Amanda McKitterick Ros – A Cautionary Tale

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I am currently forging into revisions on my book, trying to follow my editor’s advice. I would be foolish not to follow it; first of all because I refuse to waste the money I paid her to give me her objective and educated opinion, and secondly, I will be the first to admit that there are lots of people who know a lot more than I do about how to make a story sing, and she is likely one of them.

So, after a month or so of gloom as I digested her advice, I am now ruthlessly doing as she suggests, which could be boiled down to “Look, you don’t have three books, you have one. How about if you take out all the scenes that aren’t necessary and see what happens?” Or, as I am sure she wanted to say but was too professional to do so, “Only one-third of your words are necessary, and instead of enhancing the story, they are bogging it down. Cut, cut, CUT!” Or, as Stephen King succinctly says, “Kill your darlings.”

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Oh, it’s hard!

It all boils down to, what is good writing, anyway? Well, one of the ways to find out what good writing is, is to take a look at what good writing isn’t.

Enter our heroine, the famous (infamous?) Amanda McKittrick Ros.

Amanda was born Anna Margaret McKittrick  in 1860 in Ireland, and became a teacher. She married Andrew Ross in 1887 and on their tenth anniversary in he financed the publicatioin of her first novel, Irene Iddesleigh, which turned out to be a gift not only  to her, but to the whole world.

She wrote under the pen name Amanda McKittrick Ros, which some feel was an attempt to suggest a connection to the influential de Ros family of County Down. This gives you a little hint of her personality.

Let’s put it this way. Our Amanda was nothing if not sell-confident in herself and her writing abilities. She wrote of the “million and one who thirst for aught that drops from my pen”, and predicted that she would “be talked about at the end of a thousand years.” Which is likely true, but I think you might be getting the idea that it might not be precisely for the reason she thought it would be.

Unfortunately, only her first novel, Irene Iddesleigh, is available (for free, on Kindle), unless you want to spend big bucks buying them at auction, if you can find them. She wrote two novels and a couple books of poetry.

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Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860 – 1939). 

It’s hard to explain her writing without giving you a taste of it, so here is the opening line of Irene Iddesleigh:

Sympathize with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futility; dash it against the rock  of gossip; or better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosum of buried scorn. 

Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected. Sympathy can wound the breast of trodden patience,- it hath no rival to insure the feelings we possess, save that of sorrow.

Er. Yes. You are probably starting to get the picture, no?

Ros is championed as possibly the worst writer ever. She was fond (to put it mildly) of what is called “purple prose” – the overuse of adverbs and metaphors to the point of being ludicrous. In fact The Inklings, the writer’s group in Oxford made up of writers C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and others, famously held competitions to see who could make it through a reading of Ros’ work the furthest without breaking into laughter.

Which would have been hard. I would love to be able to read her poems but they are not in print. But you can find excerpts from some here and there on the internet, including this opening verse to the poem, “Verses on Visiting Westminster Abbey”:

Holy Moses! 

Take a look! 

Flesh escaped in every nook!

Some rare bits of brain lie here, 

Mortal loads of beef and beer. 

Her poetry books are called Fumes of Formation and Poems of Puncture. Well it emits fumes, alright, but I’m not sure “formation” is the word I would use to describe the source of the fumes….

Lest you think I am perhaps judging her by the standards of our day, not her own, be assured that the critics of the day did not think too fondly of her works. A copy of Irene was sent to humorist Barry Pain, a contemporary of hers, who in a review  called it “a thing that happens once in a million years”. He wrote that he initially was entertained, but soon “shrank before it in tears and terror.”

Mark Twain called Irene, one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time.”

I am tempted to feel sorry for Ros, a fellow writer who basically self-published her treasured words and faced the scorn of many. However, she would not accept my pity, I am sure. In her preface to her second novel, Delina Delaney, she called Pain a “clay crab of corruption,” and called others of her critics “bastard donkey-headed mites” and “evil minded snapshots of spleen.”

So, here’s what I need to learn from Amanda McKittrick Ros:

  1. A little humility goes a long way. Even if I think my writing is okay,  I have to be open to the possibility that others might not see it in quite the same rosy light. And seeing as I imagine her husband told Amanda she was the best writer ever (I mean, can you see him disagreeing with her? Me neither.), I need to remember that family and friends might not be the most objective readers in the world. Which is not to say I don’t value their feedback. I certainly do. It’s just that I need to make sure theirs is not the only feedback I get.

2. If a professional, objective editor tells me I need to cut, I had better cut. So, I going through my book and taking a scalpel (and in some cases, an ax) to it. Scenes that are dead-wood, that don’t move the story along, are gone. As are passages that repeat what I said earlier, and places where there is too much exposition and not enough action. And in general I am tightening everything up, particularly descriptive passages, where I have used too many words to describe something.

How do I do that? Well, for example, here’s a random sentence from Irene, typical of most of them (!), where Ros is describing the garden outside the mansion where Irene lives:

Within the venerable walls surrounding this erection of amazement and wonder may be seen species of trees rarely, if ever, met with; yea, within the beaded borders of this grand old mansion the eye of the privileged beholds the magnificent lake, studded on every side with stone of costliest cut and finish; the richest vineries, the most elegant ferns, the daintiest conservatories, the flowers and plants of almost every clime in abundance, the most fashionable walks, the most intricate windings that imagination could possibly conceive or genius contrive.

Now, if you were Amanda’s editor (one shudders to contemplate it, but play along), how would you suggest she rewrite that?

How about:

The mansion had a beautiful garden. 

Or, if you want a little more detail:

Crumbling walls bounded the mansion’s garden, enclosing a beautiful garden.  Walking paths wound through it, edged by ferns and delicate flowers, leading to the lake that was in the middle. 

That’s still not great, but at least it doesn’t exhaust you, as Amanda’s description does.

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It has been hard to do such drastic cutting from my book. Getting rid of two-thirds of it is not easy! And I’m not sure that I will be able to condense it all into one book, to tell you the truth. But I’m going to make the attempt, at any rate, just to see what happens.

It’s interesting. I am finding that as I cut and trim, the story is starting to sparkle, my characters have more room to breathe. Perhaps all those words were tying them down, suffocating them and the story they want to tell.

I’m doing my best to set them free, and with Amanda’s shadow looming over me, I dare not hold them back.

And if I’m tempted to think that I really don’t need to trim quite so much, I shall read the following quote from Irene Iddelsleigh, and get right back to work:

He was tempted to invest in the polluted stocks of magnified extension, and when their banks seemed swollen with rotten gear, gathered too often from the winds of wilful wrong, how the misty dust blinded his sense of sight and drove him through the field of fashion and feeble effeminacy, which he once never meant to tread, landing him on the slippery rock of smutty touch, to wander into its hidden cavities of ancient fame, there to remain a blinded son of injustice and unparalleled wrong!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dragons and Wryms and Wyverns….

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One of the most enduring creatures of myth, legend, and fantasy is that of the dragon, a great fire-breathing serpent with wings. At least that is how most of us from the Western tradition think of a dragon.

When you look into the history of this legend, though, you will see that stories of these creatures permeate many cultures, and although similar, they are not all the same.

The stories of dragons go back a long time. Satan is described as “a great dragon” in the Biblical book of Revelation, and dragons appear in Greek and Roman legends as well. The word “dragon” comes from the Latin, draco, which comes from the Greek word drakon.

The Hellenistic and Roman dragons are more serpentine than our familiar lizard-like dragons. They often have a poisonous bite, and may or may not have legs, or the capability to breath fire.

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This beautiful Greek dragon mosaic comes from the 3rd century A.D., and was found in southern Italy in an area where there were many Greek settlers. Photo from Wikicommons

The Anglo-Saxons and the Celts of 7th century Britain certainly had their dragon legends, told around the fire on a cold winter’s night, no doubt. A dragon appears in the marvellous poem Beowulf, and it is in fact a dragon that finally kills Beowulf himself. In the poem, a slave steals a jewelled cup from a dragon’s lair, awakening the beast, who goes on a rampage of destruction, prompting Beowulf to gather some men to go kill it.

So the king of the Geats [i.e. Beowulf]
raised his hand and struck hard
at the enamelled scales, but scarcely cut through:
the blade flashed and slashed yet the blow
was far less powerful than the hard-pressed king
had need of at that moment. The mound-keeper
went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames:
when he felt the stroke, battle-fire
billowed and spewed. (2575-2583)

There are many familiar dragon-elements in this story: the treasure, the scales, the breath of fire, and the fact the dragon lives underground, in a mound.

Beowulf is the first mention of a heroic dragon-slayer in English literature, but he is certainly not the last.* In fact, St. George, the patron saint of England, famously slew a dragon to rescue a doomed princess, given as a sacrifice to appease the creature. And this motif appeared many times in the centuries to follow. What would King Arthur’s knights have done with themselves if they hadn’t had lots of princesses to rescue from lots of dragons?

Speaking of Arthurian legend, the dragon on the Welsh flag is said to refer to the legend of Merlin where he saw a vision of a red dragon, representing Britain, fighting a white dragon, which represented the Saxon invaders.

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I happily claim Welsh heritage. This flag was a familiar one in my childhood home, as my mother was born there. Photo from Wikicommons.

Dragons were called wyrm in Saxon legends as well as draco. Wyrm means worm, and it indicates both the earth-dwelling nature and the snake-like appearance of the creature.

Around the seventeenth century another dragon-like creature appeared in legend, that of the wyvern. This is similar to a dragon but with two legs instead of four, and often are portrayed as as smaller and less intelligent than dragons, at least in more modern-day interpretations.

In all of the depictions of dragons in the European continent, they are generally viewed as evil creatures, greedy and bestial. But another important source of dragon legends comes from the Far East. Dragons there are seen as bringing good luck and prosperity. They also can be shape-shifters. They do not have wings, but can fly using magic means. They start out as water-serpents, and eventually change into dragons, with scales. This is just a brief sketch of the typical Eastern dragon – there is lots of information about them if you want to spend a fascinating afternoon searching the web!

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This is the flag of the Qing dynasty (1889-1912), showing a typical Chinese dragon. Photo from Wikicommons. 

Dragons are a staple of fantasy literature. At the beginning, dragons generally were portrayed in stories as evil, mirroring the myths they were based on. Tolkien’s Smaug was a deliberate nod to Beowulf’s dragon, and many others followed suit.

But interestingly enough, dragons have undergone a bit of an evolution in fantasy stories. I believe Anne McCaffrey started this trend in modern times, with her fantastic Dragonriders of Pern series, the first of which, Dragonflight, was published in 1968.. Her Pern dragons were intelligent, sensitive creatures who bonded telepathically with their riders, becoming their constant companions and partners for life. They used their fire-breathing capabilities to flame the deadly Thread which rained down on Pern every few years, causing massive destruction if it wasn’t destroyed before it hit the ground.

 

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This was the first Pern story I read, in the 1980s, and oh, how I love it! The concept of the dragons is fantastic, but not only that, it features a strong female protagonist, which I hadn’t seen much of in fantasy literature up to that point. 

These books are treasures, and if you haven’t read them, I highly recommend them. Naomi Novik’s popular Temeraire series, beginning with Her Majesty’s Dragon, owes a huge nod to Pern. Novik’s dragons are similar to the Pern dragons, and their riders also share a special bond with them. Novik plays on the differences between European dragons and Asian dragons in her series too, which is fun.

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The Napoleonic Wars with dragons. ‘Nuff said. Read it. 

Thankfully, stories about dragons aren’t going away soon. I often wonder if these stories, which go back so very far in human history, have some basis in reality. Some speculate they stem from snakes that spit poisonous venom, or pterodactyls that survived the dinosaur extinction, or Komodo dragons. I don’t know. These myths are so ancient, I’d like to think they are pointing back to a deeper reality than we can even imagine. Maybe, just maybe, one day we’ll find out that dragons actually existed.**

Wouldn’t that be cool?  (Or hot, I suppose.)


*If you want to see an epic clip of Beowulf fighting the dragon from the 2007 movie Beowulf, click here.

**The cautionary note to that wish is found in the 2002 movie, Reign of Fire.

Featured image by David REVOY, via Wikimedia commons.

Penda: King of Mercia

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One of the joys of writing about any period of history is discovering some of the fascinating people who lived at that time, at least some of the ones whose stories have come to us through the long years that separate us. Of course, they are usually kings or high churchmen, or upper class nobles, or the like. The regular people, although no doubt fascinating in and of themselves, don’t get any ink.

I have highlighted a couple of the people who lived during the time that my books are set, that being Britain in the 7th century A.D., including Oswald, King of Bernicia, and the Venerable Bede.

Penda, the wily king of Mercia, the powerful pagan king of the Midlands who was a thorn in the side of Oswald and his brother Oswy in their rule of Northumbria, is another figure who looms large over the 7th century landscape, and he is a fascinating man. Although there is quite a lot we know about him, relative to others in that time period, there is also quite  a lot we do not know.

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Mercia was located on the south west of Deira, surrounding the river Trent.  It’s capital was Tamworth, which is located in present-day Staffordshire. The marvellous Staffordshire Hoard was found close to Tamworth – it could have come from a Mercian warlord hastily burying his treasure as he escaped from a battle. Maybe it belonged to Penda himself…?

First of all, his origins are rather murky. The name, Penda, could be of British (Welsh) origin, which might help to explain the various alliances this pagan Saxon king had with some the Christian kings of Wales. Conversely, the name might also have Germanic origins. We don’t know for certain. We do know that he was the son of Pybba, possibly one of twelve sons, but some of the names listed as sons of Pybba could have been added to his line after the fact by other kings purporting to be descended of Pybba as well.

Why would other kings do this? Well, Pybba was an Iclingas, from the House of Icel, a legendary (or perhaps semi-legendary) figure from the time when the Anglo-Saxons were first migrating to Britain after the Roman legions left.  And Icel’s lineage went right back to Woden, one of the Saxon gods. Having Woden in your lineage was an important thing for the Saxon kings. So if your own family history couldn’t be traced that far back, it would be in your advantage to claim that you were related somehow to someone who certainly could, and in that way gain legitimacy for your kingship. And after a few generations had passed, who was going to dispute the claim?

Penda, being a legitimate son of Pybba, definitely had the credentials, then, to be king, but interestingly enough there is some doubt about how and when he actually gained the throne. The king just before Penda, Cearl, is another murky figure, who might have been a dynastic rival of Penda’s, but at any rate he seems to be off the scene by 626 A.D..

You will note that I haven’t given the date for Penda’s birth. That’s because we don’t know what it was. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that he became king in 626 A.D. and ruled for thirty years, and was fifty at the time he became king. However these dates need to be taken with a grain of salt, because that would make him in his eighties when some of his children were still quite young, so that’s not really likely. Most historians prefer Bede’s dates in the Ecclesiastical History of Britainwhich states that Penda became king in 633 A.D., after he and Cadwallon of Gwynedd combined forces to defeat Edwin of Northumbria in  the Battle of Hatfield Chase.

Murky, like I said. It seems to me more likely that he was a younger man in 633 A.D. rather than an older one. Some suggest that perhaps the Chronicle meant that he was actually fifty when he died in 655 A.D., not when he gained the throne. And as for what happened between 626 and 633 in Mercia in terms of who was the ruler, well, it’s unknown. Penda could have been one of multiple rulers of Mercia, each being overlord of a small portion of it.

It is also possible that Penda was a landless noble of the royal Mercian house, a mercenary of sorts, who, with his loyal war band, managed to fight his way onto the throne, basically. There is no doubt he was a powerful king. Once crowned he managed to hold onto his throne for twenty-two years (if you agree with Bede), and that is a long time by the standards of the day.

He is also a pivotal figure in British history as he is the last pagan king of Mercia. It is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration to say that when he died, the pagan Saxon religion died with him, but certainly by the time of his death Christianity was well-established in the island and the writing was certainly on the wall.

Throughout his reign he did what successful Saxon kings did best: made war on his neighbours in order to expand his kingdom and have more tribute to distribute to his loyal retainers. There is a suggestion that he could have been a co-ruler with his brother Eowa for the early part of his reign, who may or may not have been a puppet of Oswald of Northumbria (the mind boggles at all the scheming and plotting that must have occupied their days).

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Replica of the beautiful reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet, done by the Royal Armouries for the British Museum. This helmet is from Wessex, not Mercia, but it is contemporary to Penda’s time and he might have worn a helmet quite like it. Photo from Wikicommons

At any rate he quickly became a force to be reckoned with, and some suggest that it was his burgeoning power that prompted Oswald to take him out, so to speak. Which didn’t turn out so well for Oswald, for Penda (and his Welsh allies) killed the powerful bretwalda (High King) at the battle of Maserfield and, adding insult to injury, cut up his body and impaled his head, arms and hands on spears.

This was certainly insulting, but it is possible that it also was a sacrificial offering to the pagan Saxon gods. Eventually one of Oswald’s arms and his head managed to get back to Bernicia, where they became powerful relics of the Church, but that is another story!

Although the Northumbrians had lost Oswald, their powerful king, they were not out of the picture by any means. Certainly the united kingdom of Northumbria broke back down into its two sub-kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, and Oswy, Oswald’s brother who gained the Bernician throne, had to start the work of trying to gain the thegns and aethelings trust and respect in order for him to reach the same heights of power his brother had achieved.

Penda would not make it easy for him, of course. The prize of overlordship of all of Mercia and Northumbria was an irresistible one for Penda and Oswy both, and these two kings tangled frequently over the next decade. There were some periods of calm, and even an alliance or two involving their children, and once Penda had Oswy on the ropes, laying siege to Bamburgh itself.

But in the end, Oswy had the upper hand, defeating and killing Penda in 655 when  Penda invaded Bernicia, even though Penda’s army was much larger than his own.

Penda was a quintessetial Saxon warrior-king, who managed to carve out a stable kingdom in the chaos of 7th century Britain. He must have had some charisma and some leadership skills, plus his skill as a warrior,  in order for him to stay on the throne that long.

And even though the uncertain details of his origins and his rule are frustrating for historians, I don’t mind it much as a novelist. It gives me freedom to spin my own story of this Dark Ages king who was a worthy adversary to Oswy, the king who features in my books.


Featured image:  Stained glass window in the cloister of Worcester Cathedral representing the death of Penda of Mercia. From Wikicommons.

2017 Reading Challenge: Cover Crush!

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Here I am at the first book of my (fun) 2017 Reading Challenge, which I got from the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. I don’t suppose that the books have to be read in any certain order, but because I only had about a week and a half to read the first book of the year if I wanted to get one read in January, I didn’t have a lot of time to fuss around.

So I figured the easiest one to pick would be the first one on the list: a book I read because I liked the cover.

Now,  caveats abound on this one. First of all, I live in a small town, and I don’t have a book store to visit. And although there are a small selection of books in a few stores around town it seemed to me easiest to go to the library and pick a book from there. However, I quickly realized this was not such a great idea. I don’t know about your library, but mine is fairly small, and most of the books are lined up on the shelves, with a few scattered here and there on the tops of the bookcases or in special displays. And who’s got time to go through all the books on the shelves to look at their covers and find one I like? Not me! Although I did briefly flirt with the idea of picking the spine I liked the most….but that’s not really fair. Not a lot of books have much happening on the spine, although I will admit to being intrigued by a couple. So I limited myself to picking a book from the ones displayed in the library.

Secondly, even with the limited selection available, I got bogged down. I would find a cover I liked, but the description didn’t intrigue me. I realize that perhaps to stick with the letter of the law on this one I could have picked one of those, but with the short time I had to get it read, I just couldn’t pick a book I would have to force myself to read. So, it had to be a book with a cover I liked and that I thought I would enjoy.

Even so, this was a fun exercise. Without further ado, here is my choice for the book I read because I liked the cover:

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This one was sitting with a few others on top of the bookcase set aside for sci-fi/fantasy, and it attracted me right away. Ok, first of all because it was on top of the fantasy section, but the black and white picture with the hints of green drew the eye. The cityscape with the tunnel (?) underneath hinted at some subterranean goings-on, and I like stories about other worlds or civilizations under our own, found in the forgotten tunnels of subway systems or abandoned cellars or whatever.

The clincher for me was the man in the overcoat with a gun in one hand and what looked like a wand or stick in the other – probably a wand, due to the intriguing symbols spurting out from it.

Man in overcoat, city scape, a possible magic wand…oh, this was ringing all my Harry Dresden bells, and I love me some Harry Dresden! And when I picked up the book to look at it more closely, I saw to my delight I was right. You can see the byline on the top: “A potent mix of gangsters and magic…” (unfortunately the rest is cut off, but that’s enough to hook me).

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This is my favourite Dresden cover. Also mainly black and white. There seems to be a pattern here…

The description on the back begins:

Mick Oberon may look like just another 1930s private detective, but beneath the fedora and the overcoat, he’s got pointy ears and he’s packing a wand. Among the last in a line of aristocratic Fee, Mick turned his back on his kind and their Court a long time ago….

Oh, I was definitely in now. The Dresden similarities are many, of course, but I liked the 1930s twist and I especially liked the fact that this private eye is an exiled Fae, not a wizard. You might say I have a thing for stories featuring the Fae hiding among humanity, it’s the premise of my own novel.

Besides historical fantasy, urban fantasy is one of my favourite genres, so I took this home happy to delve into it and see if I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would.

And in a word, yes!

Oberon is a PI in 1930s Chicago, and he is given the case by a mobster’s wife to find her daughter, her real daughter, that is, because it is quickly becoming evident that the girl she thought was her daughter is actually a changeling – some kind of Otherworldly creature swapped for her real daughter at birth. The changeling is 16 now and starting to, well, change, and Mrs. Ottati wants her real girl back.

So really, it’s a historicial urban fantasy. I really couldn’t go wrong, could I?

Just like in the Dresden books, in this book most humans don’t know that they are occupying Earth with various supernatural creatures, but there are some who do, including the Ottati family, whose matriarch is a foreboding witch who, as it turns out, has her own reasons for aiding Oberon in his task.

The story is a great deal of fun, as we follow Oberon through the underbelly of 1930s Chicago, mobsters and all. The case is tricky, and he ends up having to go to the Otherworld to get some help and in the process ends up owing a favour to the Unseelies, which you know will come back to haunt him someday.

The book is firmly set in 1930s Chicago, referencing real-life figures such as Al Capone. Mick uses a lot of slang from that time period, which can be a bit confusing, but I didn’t mind it, as it helped to ground the story in that time period.

Through the first part of the book I thought that I was actually reading the second book of the series, as there was obviously a lot of backstory that Oberon hints at but isn’t explained. This was driving me slightly crazy as I really, really hate not starting at the beginning of a series (or a TV show, or whatever. Ask my hubby how many times I have forced him to rewind to watch the first minute of a movie that really didn’t matter anyway, but hey. It’s how I roll.).

It got to me enough that I had to stop part way through and find out how many more books came before this one, and lo and behold this is the first of the series. The Dresden books are like this a bit, too, there’s a lot going on before the first book that is eventually filled out in subsequent novels.

And speaking of Dresden comparisons, which you can’t really help, the one thing that I didn’t like much about this character and the magic system was his wand. It makes sense that Dresden has a wand (well, ok, a staff) because he is a wizard. But Oberon is Fae. Why does he need a physical object to do his “magic” – which mainly consisted of stripping or enhancing people’s (or his own) luck in order to make events move more or less smoothly (someone might trip when they are running after him, for example)?

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This is another cover for the book, from GraphicAudio. I don’t like this one nearly as much. You can see the pointy ears under his hat, but the coat’s belt makes it look like he has a tail. The tag line “A Mick Oberon Job” is bigger than the title. The whole thing is a bit messy, in my opinion. 

I like the way the Marmell toyed with the Fae mythology and included glamour, and the twisting of luck, and their connection to the nature as part of the magic system. I think he could have gone further with this, though, to make it more Fae-like and less wizard-y.

There’s a references to vampires and a policeman friend of Oberon’s seems to be a werewolf (but this is just hinted at), but other magical creatures,  except for those familiar to English folktales such as kelpies, pixies, leprachauns and the like, do not appear in this story. So I’m not really sure why they are even mentioned, although I suppose they might come in handy for future books.

One other small negative – the language is a little rough at times. Quite a lot of f-bombs, especially from one of the mobster characters. It jarred me a bit. Aside from the profanity, was that word used commonly as a swear word back then? I suspect that it possibly wasn’t, but I’m not certain on that, so I’ll hold off judgement on the historicity of it.

I give this book three stars (out of four). I don’t mind that it’s a Dresden wanna-be, but in my opinion the author could have branched out a little further from the Dresden template and done a little more with his world to make it (and his hard-boiled wise-cracking main character) stand out a bit more from Dresden’s Chicago other than move it back to the 30s as opposed to Dresden’s present-day setting.

There’s three books in the series so far. I liked this one enough to pick up the next one to see how it unfolds. A fun historical urban fantasy read, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

 

Year of Important Books: Wrap-Up

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I am a little behind with this, as Christmas and a wonderful break in the sun after New Year’s have delayed my posts. But I didn’t want to leave my 2016 series on my Year of Important Books without some reflection on the books which journeyed with me throughout the year.

My aim last year was to re-visit some of my favourite books from childhood, books that as a child I read over and over, books that were important to me in my development as a reader and as a person. It was hard to pick from the many I could have chosen, but in the end I am glad that I picked the ones I did.

My reading list consisted of (in order from January 2016 to December 2016) : The Yearling, Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Watership Down, Little Women, A Study in Scarlet, If Only They Could Talk, A Wrinkle in Time, Anne of Green Gables, and The Fellowship of the Ring.

As I look at the list now I have to say those were solid choices, both in the impact they had on my life as a child and on the enduring mark they have made on literature as a whole. There’s a reason why these books are not only beloved by me. They all deserve the many awards and accolades they have been given.

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I loved re-reading these books. It was a great deal of fun to dive back into them and to be reacquainted with these wonderful characters and stories which had impacted me so greatly way back when.

In no particular order, here are some of my thoughts on the series:

  1. Favourite book of the year – okay, this is hard. But I have to give The Yearling
    this to the very first one I read, The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan RawlingsOh my, what a book. There is something about the writing and the voice of the book that is utterly compelling to me.It’s haunting and beautiful, just like life. And that ending. I know I’m going to read this one again.

2. Least favourite  book of the year – also hard to pick, because notwithstanding anything I say here I really did love them all. But I would have to pick Alice In Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll for this. I think possibly because all my favourite memories of Alice are actually in 1940s-vintage-Alice-in-Wonderland-special-edition-book-color-Tenniel-illustrations-Laurel-Leaf-Farm-item-no-z713130-4the second book, Through the Looking Glass. Not being able to revisit the Jabberwocky was so disappointing! I know it’s not fair to judge this book badly because it didn’t fit my faulty memory, but there you go. And as I said in my original post about it, if I hadn’t loved it as a child and read it for the first time as an adult, it wouldn’t have held too much appeal to me. The dream ending was also a bit much.

3. Book I felt most conflicted about – hands down, this was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. All that moralizing and the flowery writing was difficult to trudge through. And I hated that it was bothering me so much, because I had nothing but love for this book as a child. However, in doing my research on Alcott herself I came to really appreciate the book in a way I never could have as a child. So, this one was a tough one for me.

4. Best part about the series other than the books themselves – As I mentioned above, I really enjoyed doing the background reading on the authors and getting to know them a little bit, too. It was interesting to hear of their trials and tribulations on the way to publication, and how their real lives were often reflected in their books, whether it was the landscape they wrote about or the characters in the books themselves.

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I love this picture of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Don’t you think Anne would look like this in her later years? 

So I leave my Year of Important Books with a little regret. There are other books I could have read, such as Dr. Doolittle, or Charlotte’s Web, or The Phantom Tollbooth, and many others. Ah well, perhaps another time…

Which brings me to this year, and a brand new series. I have been having some trouble deciding what to focus on this year. I would really like to continue my Year of Reading Lewis, there are many books of his I would like to either re-read or tackle for the first time that I missed in my first go-around. And there are other authors I could focus on, too.

But in the end I decided to let someone else make the suggestions and am tackling the Reading Challenge on the  Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. I really enjoy her “What Should I Read Next?” podcast, and when I saw her Reading Challenge I thought it might be perfect for me.

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She actually has two streams: Reading for Fun and Reading for Growth. I have decided to mix and match a bit on these, so will be pulling from both lists to discover my books for 2017. If you want to follow along, here is the link to the Reading Challenge on her website with more info. The two lists are:

Reading for Fun: 

A book you chose for the cover

A book with a reputation for being un-put-downable

A book set somewhere you’ve never been but would like to visit

A juicy memoir

A book about books or reading

A book in a genre you usually avoid

A book you don’t want to admit you’re dying to read

A book in the backlist of a new favourite author

A book recommended by someone with great taste

A book you were excited to buy or borrow but haven’t read yet

A book about a topic or subject you already love

Reading for Growth:

A Newberry Award winner or Honour Book

A book in translation

A book that’s more than 600 pages

A book of poetry, , a play, or an essay collection

A book of any genre that addresses current events

An immigrant story

A book published before you were born

Three books by the same author

A book by an #ownvoices or #diversebooks author

A book with an unreliable narrator or ambiguous ending

A book nominated for an award in 2017

A Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award Winner

Intriguing lists, right? I am probably going to stay mostly on the “fun” side of the block, but who knows what might happen?  And there may be times where one book might fit more than one of these categories.

And throughout the year, I’m also going to continue my Book Bingo challenge I started last year but didn’t get too far on. Some of those books will fit under the Reading Challenge categories, too. Efficiency is my middle name!!

I hope you join me! I’ll be back next week with my first book: A book I chose for the cover.

Year of Important Books: The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

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So it’s come to this, the end of my Year of Important Books! Although I had a few times this year where I wasn’t exactly sure what book to read in a given month, my last book of the year I had decided right from the beginning. I wanted to end with The Lord of the Rings.

As I started it this month I realized that I would not be able to read all three books in December – there was just too much going on. So I ended up just reading the first of the trilogy.

It might seem strange to you that in this series of re-reading important books of my childhood that I chose this book and not The Hobbit. There is a simple reason for this, and that being that I actually discovered and read LOTR first, and once I read it I went looking for other books by Tolkien and found The Hobbit.

John Ronald Rauel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1892, where his father, Arthur, a bank manager in England, had been promoted to the head of the bank in Bloemfontein. He lived in South Africa with his family, which included his younger brother Hilary and his mother Mabel, until he was three, when he and his mother and brother went to England for an extended family visit. While they were there, his father died of rheumatic fever in South Africa and they stayed in England.

At an early age Ronald, as he was known in the family, was interested in languages, reading and writing. He was a keen pupil, from all accounts. His mother converted to Catholicism when Ronald was 8, and he remained a devoted Catholic for all of his life. When Ronald was 12 his mother died at the age of 34 from the complications of diabetes. She had arranged previously that her sons would go live with her close friend Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan, as their guardian, and Tolkien remained grateful to Fr. Francis’ influence on his life ever after, seeing him as the father figure he had missed.

Tolkien married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Bratt, in 1913, and in 1914 when war broke out he did not immediately enlist, to the vast disapproval of his relatives, but instead delayed enlistment as long as he could until 1915 by entering an agreement which allowed him to complete his degree first.

Tolkien did not have a particularly robust constitution, it seems, for he was sickly on and off during his war service and was eventually declared unfit for regular duties and was given garrison duties for the latter part of the war. This likely saved his life, for as he said, “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”

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J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, in the midst of his war duties, when he was 24. His eyes look a bit haunted, don’t they? Photo from Wikicommons.

After the war Tolkien continue his work in languages, notably Anglo-Saxon, and eventually ended up in Oxford in 1925 as a professor of Anglo-Saxon. It was during this time at Pembroke College in Oxford that he wrote The Hobbit and the first two books of The Lord of the Rings, but it wasn’t until 1948 that it was complete, nearly a decade after he began it. LOTR was published in 1954, and it has since become of the most influential books of the 20th century.

Fantasy books are standard fare for children’s stories, but LOTR brought fantasy popularity as a  genre for adult books as well. Not that there weren’t adult fantasy books before its publication, but the success of LOTR certainly legitimized the genre and inspired many, many writers to try their hand at it.

I can remember reading LOTR for the first time and falling under its spell from the very beginning. Here was a book that included the fantastical elements I had loved so much in my books as a child, but they were brought in to a complex, grown-up story. And thus began my life-long love of the fantasy genre and inspired my own desire to write my own. LOTR became one of those books that I re-read every couple of years, although I admit that it has been far too long since the last time I picked it up. It was so nice to revisit it again this month.

One thing that struck me anew as I re-read Fellowship was Tolkien’s masterful world-building. There are reams of words written about how he built his Middle -Earth and the extensive time he spent on its history, languages, and culture. I won’t go into all that here, but suffice to say, it works. You know there is a lot going on behind the scenes in this world, and that we are just seeing a small slice that begins in the hobbits’ sheltered Shire and gradually expands as we journey along with Frodo on his quest, and it is a great deal of fun to discover this world along with him.

Tolkien paints a rich an full picture of Middle -Earth, using some lovely lyrical language. For example, as Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin leave the Old Forest after their sojourn there with Tom Bombadil, they pause for a moment to to get their bearings:

“Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.” 

That sentence, all on its own, makes me want to be a better writer.

The story that Tolkien gives us is an adventure tale, with a small and ordinary hobbit from the back waters of the Shire suddenly presented with an onerous task and even worse, the ultimate responsibility to carry it out: to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, deep in the heart of Mordor.

One of the beautiful pictures Tolkien paints in this book is the importance of friendship to help us carry our burdens, big and small. Frodo is not alone in his quest. Fellow hobbits Sam, Merry and Pippin accompany him from the Shire; Gandalf gives him instruction and help along the way; the mysterious Ranger, Strider, joins their company at the opportune time; and of course once they get to Rivendell the elf lord, Elrond, gives Frodo eight companions to share the journey with him.

Tolkien, himself, had a band of companions which greatly helped him not only in the writing of The Lord of the Rings, but who journeyed through life with him as well. The “Inklings”were a band of like-minded friends and writers at Oxford who met regularly to discuss their works-in-progress and to share a pint and great conversation at the Eagle an Child pub in Oxford. C.S. Lewis, a fellow Oxford don, was a member of this group (he famously nicknamed the pub “The Bird and Baby”), as was Charles Williams. The value of this group to both C.S. Lewis and to Tolkien’s writings cannot be underestimated, and its influence upon Tolkien’s view on the importance of having a group of friends behind you in any great venture can only be guessed at.

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The Eagle and Child in Oxford. Wouldn’t you love to have had a chance to overhear some of the conversations that took place here?

Another theme that runs throughout  Fellowship is the idea that small people can do great things too, and in fact may, in the end, be better suited for those great things. Elrond sums this up during the Council when they are deciding what should be done with the One Ring:

“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” 

From all accounts Tolkien came out from his war experiences with a profound appreciation for the men under his command: the ordinary, enlisted men from the agricultural counties of England. It is possibly this real-life experience that brought him the understanding that it is not always “great” men who do the great deeds. But  however he came to see this, it is this portrayal of unsung hereoes like Frodo and especially Sam, that gives The Fellowship of the Rings, and indeed the whole LOTR saga, its heart.

I wish I had the time to read the other two books of the trilogy this month, but I was very glad to at least get the chance to read the first one. It was a fitting end  to my Year of Important Books, for it provided me a bridge from my well-loved childhood classics to the more mature books of adulthood. This book cemented in me my life-long love of fantasy, and showed me that these tales of heroes, dragons,wizards and elves need not stay as nursery stories, but could be told to adults as well. 

Speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin summarized Tolkien’s views on fantasy stories this way:

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

I’m sure I speak for many of you when I give my hearty thanks to J. R. R Tolkien, for taking us all with him in his escape to Middle-Earth

A Celtic Christmas Blessing

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We are all in the busy last days before Christmas, so I will not intrude with many words, but I wanted to give you this beautiful Celtic blessing, in appreciation for your faithful support of my feeble offerings here this past year.  May God bless you and yours this Christmas with the great Light of love that the Christ Child brings with Him.

May the blessing of light be on you – light without and light within. 
May the blessed sunlight shine on you like a great peat fire, 
so that stranger and friend may come and warm himself at it. 
And may light shine out of the two eyes of you, 
like a candle set in the window of a house, 
bidding the wanderer come in out of the storm.
And may the blessing of the rain be on you, 
may it beat upon your Spirit and wash it fair and clean,
and leave there a shining pool where the blue of Heaven shines, 
and sometimes a star. 
And may the blessing of the earth be on you, 
soft under your feet as you pass along the roads, 
soft under you as you lie out on it, tired at the end of day; 
and may it rest easy over you when, at last, you lie out under it. 
May it rest so lightly over you that your soul may be out from under it quickly; up and off and on its way to God. 
And now may the Lord bless you, and bless you kindly.

Amen.

Merry Christmas, everyone!