doing well. I'm keenly looking forward to seeing how they do.

They will add more leafage, more pollen-producing flowers (never mind the hay-fever) more bark - and therefore more insects. Which in turn will mean more birds and animals that eat insects. I would like to see frogs in my pond. And a newt. I would really love to have a newt.

I planted a St. Swithin rose today, to climb over a fence, both to hide the rather ugly fence and to provide more hiding/living space for birds and insects. I'd like to have a hazel tree in a pot because I love hazelnuts. And strawberries and bilberries. Perhaps a tiny wild flower meadow in a raised bed.
We shall see how much of this comes to - er - fruition.