Sussex Tales by Jan Edwards. Book review

Sussex Tales by Jan Edwards, Penkhull Press, p/b, £8.99/Kindle, £2.88, Publisher’s website

Reviewed by Dave Brzeski

Let me explain how my taste in books (and music for that matter) works. I like certain genres, so they definitely influence what I’m likely to pick up. Once I’ve discovered that I like a particular creator’s work, however, I’ll pretty much follow them anywhere they want to lead me.

You’ll have guessed where I’m going with this by now. ‘Sussex Tales’ isn’t fantasy, horror or science fiction. It’s doesn’t have heroes, or villains. I know Jan Edwards and her work through a handful of excellent genre stories I’ve read, and her editing work for Alchemy Press, so when I was offered a review copy of ‘Sussex Tales’, I was happy to give it a go.

Being, as it is, more or less a year in the life of a pre-teen girl, growing up on a farm in Sussex, it had the feel of a diary of sorts. I’m a fan of English folk music, so a lot of the background was familiar to me, if only from the lyrics of old ballads.

Mundane as my description above seems, it’s almost impossible to put the book down, once you start reading. The young narrator is obviously an intelligent girl, and it’s fascinating to see the way her understanding of the things around her deepens as she gets older and moves to the “big school”. The book is full of memorable characters (in every sense of the word.)

In common with many rural communities, there’s a matriarch, and Goody Hurst is a classic example. Everybody’s life would be enriched by having a Goody Hurst in it. For those who simply can’t cope without at least a touch of the fantastic, Goody Hurst is very much the keeper of the pagan traditions that still (barely) survived among the country folk at that time.

“Arr. Wassail captains, don’t matter who tis, they dassn’t go wassail without Mistress Goody Hurst. Not if they knows what’s what.”

That quote brings me to one of the real strengths of the writing. Jan Edwards does an exemplary job of portraying the local accent and dialect. She does just enough to give the reader the feel of it, without making the book impenetrable. Just in case anyone does have a problem, the author has provided a useful glossary of terms.

It was after I wrote the previous paragraph that I went looking for the publisher’s website, so I could include the link above. In a classic case of synchronicity, I found that Jan Edwards had contributed a short article to the site, on the subject of the effective writing of accents and dialects.

I mustn’t forget to mention the recipes! Between each chapter Jan Edwards gives us a selection of recipes for country wines, mead, or cider—plus the odd cake—all based on her Great-Grandmother’s handwritten recipe book. Most of which are very easily followed if you fancy having a go. These are backed up with notes on the properties and folklore of the various ingredients.

The episodic nature of the chapters would have leant itself nicely to being serialised in a magazine, or even as a radio play. Hopefully, it’ll sell enough copies to make a follow-up possible.