A (Small) Fantasy Primer

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Back in the day, there used to be a pretty basic definition of fantasy. Basically, think Lord of the Rings, and you pretty much get the idea. A hero on a quest in a medieval-type landscape, aided or opposed by all sorts of human and other-worldly creatures such as elves, dwarves, Wizards, and the like. And often the story took place on some Earth-like setting, but not necessarily Earth itself.

Those elements made up the standard fantasy story for many years after Tolkien’s masterpiece, which pretty much defined the genre for many years.   As time went on, however, the whole genre of fantasy began to broaden to encompass many new sub-genres, and that broadening is still continuing today. In fact, in order to move readers away from viewing fantasy with LOTR-influenced glasses, a new term, “speculative fiction”, is now used to encompass both science fiction and fantasy.

To which I say, yay! That means more books, which can’t be a bad thing. There are a lot of these new sub-genres of fantasy, and while I have growing pretty familiar with them in the course of my reading and writing life, I realize that perhaps some of my readers might not be aware of all the categories. As a writer, it’s good to know what genre your book falls under, so as to make it clear to agents, editors, and publishers exactly upon what shelf to file your book, so to speak. And as readers, it’s fun to see the incredible diversity that is going on in publishing today, when it comes to speculative fiction.

So, in no particular order, here’s a little primer of the fantasy side of speculative fiction, which covers a fair bit, but is not exhaustive, there’s just too many! If you are interested in finding out more, have a look at this website. Maybe you will discover something that tweaks your fancy!

Word of warning – these categories are not set in stone. And many books fit in more than one category!

1) HIgh Fantasy – a sweeping epic, lots of characters, well-drawn magic systems, detailed world-building…these are all characteristics of high fantasy. Often includes a quest, or a coming of age theme.  So this is where LOTR will fit, but also lots of books by Brandon Sanderson (eg the Mistborn books), Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and even books like The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson. This is a pretty broad category, and some books in other categories could also be placed in this one.

2) Low Fantasy – similar to the above, but often the magic system or elements of the story are downplayed, and the story is often grittier, with an anti-hero protagonist, and plenty of moral ambiguity. Martin’s The Game of Thrones is a perfect example of this genre, and it’s popularity has spawned a number of books in this genre. Again, a broad category which could encompass other sub-genres as well.

3) Historical fantasy – set (usually) in a real historical period on Earth, but mixes in some fantasy elements. A good example of this would be the stories of King Arthur which include the magic of Merlin and a dragon or two. It also would include an up-and-coming title, Wilding, Book One of the Traveller’s Path trilogy, by (cough), me. Books by Guy Gavriel Kay (a great Canadian writer) such as The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy are a good example of historical fantasy books that aren’t set on Earth, although the setting does mirror a real historical time period (such as Renaissance Italy). If these fantastical elements bring about a change in history as we know it, this morphs into the related category of Alternative History. The popular Steampunk genre (Victorian age setting, steam-powered technology) falls under historical fantasy.

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This marvellous series is a wonderful example of Alternate History. The Napoleonic Wars with dragons!! What could be better?


4) Dark Fantasy – books that combine fantasy elements with horror. The granddaddy of these would probably be Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and many contemporary vampire books would be filed here, such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series. Books with other creatures such as werewolves or mummies (could stray into the historical fantasy genre, though) or ghosts (could stray into strictly horror) could fall under dark fantasy except sometimes those fall under the related category of…

5) Paranormal Fantasy – (usually) modern-day adventure tales, sometimes including elements of detective fiction and/or romance which include fantastical creatures and the presence of magic of some form. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer,  Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, or one of my personal favourites, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files ( the books, not the TV series). This is a hugely popular category right now, especially in the Paranormal Romance sub-genre.

 

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Ah, Harry Dresden, how I love you. If ever you are in Chicago and an ancient soul-sucking demon interrupts a perfectly good dinner party, give this bad-boy wizard a call. He’s in the book.


6) Urban Fantasy – I love this category, both to write and to read. It includes stories that are set in our modern-day environments, but with fantastical elements added in, often as a secret or undetected-to-most-people way. Charles de Lint (another great Canadian writer!) writes a lot of urban fantasy ( eg, Moonheart). The Harry Potter books could fit here, too. As could the afore-mentioned Dresden Files. See, I told you lots of books can fit in more than one place!

7) Magical Realism – this is a relatively new but growing sub-genre.  These stories assume that magic is a part of everyday life, presented in a realistic and often contemporary setting.  Often literary in nature, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Erin Morgenstern’s marvellous The Night Circus are good examples of this genre.

 

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Duelling wizards and star-crossed lovers, in a circus that only ever comes at night. Marvellous! Fun fact – this bestselling novel was originally written for the NaNoWriMo competition, so just in case you have a dusty manuscript sitting in a drawer from that annual competition that you think will never go anywhere….


Now for a taste of some of the more obscure sub-genres:

9) Science Fantasy – science fiction and fantasy? Is that a thing? Well, yes, and the most iconic example of this would be Star Wars. Space ships and the Force. Although can we all agree that the insertion of the midi-chloria in the prequels was a TERRIBLE idea?

10) New Weird/Slipstream – genre-bending and literary in nature, these books can be a puzzle to read, and fans of this genre like it that way. Sometimes these books can be difficult to understand but other times the more mainstream of these give you some really great stories that will linger with you. I haven’t read a lot of this genre but one author who writes a lot in New Weird is China Mieville, and I truly loved his short story collection, Looking for Jake. Although some of those stores were a bit too creepy for me, others were simply mind-stretching and utterly unique.

11) Weird West – Westerns and fantasy? Yesssss……! These are fun. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read about a gunslinger encountering a vampire? I’m a Louis L’Amour fan from a long ways back, and this mash-up of genres is right up my alley. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is probably the best-known example of this genre, but there are a whole lot more out there that I need to get on my “To be read” list….

12) Bangsian Fantasy – this is one I have never heard of before! These are stories featuring the afterlife, often, but not always, with a genial tone. Because death is such a riot, I suppose. These are stories where ghosts could be stuck in the real world, living people stuck in a ghost world, or people who have died in a literal Heaven or Hell. So, although neither of these fit the “genial” definition, both Dante’s Inferno and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones would fit in this category. It’s called “Bangsian” after John Frederick Bangs, who wrote about the afterlife in a humourous way at the beginning of the twentieth-century in books such as A House-boat on the River Styx. 

I could go on and on, but I’d better stop here. At least you have a bit of a taste for all the many and varied types of fantasy books out there, and maybe this will inspire you to check out some new authors you may not have read. Or, if you are a writer, try your hand at a short story in one of these genres!

(And I know my featured image doesn’t really have anything to do with this list, but….hey. It’s funny.)

Oswald, King of Bernicia

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There are so many fascinating people who lived in the 7th century. I have highlighted a couple of them on the blog. And it’s well past time to introduce you to one of the most important figures of the time: Oswald, King of Bernicia. He is relatively unknown now, but for centuries after his death in 642 AD he was famous throughout Europe, venerated as a Saint for his role in establishing the Christian church in England.

Oswald was the oldest son of the Anglian king Æthelfrith, who had a fierce reputation among the native Britons he fought against in his occupation of their ancient lands. They gave him the nick-name Flesaur, which means “twister”, which gives us sense of the perhaps begrudging respect his enemies gave to this most canny of warriors.

Æthelfrith is the first Bernician king of Britain that we really know much about with any accuracy, and that is probably because of his prowess as a warrior and a king.  He defeated Ælla of Deira, sending Ælla’s son Edwin into exile, and became the first king of both Bernicia and Deira (the area we know now as Northumbria). He eventually married Ælla’s daughter Acha, probably to legitimize his hold on the Deiran throne by marrying the former king’s daughter. Æthelfrith was a pagan, like the other Angles and Saxons of the time.

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Bamburgh, the seat of the Bernician kings, was known as Bebbanburg in ancient times. It was called by the Irish, Dún Guaire, but re-named Bebbanburg in honour of Bebba, Æthelfrith’s wife. And yes, he was also married to Acha. Perhaps he married Bebba later in his reign, after Acha died, or it is also possible he was polygamous, which was not unknown at the time among the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings. Photo by Michael Hanselmann, on WikiCommons

Oswald was born in 604 AD, at the height of his father’s power. He was not the first son and heir, that honour went to his older brother Eanfrith. But when Oswald was twelve, his life as a privileged atheling (prince) of the ruling family came to an abrupt end. In 616 AD, Æthelfrith’s past came back to haunt him in the form of Edwin, who joined forces with Rædwald of Wessex to oust Æthelfrith from the throne, killing him in battle.

For their safety, Oswald and his siblings (there were actually eight of them altogether) fled  north, to the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, out of Edwin’s reach. And from all accounts, Oswald thrived there during the long years of exile. He quickly adapted to the Irish culture and became fluent in the language, and even fought on the side of his hosts. And, importantly, he was taught by the monks at the school at Hii (Iona), and through their influence converted to Christianity.

In 633 AD Edwin was killed by the combined forces of Cadwallon of Wales and Penda of Mercia, and Northumbria was divided into Bernicia and Deira once again. Perhaps because of a previous alliance of some sort with Cadwallon, Eanfrith returned from exile and was crowned king of Bernicia. He was, after all, the heir to the Bernician throne. But if there was an alliance, it quickly fell apart. Cadwallon slew Eanfrith the next year when Eanfrith went to him seeking peace, and Cadwallon took his place as king of Bernicia (Game of Thrones, anyone?).

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Although George R.R. Martin purportedly got his inspiration from The War of the Roses, he could have just as easily looked a few centuries back to Dark Ages Britain! There was a whole lot of throne-swapping, alliances, and treachery going on then, too. Photo credit: Flickr

Enter our hero, Oswald, the next in line to the throne. From the historian Bede’s account, Cadwallon was a vicious, tyrannical ruler – killing, raping, and pillaging the Angles and Saxons in his new kingdom with impunity. We can take this account with a grain of salt, perhaps, but safe to say something dire reached Oswald’s ears about the upheaval in Bernicia, and we can only imagine how he felt about it.

Regardless of how he felt, we do know what he did, which was to gather an army, most likely made of some of the retainers that had accompanied the royal children while in exile, some of his brothers, and  a contingent of Irish warriors, and return to Bernicia to attempt to wrest the throne from Cadwallon and restore his father’s legacy.

And what happens next is remarkable, and has implications that reverberate down to us, today. Bede tells us that,

After the murder of his brother Eanfrith, Oswald arrived with an army small in numbers but protected by their faith in Christ, and he slew the accursed leader of the Britons and all that vast army that he boasted none could resist…

That is the summarized version, but Bede goes on to tell us the details. He writes,

On approaching this battle Oswald set up the sign of the holy cross…it is said when the cross had been quickly made and a hole made ready for it to stand in, Oswald himself, fired by his faith, seized it and placed it in its hole and held it upright with both hands, until the soldiers heaped up the soil and made it fast in the ground. Thereupon he raised his voice and cried aloud to the whole army: “Let us all kneel, and together pray the almighty, everliving and true God to defend us by His mercy from a proud and cruel enemy; for He knows that the war we have engaged in for the deliverance of our people is a just war.” They all did as he had ordered and, advancing thus against the enemy as dawn appeared, won the victory as the reward for their faith. 

Perhaps Oswald was inspired by the story of Constantine, who conquered his enemies under the standard of the Cross. But be that as it may, the prayer and Oswald’s example certainly inspired his army, resulting in the route of Cadwallon’s larger army, the death of the usurper, and the restoration of a son of Æthelfrith to the throne of Bernicia.

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The cross at Heavenfield, commemorating Oswald’s victory over Cadwallon. Photo: David Dixon

But not just any son. A Christian, who had been educated in the Irish north, and who came to faith under the influence of the Celtic Irish monks of Iona. And a man who wanted to bring that faith to his people. One of his first acts as king was to send a message back to Iona, asking them to send someone to begin spreading the Gospel among the Bernicians. Which eventually resulted in the mission of Aidan, who resided at Lindisfarne in the monastery established at that rocky outcrop close to Bamburgh on land granted by Oswald.

Oswald and Aidan began the  work together, Bede tells us, with Oswald travelling along with Aidan in the early days, acting as his translator between the Irish bishop and the Anglian people. This mission was responsible for the conversion of the pagan Bernicians to Christianity, and was the first church-state alliance in England’s history.

Oswald himself became a king to be reckoned with. With perhaps a touch of his father’s wily intelligence, he negotiated and fought his way to becoming king of a once-more united Northumbria, and one of the most powerful kings of England. He is one of the  kings given the honorific, bretwalda, meaning a king holding more than one territory.

Oswald ruled over Northumbria for less than ten years, which although is a short period by our standards, by the standards of the day is actually quite a long reign, given the penchant of the early medieval kings to make war upon another. He brought relative peace and stability to Northumbria, and the beginnings of a Christian society.

Alas, all good things must eventually come to an end, and in August of 642 AD, Penda of Mercia killed Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield, subjecting poor Oswald to the fate of having his body chopped up into parts and displayed in pagan fashion upon spikes as a way of celebrating the victory. Which eventually leads to the daring recovery of his brother’s arm by his younger brother Oswy and the later cult of Oswald’s arm, which is a whole ‘nother story…..

But although an obscure king today, you can still find Oswald hinted at in one of the most famous works of literature in our day. As I explained here, J.R.R. Tolkien was himself a scholar of Anglo-Saxon history, and included in The Lord of the Rings many nods to Anglo-Saxon culture and history. In reading Max Adams’ fascinating book, King of the North: Oswald of Northumbria (recommended reading if you want to know more about Oswald and the times in which he lived), Adams hints that perhaps Tolkien’s character, Aragorn heir of Elisdur, could perhaps have been based on the story of Oswald.

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Aragorn = Oswald?

I think Adams has a solid idea here. Think of it. Aragorn is the exiled son of a king, waiting to take his place on the throne. And when his people are threatened by an evil ruler, he reappears, ready to fight and reclaim the throne. And what about the Battle of Helms Deep, when Aragorn and Gandalf appear at dawn to help route the much larger orc army? Oswald won his great victory at dawn, too!*

Anyhow that’s just a fun example of how the legacy of Oswald still echoes today. I suspect, however, that he would be more gratified that his legacy of faith begun so many years ago with his friend Aidan still continues in the wild northlands of Britain, the ancient home of the Bernician kings.


*For more on the link between Oswald and Aragorn, see this article. And for a fictional take on Oswald, check out Oswald: Return of the King, by Edoardo Albert, the second book in his Northumbrian Thrones series. I reviewed the first book, Edwin: High King of Britain, here on the blog and have Book 2 on my must-read list!

Featured image from The Diocese of Lancaster

 

 

 

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

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Fall is upon us. I don’t know how that happened – just yesterday was the first day of spring, wasn’t it?

I’ve had a busy but refreshing summer, and I’m looking forward to getting back at the desk and back to work on my novel revisions.

I’ve sent out my MS to a couple more agents and publishers, but no one is knocking at the door yet. I’m sure I’m going about this all wrong. I should be sending out dozens of queries at a time, not just a couple. But seeing as it is probably non-productive to send out queries to agents that don’t want to represent a historical fantasy trilogy set in Dark Ages Britain I’ve tried to limit my queries to agents that I think just might be interested. And there aren’t that many of those, it seems. Of course if you are one of those agents and are reading this, let’s talk.😉

In my research I’ve found that lots of agents don’t want fantasies set in medieval times (and even though mine is not technically medieval, it would still get tarred with that brush). Especially those set in Europe/Britain. If my book was set in  medieval Japan or Africa, well, maybe I might get in the door. They are looking for the next “thing”, not the old “thing”. There seems to be a feeling that fantasies with a European setting are yesterday’s news.

Historical fantasy is also a narrow field. Unless you are looking at steampunk, which is a genre all its own, it’s hard to find a niche of books including fantastical elements set in a real-world historical setting. It’s not impossible, mind you, but difficult. Which means that not a lot of agents are looking for these books, either.

Elves are also “yesterday”. Even though my take on the Fey is different from most of the stories out there, the agents/publishers have to actually read the book to understand that. Right now they just see “Fey” in my proposals/query letters and their eyes glaze over. I think.

And the fact that my main character is a person of faith whose struggles to reconcile a faith in a good God with all the bad that is happening in his life (including demons chasing him to 643 AD) probably knocks it off quite a few more agent’s acquistion lists. Unless you are making fun of Christianity or making it responsible for all the bad in the world in your novel, agents and publishers aren’t interested. Ok, I might be exaggerating that a bit but it sure feels like that some days.

So….okay. I suppose I could spend another year sending out the MS, but time is a-wasting. I’ve already spent many years of my life on this project, and I’m getting impatient to get to the next step. Which is to actually get it in front of some readers. Release the kraken, so to speak.

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I spent a weekend in Calgary at the When Words Collide Festival again, and I sat in on quite a few presentations on self-publishing. There are pros and cons, of course, but at the moment the pros (especially the fact that by doing this I could actually get the books published!) are outweighing the cons.

So I’m getting ready to go down that path. I’ve been in contact with an editor, who will do a professional edit (both developmental and copy-edit) of my MS. Which is somewhat terrifying but I’m looking forward to it, too. I want to put the best book out there for my readers, and this will help me do that.

I’m building in time this fall to do some intensive research on the whole process of self-publishing. I could upload my book to Amazon tomorrow and start selling it right away, but realistically if I want to give myself the best chance of success I need to do some preparation. Self-publishing means that not only do I wear the “author” hat, I will also be donning the “marketing and promotion” hat, the “business plan” hat, the “book cover design” hat, and the “book distribution” hat. I have been listening to some podcasts about all these things, and I have some ideas of what I need to do, but I’m going to need a little more flesh on the bones of my plans before I can launch. I’ll be reading some books on self-publications, talking to other authors who have gone this route, getting a plan in place for both the launch and beyond. And plus, I have to keep going on Book 2 revisions.

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My tentative plan is to have the book published by Christmas, but….I’m not entirely sure how realistic that will be. There’s quite a lot I need to have in place before I can jump into the fray. So, watch this space! I’ll keep you all appraised of my progress. A more realistic statement is that by this time next year, my book should be out and I’ll be well on the way to the release of Book 2.

Thanks for being with me on this journey! I’m looking forward to sharing with you a firm publication date, once I have it all figured out. In the meantime…stay tuned…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

Year of Important Books: A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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I’m not sure how I first stumbled across Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and began to eagerly devour the exploits of the famous private detective. Unlike the other books I have covered this year in my Year of Important Books series, this one was not a relic left behind from my older siblings’ childhood.

I must have got my first Sherlock Holmes tale from the library, whose hallowed spaces I visited once a week with my parents (the Edmonton downtown library) as well as numerous visits each week to our school library.

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I bought this just after I graduated University, so that I could have all the stories in one place. Now I have them all on my Kindle as well. No such thing as too much Sherlock here!

Needless to say, I quickly fell in love with these stories, and remain an avid consumer of all things Sherlock. I can’t tell you how many Sherlock books I have read – aside from the originals, I have read very many books based on the characters, some true to the characterizations as given to us by Conan Doyle and some way out in left field. I’ve read books about Sherlock as a child, and others about what happens after he retired. I’ve read books about Sherlock and Jack the Ripper, Sherlock AS Jack the Ripper, Sherlock and vampires, werewolves or other monsters, regular Sherlock stories set in the time and place the originals were set, Sherlock in America, modern-day takes on Sherlock…..etc etc etc.* A small hint as to my obsession with all things Sherlock is evidenced during the planning of the trip my husband and I took to Europe way back when. When  he asked me what was the one place I had to see on the Continent,  I answered, “Reichenbach Falls!”**

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One of the early illustrations by Sidney Paget of Holmes and Watson, found in The Strand Magazine. It was Paget who first introduced the deerstalker hat and Inverness cape to Holmes; these details were never mentioned by Doyle in the stories. Photo from Wikicommons. 

But it has been quite some time since I revisited the original stories, and so I was very happy indeed to open the first story, A Study in Scarlet, and begin to read again how Sherlock and Watson met and their first partnership in crime solving.

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One of the early illustration by Sidney Paget of Holmes and Watson, from The Strand Magazine. It was Paget who first introduced the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape to Holmes, these details were never mentioned by Doyle in the stories. Photo from Wikicommons. 

A Study in Scarlet was not Doyle’s first published work. A doctor by profession, he began writing stories as he waited for patients to arrive at his first independent practice which opened in Portsmouth in 1882. He struggled to find a publisher for his story at first, but eventually  A Study in Scarlet was published by Ward Lock and Co. and appeared in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1886. The sequel, The Sign of the Four, was published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890 under an arrangement with Ward Lock and Co, but Doyle grew disenchanted with this publisher and the remaining Sherlock stories were published in The Strand Magazine, in serial form.  A Study in Scarlet was only one of four novels in the original Holmes canon, the other three being The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear. The rest were short stories or novellas.

Doyle was a prolific author. Besides the Sherlock stories, of which he grew tired (he famously killed off his famous detective, only to have to resurrect him later because of public demand), he wrote many other short stories, other mystery novels,historical novels, and stage plays. He even collaborated with J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, to write the libretto of a comic opera called Jane Annie.

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Arthur Conan Doyle in 1914. Doyle was one of the best paid authors of his time. Aside from his literary fame, he is best known for his work to advance the cause of  spiritualism. Photo from Wikicommons.

But it is Sherlock who endures out of all of Doyle’s works. What is it about this character and these stories which fascinates so many people? I know there are reams of words written about this, and so I won’t go into too much depth here.

But I will tell you, generally, what the appeal is to me. First off, The Study in Scarlet begins with Watson, not Holmes, and I think this is a clue to one of the reason why these stories are so popular. This friendship between the two men is the heart of the stories, and it is ultimately what makes them work. This friendship is begun in this story, and it is a rudimentary one to begin with. Here Watson is more or less a foil to Holmes – a mirror in which to showcase Holmes’ intellect and skill. But Watson still has substance, even so. We learn of his back story, that he was wounded in the war, that he was a medical doctor, and that he enjoys a good mystery himself. After he is introduced to Holmes and they make arrangements to begin living together at 221B Baker Street, Watson and Stamford (the one who introduced the two) are walking back to Watson’s hotel, and are discussing Holmes and his “peculiarities”as Stamford calls them. In response to Watson’s question of how Holmes knew Watson had been in Afghanistan, Stamford replies,

“…A good many people have wanted to know how he finds things out.”

“Oh! A mystery is it?” I cried, rubbing my hands. “This is very piquant. I am much obliged to you for bringing us together. ‘The proper study of mankind is man,’ you know.” 

Throughout the stories we see Watson observing Holmes, trying to figure out what makes him tick. Watson, of course, stands in for all of us, and half of the enjoyment of the stories is getting a chance to do this observing along with Watson.

A Study in Scarlet is, of course, a murder mystery. Which is another reason why I and so many others enjoy these stories. People love puzzles, and these stories are full of bizarre details that make the murders impossible to figure out until Holmes throws the light on what happened. For example, in this story you have a man dead in a deserted building by mysterious means, a look of horror frozen upon his face; the word “RACHE” written in blood upon the wall; and few clues as to how this could have happened. It’s a great deal of fun to puzzle along with Watson as Holmes exposes both the incompetent nature of the Scotland Yard police force and the eventual identity of the murderer.

The story is split into two parts, both seven chapters each. The first part is the initial meeting of Holmes and Watson, the discovery of the dead man, and the eventual unmasking of the murderer. The second contains five chapters of back story, and it is an abrupt break both in time and place, as it mainly takes place in America several decades before. This is  the “why” it happened, and it is inserted into the story without explanation, which makes it a bit odd until you realize what is going on. I remember reading this the first time and being very confused as to why all of a sudden the story jumped to the tale of the exodus of the Mormons to Utah and the man and girl they rescued along the way, but Doyle’s writing is compelling enough that you soon forget all about London and Holmes and get absorbed in the story. Eventually, of course, you realize that this is all a set-up to the murder, and then in the last two chapters the novel catches up to where Holmes and Watson have captured the murderer, and it finishes up from there.

I believe, if I remember correctly, that this is the only story in which Doyle handles this telling of the “why” of the crime this way. In subsequent stories either Holmes or some other character gives the details or they are discovered naturally along the course of the investigation – Doyle relies heavily on Watson’s asking questions of Holmes in order to do this. I think he probably discovered this was an easier way to give the readers these important details, and therefore did not have to use this type of awkward story break again.

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Do I love the new BBC version of Sherlock? YES. There are not enough words to describe how much I love this clever modern  take on the great detective. I especially love how the show takes the original stories and re-tells them, with all sorts of tiny details that fans of the stories would recognize. Acting and writing are superb in this series. 

Sherlock Holmes was not the first detective in literature, that honour goes to Edgar Allen Poe’s C. August Dupin ( whose adventures began in  The Murders in the Rue Morgue), and Doyle himself acknowledged his debt to Poe’s character. But Doyle certainly struck a chord of unique genius when he created Holmes. Arrogant yet approachable, analytical yet passionate, intelligent yet flawed, Holmes himself is, of course, one of the main reasons why these stories are so popular. The great detective was modelled after someone Doyle knew, Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, whom Doyle worked under as a clerk. Bell was noted as a master at the observation of minute details which led to broad conclusions not immediately apparent to anyone else.

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The marvellous Hugh Laurie, the star of the TV series “House” .  The character of House was based on Holmes, and you will see many references to Holmes throughout the series, including his own “Watson” (Dr. James Wilson) and the fact that House lives at 221B Baker Street! I love that this show brought the character of Holmes full circle, back to his medical roots, so to speak. Photo by Chris HE, on flickr

 

Finally, the last great appeal to me of the Holmes stories is the setting. Victorian England, and in particular, London, with its gas-lit streets, pea-soup fog, opium dens, hansom cabs, squalor, and opulence, is a marvellous place to set crimes. Doyle’s details of London (as Watson describes it, “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”) bring you right into this fascinating time and place. It is a wonderful marriage of character and setting.

I loved Sherlock as a child, and I love him still! It was so much fun to rub shoulders with him again, and it’s got me itching to read the other stories again.


 

*We discovered that to get to Reichenbach Falls, you had to go to the Swiss town of Interlaken, which is a lovely ski-resort town. There is a funicular that takes you up to the falls, which are spectacular. The best part was the spot marked on the trail leading up to the falls which marks the spot where Holmes and Moriarty fell to their deaths (…or did they…) in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Ok, it was the spot where Jeremy Brett filmed that scene in the great 1984-1994 BBC Holmes series, but still….

**I can’t give you an exhaustive list of all the Sherlock and related books I have read (I couldn’t even if I tried, there’s been too many), but I have to recommend two which I think are the best of the lot. First up is the series by Laurie King, the first book is called The Bee Keepers Apprentice. This book introduces the intrepid Mary Russell, a teenaged girl who meets Holmes in his retirement years and pairs up with him to solve crimes. Which makes it sound much more YA-ish than it really is. Great writing, great characterizations – King gives us Holmes as we know him in the Doyle stories but with the added wisdom of some years behind him. The best non-Doyle Sherlock books ever, in my opinion. Secondly I highly recommend Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes. This is the fictionalized telling of a real-life murder case in which Arthur Conan Doyle became involved, and it not only gives you a marvellous portrait of Doyle himself, it also portrays Doyle using the same methodology as Sherlock himself to solve a crime. Loved it!

Review – Abomination, by Gary Whitta

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The year is 888 AD, and Alfred the Great is the king of the last remaining English kingdom of Wessex. He has made an uneasy peace with the fierce Norsemen and Wessex has enjoyed relief from the long years of war that the Danes brought to England’s shores. But rumours are beginning that a second wave of invasions are coming, and Guthrum, the Danish King Alfred had entered a truce with, is nearing death.

So when Aethelred, Archbishop of Canterbury, tells Alfred that he has found some ancient scrolls containing incantations and rites that could create horrible monsters from ordinary animals, Alfred is intrigued. Aethelred sees this as a way to create an invincible army against the Danes, and although Alfred is troubled by the occultish nature of the rites, he agrees to let Aethelred try to use this knowledge to defeat the Danes once and for all.

But of course things rarely go as planned and soon Alfred is faced with the problem of an army of abominations led by Aethelred, who has gone mad under the influence of the dark powers he has been dabbling with. Athelred sends his most trusted warrior, Wulfric, to deal with the problem, who soon discovers that Aethelred has one last incantation up his sleeve that results in terrible consequences for Wulfric and all he loves…..

Although Abomination is his first novel, Gary Whitta is not a new writer. He is a screenwriter with several impressive credentials to his name; in particular, he was the screenwriter for The Book of Eli, the blockbuster post apocalyptic thriller starring Denzel Washington. He was a co-recipient of  a BAFTA award for his work as story consultant and writer on Telltale Games’ interactive adaptation of The Walking Dead, and has also worked with Lucasfilm on Star Wars projects for both film and television.

So, needless to say,  Whitta knows how to tell a good story, and Abomination doesn’t disappoint. It is a historical fantasy thriller that sucks you in and keeps you reading. Be warned, there is some violence, suspense and dark fantasy here, but it’s all in moderation. I was surprised, however, to find a couple of places in the book where I noticed rapid point of view switches from one paragraph to another. This was the only fault I found in an otherwise well-constructed book.

Of course, seeing as one of my favourite kings, Alfred the Great, is one of the characters, and that the book takes place in Dark Ages England, I was inclined to like it right away. The history part of it is pretty light, though, Alfred has only a minor part at the beginning and then disappears from the book, and Whitta isn’t too concerned with making his setting too heavy on historical details. But that’s ok. It was a perfect summer reading book – a story that doesn’t tax your brain too much but is a fun ride with the appropriate twists and turns to keep you guessing.

The central character, Wulfric, is a sympathetic reluctant hero, who would rather be home with his wife and newborn babe than scouring the countryside in search of Aethelred and his abominations. I liked him right away, and when the first section of the book closed with the terrible event that sets the stage for the rest of the book which continues fifteen years later, I could hardly wait to find out what had happened to him. This section of the book introduces the second main character, Indra, a young woman on a quest to fulfill the requirements of becoming a member of the Order her father founded to hunt down and kill the remaining abominations. But they are few and far between now, and her quest brings her squarely into the path of Wulfric, who is harbouring a terrible secret.

Whitta’s Book of Eli had some definite spiritual themes in it, and I was interested to see some here as well, albeit not as overt. Bishop Aethelred is responsible for the abominations, but Whitta  includes the brave priest Cuthbert who opposes him and places where Indra quotes Scripture to explain why she comes to the rescue of the down-and-out Wulfric. The fact that I noticed this shows you just how rare it is to see Christianity depicted in anything but a negative fashion in most contemporary fiction.

All in all, I enjoyed this book and am looking forward to what else Gary Whitta might have next!

Interview: Graeme Young of The Bamburgh Research Project

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As I began researching 7th century Britain for my trilogy, The Traveller’s Path, I quickly came across a fascinating blog all about current archaeological digs going on at Bamburgh Castle, and through that  blog discovered the Bamburgh Resarch Project. I have always wanted to talk to the directors of the project to check out some of the details in my book to ask them if I had this or that detail right in my depictions of 7th century Northumbria but I was always a bit intimidated….I mean, I figured they had better things to do than to answer questions from a unpublished author. But when I started thinking about who I would like to interview in my blog they were definitely near the top of the list. I finally got in touch with them and discovered that Graeme Young, one of the founders of the project, was a gracious man who was willing to take time during their busy excavation season to answer my questions. 
So with out further ado, I present the Bamburgh Research Project! Enjoy! 



1. First of all, can you give us a brief history of the archeological digs that have gone on at Bamburgh previous to the BRP? 

 Despite the importance of Bamburgh as a focal place for Northumberland there have been only a handful of investigations preceding us. An antiquarian called Cadwallader Bates studied the medieval ruins at the time of the reconstruction of the castle by Lord Armstrong (1894 to 1903). He drew up a detailed plan of medieval fabric and foundations, many of which where later covered over, which means the Bates plan is sometimes our only lead in understanding the medieval castle. We also have some reports of the investigation of the Bowl Hole early medieval cemetery prior to our work there. These are rather scant though, indicating some excavation in the 1890s and again in the 1930s. Sadly so far we have failed to track down any records or skeletal material from this time. 

By far the most important excavation at Bamburgh preceding our work was undertaken by Dr Brian Hope-Taylor, the excavator of the important and related Yeavering early medieval site. Brian excavated at Bamburgh between 1960 and 1962 and again between 1970 and 1974. Sadly he was never able to publish the site due to illness in later life. It was the tantalizing knowledge that exciting finds had been made but not really knowing what they were that prompted the founding of the Bamburgh Research Project.

 

Aerial view of Bamburgh Castle, from the south

 

2. What prompted the creation of the Bamburgh Research Project? 

 It is all rather linked to why I became an archaeologist. Having an aunt from Seahouses, the village close to the castle, I knew Bamburgh from an early age and visiting this amazing site during school holidays is probably one of the main reasons I ended up as an archaeologist. As a result I think it was rather inevitable that once an archaeologist I would want to excavate here. It also helped that a friend and colleague, also from the region, and just as fascinated by the site, was equally as keen. So we wrote to the late Lady Armstrong and she was very supportive and happy to have archaeologists back at the castle. Luckily her son Francis is of the same opinion so we have the great privilege to work at this amazing site. 

3. Was there something specific you were looking for? 

We were particularly interested in early medieval Northumbria so the period during which the fortress was one of the principal palace sites of the Northumbrian royal house was definitely the time period that most intrigued us. Gaining a deeper understanding of the material culture, structures and fortifications that defended the site was at the heart of our original project design. Early medieval royal sites in England seem to rarely have physical defence as part of their architecture, but there was a tradition of promontory forts in the northern and western parts of the British Isles. How Bamburgh within an English kingdom fits into this tradition and how, as a result it compared to other un-defended sites such as Yeavering or Cheddar should be fascinating. 

4. Give us an idea of some of your important finds. What discovery have you been most excited about? 

We have a number of fascinating finds from the excavation. I know many people are particularly excited by the gold finds. Each is tiny but intricately worked and decorated and speaks to a sophisticated culture at Bamburgh. Although found by Brian Hope-Taylor in 1960 rather than ourselves the two pattern welded swords, on display at the castle, also fascinate. As an archaeologist its often what might seem more mundane that particularly excites us. Discovering a surface with high densities of hammerscale and fire waste may seem dull but when along with some crude timber structures and a concentration of iron and copper-based finds, it leads you to realise that you have an industrial area that is likely to have been a centre of production for arms and armour for the early medieval royal cour. It really does help to bring the past to life. Here we have evidence for one of the institutions that bound together aristocratic society at that time. The production of military equipment given out by a king to his followers in his royal hall, binding them to him and his fate. Straight out of the pages of Beowulf!  

BRP Excavations at the castle

5. As my trilogy begins in the year 642 AD, I am most interested in 7th century Bamburgh. What has the BRP found that relates specifically to that time period?

We know that metalworking activity is being undertaken to at least the mid/late 9th century and from test pits we know that it extends back in time a number of phases. This makes it pretty certain that it was being undertaken in the 8th century and perhaps as far back as the 7th. It would certainly fit into the culture of that time. In Trench 1, at St Oswald’s Gate, we have been investigating the early medieval entrance to the fortress and its defences. We now have at least two phases of timber rampart defences (probably box rampart) and its hard not to imagine at least one phase as being contemporary with Bede’s story of Penda trying to burn his way into the fortress. 

 The Bowl Hole cemetery dates from the 7th to 9th centuries and gives us a picture of an aristocratic culture with far reaching ties across the BritishIsles and even to the European continent. One individual in particular may be a close link to St Oswald. His radiocarbon date and the knife he was buried with is consistent with the right period and he has an isotope signature placing his childhood in Western Scotland. A possible warrior who cast his lot in with Oswald in his attempt to reclaim his ancestral crown. 

5. Wow. That is so fascinating! What are you working on this summer? And maybe you could explain a bit about the involvement of summer interns?  

This year we are trying to prove that our timber rampart defences, identified at St Oswald’s Gate, extend around the perimeter of the rock. The gate defences are clearly well built and intended to look impressive. Elsewhere it may have been more utilitarian and therefore harder to identify with certainty. This involves the excavation of a trench through re-deposited boulder clay to find a construction surface and, hopefully, evidence of posts or timbers. Hard work for our students volunteers and staff. In Trench 3 we are beneath the latest phase of metalworking evidence and looking to identify structures associated with the preceding phase of activity. Added to this we are getting close to reaching the same level of excavation that Hope-Taylor reached at the north end of his 1974 excavation. Lots of complex stratigraphy to identify and interpret and all key to understanding how the two periods of excavation can be linked together. At the same time our finds department is processing finds on a daily basis, floating soil samples and catalogues and assessing everything from previous seasons to make sure our records are up to date as we begin the slow process of interpretation and publication. I like to think that all who take part in the work leave with a better understanding of how archaeology works and for some inspiration for their own research.  

We do not really do official interns but we do have a tier of junior staff that perhaps fall into this category. Its a little nepotistic but we do like to encourage students who have been on the training excavation for a season or two and who showed a particular aptitude or dedication to return as junior staff. They then work closely with the finds supervisors; learning their trade and helping out with student training. It seems to work well and a number of our longer serving staff came to us through this arrangement.

We do not have the public dig at the castle as the site is not well suited to this but our parallel excavation at Bradford Kaims has open days every week when the public are welcome to take part in excavation and little experimental archaeology projects. We are hoping to do something similar with skills workshops at the castle next year.

 

The team at work in Trench 3 on the last day of the season. L-R Harry Francis, Trench 3 Assistant Supervisor), Graham Dixon (Trench 3 Supervisor), Constance Durgeat (Trench 1 Supervisor), and Isabelle Ryan (Trench 3 Assistant Supervisor).

 

6. I’ve heard a bit about an Anglo-Saxon sword found at Bamburgh. Can you fill us in on that? 
There were in fact two Anglo-Saxon swords found at Bamburgh by Brian Hope-Taylor in 1960. He recovered these in his first ever trial trench at the castle. They were found in his apartment at the time of his death in 2001 and when they were returned to the castle we worked with the Royal Armouries to investigate them. On x-ray they were revealed to be pattern welded and one was a rare example of a six strand core. We now know their find location from Hope-Taylor’s records and they are likely to fit in with a metal-working horizon of 8th to 9th century date.

7. I would love to see those!  I have about a million questions I could ask, but I guess we need to wrap it up. Is there anything else that you would like us to know about the Bamburgh Research Project?

 Running a research project on what always seems to be limited resources we are always on the look out for that millionaire who might want to sponsor us! More seriously all of us who run the project were inspired at some point to want to learn about the past and now work with a belief that it is really important to communicate our love of the past and what our work can tell us about the generations long ago who lived and worked her. We have a website (www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk), blog (www.bamburghresearchproject.wordpress.com/) and other social media accounts and are always glad to hear from people who follow our work. 

Here’s Graham, trading in the wet and wild environment of Bamburgh with the wet and wild environment of San Francisco!

Thank you so much, Graeme, for sharing with us on the blog today. I will continue to follow your work with interest, and I wish you much  success as you continue to discover the historical facts about this fascinating place

All photos (except feature photo) courtesy of Graeme Young. Aerial phot of Bamburgh courtesy of 

Year of Important Books: Little Women

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Well, I suppose it had to happen eventually, but I have finally come to a beloved childhood book that I didn’t enjoy as much as I thought I would. And to say that it is Little Women, published in 1868 by Louisa M. Alcott  is a surprise to me!

First, some background. Little Women was apparently loosely based on the author’s own childhood, with her sisters the model for Meg, Amy, and Beth, and Louisa herself the model for Jo. The March sisters live in what could be described as genteel poverty, but the Alcotts were worse off, and Louisa, her sisters, and her mothers had to work at various jobs to help support the family.The book was instantly popular, and three months later Alcott published the sequel, Little Women Married, sometimes called Good Wives, or sometimes just bundled together under the original title.

I did not know anything about Louisa May Alcott before doing some research on her, and what I discovered was fascinating. Her parents were transcendentalists – a philosophical, literary and religious movement that sprang up in the eastern United States in the decades before the Civil War, headed by leading intellectuals of the day such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott. These men were all friends of the Alcotts and also became her teachers in the experimental school that her father founded.

Her family, and Louisa herself, were abolitionists, and were part of the Underground Railway. They hid an escaped slave in their home for a week in 1847. She also was an early proponent of women’s rights, and became the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts, in a school board election.

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Louisa May Alcott, in her early 20s, from Wikicommons. According to quotes attributed to her, she wrote Little Women “in record time, for money” at the urging of her publisher.

In doing my series this year I have read the book first and then done the research into the authors, just because I wanted to read the book as I did in childhood, with no preconceived notions about it. However, in this case, I wish I would have known some of Alcott’s background first, because I think I would have enjoyed it more, especially in the beginning.

In the end I did enjoy revisiting this tale of four sisters whose father is off fighting in the Civil War, but honestly I have to say if I was reading this for the first time ever I would have stopped somewhere around say, the first page. Gulp. To give you some idea of why, here’s the opening lines:

” Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. 

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress. 

“i don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have lots of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff. 

“We’ve got father and mother, and each other, anyhow,” said Beth, contentedly, from her corner. 

The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly,–

“We haven’t got father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say ‘perhaps never”, but each silently added it, thinking of father far away, where the fighting was. 

Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone – 

Blah. All that “grumbled” and “injured” and “contentedly” and “sadly” and “altered”…it’s a bit much, isn’t it? It shows the reason why writers are given the advice to simply use “said” when writing dialogue. Anything else verges into melodrama. As Stephen King famously said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” and in this opening scene we are marching pretty steadily down that road.

However, I do recognize that writing styles and standards have changed quite a bit in the nearly 150 years since the book was first published, so I ignored my inner critic and went on reading, getting absorbed in the tale of these sister’s lives, their small domestic dramas, and their “scrapes” as Jo calls misadventures.

The opening scene above is a fairly non-subtle introduction to the four sisters. Jo, who at 15 is the second-oldest girl, is the central character of the book, and she is given the opening line. And we are given a couple of clues about her right away. She “grumbles”, indicating her fiery personality, and she is lying on the rug, which hints at her unconventional nature.

Meg (16) and Amy (12) both are distressed at how their poverty is affecting them. Meg feels the lack of nice clothes keenly, and Amy compares herself to the “other girls” who have lots of pretty things while she makes do without.

And Beth (13) is the “saint” who brings them the proper perspective they should have on their troubles: to focus not on how much they don’t have, but, on what they do. Alcott also introduces the fact of the missing father nicely, setting the stage in which this domestic drama will be played.

After a couple of chapters I adjusted to Alcott’s style of writing and settled into the story, and some of the old enthusiasm for it came back. Of course I loved Jo all over again, as she is definitely the most interesting of the sisters. She struggles with her temper, she loves words and writing and eventually begins to publish some stories. Looking back, I believe that this is the first book I read about a girl who loved to write and eventually sent some stories out to be published, so I can see here the first prod in my writing journey, for which I am extremely grateful.

Interestingly enough, Jo mainly writes for financial gain, not artistic expression. At one point in the novel she begins to write “sensational” stories, with no morals in them, and she is chastised by her friend, Professor Bhaer, and eventually burns them all in shame. Alcott also wrote sensational stories for adults, but like Jo, eventually abandoned them after she discovered that writing wholesome stories for children brought a more positive reception.

And then there is Laurie, the grandson of the crotchedy rich gentleman next door. He becomes fast friends with the girls, especially Jo, to whom he is closest in age, and adds a nice masculine touch to the book.

The girls’ mother, Marmee (and I can never figure out if this is supposed to be her name or just the word they use for “mother”) is also presented as an ideal character, dispensing motherly wisdom here and there as the girls come to her with her various problems.

And speaking of dispensing wisdom…well, here I come to the second reason why this book struck an off-chord for me as I read it again. As an example, here’s a passage where Jo is discussing with her mother the difficulties she has in keeping her temper, and Marmee has just confessed to Jo that she, herself, has struggled in the past with this very thing.

“Poor mother! What helped you then?” 

“Your father, Jo. He never loses patience, never doubts or complains, but always hopes, and works, and waits so cheerfully that one is ashamed to do otherwise before him. he helped and comforted me, and showed me that I must try to practice all the virtues I would have my little girls possess, for I was their example. It was easier to try for your sakes than for my own; a startled or surprised look from one of you when I spoke sharply, rebuked me more than any words could have done; and the love, respect, and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward I could receive for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy.” 

“Oh mother! If I’m ever half as good as you, I shall be satisfied,” cried Jo, much touched. 

Well, yes. Wouldn’t we all. I mean, everyone in this book is just so darn good. And I hate to say that all this moralizing got on my nerves after awhile, but it really did.

However,  again, tolerating the sticky-sweet flavour of the book is easier when you take into account the era in which it was written and the audience it was intended for. And considering those things, this book is actually quite remarkable, I think.

There have been reams written about Little Women, and it’s place in literary history, and the ground-breaking nature of the work. When it was first published, it was given accolades for presenting the lives of women in a “realistic” setting, and also for throwing some of the fictional tropes of the day on their heads. [SPOILER ALERT] For example Jo refuses handsome Laurie’s proposal, in favour of the older, plain, Professor Bhaer, which was completely against what would be expected in the novels of the day.

And let’s face it, don’t we all hate this part of the book? I can remember how absolutely devastated I was that Jo refused Laurie. I mean, come on. He’s handsome, he professes his love for her in charming and passionate ways, he’s known her as a good friend for a long time….and she chooses some dumpy old Professor instead?

But…..reading it this time, it didn’t bug me as much. What? Go figure. Ok, I still understand the outrage. But I guess I warmed to good ol’ Fritz a bit more this time around. And I appreciated Jo’s arguments against her union with Laurie more, too. They were too much alike. She loved him as a brother, and she didn’t have that certain spark towards him. So, really….I get it. But not being completely outraged by this was a huge surprise to me, all the same!

So I have mixed feelings about this book. Despite my initial aversion I warmed to it, in the end. And I found the information about Alcott herself very interesting. It’s the first time during my re-visit of old childhood favourites that I wished I had done the reading of the author’s background first, as I think it would have added layers of understanding to the book that would have given me more appreciation of it then I had reading it “cold”.

if you haven’t read this classic, I would highly recommend it. But if you find yourself gritting your teeth here and there as you read, just keep going. It’s a treasure that requires a little digging to fully appreciate it.