Book Review: The Beltane Choice

Today’s review moves us away from my usual literary time travel further back to an era many of us know even less about: A.D. 71. Celtic Britain is familiar to wide swaths of societies in such icons as Stonehenge and the famous cross; the rest often remain shrouded in historical mist, and efforts to cross through it can be intimidating or confusing. Nancy Jardine beckons us back with a romantic adventure that does touch on history–Boudicca, the warrior queen who led forces against invading Romans, is mentioned–and repelling occupiers inform the protagonists’ lives. However, she brings it closer to home with her focus on individual choices and the personal impact they will have for Nara and Lorcan. Although the Celts of so long ago lived very differently to us, the way Jardine’s characters relate to our own lives reminds us that in particular ways, humans have never really changed. We are still attracted to favorites, value our identities and resist invasive change. A gripping scene of struggle–in more than one sense–opens the novel and by the end you’ll want more. The great news: There is a sequel in the works. For a Q & A with author Nancy Jardine (accompanying the review as appears below), check out Layered Pages. As you can tell by the ASIN following my review, the book is also available on Kindle, so you can start straight away. Happy reading!

The Beltane Choice

by Nancy Jardine

In ancient Britain bitter weather, harsh conditions and tribal inter-fighting conspired with other elements to make life difficult and cumbersome. Beltane, therefore, was a welcome diversion, certainly for many reasons, amongst them the community-wide celebration of oncoming summer and the freedoms it ushered in.  Occurring in May, modern peoples could relate to the anticipation and joy of the season, replete with symbols of new life, light and plenty. Lovers united, the sun waxed its power and people prepared animals and household goods for the time when winter would once more secure its chilly embrace. It is in expectation of this time in A.D. 71 that Nancy Jardine sets her account of Nara of the Selgovae, whose first words in the book are uttered to a wild boar: “You have my spear and my sword, but you will not have my life.” Nara’s declamation immediately tells of her strength as well as humor, despite being wracked with frustration at her predicament—namely being stuck in a tree, shortly to be felled by a boar she had the misfortune to encounter.

As The Beltane Choice opens Nara playfully foresees reality when a handsome stranger rescues her, resulting in immediate mutual attraction, despite her own inexperience with the opposite sex. Nara, however, is reticent about divulging her own information apart from her general identity, and the would-be lovers discover they come from enemy tribes. Believing he may have a worthy bargaining tool in Nara, Lorcan of Garrigill takes the girl as his prisoner; over the course of several days the two head for the Garrigill stronghold, where he plans to develop his strategy for repelling the approaching Roman army. During this time the pair slowly begin to learn about one another and both are beset by conflicting and confusing sentiments. It is a journey rife with displays of anger and emotional outbursts on the parts of Lorcan as well as Nara.

Here Jardine expertly establishes in her narrative the method of cross perspectives, a potentially tricky technique given the confusion that so often results in the attempt to streamline characters’ perceptions into dialogue and passages. No such difficulty here, partly because of the protagonists’ opposing viewpoints, but also owing to the smooth flow of their dialogue. The author masterfully handles the speech with language that feels genuine without being foreign. Months are measured in moons, age in winters. She also maintains a masterful balance between a reader- and writer-friendly storyline, utilizing such words as bannock and bratt, terms that may be unfamiliar but which populate sentences that draw us into the world they inhabit. Within this journey the reader so often instinctively comprehends, frequently without the registration that this was ever lacking in the first place.

As inhabitants of this world, that is the 21st century, it would be difficult not to be aware of the divide between representations of men and women in an earlier era, and those of our own time. Men who treat women with respect often are believed to have only recently popped into existence; before their arrival, males of the world were cruel or indifferent, without exception imposing their will onto the females of their societies.

Unfortunately, in many or even most instances, this was indeed true. However, history does tell of not a few women who broke from their received roles and the men who valued their subsequent contributions. While these men and women may be statistical anomalies, historically speaking, they are not unusual. Therefore, to happen upon men in The Beltane Choice who show consideration towards women strengthens the story, especially given Jardine’s treatment of them. They are in fact products of their time, but the author is clever enough to recognize that an insightful man intuits value where he sees it. None of the characters pretend to pander to our sensibilities: Lorcan’s father is an irascible old man, short and stinging with his words, but an able leader who is dismayed and disgusted when he learns of another chief’s horrific treatment of his own daughter. Tully is wise enough to know the worth of a gifted woman, even if her own father did not.

But Jardine also keeps it authentic: as in real life, it takes all kinds, and readers come across able and productive men, as well as those who simply take from life without thought to the consequences, for themselves or others. In Garrigill Nara the Selgovae is attacked by two who resent her presence—perhaps also her beauty—and are later punished for the deed. While an important episode that highlights the suspicion of and willingness to harm anything foreign, the episode and its aftermath remain undeveloped, which is unfortunate owing to the import of recognizing such episodes that mar or weaken unity against common enemies. Nara’s beauty, recognized by all, exists on multiple levels, and despite her sometimes-poor choices with regard to action or response, she is shown to be keen and level headed, thoughtful and deliberate.

Such is her way in how she considers the upcoming Beltane festival and the choice she will have to make regarding a lover. Will she have a choice?  What of the Roman army marching on the settlement where she is held captive? And her native estate? How does all this impact the array of emotions she feels in response to Lorcan, her captor? He is absolutely smitten with her, though he, too, experiences conflict within and without. He is dedicated to his father and the safety of their tribe, but wants to have Nara as well. He realizes his plan has gone awry and he, too, considers the future with apprehension.

Nancy Jardine has woven a tale as complex as the Celtic knot that graces the book’s cover. Winding and illusory, readers may see one circumstance, but events intercede to disabuse us of any notion that this is a simple story. The endless and unified nature of the cover illustration reflects the events occurring in the lives of those in The Beltane Choice, individually and as humans who experience these occasions across time.  And, like the winding knot that appears as sheer simplicity but is much more beneath, the smooth passage from Nara’s entrapment by the boar to her ultimate choice, the author utilizes language in a way both straightforward and elegant.

I would be remiss to omit any sort of detail about the sexual tension that runs through the entire book and moments in which Nara and Lorcan’s indecisive attractions teeter on a precipice. The suggestive nature of the wording is very much like the Celtic knot as discussed above: on one level very evocative and at times openly sensual. But to leave it at that would be less than honest, because it is also lovely and metered, occasionally blatant, as reflected in the pair’s actual experiences. More suitable to the abilities of a mature reader—one who can rise above mere titillation—it is the poetry of two bodies, articulated perhaps as those of the era, with their sexual sensibilities, may have expressed it. It is also crucial to note that Nara and Lorcan both see it as much more than a mere physical act—though they are honest with themselves (and us) and do not deny this aspect—incorporating into their possible union the future at the heart of the Beltane choice—and The Beltane Choice.

The Beltane Choice by Nancy Jardine

2012, Crooked Cat Publishing Ltd.

ASIN: B009372608

A copy of The Beltane Choice was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

Image courtesy Nancy Jardine.

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Exciting days ahead for before the second sleep

Posting has been necessarily paced for me thus far, though it has been picking up a wee bit. Lots of this has to do with other obligations, though often I am prepping or working on ideas for the blog. As you can see, so far I’ve covered a few random topics, plus book and music reviews, and I’ll continue to do this.

I am delighted to share a few of the upcoming features to be found in before the second sleep:

This weekend I’ll post my review for Nancy Jardine’s The Beltane Choice, a romantic adventure set in Celtic Britain. August saw the novel’s release in e-book version; today it comes out in paperback. Nancy and Crooked Cat celebrate with an online release party at Facebook. Do join the festivities and enter to win an autographed copy!

Next up is another entry with Sarah Bruce Kelly, this time with a review for her award-winning Vivaldi’s Muse, an account of Annina Girò, Antonio Vivaldi’s longtime protégée. The book is an expansion of her previous novel, The Red Priest’s Annina, detailing life in 18th-century Venetian opera.

I am also preparing for a re-read of We Speak No Treason, which I absolutely fell for the first time. I loved this book so much I decided to re-visit and share with my readers. I am also delighted to announce that the best-selling author of this Richard III novel, Rosemary Hawley Jarman, has so very graciously agreed to an interview, which will be featured when the review is published.

In coming weeks I will begin a series of posts regarding Nicholas Orme’s Medieval Children. I hesitate to label it an “analysis,” as such an undertaking is not in my purview. However, as an early childhood teacher, mother of a young boy and a Middle Ages aficionado, I am very keen to learn more about this phase of life as it occurred in medieval days, and plan to take a more deliberate, studied approach to reading the book–what might be called an “exploration.” Share the journey with me!

I’ve been re-visiting some older poetry of my own from school days, as well as topics of study in university. Why am I so very proud of my C in Communicating Math Ideas? Who knew statistics could be so much fun? What does Tagore write about the preservation of memories? Also: Is baking art or science? A favorite Persian dish, on learning to play the piano, children’s art, amateur photography and my favorite medieval game, Nine Man Morris.

These, dear friends, are just some of the topics you can read about in coming weeks, and I look forward to you joining us as we explore them and others.

For now I say goodnight with my current favorite silly phrase, one I repeat a lot with my son (cue dramatic voice):

When good llamas go bad…

Anybody know where that comes from?

Re-Discovery & Music Review: The Year of the Cat

“The Year of the Cat”

Lyrics and Music by Al Stewart & Peter Wood

As a small child I was fascinated with my mother’s tales of Scottish ghosts, and I (secretly) lived to allow her to terrify me–especially with ones that involved stairs, profiles and castles. It was some time before I came to understand more of what I now call ghostliness amongst the living–memories, smells, sounds or even gesticulations that merge the past and present or hint at the wispy other selves that exist amongst us. I’ve written before about the power music has to engage the human soul in ways I can’t quite explain, though perhaps I could say it somehow draws from both the mind and the heart, what we logical creatures so often try to separate, to create sensations that can indeed be rather haunting. At times it settles on me like a melancholy, or it simply might lead me to a contemplative state. Often in those moments I remember the most unlikely events, passages in life that have no real reason to have permeated and settled in my consciousness, at least not to occupy a place as prominent, if you will, as they do.

“The Year of the Cat,” tale of a traveler coaxed by an enigmatic woman to abandon his pre-arranged tour is one such song; it lulls me onto a flowing passage of time in which scenes drift before my eyes, my inside eyes as I call them, as if I am meandering through the barras and experiencing those images whilst passing from one stall to the next. The lyrics at their face value have no relation to any experiences of mine, though these market-stall memories appear at certain phrases, lovely groupings that, given the right emotional state, cause people to weep at the sort of beauty that is simply too large for them to comprehend, or elicit joy that comes from experiencing an utterly amazing gift:

She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running

Like a watercolour in the rain

And it is like a gift, remembering as I do my four-year-old self surrounded by an ongoing parental gratitude for my life, for shortly before this time I had swallowed enough bleach to clean the privy for several months. The rounded hospital chairs alternated orange and yellow, and perhaps I remembered them as I sat by a window, staring at the sun’s fading orange mirror in the sky over a freezing, rainy evening, watching it drip down the glass. “I shall write poetry one day,” I announced to no one in particular, to which my mother responded, “Aye, that you will.”

While I have no memory of even being aware of the song at this time, I had in fact already been nurturing an appreciation for words. I would have noticed the sun’s hues, and been swept by them, even at that small age, but what to call them occupied me the most, a task often informed and influenced by the emotions music elicited. To the tourist in the exotic market, the words above perhaps represent dangerous excitement, a quest he simply must pursue. For me it was a newfound feeling of safety coming on the heels of an experience that brought visible terror to the eyes of my unflappable mother. To this day I treasure the moments in which I am curled up inside during a good, rollicking blizzard; I feel safe and protected even while I am given a glimpse of the cruel mistress that nature can be.

Now is a good moment to state my reticence about using videos to contribute towards any music review, formal or casual, despite my wont to mix up audio with visual sensations. Call me old fashioned, but it seems a song worth its salt should be able to stand tall without extra baggage to weigh it down, for this is what video so often does. Mind you I do agree many videos are clever and funny, but a song that captures listeners on its own merit, especially if it draws you in to it, as this song does, not unlike how the market woman persuades the tourist to follow her, well, that song has a bit of the magic to it, as we used to say. Indeed, there was an immediacy when I heard and felt this song, and although Stewart’s distinctive voice raised my awareness as it played on the radio, it was the melody that captured me first.

Having said that, I confess to some accidental video appreciation, although in fairness I would argue it is related to the methods in which my spirit is soothed by the ghosts emerging, attracted to the energy. I YouTubed the song, so anxious was I to hear it again; what I saw and heard deepened my belief that this song is very probably the most beautiful I have ever experienced.

At about the :50 mark we see simultaneous strumming of two guitar players whose in-sync motions, captured so perfectly at that moment, that it was at that moment that makes it so right, following as it does the opening, a piano solo joined in unison by the rest a few seconds later, relieving a lovely sort of tension and giving rise to a sensation of…perhaps a small eruption, great and stormy emotions suppressed and then released. This is followed by a closeup of one of the band members keeping time as he plays: strum, tap, strum, tap, strum, tap…and a heart beats to its own music, its body’s fingers acting out the time in a way that makes me re-remember all the loveliness of the human form, how math (which I adore) and music contribute to the holistic nature of human movements and my heart melts in both joy and inability to comprehend how the beauty of something created by man can be so large.

After the first time Stewart sings the title words the sound of the tambourine signals the excitement of the tourist’s state as he sees the silk-clad woman.

These days, she says, “I feel my life

Just like a river running through”
The year of the cat

And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea

If I didn’t fully understand what it meant to arrange music, I have a better appreciation with this song, for every single note without exception is measured and well-placed–nothing is accidental. I’ve heard it countless times in my literary studies: Every word is deliberate and means a great deal to the story. I find this same sense of purpose here: As the mysterious woman locks arms with the tourist, a tinkling of the ivories indicates a rising exhilaration. It grows more pronounced and wild as she speaks, not unlike the river current referenced in her words, and the definitive musical beat is accompanied by a tidal sequence of keystrokes reminiscent of the moon’s pull of the water against the earth’s gravitational resistance.

Following this section comes, for these metaphors, the aptly-named bridge (sans the formulaic song setup), a passing of time during which the tourist crosses from one side to the other, and the next morning finds him left behind–the bus has departed–and his ticket lost. His choice thrown away, he now must stay on.

But the drumbeat strains of the night remain

In the rhythm of the new-born day

This particular passage mirrors what was discussed earlier, in which a memory and music are intertwined; the mathematical parts of both are inseparable as the dawning day inherits the legacy of the previous night. He is new in the sense of his passing into another world, yet the ghosts of yesterday remain to remind him that one day this, too, shall pass away to become echoes of who he once was.

Given the extremely strong pull I felt to write about this song, it still gives me pause when I recall that I stumbled upon it only in recent weeks. Unlike another song I posted in these pages, I have actually heard this one before, though only in snippets across a number of years. I hear it in a way I see some of the memories it brings up: though a lens, slightly distorted as I sit stiffly on a wall on Hamilton Road or methodically follow the newfangled washer (suds leaking from the bottom) across the floor of my auntie’s kitchen. They are strange memories of my childhood, but there they are, images of who I once was, brought on by a song resting in my consciousness, waiting for its moment with me to arrive.

Where now is the tourist? Does he ever hear the song about him or wonder of that man who crossed continents and worlds? Does the man contemplate what became of the traveler? Does he feel the ghosts swirling around him? Or is he unsentimental, dismissing it to focus on here and now?

Stewart himself, so I have read, is somewhat weary of the song, in the sense that he has done so many others since then, yet this one remains his signature piece. He prefers to move along and focus on newer songs–again according to what I have read, though I could not produce a reference, given my deliberate cessation of any research on the song, including how old it actually is. (At this point I just know it’s “old,” and that’s all.) Once I heard it in its entirety, however, I simply had to dig, and now, having studied it as I have, I wish to hear more of this singer. But my heart remains attached to this song and will do, even when I have discovered others.

I probably could have written on about the video, because it is simply that gorgeous, though I’m thinking now of the saying about too much of a good thing, and don’t want to spoil it for those un-inclined to analysis. In that case, listen to and watch the video, and then hear to it with your eyes closed, for it truly is a magical gift for all the senses, wherever in time you may be.

Update: I replaced the first YT clip with one I came across at Stewart’s Twitter feed. It’s essentially the same clip from Old Grey Whistle Test, but runs through the complete ending, with fade out as opposed to the abrupt cut off the one I’d originally posted had.