David Churchill on the Viking Heritage of the Normans

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Today I am delighted to be hosting Day 5 of ‘The Leopards of Normandy: Devil’ Blog Tour.

Please welcome to neverimitate the author, David Churchill, as he tells us more about William the Conqueror’s ancestors, the Vikings.

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Most schoolboys who know about the Vikings think they’re great. With the longships with the dragon prows; the horned helmets (even if they didn’t actually wear them); the gods of Asgard like Odin, Loki and, of course, Thor, what’s not to like? Me, I was also proud of them because my granny Ebba Roll was the daughter of a Norwegian shipbroker. So as far as my eight year-old self was concerned, I had Viking blood in me too and I thought that was great.

Granted, I am not exactly the Viking type. I don’t drink gallons of mead from horn goblets. I’ve never raped or pillaged in my life.  True, I do have some experience as an oarsman, but that was gained rowing in a college eight down the peaceful waters of the river Cam, not braving the Atlantic ocean all the way to Greenland and America, nor rowing down the Dnieper to the Black Sea and Constantinople beyond. The Vikings were warriors, invaders, explorers, traders, nation builders and among the many things they became, they were Normans.

The story of the founding of Normandy in 911 by the man variously known as Hrolf, Rollo, Robert or Rou is a classic piece of Viking swagger. After decades of rootless wandering and fighting, much of it in northwest France and up and down the valley of the River Seine, Rollo was finally defeated by a Frankish arm outside Chartres. One hates to indulge in cheap national stereotypes, but the French promptly surrendered – or as good as – to the man they had just beaten. King Charles the Simple conducted a bizarre negotiation on an island in the River Epte in which Charles offered Rollo first Brittany (too rocky, Rollo said) and then Flanders (too damp) before granting him the lands between the Epte and the sea, which would become a duchy known as Normandy, after the Norsemen who had founded it.

It is, I think, impossible to understand the Normans without appreciating their Viking blood and their Viking attitudes. But even Rollo, as with so much in this story, is shrouded in mystery. No one knows exactly who he was or where he came from. Among the more plausible candidates, however is Hrolf Rognvaldson, whose father was a Norwegian earl. He was known as Ganger Hrolf, or ‘Walker Rolf’ because he was so big that no horse could carry him … Or as I have chosen to translate it, Rollo the Strider, because a man that cool needs a name to match.

 

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I reviewed this action packed work of historical fiction here.

Don’t forget to check out the other great blogs taking part in this tour. Click here for links.

Random Musings: My TBR pile

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My bookshelves are filled with books that I have not read. I regard this as a blessing, not a failing.

There are the many books that I have asked for as gifts or gone out and bought for myself because they sounded intriguing or entertaining.

  • The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  • And the Mountains Echoed (Khaled Hosseini)
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep South (Richard Flanagan)
  • Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)
  • The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing)
  • All the King’s Men (Robert Penn Warren)

My TBR pile which contains the books that I have set aside as definitely wanting to read currently has 32 books on it.

Then there are the books that my children have bought for themselves which look enticing. I would love to find the time to discover what lies between the covers of:

  • I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)
  • The Lost World (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  • The Earthsea Quartet (Ursula Le Quin)
  • His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman)
  • The Bartimaeus Trilogy (Jonathon Stroud)
  • Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)
  • The Star Dancer Tetralogy (Beth Webb)

These are just the titles that I noticed on a quick glance through the shelves in our library. There are many other treasures lurking in bedrooms amidst the detritus of teenage life. I would never ask my children to tidy away the book towers by their beds.

As a book blogger I only ever ask for titles that I would hope to enjoy. Quite apart from the time it takes to read the book, a positive review is much more satisfying to write.

Once I have received my ever welcome book post I feel committed to opening myself up to whatever each author has to offer and subsequently writing down my thoughts for the benefit of potential readers. My books to review pile currently contains eight titles, about a months worth of reading at my normal rate.

My husband questions why I consider buying more books, why I continue to ask for new titles from publishers when my unread book collection is so large. Bibliophiles will understand.

The books that I purchase tend to be well known and popular. They have often achieved critical acclaim and I am curious to discover why. I hope that I will enjoy them, and I do intend to read each and every one of them, but if readers only buy already established books then how are new authors who produce works that deserve equal recognition ever to become known?

It is not as if I expect my reviews to make a singular difference. They are, however, a very small part of a wider movement which exists to spread the word of the choices available.

And I get so much out of this too. I get to read authors I may not otherwise find. I get to tell everyone I know that a book exists which I think they would enjoy. I feel such delight when I recommend a book to a friend and they come back to tell me that they were as blown away by it as I was.

I find it hard not to buy more books. I have read only two in the past few months which I did not acquire specifically to review:

  • The Humans (Matt Haig)
  • Slaughterhouse 5 (Kurt Vonnegut)

Both were worthy of all the praise and recommendations that they have received but so many lesser known works are worthy of attention too.

I read for pleasure. There is something rather special about discovering a new book and shouting about its wonders to all who will take note on publication. There is something rather special about gifting previously unknown books to others that I am convinced they will enjoy.

I salute the authors of all the wonderful books. I thank them for providing pleasure for so many.

Celebrating the pleasure of reading

Today is World Book Day in the UK and Ireland. Do other countries take part? Perhaps it has an aspirational nomenclature. It is certainly an event that it would be good to see celebrated widely.

When my children were younger their school asked them to dress up as their favourite book character. Not being a skilled seamstress I would encourage my brood to choose a character who wore clothes resembling those they possessed. My son once went as Arthur Dent which he particularly enjoyed.

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Schools often invite an author to visit and talk to their pupils. These days I am looking at these visits from the other side as my author friends mention the places they have been invited to attend in order to inspire the next generation of readers and writers. I hope that the children treat them kindly.

All under 18s are given a token which enables them to pick up a free book produced specially for the occasion. These contain an original story, often from a series which is popular with young readers. My children still have a number of these books in their collections.

I love the idea of World Book Day with its emphasis on encouraging all children to read. It is an inclusive event which aims to share the pleasure that books can bring.

Next month I will be joining in with another initiative which aims to share the literary love with adults. World Book Night gives away a range of books which have been specially selected for the occasion. Having been accepted as a volunteer I will be giving away Chickenfeed by Minette Walters at my local train station.

I derive so much pleasure from reading and am eager to encourage others to discover that joy. As has been said of children but is equally applicable to adults:

There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who have not found the right book.

Book Review: The Chimes

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The Chimes, by Anna Smaill, is unlike any book I have read before. Using the language of music it tells the tale of a dystopian world where information is shared through snatches of melody and the written word is banned. Each day is modulated by collective music making, much of it overseen by a ruling Order. A life of repetition is required to keep people grounded and functioning as most personal memories are lost over the course of a few days.

The protagonist, Simon, makes his way to London following the deaths of his parents. With the help of items that he keeps in his memory bag he remembers snatches of his former life but struggles to make sense of the reason he has made the journey from family farm to city. He ekes out a rough existence as a member of a pact whose leader tries to probe for the few memories which Simon can recall. Such interest in the before goes against everything that society has been conditioned to accept. It is considered blasphony.

It took me some time to immerse myself in the story. However, once I had got used to the strange use of words and the references to items I would recognise, I was gripped. The language is not difficult but it is original.

It is interesting to consider the role that memory has in day to day life. Its removal minimises grief. Change is easier to accept when it quickly becomes all that is known. Occupations are necessary as without them skills are forgotten and people are at risk of becoming memorylost, unhinged on the margins of a society which thrives on order.

The story of Simon’s emergence and his acceptance of the role that he is being asked to play follows a well worn path of dystopian fiction. However, the creative use of sound and music adds distinction.

The writing is crafted and orchestrated with a deft touch that holds the reader’s attention. I was eager to know how it was all going to end. I was not disappointed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre.

 

Book Review: Slaughterhouse 5

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Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut, is a story about memory, time travel and the futility of war. The author was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was fire bombed by the allied forces in 1945 killing 135,000 people and devastating the city. This experience is pivotal to the story. As its narrator he opines that, like Lot’s wife, we are not supposed to look back lest we be lost. His protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has come unstuck in time, travelling backwards and forwards through his life. What is recollection, memory, thought, if not a type of time travel?

‘We went to the New York World’s Fair, saw what the past had been like, […] saw what the future would be like, […]. And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.’

Billy Pilgrim considers time to be like space. In his view death is simply another moment, a feature on the path of a life. People will continue to exist if remembered.

‘We will all live forever no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be.’

The tale told is a collection of memories, a non linear life story. In many ways Billy would be considered ordinary: a son, husband, father, successful optometrist. In other ways he was extraordinary: prisoner of war, plane crash survivor, time traveller, alien abductee.

When he starts to share some of his more bizarre memories his daughter remonstrates with him, fearing that he is losing his mind. He asks, what is normal? Bookstores are filled with books about sex and murder; the news is of sport and death; people pay to look at pictures of others, like themselves but with no clothes on; they get excited about the price of things that do not exist called stocks and bonds. These things are accepted yet when someone tries to talk of what is not understood it is not believed, it is assumed that it cannot have happened.

At one point in the book Billy is watching a war film backwards.

‘American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off […]. Over France a few German fighter planes […] sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. […] a German city was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. […] everything and everybody as good as new. […] factories were operating night and day dismantling the cylinders […] so they would never hurt anybody ever again.’

War is accepted yet it kills and destroys.

The observations on attitudes are razor sharp. The story resounds with wit and wisdom as it challenges normality. Billy may have conflated fact and fiction at times but who is to judge what is real in anyone else’s life?

I loved this book. I fear that my review cannot do justice to the impact of the writing. I want to quote so much; better that you just go and read it for yourself.

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Book Review: Beauty Tips for Girls

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Beauty Tips for Girls, by Margaret Montgomery, is a novel about three women, society’s expectations, loneliness and the challenges which all ages must face when coping with day to day life.

Katy Clemmy is the beautiful and talented teenage daughter of a farmer and an alcoholic mother. To help her through her isolated life she turns to Misty magazine with its fashion and beauty obsessed, bitchy advice columns. She sees herself as overweight and ugly. In the primal battleground of her small town school she suffers the usual verbal attacks from her peers which continuously erode her self esteem.

Katy’s English teacher, Jane, has reached middle age without finding the husband and family she grew up expecting to have. She wonders how her life has turned out this way, blaming her mother for decisions made for her when she was young. When Katy disappears Jane reluctantly becomes involved with the Clemmy family’s problems, seeing in Katy traits which she recognises in herself.

Corinne is Katy’s mother. Pained and unhappy she drowns her feelings in alcohol, seeking oblivion. Corinne narrates her story from the future, her past being a disastrous blur of bad choices, tragedy and destructive behaviour.

As these three women tell their interwoven tales we gain an insight into the inner lives of an angst ridden teenager, an addict and a disillusioned teacher. The author has done a fantastic job of getting inside her character’s heads and showing the reader how each are thinking and feeling. The writing is funny, perceptive, entertaining and considerate.

I absolutely loved the meeting between Jane and the cosmetic surgeon. Their mutual inability to comprehend the other’s point of view was brilliantly portrayed. The book is full of such insights. Each character, major and minor, is presented fully rounded and with all their quirks and preconceptions providing humour in what is a poignant tale.

The inclusion of the articles from Misty magazine, the advertisements and To Do lists, all helped convey how influenced Katy was by these windows into a wider world of skewed priorities. The male teacher’s attitudes added resonance whilst the inclusion of environmentally friendly Dan showed that not all men are so shallow. It was not just the men of course. The cosmetic surgeon’s view of the world was perpetuated by the female clients with whom he spent his working days.

The underlying messages conveyed were all too painfully real but this adds to the power of what remains an entertaining read. Never preachy but truly thought provoking I would recommend this book to everyone who dreams of being more beautiful.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cargo. 

Book Review: Devil

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Devil, by David Churchill, is the first book in a planned historical trilogy. The series of books, The Leopards of Normandy, will tell in imagined detail the story of William the Conqueror. This first installment concentrates on William’s parents and the circumstances of his birth. Drawing from known historical facts the author weaves a compelling tale of power, sex and violence. He brings the characters to life.

The Duchy of Normandy was created to bring peace between the King of France and the Viking invaders who had slaughtered, raped and pillaged their way across the lowlands of Flanders, the seashores of Brittany and the vineyards of Burgundy for more than twenty years. Their leader, Rollo, was now in his sixty-fifth year and felt ready to settle down. In exchange for fealty the King offered him land and a title. He became the first Duke of Normandy.

When Rollo’s great-grandson died the Dukedom passed to his eldest son, Richard. However, there was enmity between Richard and his younger brother Robert, William’s father. Both were young men who were all too willing to fight for what they believed were their rights. Overseeing this bloody feud and attempting to broker peace was their father’s brother, Robert, Archbishop of Rouen. Although he sided with his namesake in many areas of contention he refused to condone his choice of partner, a lowly tanner’s daughter named Herleva who became William’s mother.

The detailed history is fascinating but it is the imagined personalities and the causes of each intrigue which make this book so hard to put down. This story is not just about battles won and lost but is a tale of individual courage, risk, a lust for wealth, power and vengeance which spanned a continent. The distances between places matters when the fastest means of transport is a horse which will tire or a boat which may be sunk or becalmed. Hunger, thirst and cold are as deadly as spears, arrows and boiling tar.

The ruling classes in France and its neighbouring countries were closely related through blood ties and political marriages. The elder Robert’s sister, Emma, had married two Kings of England, Ethelred and Canute, bearing each of them sons. Canute had a second wife who also had a son. These children were sent away young to be raised in the countries they were destined to rule. When questions of succession arose in any of these lands it was common to have titles taken by force leaving those with blood rights bearing grudges which they would raise their children to avenge.

The history covered in this book is known so there are few major surprises in the plot. The way in which it is told though makes it a worthwhile read. What is gained is an understanding of why things happened as they did, even those acts which seem brutal and shocking by today’s standards. If history could always be told in such colourful detail it would be far more enjoyable for all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.