2017 Reading Challenge: A Book I’ve Already Read

I hummed and hawed about this month’s book for my 2017 Reading Challenge. I couldn’t think of the right book. So many choices, after all. I chose and read one book, but it just wasn’t right, somehow. Then, eureka! I suddenly remembered a book I had downloaded on my Kindle sometime last year, a book I very much wanted to read again.

I discovered The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wanegrin, Jr. soon after it was published in 1978, in the midst of when I was happily reading C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Lord of the Rings, and was hungry for other books of the same quality. The story intrigued me and I saw it had received a National Book Award, so I figured the writing had to be pretty good.

And if you have followed my series last year, you will know that I am a sucker for books about animals, and seeing as this book featured Chauntecleer the Rooster and various other animals, it was a no-brainer for me to give it a try. And I was very glad I did, for this became one of my favourite books.

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The setting for the book is Earth, but not exactly the Earth we know. The story takes place at a time when the animals can all speak and understand speech, and when the earth is fixed in place, with the sun revolving around it. The animals all live on the surface of the Earth, but unbeknownst to them, a monstrous evil is imprisoned at the heart of the Earth, the great serpent Wyrm, who writhes and roars in utter hatred of both the animals and God, who imprisoned him there (“Sum Wyrm! Sub terra!“).

The animals, however, live an ordered peaceful life in the Coop, deaf to Wrym’s rage. Chauntecleer, as roosters do, crows, but his are no ordinary crows. He has crows for times of celebration and grief, for joy and dance, for alarm and victory. But his best crows are the Crows Canonical. Seven times a day, at dawn, 9 AM, noon, 3 PM, 6 PM, dusk, and bedtime, Chauntecleer marks the passing of time with his crows, giving the animals safety and structure in the midst of their days.

When Chauntecleer crowed his canonical crows, the day wore the right kind of clothes; his hens lived and scratched in peace, happy with what was, and unafraid of what was to be; even wrong things were made right, and the grey things explained. 

Along with Chauntecleer and the Hens, other animals live in the Coop and its nearby lands, among them Mundo Cani Dog, whose mournful cry “Marooned!” gives you a hint as to his Eeyore-type personality,  John Wesley Weasel, whose weasel-y tendencies are softened under the influence of the Crows Canonical, and Wee Widow Mouse, who is loved by John Wesley.

But a disturbance comes to the Coop, a hint of the evil to follow. Ebenezer Rat sneaks into the Coop and steals (and eats) some eggs. And to the east of Chauntecleer’s Coop, across the river, an old rooster listens to the smooth voice in his dreams that promises him glory and births a terrible creature, Cockatrice, who is half Rooster and half snake, and who soon usurps and kills his father and rules in his place through blood and fear.

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The cockatrice is a mythical creature, often used in heraldry. Image from Wikicommons. 

The stage is set for the confrontation between
Chauntecleer and the great Wyrm, who sends Cockatrice and the unnatural rooster’s offspring (the deadly basilisks), to fight against the Keeper in the hopes of getting free.

This book is an animal fable, but it is not a children’s story. There is horror and grief here, and terrible consequences for choices made. Chauntecleer is not a perfect hero by any means, and in fact his jealousy and pride prove to make him unequal for the final task, when it comes. But the Dun Cow, the mysterious being who brings peace and hope to those in greatest need, has chosen another animal who can take up the challenge, if his courage does not wane…

This is a morality tale, like Aesop’s Fables, but not quite as simple as those. And although it has been compared to Animal Farm, the author, in the epilogue, cautions the reader against reading the story as strictly an allegory.

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Interestingly, the name “Book of the Dun Cow”, comes from the oldest collection of Celtic mythology in Ireland, Lebor na hUidre  (The Book of the Dun Cow), from the 12th century. It is so named because of a legend that it was made from the hide of a dun (dull, greyish brown) cow. Image from  brewminate.com

I’m glad he gave us that warning. There’s more to this story than trying to make it fit some pre-conceived “meaning” or allegory.  But there is deep and rich meaning to found in it, all the same.  These animals, of course, are not just animals, they are you and I, whose pride and bitter anger can birth a terrible evil, and whose jealousy and bitter disappointment can make us turn away from those who love us most. And who sometimes are tasked with impossible jobs in the midst of unimaginable sorrow.

I loved The Book of the Dun Cow when I read it first, and I loved it again, all these years later. The book feels a bit unfinished, but that’s because there is a sequel, Lamentations, which I am eager, now, to revisit as well. And I discovered, to my delight, that Wanegrin finished his trilogy in 2003, with Peace at the Last.

More re-reading to come, and the discovery of a new book. This month was a definite winner for me.

My rating: Five stars. 


Other posts in this series:

January: Book I Read Because of the Cover

February: Book I Was Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet

March: An Unputdownable Book

April: A Book Set Somewhere I’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit

Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

I find as I do research on the so-called Dark Ages that time and time again, my preconceived notions about what life must have been like have been proven wrong. It’s hard to fight against the popular culture’s perception of the Early Middle Ages, that perception that people’s lives were “nasty, brutish, and short.” The Roman Empire had collapsed, the barbarian hordes had destroyed civilization as we know it, and the world was plunged into a cultural, scientific, and artistic darkness that would last until the Renaissance.

Some of that is true, up to a point. But the more I read about this time period, the more I find ways in which all of those assumptions are challenged.

Take medicine, for example. How did people treat the various diseases or injuries they suffered? I don’t know about you, but what springs to my mind is a muttering priest praying over a patient or a cackling crone stirring up a brew of some entirely unhelpful mix of ingredients, and administering it, along with a spell or two, to the sick.  Mainly, I imagine that people died of things that are easily cured today, and that people then had no idea of how the human body worked or how to fix anything that might go wrong with it.

Well, the truth is skirting around the edges of those ideas, to be sure, but perhaps, like me, you will be surprised to discover exactly how medicine was practiced in those days.

First of all, I have explained before about how the lack of written material from this era makes it hard for us to understand the customs and people of the day. But surprisingly, there are around five hundred leaves of connected medical texts in Old English that survive from this time period. So when you think about how little written material we have, to have this many medical texts surviving gives you a clue that there must have been a lot of medical texts available at the time.

The most important of these texts, called Bald’s Leechbook, presumably owned or named after a physician named Bald, comes to us from the ninth century, but is a copy of a work from about fifty years before. A leech was another name for a physician, because, yes, they did use leeches to treat some ailments (they are surprisingly effective in reducing swelling and bruising after an injury, because they are great at sucking blood out). It is a compilation of the best of medical knowledge stretching back to the Roman and Greek empires, and ultimately back to the celebrated Roman physician, Galen.

This gives us an important clue that the medical knowledge of the Greeks and Romans was not lost in Dark Ages Britain. From references in Bede’s histories, we see that both laymen and clerics were named physicians. And from looking at the remedies prescribed in the Leechbook and from other sources, we can see that a wide variety of cures and treatments for various maladies and injuries were available to the Anglo-Saxon physicians of the time. Most of these were plant-based herbal remedies, made up of both locally available plants and even some exotic ingredients such as cinnamon, pepper, or ginger, that would have been obtained from the far East through Arabic traders into the Continent, finally reaching Britain.

Some of these ingredients were helpful, some neutral, and some harmful. Others, containing ingredients such as garlic, onion, oxgall and copper salts, are very useful indeed against bacterial infection.

Just how useful was proven in 2015. Microbiology experts at the University of Nottingham recreated a recipe that was meant to be an eye salve, for eye infections. At the time, of course, physicians had no idea of bacteria or viruses, but found this recipe effective against eyes that were inflamed and sore. The university scientists recreated the recipe, consisting of crushed garlic and onion, 25 ml of English wine (which they obtained from a historic vineyard near Glastonbury) and bovine salts dissolved in distilled water. Bovine salts consist of dried bile from a cow’s intestine, in case you were wondering (I had to look it up, too!).

They thought it might have some positive effect, based on the ingredients, and made a large batch, which they tested on one of today’s antibiotic-resistant superbugs named MRSA. To their great astonishment, the mixture wiped out almost 90% of the MRSA bacteria. They cannot completely explain this, for the ingredients, separately, will not have the same effect. So it is the combination of the ingredients mixed together that prove effective, and they cannot, as of yet, explain why or how. Research is continuing.

There is evidence from studying skeletons found from this era, and from treatments prescribed in the Leechbook,  that surgery was also attempted at this time, and in some cases, successfully. Amputations for gangrenous limbs, using silk thread to suture abdominal wounds, and even plastic surgery in terms of suturing cleft palates was practiced.

Even brain surgery. Yes. Some skulls from this period (and even from pre-historic times, believe it or not) show evidence of trepanation. This is the drilling of a hole through the skull to expose the dura mater that covers the brain. This could be done after a head injury, to clean out the bits of bone and blood that collect under the skull and relieve pressure and pain that results. If you have ever drilled a hole in a fingernail to relieve that throbbing pain that results from an injury to a finger where blood is collecting under the nail, you get the idea.*

Even more astonishing than the fact they attempted this is the fact that the patient often survived, as shown by the trepanned holes in the skulls being edged with new bony growth, meaning the person lived for some time after.

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A trepanned skull of a 50 year old woman from 3500 BC (!), France.  Yup, she survived this (see the rounded edges of the bone?). That’s one huge hole….This procedure wasn’t always just for head injuries. Condidtions such as epilepsy or other psycological ailments could have trepanning as a “cure” – to let the “evil spirits” out. Image from wikicommons

There is, however, some “darkness” in Dark Ages medicine. There were certainly things that physicians could treat – mending broken bones, infections resulting from wounds, etc. However, there were maladies that they had no understanding of the causes and therefore had to resort to guessing how to fix it, or to charms. Things such as eczema or allergic reactions, or even the plague, would have been beyond their understanding as they didn’t know about the causes of these and so could not treat them.

Enter the Lacnunga (“Remedies”), a tenth century collection of medical and related materials. It is this collection that has given Dark Ages medicine it’s bad name, so to speak, for here we find the various remedies for ailments that involve charms, incantations, and other odd practices. Often they are a combination of ancient pagan practices with Christian prayers or symbolism. So we have, for example, this charm:

If cysts pain a man at the heart, let a virgin go to a spring which runs straight east, and draw forth one cup full, with [in the direction of?] the current, and sing thereon the Creed and Pater noster, and then pour it into another vessel; and let him/her draw again a second and sing again the Creed and the Pater noster; and do so that you have three [cupfuls]; do this nine days; soon he will be well.

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The first page of the Lacnunga. Image from wyrtig.com

 

Here we see sacred waters (the spring), running east (the direction of the coming Day of the Lord, when Christ will rise in the east), the virgin (note male or female), the number three, the number nine, the Creed (the Apostle’s Creed, the fundamental beliefs of every Christian), the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer). This is a marvellous mixture of both pagan and Christian elements, and it shows in a very elemental way how the culture of the time was being tugged between these two belief systems, just as do Beowulf and the insular art of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

But as a medical treatment for “cysts of the heart” (whatever that may be), it is, of course, useless. Except in the giving of hope, which as we all know, is a powerful kind of medicine all in itself, so it’s not to say that these charms were always ineffective.

So were Dark Ages physicians simply ignorant hacks that killed more patients than they cured, using guesses and folklore to treat their patients?

I believe the evidence says no. As the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England states, 

If we can trust the evidence of the surviving medical literature it appears that Anglo-Saxon medicine was no worse than any other of its day, and that at its best it was probably better than most.

And maybe even better than our own, in treating MRSA, at any rate!


*I never, ever do this. My hubby has done this to himself. I can’t watch. I can’t even imagine doing this to treat a head injury. “Come here, Ecbert. Let me drill into your head with this big drill. It will make you feel better. Honest. “ Yikes. They were made of sterner stuff than I, to be sure.

 

Featured image: a facisimle page from Bald’s Leechbook, from Wikipedia

Columba, the Dove of Ireland and Scotland

On December 7th, 521 AD, in what is now County Donegal, in the north-west of Ireland, a baby was born into a noble family. I’m sure  great expectations were placed on him, as on his father’s side he was the great-great-grandson on Niall of the Nine Hostages, one of Ireland’s most famous High Kings from the 5th century.

The baby was either named Cille (Irish Gaelic for “dove”) at birth or adopted this name later in life. The addition of “colm” (church) likely came during his lifetime.  Either way, it is this name, Colmcille (“dove of the church”), later Anglicized into Columba, that he is known to us today. He is one of the most important ecclesiastical figures in Ireland and Scotland, responsible for the establishment of the great monastery at Iona, known then as Hii. 

I haven’t been able to find out much about his family other than his noble ancestor. Like many of his contemporaries in noble society, Columba was sent to a monastic school for education, and like many others, he stayed in the church. From all accounts he was a tall, good-looking man, with a melodious voice that carried from hilltop to hilltop when he preached.

When he was around twenty, and a deacon, he left his first school and went to study under an elderly theologian and bard, Gemman, and here Columba became a poet himself. Two poems attributed to him survive today. After that he moved on to a famous school of Clonard, headed by a monk named Finnian. To give you an idea of the popularity of these schools, it is said that at one point over three thousand students were gathered there, from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Gaul and Germany.

Columba was eventually ordained a priest and for fifteen years travelled throughout Ireland, preaching and founding monasteries, the most notable being Durrow, Derry, and Kells.

Columba, like all the Irish monks, loved books and in his travels tried to obtain as many as he could for the use of his monks in the various monasteries he founded. And it was because of this that an incident happened that would profoundly change the course of his life.

His former teacher Finnian had been on pilgrimage to Rome many years previous, and had brought back with him a copy of St. Jerome’s Psalter, a forth-century Latin translation of the Scriptures. This was the first translation of the Scriptures into Latin, and it was a very precious manuscript indeed.

Columba was given permission to look at it, but surreptitiously copied it for his own use, and refused to surrender it when Finnian demanded that he do so. Finnian appealed to Columba’s relative Diarmait mac Cerbaill, the high king of Tara, and Diarmiat ruled on Finnian’s behalf.

Around this same time, insult was added to injury in Columba’s mind. A young noble, Prince Curnan of Connaught, fatally injured a rival during a hurling match (hurling is an ancient Gaelic form of football).  Curnan, a relative of Columba’s, sought sanctuary with Columba but was dragged out and killed by Diarmait’s men, which was against the laws of sanctuary.

There was probably a lot of other things going on in terms of ancient rivalries or grievances or family pressures that we don’t know about, but the result was that Columba roused his clan, the Ui Nialls, against the clans loyal to Diarmait, and war broke out, culminating in the battle of Cuil Dremme, in which over three thousand were killed.

It is interesting to note that, at this time, monks were not against strapping on a sword themselves and joining in a fight. It is very possible that Columba himself took part in this battle. After the battle, in which Columba’s clans were victorious, a church synod (meeting) was called to discuss Columba’s responsibility in the death of all those killed. After all, it was he who instigated it all.

From all accounts Columba, himself, was troubled by it all. He likely would have been excommunicated, but for another monk, Brendan, who intervened on his behalf (not Brendan the Navigator, although the two were contemporaries and friends). But after some advice from trusted elders of the church, Columba decided that in expiation for his sins he would exile himself from Ireland and win for Christ as many souls as had perished in the battle.

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What happened to that disputed copy, you ask? Well, this is a page from the Cathrach of St. Columba, which dates back to Columba’s time, and was purported to be that very copy (although that claim is disputed, now). This cathrach (battler) was an important relic of the O’Donnell clan in Ireland and was used as a rallying cry and a protector in battle. It was strapped, in a special carrier, to the chest of a designated monk/holy man, who would circle the assembled troops three times before a battle, to ensure their protection/victory. I have a feeling that Columba would not have approved of this, given the history of this manuscript and his guilt over starting a war over it.. Regardless, this is the oldest surviving manuscript in Ireland, and a very precious manuscript indeed, perhaps straight from the hand of Columba himself, or from one of his monks. Picture from Wikicommons. 

Thus it was that Columba set sail in a leather currach with twelve other monks and headed to what is now called Scotland, then the home of the British (Celtic) Dál Riatans, whose king, Conall, was a relative of Columba’s. They landed on the island of Hii, which Conall gave to Columba and his monks, and there he built the monastery that was to become the centre of Irish missionary work and learning for the next three centuries, until the Vikings sacked it and so many other of the monasteries in the 8th century.

From Hii (now called Iona) Columba had fairly easy access to the Picts in the east and the many tribes and clans in the north. He went on many missionary journeys, establishing monasteries and teaching the converts. Many miracles were attributed to him, and it is in the stories of his travels that we find the first recorded encounter with the Loch Ness monster! Loch Ness was along the route from Iona to the lands of the Picts, and during one of these journey a terrible “water beast” attacked them, and Columba banished it to the depths of the River Ness after it killed a Pict and tried to attack his disciple Lugne. It wasn’t exactly in the Loch itself, but close enough to count, perhaps!

Along with his significant influence on the church, Columba had a great deal of influence on the politics of the time. His status as a churchman (coupled with his high status in society) would have meant that the local tribes would have turned to him to help in diplomacy in the various disputes among them. He influenced the choice to the successor of King Conall of Dal Riata, and crowned Aidan (not Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne) at Iona in his role as chief ecclesiastical ruler. And, although he maintained his self-imposed exile for the rest of his life, his influence in Irish affairs was great. He attended a church synod in 575 AD at County Meath (legend says he took along a piece of sod from Iona to stand on so that he could truthfully say his feet never touched Irish soil again and so not break his vow) and it was his veto that stopped a proposal to abolish the order of bards. He also secured an exemption for women from all military service.

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Beautiful Iona today. This, of course, would not be what Columba’s Iona looked like, for his monastery would have been a collection of buildings made out of wood, with small cells for the monks. This building is a restoration of the medieval Benedictine abbey that was destroyed in the Reformation, and dates from the early 20th century. Iona is still an important centre for the Christian faith, many people still go there for pilgrimages and teaching, and there are still regular church services there. Definitely another place for my bucket list! 

Even after his death in 597 AD his influence continued, for it was St. Columba who appeared to Oswald in a dream before the crucial battle of Heavenfield in 634 AD and told him that despite his smaller army, Oswald would be successful in the upcoming battle against the usurper king, Cadwallon. Oswald described the dream to his war council and they agreed to be baptized as Christians after the battle if they were successful (Oswald himself was Christian already).  They were, and they did, and Oswald’s reign as the first Christian king of Northumbria began.

Columba’s rule for his monks (the prescribed schedule of prayers, work, and every other detail that made up life in a monastery) was based on the eastern Rule of St. Basil, and he very much led by example. He slept on a slab of rock and ate oat cakes and drank only water. His monks did not have such severe restrictions, but still, his Rule, which spread along with the monasteries that he founded, was quite austere and was the basis for monastic life for centuries until it became superseded by the easier Rule of St. Benedict which Charlemagne encouraged the Western European monks to adopt.

What we know about Columba comes mainly to us from Adomnán (624 – 704 AD), the ninth Bishop of Iona, who wrote the Vitae Columba (Life of Columba) sometime between 697-700 AD. Adomnán probably drew from an earlier work written around 640 AD by a previous Bishop of Iona. Adomnan was also a cousin of Columba’s on his father’s side, and likely grew up with stories about his famous relative and fellow churchman.

Adomnán wrote of Columba,

He had the face of an angel; he was of excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in council. He never let a single hour pass without engaging in prayer or reading or writing or some other occupation. He endured the hardships of fasting and vigils without intermission by day and night; the burden of a single one of his labors would have seemed beyond the powers of man. And, in the midst of all his toils, he appeared loving unto all, serene and holy, rejoicing in the joy of the Holy Spirit in his inmost heart.

There is likely a little “padding” in that description, but still, taking into account his accomplishments and influence, it’s probably not too far from the truth.

The day before his death at the age of 76, he was copying a Psalter and had just finished writing “They that love the Lord shall lack no good thing,” and stopped, saying, “Here I must stop; let Baithin do the rest.” Baithin was his cousin, whom he had already appointed successor to him. The next day Columba died in church, in front of the altar.

From all accounts, an amazing man, who loved God and loved people, and who left a legacy of faith and learning that continues to this day.

Revision, or, In the Trenches

Last year I read a really good essay about artists – whether they be painters, writers, musicians, whatever. I wish I could remember who wrote it, because I would give you the reference. The gist of it was that when a person starts out in her craft, she is doing it in part because she has been inspired by the creatives who came before her. And she sees those others ahead of her, and basks in the enjoyment of the marvellous art they have created.

And then she puts pen to paper, or brush to canvas, and creates garbage. Because she has not been doing the craft long enough to get the techniques and foundation down well enough to enable her to create a masterpiece. And the woe of it all is that she can see the wonderful art Da Vinci has created, and knows what she is aiming at, but she is only capable of stick figures.

The challenge becomes to keep creating art in the midst of knowing that what you are creating is awful. And your pathetic stick figures are really very poor, indeed, but try as you might, that’s all that seems to appear.

Until eventually, if you persevere long enough, your creations will finally catch up to your knowledge of what is good, and you start to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

But, oh, that road is hard. I’m somewhere in the middle of it, I think.

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And it’s actually a little more tricky than that, because you don’t always think it’s garbage. At times you think it’s pretty good. But when you look at that “pretty good” stuff a couple of years down the line, a couple years in which you have been working at the craft and continuing to grow and develop as an artist, you realize that what you thought then was “pretty good” is, in reality, not so much. It is certainly better than the stuff you did a couple years before that, but not as good as what you are doing now.

You see the problem? You soon get haunted by the feeling that your current work, although perhaps acceptable and even good in your eyes, will no longer be so good when you look at it in the future.

It’s maddening, because this kind of thing tends to paralyze you. The only thing to do is to keep going and do the best you can. There are lots of writers, painters, or other artists who cringe a bit when they see their earlier work, so you have to take heart at that and continue.

It’s helpful to have objective third parties look at your work, which is why beta readers and editors are so very good for writers. But in the end you have to make the final decisions, sometimes operating more by instinct than anything else.

For example, here is a passage from my MS that I am working on right now. The first is from the original first draft. Keep in mind I wrote this over seven years ago (Ack. I know).

The smell of smoke grew stronger as they rode, and in an hour’s time they were once again closed in by trees. The path up ahead curved around a stand of poplars. Smoke curled through the trees around them – the breeze was blowing it towards them. Celyn reined in Arawn, putting up his hand, and they all pulled their horses to a halt. 

“How much further, Father?” he asked. 

“The trees thin out ahead, and then we will be upon it. It – “ he stopped abruptly. A thin moan pierced the air, brought to them on the breeze. A human voice – someone in distress. 

“God have mercy!” Eata breathed, as Celyn pulled his sword out of his sheath.

“Follow closely!” he said, and touched his heels to Arawn’s sides again. 

Eata was right. After a short gallop, they broke out of the trees, and reined their horses to a halt, surveying the scene before them. 

The holding was ablaze. 3 structures burned, snapping and crackling, throwing heat into the winter’s chill air. A fourth, larger structure stood unharmed – obviously the main dwelling for the family. There were empty pens where pigs had been, and a dead goat lying stiff-legged in a pasture. Small lumps of feathers scattered around the yard – chickens, dead, their feathers lifting in the breeze as it passed. The air was full of smoke from the burning structures, stinging their eyes and lungs. Thomas pulled up his scarf, to try to filter the smoke out of the air he breathed. 

So. It’s not bad, but there are definitely things to fix. And keeping in mind that I am striving to cut as much as possible where I can, here is the revised version.

The smell of smoke grew stronger as they rode. Soon it was visible in the air around them, curling through the trees. 

 Celyn reined in Arawn, putting up his hand, and they all pulled their horses to a halt. “How much further, Father?” 

“The trees thin out ahead, and then we will be upon it. It—“ Eata stopped abruptly, interrupted by a thin moan which pierced the air. “God have mercy!” 

Celyn pulled his sword out of his sheath.“Follow closely!” 

After a short gallop, they broke out of the trees and reined their horses to a halt, surveying the scene before them. 

The holding was ablaze. Three structures burned, the flames snapping and crackling, throwing heat into the winter’s chill air. A fourth, larger, structure stood unharmed. There were empty pens where pigs had been, and a dead goat lying stiff-legged in a pasture. Small lumps of feathers scattered around the yard—chickens, dead, their feathers intermittently lifting in the breeze. The air was full of smoke from the burning structures, stinging their eyes, mixing with the steadily falling snow to obscure the details. Thomas pulled up his scarf, to try to filter the smoke out of the air he breathed. 

You can see that first of all, I fixed the paragraph problems, putting the dialogue in the same paragraph with the person speaking it. In doing so it not only flows better, but I am able to cut out some of the unnecessary speech tags, like he said and he asked. Bonus.

I also fixed the places where I added action that I didn’t need. I find that I do this a lot. I over-explain things. You see this in the first section, where I write,

“Follow closely!” he said, and touched his heels to Arawn’s side again. 

I took the and touched his heels to Arawn’s side again out, because you can see that in my revised version I don’t need it, right? I have to watch this in my writing. Too often I am explaining things like the character stood here, or walked there, or whatever. I have to back off and let my readers fill in the blanks.

I pondered over the first paragraph for awhile, because this is one of those places where it’s a bit of a grey area. The original has some details that I cut in the revision. The time indicator (after about an hour’s time) was an easy cut. Again, too much detail. But the next sentence, The path up ahead curved around a stand of poplars, was trickier. I like the addition of the poplars into the scene, as they bring some detail to life. But do I really need it, especially in the light of the fact that I have to cut about half the words from my MS to get it into one book?

Well, no, I suppose not. So out it goes. But I do worry that taking too much of the details out will make it bland, with no zing. I have to find the happy medium between too much and not enough, and I have to do it sentence by sentence. I’m also wondering about that longer paragraph, with the details of the chickens and the burning buildings. Too much? I should probably take that hyphen out (I tend to overuse those, too) and rework that sentence. Decisions, decisions.

Even as I am looking at this, I can see other things I can fix, little things, words here and there. At some point, though, you have to set it aside and move on.

 

A lot of this comes down to style, personal preference, and the genre you are writing. There is a lot of second- and third-guessing. And you have to constantly ignore the niggling voice that’s telling you it all belongs on the garbage heap.

The other difficulty of  doing these micro-edits, word by word, is that you tend to lose the sweep and emotional resonance of the story. Recently I downloaded the sections I have done to this point to my Kindle and did a read-through, just to see if it is working at all, and was heartened to see that it was.

I think. Hah. Ask me in a few years.

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Lookee me go! The chapters with the white flags are the ones I have revised. Ones in blue are yet to be done. So…I have four chapters to go until my MIDPOINT of the story. Yay!! The clapper icons are chapters that I am debating about cutting. I’ve indicated them so that when I get to the end of the story and find I still need places to cut I can go back and reconsider.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge: A Book Set Somewhere You’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit

As I work my way through the Year of Fun Reading I am finding it a bit tricky to keep my focus on finding a book that meets the category for the month as well as keeping to my own standard of that book being one in the speculative fiction genre.

This month, in which I was to read a book set somewhere you’ve never been but would like to visit, was particularly challenging. I mean, I suppose there are lots of fantasy worlds I would love to visit–Narnia, Middle Earth, or The Land (Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever) spring to mind– but I wanted to keep the spirit of the challenge, which meant finding a speculative fiction novel set on Earth.

So. I browsed through some of the suggested titles, and, eureka, found one I thought would fit.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, Book 1), by Liani Taylor, is  an urban fantasy, set in modern-day Prague. So, seeing as anywhere in Europe is on my bucket list of places to visit, I figured this one might just work. And I love urban fantasy, so, bonus.

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Cool cover!

Karou is seventeen and attends school at the Art Lyceum of Bohemia, a private school for students of the arts. She has blue hair and interesting tattoos, and a secret: she has been raised by  half-human creatures called chimaera, the chief of which is a demonic looking being named Brimstone.

Brimstone is the Wishmonger, who barters teeth for wishes. He is her adopted father, who has raised Karou since she was a baby. Her origins are shrouded in mystery, and she longs to discover who she is and how she is connected to the chimaera.

Brimstone’s workshop is in another place, separate from Earth, which she accesses by going through a door that is opened to her from the inside, by the Gatekeeper, Issa, who is half-snake. These portals are all around the world, and Karou uses them when Brimstone sends her on errands to collect teeth from various traders and dealers.

Karou isn’t exactly sure what the connection is between the teeth and the magical crafting of wishes, which Brimstone makes into beads of various size, shape and power, but her questions are left unanswered, as do the ones about her own origins.

An encounter with the seraph Akiva in the streets of Morocco starts a chain of events that leads Karou to the answers she seeks, even though they are not necessarily the answers she wants to hear…

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I am always amazed at fan art. This picture of Karou and Brimstone was done by the talented Natalie Braconnot, on Tumblr.

Taylor is a New York Times bestselling author, with many books to her credit. This book (published 2011) is the first of a trilogy, all of which are available now. Her new book, Strange the Dreamer, which begins a new series, has just been released.

I will admit to feeling a bit conflicted about Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Taylor writes well, and the plot had enough twists and turns to keep me reading.

However….although I can see that this book would be very popular with a certain audience, I can’t say I loved it. Here’s why:

  1. It’s Young Adult. I didn’t realize that this was a young adult book until I started reading it. I know that young adult is one of the most popular type of books out there, especially when it comes to speculative fiction, but they are just not my cup of tea. I find the plots often revolve too much around teenage angst, which, while great for teenagers, is not too interesting to me. Too often the plots and character development can be a bit simplistic, as well. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a little better than some in the plot department, but I did find the characterizations a bit ho-hum at times. I also have a problem with the romance that is usually part and parcel of this genre, and is in the forefront here. In this book, Karou is seventeen and as the book opens she is recovering from a relationship gone bad. And although I know that there are many teens out there who are involved in sexual relationships I can’t help the jarring feeling I get when I read about these when they are presented like it’s no big deal. Call me a prude, whatever.  Karou gets involved with another partner, and things get quite steamy indeed. And all the while the voice in my head is saying, “She’s only seventeen!” There are certainly a lot of “paranormal romance” books out there featuring adult characters, and while I don’t particularly like those either, when they are aimed at teenagers I find it icky.
  2. Tropes. I, for one, am heartily sick of the warrior chick with the vulnerable heart trope. Although Karou has an interesting back story and is well fleshed-out, basically her character embodies this trope. I find myself getting bored by it, to tell you the truth.
  3. The world building. So, as I mentioned above, one of the main characters is the seraph, Akiva. Seraph is short for seraphim, and yes, he is supposed to be an angel. But not an angel in the Christian tradition, of course. For, as Karou is confronted with Akiva the first time, she recalls what Brimstone has taught her:

She’d heard the word before; seraphim were some high order of angels, at least according to the Christian mythos, for which Brimstone had utter contempt, as he did for all religion. “Humans have gotten glimpses of things over time,” he’d said. “Just enough to make the rest up. It’s all a quilt of fairy tales with a patch here and there of truth.” 

Ok, fine. Let’s dismiss all of religion, except use bits and pieces of it where convenient for the plot. And it is very convenient to have an utterly beautiful otherworldly being with wings and supernatural power for Karou to fall in love with.

I realize for the average reader, this dismissal of religion in general and Christianity in particular would not be a problem, but it irritates me.  Especially when it has to be dismissed to make a major part of the story work, as in this case. And doubly especially when the author dismissed all of the world’s religions as “myths” and then runs smack into the problem that her characters actually need some kind of religion or mythos of their own to make the story work. So, when Akiva and Karou discuss how Brimstone makes his wish-beads, Akiva says, in answering Karou’s question of why pain and not joy is necessary in the crafting of wish-magic, Akiva says,

“That’s a good point. But I didn’t create the system.” 

“Who did?”

“My people believe it was the godstars. The chimaera have as many stories as races.” 

Ok, so every Earth religion is a quilt of fairy tales, but the seraphim and the chimaera have their own stories and myths, which are….what? Fairy tales too? Or are they the truth behind the stories?  And if so, why?

This highlights the problem of the philosophy that says every religion is just as good as another. If it brings you comfort, go for it, in other words. Any religion will do. But if it brings you comfort and isn’t ultimately TRUE then what is the point?

This is a minor part of the plot and to be fair, Taylor builds just enough of the world of the seraphim and chimaera to make it work for the book’s purposes, which is to serve as a backdrop to the story of Karou and Akiva.

I guess what I’m saying is that sexy angels just don’t work for me.

I give this one two stars/five, with the caveat that I know a lot of people would probably like this more than I did. If you like young adult fantasy featuring Romeo-and-Juliet-type love angst, and it doesn’t bother you that a handsome, poster-boy angel is the love interest, you will probably like this book.

Next month: A book I’ve already read. Oh, so many to choose from! Tune in on the last Friday in the month of May to see my pick. 


 Other posts in this series: 

January: Book I Read Because of the Cover

February: Book I Was Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet

March: An Unputdownable Book

A Celtic Litany to Christ

On this Good Friday, I share with you a litany that comes to us from the Irish monks of the tenth century, but could have been used much earlier. A litany is often used during a procession, or it could be a prayer in which the participants (the monks, for example) would chant the lines back and forth.

This particular one is much longer, but I have given you enough to get the flavour of it (after “believers” on the second last line, there are thirty-two more!). These short little lines are all various ways to describe Christ, and are worth slow contemplation on this very somber day.

May God bless you as you contemplate the mystery of the crucifixion and celebrate the resurrection with joy!

He lives!

Featured image is a detail from one of the surviving high crosses from the monastery at Monasterboice, likely erected sometime between 900-923 AD. Image from bluffton.edu.


 

Have mercy on us, O God the Almighty,

Jesus Christ Son of the Living God. 

O son twice-born,

O sole-begotten of the Father. 

O First-born of the Virgin Mary. 

O Son of David. 

O Son of Abraham. 

O Beginner of all things. 

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This is one of the earliest surviving images of the crucifixion in Ireland. Dating from the 8th century, it is made of hammered and engraved bronze and was likely made to adorn a book, a cross, or a shrine. The two figures at the top are angels, the two flanking Christ at the bottom are the two Roman soldiers, one who offered him wine and the other who speared his side after he was dead. From Irish Archeology.

O Fulfilment of the world. 

O Word of God.

O Path to the heavenly realms. 

O Life of all things. 

O eternal Truth. 

O Image, O Likeness, O Model of God the Father. 

O Hand of God. 

O Arm of God. 

O Power of God. 

O Right-Hand of God. 

O true Knowledge.

O true Light of love, who enlightens all darkness. 

O guiding Light. 

O Sun of truth. 

O Morning Star. 

O Brightness of the divinity. 

O Radiance of eternal brightness. 

O Fountain of eternal life. 

O Intelligence of mystic life. 

O Mediator of God and humanity. 

O Promised One of the Church. 

O Loyal Shepherd of the flock. 

O Hope of believers…

…O eternal judge, have mercy on us. 

 

Casting a Pod, or, Podcasts

One of the great blessings of living in this internet age is easy access to information. Even though it is easy to get lost in an internet jungle filled with trolls and bots, if you tread carefully you can find some pretty great treasures on your travels.

There is all sorts of wonderful information out there that you can access with just a click of a mouse. And for writers, in particular, there are great tools, websites, and podcasts that can be a great deal of help.

Podcasts can be very useful for writers. Over the last few years I have come across some that I have found to be very valuable as I seek to learn and grow as a writer.

In no particular order, they are:

  1. Writing Excuses. The tagline of this podcast is Fifteen Minutes Long, Because You’re in a Hurry, and We’re Not That Smart. But don’t let the title fool you. This Hugo Award-winning podcast is hosted by bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler, and they are pretty “smart” writers, indeed. This year they have added some others to the core crew, namely Wesley Chu, Piper J. Drake, and Mary Anne Mohanraj. Each week four of the cast is  on the show, talking about all the various aspects of the writing craft. It isn’t always just fifteen minutes, they sometimes go over by five or ten minutes, but trust me, you won’t mind. This podcast is an excellent place to Writing-2BExcuses-2B-2BCoverlearn from experts about writing, whether it be writing great characters, pacing, world building or endings. Writing Excuses was created in 2008, and the first five years had seasons of only 25-30 episodes each, so the “seasons” overlapped the calendar years. Starting in 2012 the seasons mirrored the calendar year, with 52 episodes per year. In Season 10 they did a Master Class of writing, where they took you through every part of writing a book/story, from ideas to ending and everything in between. I am slowly making my way through this season and finding it excellent. The authors are pretty much all fantasy/sci-fi writers (Howard Tayler writes/draws the online comic Schlock Mercenary) but everything they cover on their podcast is relevant to any genre of writing. Each week they also give you writing prompts on the topic they are covering. This podcast is excellent for beginning writers and professionals alike, and I highly recommend it.

2.  Novel Marketing. This podcast, hosted by author James L. Rubart and Thomas Umstattd, Jr, CEO of AuthorMedia, is all about marketing your novel. There is lots of advice out there for how to market yourself as a non-fiction writer, but as a fiction writer things getUnknown a little trickier. How do you sell yourself when you haven’t been published yet?  A blog is recommended for authors, but what do you write about? How do you attract
readers to your website/blog? The hosts are sympathetic to the struggles authors face in trying to get their work “seen” by the right people. This podcast is especially relevant to self-published authors, but even those who have contracts with publishing companies will find something useful here, I’m sure. Each episode is around thirty minutes long, so it’s not a big time committment. If you are wondering how to market yourself and your book, this is a great place to start.

3. Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast. As you can tell, I am trying to learn about marketing myself and my books before I actually have a book to sell (hah). This podcast is hosted by writers Lindsey Buroker, Joseph Lazlo, Jeffery M. Poole, and Laura Kirwan. Each episode they interview authors about how they market their books, and in the process you get lots of tips and information about what works and what doesn’t. This podcast is longer, about an hour, so it’s more of a time commitment than theUnknown-1 other two. Really great information to be found here. I find it fascinating and a bit intimidating, to be honest, all of these authors are writing a lot more than I am, so at times I feel a bit inadequate, but oh well, the information they give is great and I learn a lot from them. Don’t ever think you can just publish your book to Kindle and wait for the money to roll in, there’s a lot of books being published every single day, and you need a strategy for marketing your work or it will sink faster than you can imagine. This podcast is a great place to figure out what to do when it comes to marketing, and they occasionally will cover other aspects of writing as well, such as the how-tos like plotting, characters, and the like. It’s aimed at sci-fi/fantasy writers (hence the title) but any fiction writer can learn from this podcast.

There are so many other podcasts out there for writers – those are the ones I listen to fairly regularly but if you do a search for “writing podcasts” you will see there are a whole lot more. If I had more time I would listen to more of them! 

And here’s a couple “extras” that are not writing-related per se but I find very informative! 

4. The British History Podcast. This is a chronological telling of the history of Britain, starting at the Ice Ages. Not dry history, but focussed on the lives of the people who lived through the various time periods covered. The host is Jamie Jeffers, and he doeUnknown-2s a great job of making history come alive. They recommend that you start at the beginning and work your way through it, but you don’t have to. I started at the Dark Ages section (no surprise there) and didn’t feel like I had to listen to all the stuff before it for it to make sense. If you are writing about any period of British history up to Alfred the Great (that’s as far as he’s got so far) this is an excellent resource. Enjoyable for anyone who is interested in history, whether you are a writer or not.

5. What Should I Read Next? You may have noticed that my reading series this year comes from  Modern Mrs. Darcy. I found out about it through this podcast hosted by Anne Bogel, Modern Mrs. Darcy herself.  Each episode Anne hosts various guests, from authors to bookstore owners to other podcast hosts, and has a chat with theUnknown-3m about books and reading. Specifically she asks each guest to tell her three books they love, one they hate, and what they are currently reading. Out of that list (and the conversation she has with them about the books) she recommends books for the guest to read next. This podcast is a great deal of fun, and you come away from it with all sorts of ideas on what you might want to read next, too. On the website she highlights weekly deals on Kindle, often featuring some of the books she has talked about on the podcast, so needless to say my Kindle is filling up with great books to read. Really enjoy this podcast. It has helped me to discover some new books and authors I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

There are so many good podcasts out there, on any topic you can imagine. If you have never dipped into the podcast universe, give it a try. You’ll be glad you did, come the next road trip you take!