Shieldwall – Justin Hill

Readable historical fiction set in 11th century ‘England’ under the rule of Æthelred the Unready and his son Edmund Ironside and the almost annual depredations of the Danish Army, told through the eyes of Godwin Wulfnothson – later the powerful Earl of Wessex.

Three main frustrations for me: formulaic and inconsistently characterised female characters (Kendra in particular), concepts that felt out of place (eg revolution) and details I found hard to believe (eg riding boots with heels). Actually, there’s a fourth: the use of till instead of ’til or until – a junior school correction that has stuck in my memory.

Bernard Cornwell does Anglo-Saxon England better – although his The Warrior Chronicles/Saxon Stories focus on the earlier era of Alfred the Great.

That said, Justin Hill does do one thing that Bernard Cornwell does not – and that’s include snippets of the type of Scandinavian poetry that would have been heard in the great halls at the time.

And Shieldwall did prompt me to find out a little more on the topic of people’s names, and about the main character, Godwin: Aelfraed and Haranfot: Anglo-Saxon Personal Names and Cnut and the Rise of Earl Godwin.

Author’s page: Shieldwall – Justin Hill

Passing Under Heaven – Justin Hill

Set in 9th century China at the twilight of the Tang Dynasty and their Empire, Justin Hill’s novel is a gem. It tells the tale of the doomed lives and loves of Minsiter Li, a Government Official from a powerful family, who buys as his concubine Little Flower/Lily, a beautiful and educated orphan from the northerm fringes of the Empire. When their love thwarted by pride, custom and family, Lily turns to poetry and becomes a courtesan to the rich and powerful…. so far, so clich

A Bend in the Yellow River – Justin Hill

Planning to start this on the tube home tonight – the blurb claims to offer “a first class introduction to contemporary China” – albeit pre-SARS.

Verdict: I thoroughly enjoyed it! Read the review below….

Buy it: Amazon link

The edited diary of Justin Hill’s 2 and a bit year stint as one of 2 VSO volunteers in a remote Chinese teaching training school makes for fascinating reading. The day to day events and accompanying emotions recounted in Justin Hill’s diary provide the reader with a window into the world of the VSO volunteer in China, as an alien looking LaoWai, 5 years after the Tiannamen Square massacre. The record also gives glimpses into both the lives and the characters of the people Justin and fellow VSO volunteer, Marco, meet, through work, through bureaucracy, and in the course of everyday life in Yun Cheng.

Looking at the sketch map provided at the start of the book, Yun Cheng doesn’t look that remote. But it doesn’t take many pages before you realise that Shanxi province is a million miles away from any image or expectation of China most of us would be able conjure up – 6 hours by ytrain from Yuncheng to Xian. 46 hours from Xian to Guanzhou, 1 hour from GuanZhou to HongKong. The distance, and the cultural and social isolation, is brought home at the end of the book, at a point where thre narrative had shifted from observing Yun Cheng and its people through the eye of an outsider and has begun to look deeper, raising questions of how much control the state, both cental organs and the local party, has over people’s lives and aspirations.

And yet for most people Justin Hill met during his time in Yun Cheng, “a small town where the people have narrow horizon’s between mountains and chimney stacks”, this town was the most exotic place they would see. For a reader living in a city where where people fly to New York or Paris, Istanbul or Iceland for the weekend, the differences are stark indeed; and all the more fascinating for that.